Walking the Thames path from Purfleet to Grays and exploring this wild & ragged edge of London. Nature flourishes along this riverside corridor, alongside colourful aerosol art, derelict jetties and heavy industry.
Purfleet feels like an end-of-the-line station. The nearby newsagent’s shop and the Tandoori restaurant are boarded shut, as is much of the short terrace that faces the station car park.
The Thames footpath has meandered inland here, skirting an old wharf site, and now dips back towards the river. A tilting signpost points the way past a burnt-out house, shielded by wire mesh fencing and a sign warning of security dogs.
When I visited someone was still holding on here, a few bicycles outside a front door bringing a warm touch of family life. The footpath skirts the battered terrace and heads left towards the river. The path squeezes through an overgrown fence line before opening onto a wide expanse of brownfield, thickly carpeted with small, yellow flowers. (Update: the terrace has now been demolished)
The footpath cuts diagonally across this patch, tracking the ghost of a railway line towards a disused pier. This shoreline saw rapid industrial expansion from the late 19th century onward, the busy wharves served by rail lines which cut across the drained marshes.
The Anglo American Oil Company at Purfleet
Heading downstream, the next pier serves a small, active oil depot. This dates back to 1888, when it was owned by the Anglo American Oil Company. This was the company’s first depot, storing paraffin shipped from New York for use in lamps throughout England. The Anglo American Oil Company eventually became Esso, then ExxonMobil. It all started here! (1)
Every 100 metres or so, steel ladders provide access over the wall and to the river beyond. It’s generally safe to walk on either side, although in places one side may be barred by security fencing or vegetation.
Wildlife and spray art
Nature is happily reclaiming much of this narrow, riverside corridor. On a warm August afternoon the wildflowers were still in bloom, with swathes of wild carrot punctuated by spikes of teasel and yellowing stalks of fennel. The first blackberries were ripening on the brambles and occasional blackthorn bushes bore heavy offerings of sloes.
In many places the high concrete river wall is a rolling canvas of spray paint art. The graffiti is colourful and cheerful; cartoon characters and complex tags. Where salt wind and sun have peeled the paint, it lies in drifts of multi-coloured flakes along the edges of the path.
The Dartford Bridge and Tunnels
The route passes under the Dartford Bridge, the heavy thump of traffic audible from below. The neighbouring piers and jetties are echoes of the mineral railways which once ran here, arteries joining the Thames to the inland Thurrock Chalk Works. The chalk industry is long gone and the rail lines have been replaced by cement and aggregate works.
A white, cone-like structure is a ventilation shaft for the eastern section of the Dartford Tunnel, which runs roughly 80 feet below.
Stone Ness and WWII pillboxes
Beyond a series of oil depots the river path skirts what is left of the West Thurrock Marshes. The river curves sharply around Stone Ness, where a metal framed lighthouse (established 1885) guides night-time river traffic. Two WWII pillboxes gaze out at the river here, one on either side of the Ness.
A low, graffitied square of concrete above a drainage sluice roughly marks the route of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, as it tunnels below the Thames.
The massive pylon which rises ahead carries power lines to a similar pylon on the south bank at Swanscombe. With a height of 190 metres these are believed to be the tallest electricity pylons in the UK.
The jetty here, with its distinctive bulk uploader, was built to serve West Thurrock Power Station. Built between 1957 and 1965 on unspoilt marshland, the station was decommissioned in 1993 and had been completely demolished by 1999. The jetty now serves a chemical works supporting the nearby Procter & Gamble works.
West Thurrock Marshes
Pulverised Fuel Ash from the station had been stored in lagoons on West Thurrock Marshes and this, surprisingly, led to their survival as a wildlife habitat. As the ponds dried up, the grey sandy ash was colonised by a wide range of species, including many of the rare and endangered species which live locally.
The conservation charity Buglife fought a long, hard and eventually successful battle to save the marshes, which are now protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and are home to more than 1,300 different species of invertebrates, bird and reptiles.
St Clement’s Church
Before passing the astonishing Procter & Gamble factory it is worth a short detour inland to check out St Clement’s Church. This pretty church dates back (in places) to the early thirteenth century, and makes an incongruous neighbour to the huge chemical factory which towers over it. If you watched the film Four Weddings and a Funeral you may remember this church from the funeral scenes. The church owes its survival to Procter & Gamble, the company funding the church’s renovation in the late 80s.
Grays and the Tilbury Grain Terminal
As the river path enters Grays, modern housing replaces the cement and engineering works which once lined the river. The Wharf pub dates back to at least 1780, when it was known as the Sailor’s Return.
The decaying wooden wreck next to Thurrock Yacht Club is The Gull, a lightship built in 1860. The ship’s mast and lantern were saved and still stand in the club, but the boat was lost to decay, vandalism and arson.
The river path finishes next to the Riverside Park, but it is possible, with care, to follow the river wall down towards the towering silos of Tilbury Grain Terminal. The path is very overgrown and the shore becomes very muddy, before a security fence bars progress.
Grays railway station is only a short walk away and will whisk you back to Purfleet in just five minutes, a quick finish to a long walk.