Wednesday 7 March 2018

London Countryway 1 original route: Gravesend - Wrotham Road - Sole Street

Footbridge across the A2 road and High Speed 1 rail line near Ifield Court, Gravesend. Not recommended for real bunnies.

My recommended way of starting out on the London Countryway from Gravesend is to walk to Sole Street via Jeskyns and Cobham as described in another post. But for walkers who want to stay as faithful as possible to Keith Chesterton’s original guidebook, the route featured there is still walkable. This is also the route of the first section of signed trail the Wealdway, created in the 1970s by Ramblers volunteers to link the Thames and the south coast via the North and South Downs and the Weald. Almost a third of it is alongside busy Wrotham Road, with a few features of interest along the way, while the rest mainly uses well-defined field paths through largely flat, modestly pleasant countryside.

The only additional public transport options along the way are in the urban section: buses run along Wrotham Road stopping at several places and if you really don’t like urban walking you could use the bus to skip it.

I've made some minor amendments to the original route to take account of numerous changes since the last edition of the trail guide was published in 1981. The most notable of these are the return of ferry services to Gravesend Town Pier; a new public space, Community Square, in Gravesend town centre; and the remodelling of the area around the Tollgate junction to accomodate the High Speed 1 railway line and the widened A2 road.

Note that I’m no longer recommending the route I originally described for this section in my very first fully-fledged London underfoot post in March 2009. This attempted to find a parallel route through Gravesend via quieter streets and parks. But it was unsatisfactorily complicated, not especially more attractive and included a path where access was unclear. I’ve left that post online for historic reasons, with a suitable disclaimer. I’m currently in the process of rewalking the Countryway so I can update and correct these early posts and expand them to the same standards as later ones.

Wrotham Road

Gravesend Civic Hall and Community Square: 1960s brutalism on an appropriately rainy day.

I’ve introduced Gravesend in my post on the recommended route, and as this alternative finds the same way across the town centre, I won’t repeat myself here. The two diverge in Community Square, overlooked by the 1968 Civic Centre building, where today’s route forks right to join Wrotham Road. Now the A227, this has long been the main route from the riverside and the town centre not only to Wrotham but to the Roman highway of Watling Street, running to the south. Essentially it was a continuation of the High Street, and before Gravesend received a town charter in the 13th century it marked the boundary between Gravesend parish, to the west (right) and Milton parish to the east. It was turnpiked in 1825, and the largely Victorian housing that lines it traces the ‘ribbon development’ of the town’s 19th century expansion. So there’s some sense of history in walking it, and the traffic isn’t too heavy or too fast.

St Thomas's Almshouses, Gravesend.
There’s a particularly fine row of early 19th century houses starting at no 62 Wrotham Road, on the left: the first two are Grade II-listed. Further on, straight ahead as you cross the major junction with Old Road, stands the red brick complex of St Thomas’s Almshouses. This owes its existence to a bequest of land in 1624 by Henry Pinnock, a former Portreve of Gravesend, “for the better relief and maintenance of such poor decayed people as should from time to time dwell in the ancient Parishes of Gravesend and Milton”.

The original almshouses stood closer to the town centre, at the junction of Windmill and King Streets, and there was another plot over the river at Grays, but in 1897 these were replaced by the oldest of the present buildings. The site was radically redeveloped in the 1990s, though remains in social housing use, and some late Victorian remnants remain, including the distinctive lodge, as well as plaques from earlier buildings.

The streets beyond the almshouses, on the same side, were developed in the 1930s on the site of a former brickworks. In the late 19th century, much of the land on the opposite side was part of an estate belonging to George Wood, the owner of a brewery in East Street, one of three now-vanished Victorian breweries in the town. Wood’s house, Woodlands, became a hotel in 1939, now part of the Premier Inn and Beefeater restaurant, and its grounds plus adjoining farmland were bought by the council for use as a public space to serve the new homes.

Woodlands Park, opened in 1937, is now a valuable 6 ha green space with a rolling open character, a bowling green and flowerbeds and specimen trees around the edges. It’s not as well looked-after as it ought to be, though, and a local Friends Group is pushing to improve it.

Gravesend Civil Defence Bunker, where bureaucrats and
busybodies hoped to sit out World War III.
It’s worth popping across the road to look at the park and to note its most curious feature, just to the right of the main Wrotham Road gate. You can’t see much except a fenced flight of steps leading down to a mysterious steel-reinforced door, but this is the entrance to Gravesend Civil Defence Sub-Divisional Control Centre, built at the height of the Cold War in 1954 to coordinate local civil defence and emergency services in the event of a nuclear, chemical or biological attack. Beneath the ground here are 14 rooms which, so it was planned, would be occupied by 35 council staff and Civil Defence Corps volunteers under the command of the town clerk. It included a power supply, water filtration plant, sleeping and kitchen facilities.

The idea of council bureaucrats and local busybodies surviving nuclear apocalypse beneath a Gravesend park is slightly comical, and fanciful too. The facility was protected by several metres of turf and 46 cm of reinforced concrete, but it lacked gas filters and an airlock to guard against nuclear contamination, so it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that this and similar facilities were built more for propaganda purposes than practical use. Subsequently a council file store, in 1997 it was restored to its 1950s appearance and is occasionally open for guided tours, with a genuine – though obviously disarmed – WE177 air-dropped nuclear bomb among the exhibits. It’s now Grade II-listed as one of the few intact survivors of its kind.

Further on, the rather gloomy red brick St Mary’s Church on the right was built in 1938, like the park intended to serve the new estates opposite. Beyond this you’re in more open surroundings: the West Kent Golf Course, opened in 1909, on the left and fields on the right. This open aspect may not last, as at the time of writing the golf club, unable to pay for the upkeep of its current clubhouse, is contemplating selling the course for housing development and moving elsewhere.

Tollgate junction

The Tollgate Motel, Gravesend, in 2009 when it was being used by a construction contractor working on the A2 widening.
The building is currently derelict, but the heap of earth in the foreground is now pleasantly verdant.

After the golf course, the housing restarts, a cluster of development connected to the conversion of Watling Street into the A2 motor trunk road in the 1920s. I’ve covered the evolution of Watling Street and the A2 from Celtic trackway and major Roman road to fast modern highway in my post on the recommended route. The remnants of various iterations are visible here as they are on that option at Singlewell. Following an older section of Wrotham Road beside the houses, you reach a left-hand bend where the street becomes Old Watling Street: the Roman alignment likely ran left-right in front of you here, more-or-less through the gate to Cyclopark on the right.

In 2009, the 1920s trunk road, already much-widened, was replaced by a wider, parallel route immediately to the south. Cyclopark, a state-of-the-art cycle sport centre with a BMX track, 6 km of off-road cycling trails and a tarmac cycle racing circuit plus associated facilities, was opened in 2012 on some of the land vacated by the road. The rest, pleasingly, has been turned into a walking and cycling trail within a landscaped green strip, part of National Cycle Network (NCN) route 177, which the trail now follows.

Tolls on Wrotham Road were collected at a gate on the northeast corner of its junction with Watling Street and the A2/A227 junction is still known as Tollgate: the adjacent pub, the Tollgate Inn, is known to have existed since the turnpike was in operation but of course there could have been an earlier pub in the site. Opposite, on the southeast corner, was a small hamlet called Northumberland Bottom which has since been obliterated by the various pieces of transport infrastructure.

The pub was demolished and rebuilt in Brewer’s Tudor style by Russell’s, then the biggest Gravesend brewery, in 1922 as part of the creation of the A2, and gradually expanded into a motel with 114 rooms. Compulsorily purchased by the Highways Agency, it closed in 2006 and was used for a while as temporary offices and accommodation by the contractor building the new road. Since then it has failed to find a buyer, and a plan to demolish it in favour of a petrol station and ‘drive-thru’ McDonalds was rejected following a local campaign, so for the time being it remains boarded up beside the cycle track.

It’s now rather hard to imagine this forlorn building standing beside a busy highway, and cars and lorries racing past where you now walk. When I wandered through here in 2009, road markings were still visible: though these have been tidied up, a stretch of crash barrier incongruously lines the cycle track. And then there’s the drone from the replacement road, dulled just a little by the embankment which hides it from view.

Crash barriers on a cycling and walking route? The old A2, now NCN177, near the Tollgate junction. 

From here there’s the option to continue along the old A2 and NCN177 for a while and pick up the recommended route via Jeskyns, but if you’re sticking to the original Countryway you’ll soon dodge over a footbridge to the right. Cheerfully decorated with outlines of wildlife, this spans not only the current A2 but the parallel High Speed 1 (HS1) railway line from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel, opened in 2003 and covered in my previous post. On the other side of this, you’re finally in the countryside, following the same old field paths described by Keith Chesterton in 1979.

Ifield Court and Nash Street

Ifield Court near Gravesend.

The fields you now cross were part of Ifield, a small parish in the Kentish hundred of Toltingtrough and lathe of Aylesford, named after the de Yfeld family who owned the manor in the 14th century. It was later the property of the de Hever family whose seat was at Hever Court in the village of Singlewell, partly in Ifield parish a little to the north and on the recommended route of the Countryway. There were various lords of the manor before John Tilden bought the estate in 1766, rebuilding the 15th century manor house into the handsome three storey brown brick Georgian mansion that soon rises ahead of you.

Still privately owned and now Grade II* listed, the house includes the remains of a flint and ragstone wall and windows from the earlier building. It looks particularly striking set among these flat fields and hedgerows, and the surrounding buildings make for an attractive group, including the distinctive cowls of oast houses built to dry hops, once an important local crop. From here, clear if muddy paths track the lines of hedgerows, some of them since grubbed up to leave broad strips between fields.

The trail passes a small woodland, the Grove: to the southwest here, beneath the trees of Cozendon Wood, is the remains of the old manorial settlement of Cossington. Originally part of Ifield manor, it was sold to the Cossington family in the late 13th or early 14th century, and by the end of the 14th century was a flourishing community. It was abandoned for unknown reasons, possibly the loss of population to disease, in the 16th century and is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Ou est les camions? Nash Street.
You emerge in the hamlet of Nash street, where a short detour ahead will reveal two listed buildings facing each other across the lane. Tudor Cottage, on the right, is timber-framed but more likely 18th century than genuine Tudor. Nash Street Farmhouse is younger, from the early 19th century. Back on the trail are more pretty cottages: a half-timbered one is simply called The Cottage. A sign on a gateway reads “Sortie des camions,” though the biggest vehicles in sight are 4x4s. Is this a deliberate Anglo-French gesture within whistling distance of HS1?


Parish boundary market, White Post Lane,
Sole Street

The trail encounters a woodland strip, and turns first alongside it, then just within the trees on a slightly sunken green lane. An old parish boundary runs here, first following our path on the south side of the woodland, Priestfield Shaw, then heading off northeast where our trail bends southeast. You’re now in Nurstead, also known as Nursted or Nutsted and listed in the Domesday survey in 1086 as Notestede.

At that point it was part of the vast lands assigned to William of Normandy’s half-brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, whom we’ve encountered many times on London underfoot. In the early 13th century its income was used to maintain the defences of Dover Castle, and it later belonged to the Lords of the Manor of Gravesend. By the end of the 19th century there were only five houses in Nurstead, and today it’s included in Meopham civil parish.

The fields to the right here were part of the park attached to the manor house, Nurstead Court, which can be glimpsed behind you to your right. Though much altered in 1825 when it was partially demolished to make way for a red brick villa which was subsequently ‘Tudorised’, it includes two bays of a 13th century timber hall with walls dressed with Caen stone, and is actually one of the most historic buildings close to today’s walk. It’s currently used as a wedding and events venue. A little further over is the small parish church, St Mildred’s, partly dating from the 14th century.

The trail climbs noticeably up the side of a hill known as Mill Hill, with the strip of woodland to the right known as Millhill Shaw. Looking at the map, it’s clear all these strips and patches of trees were once part of a bigger area of woods, and the strips were retained to frame the parkland. You may spot white nuggets among the flints on the path surface, a sign that we’re close to the chalk that underlies the geography here. You cross a narrow lane, Copt Hall Road, named for one of the five late 18th century houses, which stood a little further left along it. Then it’s alongside another field and across a paddock to reach White Post Lane on the edge of Sole Street.

Sole Street

Snowdrops in Sallows Shaw, Sole Street.
A marker on White Post Lane, installed in 2000, indicates you’ve reached the current boundary of Meopham parish. In fact you’re entering Cobham parish, which was extended in the 20th century to include all the urban development of Sole Street. The path you follow tracks the old boundary between Nurstead and Cobham, to the east (left). It runs through a pleasant patch of woodland, Sallows Shaw, and some of the occupants of the houses on the left have claimed patches of it for barbecue furniture. A sallow is a small willow tree or the twig that it produces, but more evident here in season are thick clusters of snowdrops, followed by other bulbs then rhododendrons. The houses are part of a 1970s estate, also called Sallows Shaw, but your way is now along bungalow-lined Manor Road.

I’ve said a bit more about Sole Street, formerly a small hamlet of Cobham prompted to grow by the railway, in my post on the recommended route. You’ll see a little bit more of it this way. Where Manor Road meets the main street, also called Sole Street, is a curious corrugated iron hut that provides one of the village’s few public buildings, St Mary’s Church Rooms.

It looks like something from a World War II exhibition, but in fact it’s rather older, dating from 1889 and only intended to last for 25 years. It’s a prefabricated building of a type fondly known as a ‘tin tabernacle’, mass-produced in the late 19th century to cater for rapidly growing communities lacking places of worship. Only around 80 of these buildings still stand in the British Isles, operated by a variety of denominations. This one is badly in need of restoration, but it would be a shame if it disappears completely.

Tin tabernacle: St Mary's Church Rooms, Sole Street.
On the opposite corner of Manor Road is Grade II-listed Bower Cottage, encompassing parts of a 15th century Wealden hall house and a 16th century chimney. Though it’s wooden-framed with heavy joists, externally it’s rendered in brick.

There are more buildings of interest, and a village pond, left along Sole Street: it’s worth a slight detour to admire another 15th century hall house, Yeomans House, just past the Manor Road junction on the left, which is owned by the National Trust though occupied by a private tenant and not open to the public. Further on is a late 18th century mansion, Sole Street House.

But your way is right, soon reaching the station on the Chatham Main Line and the end of this section. On reflection I still think the recommended route via Jeskyns and Cobham is more interesting and satisfying, but as ever in London underfoot, whichever way you walk, there’s much to occupy you if you look hard enough.

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