Weather: Clouds clearing, and it turned very warm.
Location: Horrid Hill to Rochester.
Distance: 9½ miles.
Total distance: 292½ miles.
Terrain: Gravel and paved paths.
Tide: Going out.
Rivers to cross: None.
Piers: No.11 at Chatham, a short fishing pier.
Kissing gates: None.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: No.18 at Finsborough Ness where the footpath was temporarily closed due to building works.
How we got there and back: We drove – with bikes on the back of the car – from Bognor to Rochester where we parked in a car park by the railway. We donned our walking boots, locked the bike rack inside the car, then cycled to Horrid Hill where we chained the bikes to a proper bike rack in the Riverside Country Park.
At the end, we drove back quickly to the Country Park to collect our bikes before they locked the gates for the night! Then we drove to a campsite near Rochester Airport where we pitched our tent – dreadful location but delightful toilets!
(Due to extenuating circumstances, we decided to miss out St Mary’s Island and do it the next day. So, next morning, we parked near the central bridge leading across to the island and did a circular walk round its perimeter.)
This has not been a good week for us. Four days before this walk, we had our eldest cat, Bolly (Arabella), put down. She was nineteen years old and we have had her since she was a kitten. It’s a long time! We never expected her to live nearly this long, and didn’t think we would be so upset when the inevitable happened – but we were. We thought she had an abscess in her mouth, but the vet said it was a tumour so there was no other course of action except to put her out of her misery.
Two days before this walk, Colin got the result of a biopsy he had for prostate cancer, and it was positive! He is very pragmatic about it, but I had been so sure that it would prove negative that I was really knocked for six! Prostate cancer is extremely slow-growing, and this has been caught very early. The recommended treatment is to have the prostate gland removed – which is a major but fairly common operation – and this is what Colin has decided to have done provided it hasn’t already spread. Further tests will find out if this has happened, but I can’t seem to get my mind round it at the moment. I slept very badly ever since he came home so calmly and told me. We have decided to say nothing about it to anyone until after Paul’s wedding in five weeks time. This morning I woke up feeling sick and shivery although I wasn’t cold. I can’t think straight and nothing makes sense – I believe I am in a state of shock. In the end, we decided to stick to our plans because if we stay at home I will only mope and feel worse. Colin, as always, is keeping very quiet about how he feels, though he did come home from the vet’s (after insisting on holding Bolly while she had her final injection) and burst into tears! I have never known him show his emotion like that before, not even when his parents died. We are both in a very emotional state.
Added to that, today is the eighth anniversary of Dad’s death. His passing was the end of an era – life is very different now from the world he knew. I still can’t get used to the fact that I now belong to the ‘senior generation’, that my four children are well into adulthood and that my eldest grandchild is about to become a teenager! Because of all this, we left home much later than planned, then there were long hold-ups on the motorway adding at least an hour to our journey. By the time we had set up the walk with the car in Rochester and the bikes at the Riverside Country Park, it was quarter past four!
There were a lot of people enjoying the afternoon sun, being as it was a Sunday. The tide was further in than it was when we were there last time, but nowhere near flowing over the little causeway to Horrid Hill. We find it difficult to believe that Horrid Hill is ever cut off, and we noted that the dire notices warning of such an eventuality had disappeared from the notice-board.
We diverted slightly to look at a large pond which had been dug there with boardwalks across it so we could see everything whilst keeping it wild. It was very well done – lots of hiding places for the ducks and we watched a moorhen collect food to take back to her young which we could just see in a nest over the other side.
We followed a pleasant walk along the riverside, it has been set out very well for everyone’s enjoyment. We walked round a grassy outcrop, but ended up back where we started because there was one industrial complex on the waterside which we had to walk behind. Then the path regained the river where there were several concrete barges. We couldn’t think of any reason for anyone to build a barge out of concrete, unless they were something to do with the mulberry harbours during the War. We passed very close to the front windows of some new houses, then it all opened out into a park called ‘The Strand’, after which there was a marina which we weren’t allowed in so we had to retreat to the road. The wall surrounding the marina had a number of wall paintings depicting sea themes, which was rather fun!
We hiked along a dull bit of road which was quite busy – we even walked across a petrol station forecourt – and turned right into a road leading to ‘Gillingham Piers’. They turned out to be solid stone ‘piers’ where there were a few boys fishing, and we had to retrace our steps to the road.
We continued along a newer section of the dual carriageway past Chatham Dockyard which is undergoing a five year ‘redevelopment plan’ and looked a bit like a demolition site with a fancy entrance! We continued to the elevated roundabout above the entrance to the Medway Tunnel. This road tunnel under the River Medway was opened in 1996 by the Princess Royal to relieve traffic congestion in Rochester. No pedestrians allowed, so we were unable to use it as a shortcut!
On our ‘Explorer’ 1:25000 map, St Mary’s Island is marked as mostly blank with no public footpaths. When planning this walk, I had been confident that it was all part of Chatham Dockyard and therefore inaccessible. How out of date that map is, though I only bought it a few months ago! The internet Ordnance Survey map, which I accessed only yesterday, wasn’t much better. The Navy pulled out of Chatham in 1984, and they have been wondering what to do with this ‘brownfield’ site ever since. With the demand from the Government to build millions more houses in the South of England and with people up in arms about ‘greenfield’ sites disappearing under concrete, St Mary’s Island is a prime site for development. It is half-built – pukka three and four storey houses and apartments, many already occupied, and a three mile footpath all round the edge!
It was past 6 o’clock by then, and our car was parked two miles further on not including a stomp round the perimeter of St Mary’s Island. Then we would have to pick up our bikes, then find a campsite, then pitch a tent and cook a meal! Even though it doesn’t get dark until nearly 10 o’clock at this time of year, there was no way we could achieve that with an unexpected three extra miles thrown in! We had to make a decision – and that was to leave out St Mary’s Island until tomorrow. We made straight for the ‘Historic Dockyard’ which was the quickest way back to the car!(The next few paragraphs are about our circumnavigation of St Mary’s Island which we did on the morning of the 17th June in baking hot sunshine)
We turned right at the next little roundabout beyond the Medway Tunnel and walked behind some of the first new houses to be built in this development, which looked as if their gardens were already fairly mature. Our way was barred by a large renovated building which was ‘to let’, so we walked down the side of it and discovered the ground floor was being used as a car park.
We walked in front of it beside the dock (no swimming!) as far as we could, then back along to the bridge. There we saw some big fish in the water which looked like trout, and a lot of jellyfish at various levels all pumping away. No wonder swimming was not allowed! They are fascinating creatures to watch, they looked as if they are all doing a dance!
On our internet map, ‘Ocelet Submarine’ was marked at this point and on our ‘Explorer’ map, ‘HMS Ocelot’ was marked – but there was only a concrete platform and no sign of any submarine. We can only conclude that the ‘powers that be’ have changed their minds as to where to keep it and didn’t tell the mapmakers, some of whom can’t spell anyway!
We crossed the bridge and read a plaque telling us that this development was opened by John Major in 1995. The trout had followed us! And there were even more jellyfish this side.
We walked along a boardwalk in front of the houses as far as we could, then discovered that there was a footpath leading up alongside them to take us to Finsborough Ness. We walked through a nice new grassy children’s playground and a fenced off dog-walking area – it was all very nicely done. But the end of this footpath was closed – due to the next phase of building works – blocking our way completely. We got lost in the new housing estate trying to get round, and were all hot and bothered. We were really fed up! After several false leads, Colin discovered that if we went up the side of an unoccupied apartment block and leapt over the wall at the back, we would be on the perimeter path again which was nicely paved. This we did (Colin helped me with the leaping bit!) and then we had to walk back to get to Finsborough Ness. We had walked half a mile to get round twenty yards of blocked path!
There was a rather good modern sculpture there of some sailors, and we stopped to admire the view across the river which was quite pleasant. We needed a breather, it was so hot! We then continued the ‘correct’ way round the perimeter path of St Mary’s Island with the river on our right.
The rest of the path was complete, and every so often there was a plaque describing the gruesome history of this place. St Mary’s Island used to be a muddy swamp, and in Napoleonic times several convict ships were moored off there. The conditions on board were inhuman, to say the least. The prisoners were shackled by their hands and feet, and each man was allocated a space measuring just six feet by twenty inches! They lay in their own excrement, and the ships were full of rats and cockroaches. The smell was so bad, the hatches were battened down so it didn’t upset people living in the vicinity, and it was said that ‘a candle refused to burn’ down there! They were given uncooked bread to eat which was rock hard, and their biscuits were green with mould. If they sent back any of the food because it was inedible – and that included fish they were given twice a week – then it was put in store and dished out the following week to save money! They were usually beaten senseless if they complained.
By the middle of the 19th century, the convicts were housed in a prison building on shore, what is now part of the University of Greenwich! There, conditions were marginally better. The men were used as forced labour to build Chatham Docks for the Navy between 1861 and 1875. In 1897, Chatham Prison closed and the convicts sent to Dartmoor. The Navy pulled out of Chatham in 1984, and whatever was on St Mary’s Island has since been razed to the ground to make way for an enormous housing development which is still being built.As we rounded the end of St Mary’s Island we had a grand view of Upnor Castle on the opposite bank of the river. We then came to the modern lock gates which we crossed over using a little lifting bridge which reminded us of a similar bridge we have seen in Amsterdam, and also on the Llangollen Canal in Shropshire. The mechanism of the lock gates was being tested, and we watched as they were opened and closed several times.
We continued walking as near to the river bank as we were allowed, until we came to the little roundabout where we had short-cutted the walk last night.
(Now we return to the evening of the 16th June, when we had been directed to a little roundabout at the entrance to the ‘Historic Dockyard’ by a passing cyclist.)
We could only walk about a hundred yards into the ‘Historic Dockyard’ before we found our way blocked by a locked gate. We had passed several buildings housing steam engines etc which had been closed up for the night, and one impressive looking steam engine (probably a replica of ‘The Rocket’ or something) outside a building. Our cyclist friend had told us that it was possible to walk through – you usually have to pay during the day, but it should be free in the evening. So we retreated a few yards, walked through a car park and tried along a different road.
Suddenly we were stopped by a night-watchman with blue glasses and very little brain! He couldn’t get his mind round the fact that we had walked in one end and wanted to walk out the other. However the dockyard is open to the public, and eventually we persuaded him to direct us to the route through. We passed a large number of redundant old buildings which are probably all ‘listed’ so they can only house museums now, past a ship’s figurehead (a bit like Portsmouth Dockyard) and we walked out through a very impressive gateway with a big coat of arms above the arch.
A bit further down the road, we turned down some steps and walked along a concrete quay – earlier we had cycled along there and Colin had heaved the bikes up the steps because we hadn’t seen the NO CYCLING notices! We came to a wooden pier which we walked along, and asked some boys who were fishing if they had had any luck. They told us enthusiastically of all they had caught, but they had either thrown it back or were telling ‘porkies’ because there was no sign of any of it! We can never understand the attraction of fishing – seems to us to be such a boring activity. There was a nice view of the sun setting over Rochester Castle and Cathedral. We walked along the water’s edge as far as we could, but for the last few yards we had to come inland to the
road and walk along by the shops to reach the car park by the railway where our car was waiting for us.
That ended Walk no.46, we shall pick up Walk no.47 next time at the car park behind the railway in Rochester. We had a hurried cup of tea, then we drove back quickly to the Riverside Country Park to collect our bikes. We thought the Park closed at eight, and would have only just have made it – but they had changed the time to eight-thirty so we were OK. The nearest campsite was very near a motorway junction – we didn’t want to drive all the way back to the Isle of Sheppey – but they were renewing the junction and it was a terrible mess! We were really too tired to cope with getting lost and taking the wrong turning through all those roadworks, but eventually we found the site and it was sheltered and pleasant with lovely clean toilets and showers. The traffic noise was muted but not the constant police sirens which have become so much part of our everyday lives in recent years. By the time we had pitched our tent and got sorted, it was dark – and we were within a whisker of the longest day! We heated up the partially defrosted meal I had taken out of the freezer that morning, ate it and went to bed.