The Stoke Saltings are a maze of low islands, marsh, and mud, embraced in the underbelly of Kent’s Hoo Peninsula. The saltings are bracketed to the east by the Isle of Grain’s gas tanks and container port cranes. To the west, the low, wide bulk of an Amazon warehouse squats behind a battered wire fence.
A short track leads from the small village of Stoke to the saltings, where a tumbledown boatyard faces the Medway Estuary.
I headed east, treading a narrow public footpath along the estuary embankment. The view over the estuary appears timeless, the muddy channels and seamarsh dotted with the occasional, crumbling wreck.
Mud, mud, glorious mud
In truth, the local mud was an ingredient in the manufacture of Portland cement, and the saltings were well worked and much reduced during the 19th century. The work was mostly manual, the muddies toiling at low tide to fill barges, which would then lift on the incoming tide. Old maps show footpaths leading out towards distant sheepfolds and grazing marsh on the saltings, all lost to the cement works.
The meandering river wall divides two landscapes, freshwater and salt. On the landward side, wide channels are fringed with reedbeds and chattering birdsong. Cattle graze on low lying pasture and reed bunting chirrup from swaying perches amid the reeds.
Gold Nugget Wharf
The path passes the remains of Gold Nugget Wharf, accessible at low tide. This small wharf offers treasure of a sort, in the form of broken pottery, which was dumped here to enforce the wharf’s structure. Alongside the fragments of bowl and plate sit larger brick wasters, bricks which were rejected during the manufacturing process, but which could still be used as filler.
At another lost wharf, the skeletal remains of an unknown boat nudge the foreshore. Her wooden hull has mostly rotted away, but a rust-bitten ladder still rises into the air, echoing the distant container cranes.
Walking on, I came to a small flock of greylag geese resting on the path. They honked in noisy defiance as I approached, before making an indignant exit in a flap of wingbeats, flying low to a new roosting spot.
Stoke Saltings and the Isle of Grain
The riverwall bends sharply, before heading inland towards Grain Road. The channel here is Colemouth Creek, which once joined with Yantlet Creek, which flows south from the other side of the Hoo. The Isle of Grain was once a real island, accessible only by boat.
A few small boats are tethered above the tide’s reach on the sea wall here. Scraps of litter and discarded cans indicate ease of access from the road. A rudimentary bench, burnt and blackened by a disposable barbeque, bears a small, undated memorial plaque.
I retraced my steps, beyond the boatyard and towards the Amazon warehouse. Horses graze on the landward side. Just beyond the boatyard, a jumble of concrete and brick landfill spills onto the marsh. Rabbits have dug a twisted warren amid the broken rubble, their bolt holes mirrored by the tiny, pencil-wide tunnels of mining bees. A stunted plum tree grows here, the fruit almost-ripe and sharp on the tongue.
The submarine wreck
Out on the saltings, beyond the ribs of another unnamed wreck, I could just make out the remains of a World War 1 German U Boat. The submarine lies marooned and broken in the mud, having broken free while being towed for post-war scrappage. I’ve visited the U Boat before, kayaking in from Grain with a couple of friends, although it was hard spotting the submarine in the marshy maze.
As I walked on, I noticed thousands of small, bleached-white crab shells snagged on the strandline, a mysterious, ragged white line of mortality. A possible explanation is that sudden drops in winter temperatures can cause mass mortality in crabs and other marine life, particularly in shallow waters.
The end of the path
The path ends with a high, battered wire fence, suspended on leaning concrete posts. The land beyond is private, a mix of razed infrastructure and lucrative development potential. An old wharf still bears life, shirts and jeans flapping from a clothesline aboard a large, derelict-looking barge.
Beyond the fence and the Amazon warehouse, the broken frame of Bee Ness Jetty reaches out into the estuary. Built to serve a former oil refinery, the jetty stretches more than 2.5km into the River Medway. This was the longest jetty in Britain, and still would be if it weren’t so broken and badly collapsed.
I had hoped to get as far as the jetty, and a hole in the fence was tempting, but this wasn’t a day for trespass. I headed back towards Stoke, past the boatyard. A few forgotten boats caught my eye, their paint peeling and flaking into wildflowers. A tang of epoxy resin and burnt plastic hung in the air, but I didn’t see anyone else in the wide, empty landscape.
More Hoo Peninsula walks: www.remotelondon.com
The Medway muddies: https://www.ft.com/content/e014cec6-7941-11e1-9f0f-00144feab49a
Bee Ness Jetty: http://www.beyondthepoint.co.uk/property/bee-ness-jetty/