Monday, August 12, 2002

Walk 52 -- Allhallows to Cliffe Creek

Ages: Colin was 60 years and 96 days. Rosemary was 57 years and 238 days.
Weather: Mostly sunny and very warm.
Location: Allhallows to Cliffe Creek.
Distance: 13 miles.
Total distance: 329½ miles.
Terrain: Cornfields, then miles of grassy river banks – sometimes on top of the sea wall where we had a pleasant breeze and could see ships steaming up and down the Thames, and sometimes behind the sea wall where both view and breeze were obscured.
Tide: Coming in, then beginning to go out.
Rivers to cross: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: None.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: No.19 just out of Allhallows where the sea had breached the path along the coastal edge of the marshes, and the channels were too deep to cross. No FOOTPATH CLOSED or DIVERSION notices were in place, so we had to navigate our own way through cornfields adding at least 1½ miles to our journey!
How we got there and back: We drove – with bikes on the back of the car – from our campsite near Rochester to Cliffe where we wasted a lot of time looking at various possibilities for parking. In the end we parked at the end of the real road by a row of cottages where I had originally intended. Then we cycled 9 miles back to the caravan site at Allhallows where we locked our bikes to a tree.
At the end, we walked a mile along a track from the end of Cliffe Creek to our car. We watched the sun set as we consumed two cups of tea, and by the time we arrived back at Allhallows it was dark! We walked down through the caravan site to retrieve our bikes, and when we had them strapped to the car we drove back to our campsite near Rochester.

Today would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary – if Dad had lived to be ninety-six and Mum had lived to be ninety-one! But Mum has been pushing up the daisies for seventeen and a half years now, and Dad for eight years, I can hardly believe it has been that long! I think Dad would have been very interested in this venture – it’s the sort of thing he might have embarked on if he had had the opportunity.
We started today’s walk by eating our lunch! With a fourteen mile hike ahead of us, it was ridiculous to be setting out at 2.30pm! But you try urging Colin to get a move on when he is not in a mind to, and he definitely wasn’t in a mind to this morning! By the time he had had his shower, we had washed up last night’s crocks, bought our lunch at ASDA, queued on the M2 (we thought that way might be quicker than driving through Rochester, but there had been a minor accident), explored every possibility of parking around Cliffe (I had meticulously planned it all before we came, but that wasn’t good enough) and ended up parking exactly where I had planned in the first place, taken our bikes off the car and were ready to ride – it was gone midday. The nine mile cycle ride along back lanes to Allhallows was very pleasant – there seemed to be a lot of gentle downhill – and we both agreed it was the most enjoyable part of the whole day.
We sat on the first bench we came to in the caravan park and ate our lunch, then we started walking. We passed a man sitting on the sea wall, and he asked where we were going. I told him we were intending to walk all the way to Cliffe, and he answered, “You won’t get far!” He explained that there were deep channels about half a mile ahead leading from the beach into the marshes. “I tried to get through last week,” he continued, “but I ended up waist deep in water and had to turn back!” That was all we needed! – he was telling us that our way was obstructed by deep water when we were already very late! I showed him the public footpath marked in green on my map, all along the shoreline without a break. “That’s as maybe!” he said, “but I think you will find the marshes have been breached at Dagnam Saltings and that your way is blocked. Maybe you’ll get through at low tide, I don’t know.” (We had missed that by a couple of hours!) We thanked him for his information, and said we would go and have a look at the situation anyhow. “We’ll just have to walk round!” I said, more hopefully than I felt. “Maybe you’ll find a way through!” was his parting shot, “but the farmers don’t like you walking across their fields!”
He seemed so determined that we couldn’t possibly walk through to Cliffe, it just made us all the more determined that we would succeed! The caravan site seemed to go on forever, then we walked away from civilisation along the top of a sandy beach. Our friend was right – the way was blocked by a deep channel of swiftly flowing water which was much too wide to jump over. The tide was coming in fast. We walked along the stream looking for a place where it might be possible to cross, but there was no path and the undergrowth got thicker until progress became impossible. Colin forged ahead, and got to a point where the ditch joined another channel in the marshes. He called back that there was simply no way we could get through at all. What annoyed us most was the fact that here is a public right of way, yet nowhere did we see any sign saying FOOTPATH CLOSED or DIVERSION or anything.
We studied our map, and I worked out a route round that particular bit of the marsh which would add another mile and a half to our hike. We really had no choice – late as we were, neither of us wanted to abort the trip as it would have meant returning to our bikes and cycling the nine miles back the way we had come. Then we would have it all to do another day! No way!
We retraced our steps to the western corner of the caravan site, and followed what looked like a sort of path leading inland against the fence.
We passed the end of a drainage ditch which ran parallel to the coast, and looked along to see if there was any possible path we could take – but it was very overgrown and there was simply no way through. We continued inland on an illegal but well-trodden path through a hayfield which led us to a lane. This took us to a tarmacked road, then a track through cornfields about half a mile inland from the coast. We were quite a few contours up, and had lovely views of the Thames Estuary which was some compensation – not much, but some! After about a mile, we were able to turn right along a sunken track, and actually had to go back on ourselves a bit to regain the coast path beyond Dagnam Saltings. We had wasted an hour and a half, and we still had a very long way to go!
Fortunately, the path from thereon was a raised river bank with short grass which was very pleasant to walk on. We took up our ‘Quick-March’ attitude, which meant we covered the distance but didn’t stop to look at anything that may be of interest – like wildlife. There are acres and acres of ‘empty’ marshes along this north side of the Hoo Peninsula, and Britain’s ‘expert’ planners have earmarked it for London’s fourth airport. It is going to be three times the size of the present Heathrow Airport (the world’s busiest) and have no less than four runways! Three hamlets, along with their ancient churches, are going to ‘disappear’, and the noise and traffic are going to affect numerous other villages and towns. All the local populace is up in arms, as are the Dickens Society (Charles Dickens once lived in Cliffe and was inspired by the mists on the marshes), English Heritage, and a number of wildlife and countryside trusts. Protest meetings have been organised all over the place – we saw their posters up in every community we passed through. We wish them luck – Heath Row was once described as follows:

“And soon the road gives way to Heath Row, though that place is little more than a few cottages and the village pub, The Harrow. There are two fine old farms in this village, both are on the right of the road; the first, notable for its large stackyard, is Heathrow Hall on the old maps, and the second farm, a little further on, reminds me strongly of one of those delightful old farmsteads met with in the Weald of Kent minus the oasthouses… In Heath Row are some old cottages… which might be in the heart of Devonshire, for their antiquity, their picturesqueness, and lonely situation. Very few people ever see them, for so few go along this road, which leads only, and by a roundabout way, to Stanwell, which is far easier to reach by other routes…”

These words were written by a man called Gordon Maxwell in his book Highwayman’s Heath round about 1930, a little over seventy years ago. Just look at Heathrow now! What hope has the Hoo Peninsula against such mighty planners?
We came to a place called St Mary’s Bay, which just meant that we had three sides of a rectangle to walk around instead of a straight line. The path deteriorated a little – but worse than that, it went down behind a high wall which blocked off not only the view of the river with all the traffic thereon, but the slight breeze which had been keeping us sane on this warm and sultry afternoon. In other words – it was hot and boring! Colin couldn’t take it, and went back on to the top of the wall to walk. It was very narrow and uneven – I would never have coped with it, and even he admitted that he had to look at his feet all the time in order to not come a cropper. Occasionally it got too narrow and he had to come down, sometimes it got quite wide and smooth so that I could walk up there where it was cooler and more interesting.
We got to a place called Egypt Bay where, according to our OS map, we had to make a half mile detour inland to get round some marshes – but we were relieved to find that they had built a grassy bank straight across, so we ‘trespassed’ on it and took the shortcut! Every so often there was a ladder over the sea wall, so we climbed over one of these to sit on the riverside for a snack and a rest. It was impossible to walk on that side – big boulders – so we had to climb back over to continue for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles!
The Essex coast got nearer, but looked very industrial which was depressing. There were quite a few ships ploughing up and down the Thames. If we were walking down from the sea wall, we couldn’t see the river and the ships looked as if they were ‘sailing’ along the top of the wall – very odd! (Or perhaps we were just slowly going insane, who knows?)
As we turned south at a bend in the river, we noted a large number of Second World War type ‘pill-boxes’ on the marshes to our left. I suppose they had to defend the Thames, but I pity any troops who were stationed at that desolate spot.
On and on we marched – I was on ‘auto-pilot’ and I think Colin was too. The sun was quite low in the sky when at last we reached the end of a track, the first connection to civilisation since we had joined the sea wall from our diversion back at Dagnam Marshes all those hours ago.
There was supposed to be a line of ‘coastguard cottages’ there, according to our OS map, but there was no sign of them and later I noticed that they were missing from the internet map which is more up to date. We squeezed through a fence, and spoke to a man standing there because he was the first human being we had met since the doom-laden man at the caravan site had told us we wouldn’t get far! This man was amazed we had walked all the way from Allhallows – probably thought we were daft! (Are we?) It is certainly a walk neither of us will ever do again! He quickly turned the conversation to the impending airport, it seems to be on everyone’s minds around here. He said there was a protest meeting in a few days time, and he was certainly going along to have his say!
We now had a track to walk on, and it was quite muddy in places, but we still couldn’t see over the wall! It was so frustrating walking along next to the river and not being able to see anything. We passed a jetty, but it was barbed wired off, then the track turned inland to go alongside Cliffe Creek – still annoyingly behind a high wall! We had both run out of water by then, and were gasping for those flasks of tea in the boot of the car! We spoke to another man out walking his dog (the place was getting quite populated!), and his topic of conversation was the proposed airport. It is going to drastically effect the lives of so many people if it goes ahead.
The track was blocked by mounds of earth which were not easy to scale, especially in our tired state. Our new friend told us they had been put there to stop local youths abandoning stolen cars on the marshes and setting fire to them – the bane of our countryside in this 21st century. At the end of the creek we joined up with the ‘Saxon Shore Way’ which we had last left just past Hoo Marina (it takes an enormous short-cut across the peninsula, missing out miles and miles of marshes). Almost immediately, it led over a stile on to an overgrown footpath.

That ended Walk no.52, we shall pick up Walk no.53 next time at the end of Cliffe Creek where the ‘Saxon Shore Way’ leads over the stile. We had to walk another mile across the marshes to where our car was parked outside some cottages at the end of a real road. We thirstily downed two cups of tea whilst watching the sun set in a blood-red sky to the west. By the time we had driven back to Allhallows it was quite dark. There was a security guard on duty at the entrance to the caravan site, so we parked outside and had to walk down to the shore and wheel up our bikes. We then had quite a distance to drive to get back to our camp the other side of Rochester, so we ended up cooking in the dark and eating very late – not good for the digestion!

A couple of years later Cliffe was let off the hook when Stansted, in a vastly expanded form, was 'chosen' to be come London's third airport. It wasn't any environmental considerations that led to this decision, nor the results of any protests that were made. It was simply the location. Cliffe is the 'wrong side' of London, and access by road and rail would have been difficult because the Thames Estuary was blocking the way. Good old Thames Estuary! We considered it a horrid place and wished never to return to it, but it's very existence had at last done some good for the people and wildlife that live there.

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