Gravesend is a gateway town, a final outpost as the Thames meanders towards the North Sea. The streets are rich in history but marred by a modern, one-way system. Traffic accelerates through the town and spits from junctions, a threat to the unwary pedestrian. However, beyond the town’s gritty, industrial quarter, paths lead out to the quietness of remote marshes and the sparsely-populated Hoo Peninsula.
The Promenade makes for a good start point, overlooking the river. Nearby, an old canal basin is home to residential moorings. The disused basin was dredged in 2004 and the tidal lock gate restored, allowing access from the Thames. The canal which served this basin has been lost under industrial development, but it’s not far away and may soon resurface.
A footbridge crosses the lock, and the path enters a rundown industrial zone, formerly a 19th century iron works and later a timber yard. A narrow lane leads between tall, battered walls of corroding brick and layered corrugated iron. Muted hammering carries from behind boarded windows and blocked doors. A tang of solvent, smoke and burnt plastic tinges the air.
The path narrows then passes an overgrown tangle of undergrowth, enclosed by a high, barred fence. A stained and laminated printout, cable-tied to the barrier, tells of a largely forgotten story. Nearby, compacted beneath seven metres of landfill and concrete, lie the remains of a Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft, shot down during the Second World War. The pilot, Flight Sergeant Eric Williams, is probably still at the controls.
Flight Sergeant Eric Williams
On October 15, 1940, Williams had taken off from RAF Stapleford in Essex, along with other Hurricane pilots, to intercept German raiders coming up the Thames. However, they were ambushed by Messerschmitt 109s as they rose to meet the incoming bombers, and three Hurricanes were quickly shot down.
Williams crashed into what was then Barton’s Timber Wharf, apparently unconscious or dead at the controls. The aircraft went so hard and deep into the water-logged ground that the Royal Engineers, tasked with recovering his body, were unable to do so. Since then, there have been several official attempts to locate his remains, along with other unofficial digs. There is some confusion as to exactly where the aircraft ended up, with differing accounts and no hard evidence.
The Ministry of Defence suggests that the main body of wreckage may have been taken by amateur aviation archaeologists, leaving only fragmentary remains. But nobody knows for sure. For now, Williams remains the only British pilot shot down over the mainland, whose remains have not been recovered, or marked on-site by an official plaque.
Gravesend’s industrial area is likely to be lost to development in the near future, providing one last opportunity to record, and mark, Williams’s resting place. A lost section of the Thames and Medway Canal also lies buried below the industrial estate. With redevelopment, the canal is likely to be restored as an ornamental leisure feature.
Emerging from the industrial estate, a crossroads provides a direct route towards the Thames or a straight-line path ahead. This path follows the line of the canal, now open to the sky.
The Thames and Medway Canal was a great idea that never quite worked out. The idea, first suggested in 1799, was to create a canal shortcut across the Hoo Peninsula, linking the naval dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich with Chatham Dockyard on the River Medway.
A long canal tunnel had to be dug through the chalk ridge which overlooks the Hoo, between the village of Higham and the town of Strood, overlooking the Medway. More than two miles long, this is the second longest canal tunnel in the UK. However, when the canal eventually opened in 1824, the Napoleonic wars were long over, and military demand was much reduced.
The canal continued with limited success, and in 1846 the tunnel was sold to the South Eastern Railway company, and the rest abandoned. The North Kent Line now follows the line of the canal, punching through the tunnel on the infilled canal bed.
Riots and reedbeds
For a while, the canal path traces riverside industry, and then the Metropolitan Police Service Specialist Training Centre. Within the compound, mock streets and buildings provide a training ground for riots and ‘entry and search’ procedures. Farther to the east, the Milton Firing Range, on Eastcourt Marshes, is now the Met’s firing range. This was formerly a military training ground and dates back to 1862.
Reedbeds line the canal and on an autumnal afternoon, the footpath’s banks are lined with colourful wild berries, a feast for incoming migratory birds. Several redwing were feeding in the branches, refuelling after flying in from Russia or Scandinavia. Overhead, pylons and transmission lines offer a fizzy, audio-static backdrop to the birdsong and industry.
Along the path, in fields to the left, two curious structures stand, isolated doorways which emerge from the rough grazing pasture. Perhaps these were connected with the nearby firing range, from which shells were lobbed onto the marshes, liberally dotting the landscape with bomb crater ponds.
The path comes to another crossroads. A bridlepath leads directly out to the Thames and the ruined Shornemead Fort, but you can also continue along the canal. The waterway eventually becomes overgrown, petering out where it meets an industrial estate.
From here, Canal Road quickly takes us to a railway bridge and the entrance to another, small industrial estate. Tucked away between the railway embankment and the fenced estate, a public footpath squeezes its wooded way towards Higham Marshes. This is a little-walked path, and all the better for it.
Higham Causeway and Barrow Hill
At a basic railway crossing, a wooden sign catches the attention, marking a route out to the River Thames across Higham Marshes. Much of this path is believed to follow the line of the ancient Higham Causeway, which led to a ferry across the Thames to Essex. In Roman times, when water levels were much lower, the river crossing may even have been a wide ford.
Out on the marshes, a low mounded hillock is reminiscent of a prehistoric burial mound. Barrow Hill is a natural feature and not a manmade cairn, but it may have been the site of an ancient burial site, discovered in 1880.
Excavations on Higham Marshes revealed a crushed, crouched skeleton along with 79 beads, which appeared to have been hung around the deceased’s neck. The exact location of this excavation is unclear, but Barrow Hill is the most likely spot, being the only ‘high’ ground on the marshes. The mound also shows signs of apparent excavation.
At the river embankment, a rough track continues towards the Thames. At low water, the jagged remnants of an old jetty still lead out towards the Thames. Seeking shelter from the wind I hunkered down below the river bank and noticed a curious bundle of sticks emerging from the eroding mud.
I can’t be sure, but others have suggested this is a fish trap, possibly dating back to the Bronze Age. It certainly looks handmade, rather than natural, but has yet to be recorded by experts. Remnants of a larger fish trap have been found nearby.
The lost Tudor blockhouse
As well as being the spot where Higham Causeway meets the River Thames and an ancient crossing point, this is also likely to have been the location of a small Tudor blockhouse, built in 1539. Records are sketchy, but it is known that five artillery blockhouses were built along this section of the Thames during the reign of Henry the Eighth. These forts were to guard London and the Thames against a threatened invasion from Europe.
The Higham blockhouse was disarmed in 1553 and no trace is now apparent, either lost to the tides or the stone removed for use elsewhere. The compact, chunky foundations of one of the accompanying forts can still be seen in Gravesend at Royal Pier Road.
The river path continues downriver towards Cliffe Fort, or back towards Gravesend via Shornemead Fort. With the light already fading, I started towards Gravesend. This has previously been a pleasant walk, but trespassing dirt-bikers have churned and deeply rutted the path. I understand the fun they have, but not their lack of empathy for others who wish to enjoy these landscapes.
The foundation of the old Shornemead Lighthouse stands just off the foreshore. This unmanned lighthouse was built in 1913 and was reached by a walkway, reaching out from the river bank. Erosion of the river bank meant the walkway had to be extended, and eventually, in 2004, the lighthouse was removed. The extinguished tower now stands in storage at Denton Wharf in Gravesend, where it can be seen from Mark Lane.
The path continues towards the new Shornemead Lighthouse, a striking red and white tube rising from the river. Signs of Second World War defences can be seen along the path, half-buried when the river defences rose against a new threat, the rising tides.
Shornemead Fort is a disused artillery fort, dating back to the 1860s. The fort was initially well armed, but eventually subsidence made it unsafe for the heavy guns to be fired. The fort was disarmed between 1895 and 1907, before being temporarily and lightly re-armed during the First and Second World Wars. It was retained as a training facility and then abandoned in the 1950s.
The Royal Engineers demolished much of the structure in the 1960s as a training exercise, leaving only the impressive, heavily fortified casemates still facing the river. The magazines remain below but are flooded and inaccessible. The structure is decorated with colourful graffiti and remains an imposing structure, although sadly the paths around the fort have been ripped and shredded by the off-road bikers.
Beyond the fort, the RSPB have dug a 1km long ditch to keep the bikers out of the Shorne Marshes nature reserve, a home to endangered wildlife. They’ve also had to contend with egg thieves, illegal hare coursing and even the theft of a £5,000 electric fence.
The path home
Between the fort and Gravesend, the river path is low, and in places, broken. Recent high tides have flooded inland, the water gouging deep channels in the sandy substrate, as it flows back to the river with the dropping tide. With the additional damage caused by bikers, this is currently a tricky stretch to walk.
Walking in the dark, I passed a floodlit cement works, and initially missed the steps leading over the seawall. A tight concrete path now channels the walker towards Gravesend, before hitting a dead end next to a boat yard.
Mark Lane leads the walker away from the river and back to the start of the canal, and the gritty path through the industrial estate. With time to kill before a train, I sipped hot soup from a thermos in the Promenade gardens, overlooking the dark Thames and distant lights of Tilbury, before making my way home.