Walking the River Ebbsfleet, from Northfleet Harbour to its Springhead source

by Ian Tokelove
The River Ebbsfleet winds its way through river beds in the old harbour. Industry can be seen in the background.

The River Ebbsfleet meets the Thames at Northfleet in Kent, where it forms a natural harbour. Today the river’s flow is dammed by a huge floodwall, constructed in the 1970s to hold back the Thames. Roman boats once sheltered in Northfleet Harbour, and it grew to be a busy industrial inlet serving the local cement works. Once busy, the harbour is now an undisturbed, off-grid home to wildlife, but perhaps for not much longer.

Northfleet Harbour is banked on one side by an aggregates works, still churning out asphalt, and on the other by a razed cement works. Below the old and disused wharves, the Ebbsfleet flows between banks of silt and fly tipped landfill. A wild, secluded wetlands has developed in the sheltered basin. Reeds grow verdant, and water birds nest and squabble and chatter.

A changing landscape

The old Portland Cement Works will soon be a building site, heralding the regeneration of this former industrial town. There are also plans to remove the seawall and restore the harbour, creating a new marina. Although the wetlands would be lost, this could potentially be better for the river, reconnecting it to the Thames and allowing migratory fish to return to the Ebbsfleet.

Turning Northfleet Harbour into a marina could work for the developers too; consultants say such redevelopment would potentially “enhance the value of the surrounding developments by up to 20%”. 

An old slipway still runs into the harbour from Grove Road. The way down is gated and barred. Although the posters of the Northfleet Harbour Restoration Trust have been slashed, they still reveal some of the history of this lost harbour.

The Trust want to see this slipway reopened to give public access to the harbour and the Thames. The river has a rich maritime history, but public access is pitifully low. As a kayaker, I’m well aware of how far apart public access points can be.

Northfleet Harbour and the River Ebbsfleet

A narrow, industrial lane leads past a battered wall of bricked up, arched windows, to what was once a cement mill and wharf. More recently a rough car park, this old wharf borders the upper reaches of the harbour, and there is sometimes access here.

Scrambling up a bank of overgrown rubble, one can look down onto the clear waters of the Ebbsfleet, flowing close to the opposing riverwall. The sheer harbour walls are piled high with mounds of tipped demolition waste, leading down to a meadow of nettles, and then the river.

Jumping down, I made my way through the nettles to a narrow riverside path. This track has perhaps been worn by the Restoration Trust, perhaps by other feet or paws or claws.

The old harbour walls seem to concentrate the freshness of the air, distilling the aromas of green growth and flowing water. The path traces the river, to where it emerges from the mouth of a large concrete tunnel. Something resembling a sizable sluice gate has been torn free, and now lies at an angle in the mouth of the tunnel.

The underground Ebbsfleet

The water here was clear but flecked with bubbles of foam. The air smelt too clean, with a hint of perfumed soap or suds. The only sound was trickling water and distant birdsong. I’d have waded to the tunnel mouth, but I didn’t fancy exploring the rest of the Ebbsfleet with wet feet.

Getting out of Northfleet Harbour turned out to be considerably harder than getting in. The walls give little purchase to grasping hands and scrabbling feet. I got out, but it took several attempts.

The Ebbsfleet runs underground for about half a kilometre, along the line of Grove Road and on towards Ebbsfleet International train station. At a nearby car wash the apparent source of the fragrant bubbles became clear, the soapy waters draining down towards the hidden river. Nearby, a burnt out lorry added a touch of dereliction to the street.

A lorry parked by the side of the road, next to an old wall with trees growing behind it. The cab of the lorry is burn out and the door of the cab is missing.

The River Ebbsfleet above ground

Beyond a roundabout, where Thames Way meets one of Ebbsfleet International’s car parks, the river can be glimpsed again, through a high wire fence. I was expecting a ditch, perhaps a meagre stream, but the river still flows here. The river is inaccessible, protected by a high wire fence and is largely hidden by lush vegetation.

Thames Way traces the nearby river, bridging it before passing under a modern railway bridge. From here the river flows next to the road, more accessible, but in places bearing the usual urban detritus of traffic cones and plastic.

A footpath cuts away from the road and between a small sewage treatment works and the river. The Ebbsfleet forms another wetlands here, a pleasing expanse of swaying reeds, bordered by mature trees and the path. 

The Ebbsfleet Valley and new development

A large new road bridge is an unexpected addition to the landscape, carrying Springhead Parkway to new housing. The bridge spans a lake, the open water contrasting with the wetland’s surrounding reedbeds. Supported by three columns, the bridge is rather elegant, adding to the landscape rather than dominating it. 

The path follows the river, bordered by new homes rising on higher ground, overlooking the valley. The footpath then ducks underneath the High Speed 1 line to Ebbsfleet, following the river through a low, concrete tunnel.

Once past the new housing, the path develops a countryside feel, the rail tracks and the river largely hidden by trees. The broken branches of crack willow hint at the Ebbsfleet’s flow along this shallow valley. There’s hidden water here, bound up in the land, flowing from springs.

The source of the River Ebbsfleet

Springhead Nurseries marks the uppermost reach of the river, which now trickles in a ditch past the glasshouses and car park.

The modern nursery is an echo of the watercress beds which once flourished here, first planted by William Bradbery in 1808. It was at the source of the Ebbsfleet that the first commercial cultivation of watercress in England took place, harvested for the lucrative London market.

Beyond the nursery, the thundering traffic of the A2 bars progress to the low hills beyond. This is where the Roman settlement of Vagniacae once stood, straddling the ancient Watling Street. The village was a cult centre, with at least seven temples, perhaps linked to the healing waters of the eight Ebbsfleet springs recorded here. No trace remains above ground.

Despite OS Maps showing the footpath continuing on the other side of the A2, there’s no way under or over. Wild flowers, rocket and fennel dance chaotically in the blast of passing traffic.

Taking the high way back to Northfleet

Retracing my steps, I detoured to Church Path, leading to Northfleet’s Saint Botolph’s Church, poised high above a massive chalk quarry. The path crosses the cavernous pit in a long, narrow walkway, stretching out into the void. The views are great, but it’s a long way down.

The church sits amid peaceful graves and wild flowers. It’s a gentle haven before the ten minute trudge down Northfleet’s High Street to the railway station and the ride home.

More information

Walked on Sunday 1 May 2022.

Northfleet railway station lies outside of London’s current Oyster Card zone. 

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