The Swanscombe Peninsula looks largely empty on maps, a blank canvas crossed by a few paths, blue threads of water, and pylons. Dotted lines indicate a tunnel which dives below the Swanscombe Marshes and the River Thames, a conduit for Eurostar trains shuttling between London and Europe.
However, if you look closer, this is a vibrant landscape. Above the speeding Eurostar carriages, all across the low-lying peninsula, wildlife thrives. Visit while you can, before a proposed theme park destroys this wild haven.
The path to the peninsula
In Swanscombe town, trains arrive at a platform cut deep into the local chalk, requiring a stepped, winding climb to the High Street. From there, a short walk takes you to London Road and a view across huge quarry pits, the distant peninsula and the River Thames.
Balancing between two quarries, the Pilgrims’ Road tightropes along a vertical spit of chalk, dropping down towards the river. This high footpath is narrow, fenced and littered, bordered by overgrown embankments which largely obscure the generous views.
The path arrives at Manor Way, once a remote, rural farm and now a desolate, fly-tipped road. Thankfully, the peninsula awaits. Cross the road, slip through the motorbike barriers, and enter the green.
The path immediately branches. The right path is easy to follow, a straight line across the marshes towards the towering National Grid pylon at the end of the peninsula. Water is all around, but not always seen. Waterfowl stir and splash, hidden within the reeds. On a quiet day, a gentle shoosh gives away the brief passing of Eurostar trains, speeding deep in their own channel.
Walking along the path, a former sewage treatment works on the right is completely overgrown, with little trace visible through the reedbeds. Beyond this, on the left, a large lake can be glimpsed through the vegetation, backed by a low hill of wooded landfill. If it weren’t for the sky-piercing pylon, you could almost be in deep countryside, with verdant nature all around.
If you take the left path from Manor Way, you will find it less trodden and harder to follow. The path tracks across scrubby brownfield, past a perimeter fence enclosing hundreds of large, curving segments of concrete tunnel wall, perhaps destined for the Tideway Tunnel.
From the open brownfield the path dips into a shadowy and damp track, bounded close with rewilded landfill. This arrives at a wide, concrete roadway, free of traffic and popular with locals. Two young mums were pushing buggies, deep in conversation. The locals know and love this space, even if others don’t.
The footpath crosses this road and continues, getting wetter as it goes. This route is often flooded, but after weeks of summer heat I was able to reach its reed-choked dead-end. I jumped the low, twisting wires of an old fence into what is usually a large pond, then headed up to the main riverwall path.
Swanscombe Peninsula paths
Both paths join a footpath which bisects the Swanscombe Peninsula, a cross-country route between Greenhithe and Northfleet. Beyond this path, the peninsula remained as tidal saltmarsh until at least the 1950s, before being enclosed by seawalls.
The dusty tracks which now lead into this area are signposted with graffitied keep-out warnings. Regular security vehicles patrol, uniformed staff up front, barking Alsatians in the back, although I’ve not seen them recently.
Hidden near the tip of the peninsula, a small, off-grid community of stilted shacks and boats lies huddled in a tidal creek. You could pass on the river and not even know they are there. The surrounding landscape is largely rewilded landfill, impenetrable but for a few rutted tracks.
Industry has edged along the eastern flank of the peninsula, with riverside aggregates and cement works. The works are largely hidden behind steep bunds of landfill. The footpath on this side of the peninsula skirts around the extensive reedbeds of Botany Marshes then heads towards Northfleet. After Botany Marshes the path joins Manor Way, opposite the Britannia Refined Metals works. From here, Northfleet station is less than 15 minutes away on foot.
On the western shoreline of the Swanscombe Peninsula, a disused concrete jetty and wharf bear witness to the inland quarries and former cement works. Trams once shuttled between the two, the rusting tracks still visible in places.
The London Resort threat
Visit and enjoy this wildlife-rich landscape while you can. The peninsula is threatened by the construction of a huge theme park, the London Resort. Described as the UK’s Disneyland and three times larger than any other resort park in the UK, the London Resort will destroy a huge tract of the peninsula if built.
The theme park has been designated as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project by the government, allowing the developers to bypass local planning requirements. It is also supported by the recent launch of the Thames Estuary Growth Board, which seeks “to make a transformative change within and across the Estuary” and aims to ensure that this “unparalleled growth opportunity is delivered”.
Politicians and councillors love big, sexy projects which promise new infrastructure and jobs. Sadly, the environment usually comes a poor second, dismissed as a barrier to profits and growth.
Brownfield sites have been broadly prioritised by government for development, regardless of their wildlife value. However, mature brownfield locations such as the Swanscombe Peninsula are vital havens for the UK’s beleaguered wildlife.
Where there is dumped landfill and spoil, the broken, stony ground provides a lifeline for some of our rarer wildlife species. The tough conditions prevent common species from taking over and allow more specialised animals and plants to flourish. Other habitats across the peninsula include saltmarsh, wetlands, grassland and scrub.
The charity Buglife report that thousands of invertebrate species are found here, including more than 250 species of conservation concern. One little fella is the critically endangered distinguished jumping spider, now restricted to just two UK locations, here and across the river in the Thurrock Marshes.
Larger species live and breed here, including nightingales, skylarks and cuckoos. Water voles (one of the UK’s fastest disappearing mammals) live along the waterways and pools. Otters have been spotted too. Majestic marsh harriers have been seen, patrolling the reedbeds and waterways, hunting for frogs, small mammals and unwary birds. Common lizards can be spotted as well, an exotic little creature I always associate with hotter climes.
A theme park is a distraction. It is not a necessity, other than as a means of driving development – the unsustainable pursuit of endless growth. The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. We need places like the Swanscombe Peninsula. They may not be traditionally pretty, and they may not be making anyone rich, but they’re a vital breathing space for wildlife and people. The London Resort will destroy all of this.
The campaign to Save Swanscombe Marshes
Buglife are campaigning to save Swanscombe Peninsula. Click the button or follow this link to see how you can help: https://www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns/save-swanscombe-marshes/
Coronavirus has highlighted the importance of public open spaces, preferably of high natural value. All across the UK, people have been enjoying and discovering new green spaces. Brownfield locations like the Swanscombe Peninsula can make stunning nature reserves, where public health and wellbeing are supported alongside the natural world which sustains us all.
A Swanscombe Peninsula Park has been proposed by the government’s own Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, which would save much of this precious site. See: https://ebbsfleetdc.org.uk/swanscombe-peninsula-park/
Visiting Swanscombe Peninsula
Swanscombe is the closest railway station to the peninsula, and the stations at Greenhithe, Northfleet and Ebbsfleet are all within easy reach, providing lots of opportunities for walks. The Thameslink service from London Bridge to Swanscombe takes just under 50 minutes. If visiting from London, note that these stations are outside of the Oyster Card fare zone.