Exploring the Hoo Peninsula from Allhallows, a remote Thames Estuary walk

by Ian Tokelove
Cattle graze in long grass on the Hoo Peninsula, with huge cranes in the distance

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.

The foreshore at Allhallows. The Thames is out there, somewhere

Dagnam Saltings

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.

A firm ridge of dark soil rises a few meters high, next to a wide estuary, on the Hoo Peninsula
Dagnam Saltings, where saltmarsh meets estuary

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.

A dark pillbox on the horizon, across a wide beach, on the Hoo Peninsula
Dagnam Saltings pillbox
A pillbox stands on sand and sand, with the Thames in the background. Hoo Peninsula
Defending the estuary

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.  

This river-borne DVD still plays, fourteen years after production

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.

Brown, low waves lap against a sand and shell beach on the Hoo Peninsula
West Point beach on the Hoo Peninsula
Two abandoned, roofless and windowless buildings stand in deep grassland,with low grassy hills behind, on the Hoo Peninsula
Explosive stores at West Point

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.

A tall, grassy river embankment, leading to a sloping fence and gate. In the far distance, the cranes of London Gateway container port
The path out to West Point
London Gateway container port in the far distance

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.

On the Hoo Peninsula, wild meadows stretch towards the Thames embankment
On the Hoo Peninsula, wild meadows stretch towards the Thames embankment

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.

Flat concrete foundations amid grass, with a square building in the background, silhouetted by the low sun
Remnants of the Second World War

Curious cattle

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.

Cattle on the river path, approaching, with the sun low behind them.
Curious
Very curious

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.

Looking down into an eroded gap about 1.5m wide and 1m deep, at a layer of rounded logs, laid alongside each other, on the Hoo Peninsula
Possible trackway on the Hoo Peninsula?
Looking into the eroded gap, the logs are roughly 20 cm in diameter and are unworked. They are green with algae
How old could this be?

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.

Square dark pillbox on wet mud, with a sunset behind, reflecting in the mud
Sunset at the Hoo Peninsula

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.

Black and white photographs of five crew members of Flying Fortress 44-6133
Part of the memorial to Flying Fortress 44-6133

For another walk from Allhallows, heading east towards the Isle of Grain, see remotelondon.com/allhallows-yantlet-creek

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