Marsh walking from Higham to Cliffe Fort and back

by Ian Tokelove
Thames mudflats near Cliffe Fort in Kent

A circular walk from Higham, Kent, including wildlife-rich marshes, views of the Thames, Cliffe Fort & Cliffe Pools

The road that follows the disused Thames and Medway Canal from Higham leads nowhere. It dead-ends in an industrial estate and a gated rail yard, and it has been many years since a road sweeper has visited its dusty, litter-choked verges. I was walking out to the Shorne and Higham Marshes, east of Gravesend, but the trail of plastic and fly-tipping was getting me down. This wasn’t why I’d taken a weekend train out of London.

Pausing to check my map I noticed a sign for a public footpath, the overgrown entrance hidden, squeezed between a small industrial estate and the steep banks of a rail line. This wasn’t my planned route, but I wanted to get off that road.

Initially unpromising, the path opened into an unspoilt oasis of green, leaves brushing close on all sides. A large bird of prey took flight from the path in front of me, shifting location with lazy flaps. Clouds of small blue damselflies drifted with me as I walked, and countless bees rummaged across the bramble blossom.

Wet grazing meadow, great for wildlife
Wet grazing meadow, great for wildlife

The path followed the railway line before reaching a foot crossing, where it T-junctioned back to Higham or out onto the marshes and towards the River Thames. These rough, wet grazing meadows are cared for by the RSPB, their conservation work highlighted by the constant song of skylarks, dark feathered pin-pricks in the sky above.

The Saxon Shore Way and Cliffe Fort

At the river, I followed the banked river wall and Saxon Shore Way out to the disused Cliffe Fort and the modern-day Brett Aggregates jetty, seeing hardly a soul. Vocal lapwing and redshank patrolled the muddy river banks, the breeze carrying a constant backdrop of birdsong. A small squadron of terns flew past in close formation, vanishing into the river dazzle.

The remains of the Dutch-built Hans Egede.
The remains of the Dutch-built Hans Egede. This three-masted, wooden vessel took on water while under tow in the Thames before being deliberately beached and abandoned at Cliffe, perhaps as late as the early 1960s.

From the abandoned fort (off-limits, but it does get visitors) I headed inland, past looming concrete structures, their purpose lost and forgotten beneath lichen and leaves. At Cliffe Pools, flooded quarries now support important numbers of birdlife throughout the year. In June, nesting black-headed gulls are in ascendance, noisily dominating the islands and sky, although a cuckoo was doing a good job of making himself heard from the wooded fringes.

View over Cliffe Pools nature reserve

Salt Lane, West Court Farm and a public right of way through the aggregates site got me back to the marshes, where I got lost trying to make my way along the edge of Timber Lake. Paths intertwined amid the reeds and ditches and I was forced to retreat to find the correct route, which got me back, high and dry, through the marshes to St Mary’s Church, scattering rabbits as I approached the final field gate. From the church it’s a simple 20 minute walk got me back to Higham railway station, with weekend trains back to London every 30 minutes.

Cliffe Creek at low tide
Cliffe Creek at low tide
Broken path marker
A broken path marker

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