The Hoo Peninsula
The Hoo Peninsula breaks away from north Kent, forming an almost-island between the Thames and Medway estuaries. The roads are dead-end routes, leading out to lonely farmhouses, small villages, and industrial zones. Much of the peninsula is low-lying marshland, a jigsaw puzzle of rough grazing grounds bounded by narrow drainage channels.
A footpath traces the remote, northern edge of the Hoo Peninsula. This thin line stretches between Gravesend and the small village of Allhallows at the eastern tip of the peninsula.
I set out from the Allhallows holiday camp, following the promenade west, towards the marshes. Once past the yacht club, the narrow beach gives way to saltmarsh and mudflats, known as the Dagnam Saltings.
The path winds along the edge of the marsh, above a beach that is sometimes shell, sometimes mud. On high spring tides this would be a dangerous path. Wind and salt-spray have scoured the warning signs of words and meaning.
A couple of pillboxes look out across the estuary. One stands on a sandy spit and is accessible. The other is marooned in mud and as the tide returns, becomes an island.
Plastic pollution, an ongoing battle
Torn scraps of plastic flash and flicker amid the reeds and sedge. London’s litter is carried by the river and wind to the east, where it catches in the seamarsh and along the foreshore.
I found a scarred DVD, a sci-fi shoot-em-up from fourteen years ago, still secure in a broken case. I took it home, plugged it in and it still played.
West Point and the Thames Storage (Explosives) Company
The path leads out to a secluded beach at West Point, with distant views of Canvey Island and the Coryton oil refinery. Inland of the beach stand seven ruined explosive stores, dating from about 1892.
Gunpowder was repacked here by employees of the Thames Storage (Explosives) Company. The powder arrived in this remote spot by boat, brought ashore via a landing stage (now lost) just to the east of the beach.
The buildings were widely spaced due to the risk of explosion, and there are records of one building being destroyed on 29th July 1905. The thick walls, reinforced by bunds of earth, were designed to channel explosions (and presumably employees) up and through thin roofs. The buildings may have been used until about 1913, when the lease on the land expired. A much larger range of similar buildings can be seen farther along the Hoo Peninsula, at the north-western tip.
Walking away from home
The path cuts inland alongside St Mary’s Bay, where the beaches and saltmarsh are protected by wire. I watched a small bird of prey, flying low and being mobbed by starlings. So far I’d seen plenty of wildlife, but only two other people, walking together along the Thames path.
I took a track inland, intending to head back towards Allhallows, but the warm evening was too beautiful. I walked away from my car, scattering rabbits from the cropped path, towards the lowering sun.
At Manor Way, the path turns towards the Thames. The track here is wide enough for vehicles, but seldom used. Spikes of teasel grow plentifully, and rabbit holes occasionally puncture the rough trackway.
Manor Way leads, via a locked gate, to Egypt Bay, but I hopped another fence and took an overgrown concrete track which promised a quicker route to the Thames embankment. This led to two small concrete buildings, dating back to the Second World War.
Defensive electric lights once stood here, presumably sweeping the river for enemy activity and watching for aerial mine drops. Now, birds nest in the abandoned buildings.
Back at St Mary’s Bay, a herd of about forty steers proved a little too curious for comfort, crowding close on the path. The bolder ones pushed nearer, as if to prove their bravery to the others, jostling each other for position. Thankfully, they’re twitchy beasts, backing away when confronted, but I was glad to put a gate between us.
I returned to the inland path and headed back towards Allhallows, brushing my way through waist-high wildflowers and grass. At the Dagnam Saltings, I noticed something I’d missed on my way out, something very old & man-made, eroding from the marsh.
Possible prehistoric trackway on the Hoo Peninsula
A survey published in 2004 refers to a possible prehistoric trackway nearby, and also to Bronze Age saltworks. I’m chasing the experts up on this one.
I got back to Allhallows as the sun set. A couple of clumsy Maybugs (one of our larger beetles) were drifting over the path, one bouncing harmlessly off my face in its simple pursuit of food or mate. The holiday homes stared our blindly towards the estuary, their empty windows dark in the coronavirus lockdown, as I walked unseen, away from the marsh.
The Flying Fortress memorial
Next to the yacht club, on the promenade, a small memorial commemorates the crew of a B17 ‘Flying Fortress’ which went down in the Thames here on 19th June 1944.
The flak-damaged plane, numbered 44-6133, was limping home from a bombing raid in Northern France, as part of a 30-strong formation. The pilot, on his first combat mission, was struggling to control the plane when it suddenly lurched sideways and hit the leading B17.
44-6133 turned over, lost a wing, and plunged vertically into the Thames. Only one of the nine-man crew survived. Finding himself thrown from the disintegrating plane, he was able to pull his ‘chute and survived. Six of the crew from the other B17 were able to bail out, as it flew on severely damaged. With a dead pilot at the controls the B17 threatened the oil refinery at Coryton before turning and crashing off Canvey Point. The full story can be read on the aviationtrails website.