The Dartford Marshes – a remote landscape on the edge of London

by Ian Tokelove
A windswept, overgrown shack on the Dartford Marshes

The Dartford Marshes mark the eastwards edge of London. This sparsely populated and wild landscape hides a rich history of human activity, but few visit now.

As the River Thames flows away from London, past the remnants of industry, reclaimed saltmarsh and floodplain housing, a small tributary joins from the south, the River Darent. The Darent’s curves mark the invisible boundary between Greater London and Kent, a kind of no-man’s land; these are the Dartford Marshes.

The marshes are a transitional landscape, subject to change but always defined by the water which flows around and through them. Walking here invokes memories of a forgotten riverside tavern, renowned in its day for bare knuckle boxing, and of an early, dangerously sited WW1 airfield, where too many biplanes stalled and tumbled from the skies.

Hospital ships once lay offshore, remembered only in old photographs. The ships were replaced by smallpox hospitals, built on drained marshland. Most traces of the hospitals are now lost, but some overgrown brick ruins remain, like the rusting shacks of a nearby fireworks factory. People lived and died out here, but they left little trace.

With no passage across the Thames or Darent, few people walk the windswept paths, despite impressive views of the Thames Estuary. The marshes can be accessed from Dartford railway station, less than hour out from London via Charing Cross or Victoria.

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