|Gravesend Town Pier and the ferry pontoon
SECOND THOUGHTS ARE ALWAYS WORTH PURSUING. In this case, they’ve yielded what I believe is a much better way of starting your journey around the London Countryway if, like me, you choose to set off from the river Thames at Gravesend. It takes advantage of opportunities which weren’t available when the route was first devised, including a linear park reclaimed from an abandoned stretch of trunk road, and the community woodland gradually taking shape on former farmland at Jeskyns, one of the most fascinating green spaces on the route. It also encompasses a classic English village with one of Charles Dickens’ favourite pubs.
For convenience I’ve repeated material about Gravesend and Sole Street from the commentary on the original route, and discussed the background to the new route and how it compares to the previous one at the end. For a general introduction to Kent, see the London Loop alternative route from Dartford Crossways to Crayford. If you'd rather keep the faith with Keith Chesterton's original, I've also described the route via Wrotham Road.
|Princess Pocahantas, Gravesend Church
Keith Chesterton, the London Countryway’s originator, is less than kind to Gravesend: having approached it by ferry from across the river he finds that it’s less attractive than it looks from afar, compared to Tilbury, its opposite number on the north bank, which is the opposite. The town isn’t helped by its rather morbid-sounding name, though the derivation is from “grove” not “grave”, and it has its points of interest as you’d expect from a place with a maritime history. Some pleasant old streets and bits of proud Victoriana such as a fine clock tower mix with shopping malls and the endlessly fascinating river.
The Thames, broad and estuarine here and with the smack of the sea, is the town’s inescapable link to London and the defining feature of its development. It’s the last major town on the straight run of the river from the capital before it becomes entangled in the complications of the Medway and the Swale, and prior to the opening of Tilbury Docks it was the first and last port of entry along the river. For centuries it was the terminal of passenger boats from the capital and its boatmen enjoyed important rights to operate this traffic. The Victorian era brought day trippers and the town became something of a resort. The City of London traditionally controlled shipping as far as Gravesend and the Port of London Authority is still headquartered here, its jurisdiction now extending as far as Margate. These days the town is even more deeply in London’s shadow, though the comings and goings are by train and car.
The Tilbury ferry, which accepts pedestrians and two-wheelers only, also enjoys a long history, considered in more detail when we finally use it to complete our circuit. It is the lowest possible crossing point of the Thames for walkers and therefore a natural destination for walking routes. The Countryway passes through and the Wealdway starts here — more of the latter later. The Saxon Shore Way also starts here, running eastwards along the shoreline as it was in Roman times, and all the way round to Hasting. This connects with the E9 European Coastal Path and if you walked downstream from the ferry terminal you could continue on signed paths for over 1000km all the way round to Minehead, Somerset. The long-held aspiration to extend the Thames Path from the edge of London to here has been superseded by the development of the England Coast Path, which should run via Gravesend and on to the Woolwich foot tunnel some time in the next few years. It’s already possible to walk upstream from here staying reasonably close to the river on existing rights of way.
Since autumn 2012 the ferry has once again arrived at the restored Gravesend Town Pier, or rather at a 45 m pontoon attached to this handsomely restored structure, the oldest surviving cast iron pier in the world. Built in 1834 on the site of the mediaeval Town Quay, in its early days, before the opening of the railway, it numbered its annual passengers in the hundreds of thousands. It eventually passed into railway ownership and then into private hands, but had fallen derelict before being rescued and restored by Gravesham Council in 2002. A restaurant and bar installed in the hope of generating an income from the structure has had mixed fortunes, but the glass corridor that ushers passengers ashore from the ferry and other visiting vessels like the paddle steamer Waverley provides a fine way to arrive at the town’s ‘heritage quarter’.
That ‘heritage’ epithet is justified. Gravesend’s market charter, one of the oldest in Britain, was granted in 1268, the same year the town elected its first mayor. A few paces downriver from the pier, through the neat but slightly bland gardens and promenade that now occupy the historic quayside, is the oldest surviving building, the Grade II*-listed Milton Chantry, dating from 1322 and once the chapel of a leper colony. It’s been a private home, a pub known as the New Tavern, a gas decontamination chamber during World War II, and is now a heritage centre run by the local history society. Nearby are the remains of Gravesend Blockhouse, built in 1543: alongside Coalhouse and Tilbury forts (visited on the last section of the Countryway) and two other nearby structures, this formed part of a complex of defences commissioned by Henry VIII. In 1780 it became part of New Tavern Fort, which incorporated the Chantry in its incarnation as a hostelry. The original blockhouse was demolished in the mid-19th century and the fort decommissioned in 1932.
A little beyond the fort is Gravesend Basin, a remnant of the Thames and Medway Canal just before it joined the Thames through a lock. Designed to cut out the lengthy journey between the two rivers around the Hoo peninsula, the canal was begun in 1800 but only finally completed in 1824 following the difficult boring of a tunnel through chalk between Higham and Strood. The canal and the North Kent Line railway shared this tunnel for a year or so from 1845, until the South Eastern Railway bought out the struggling canal company and converted the tunnel entirely to rail use, a role it still has today. The first Gravesend station, a terminus for trains to Rochester, was adjacent to the basin. The rest of the canal limped on until 1934 when it fell into disuse: the towpath is now a walking and cycling route, carrying parts of National Cycle Network Route 1 and the Saxon Shore Way, and there are plans to restore navigation too. Further downriver is Gordon Gardens, named in honour of General Charles George Gordon (1833-85), who served in Gravesend as commandant of the Thames Forts in the 1860s and helped set up schools in the town before being famously killed in action at the siege of Khartoum. An obelisk in the gardens once marked the limit of the City of London’s taxation powers, a more substantial version of the coal posts we’ll encounter elsewhere on the Countryway, although it’s been moved a little from its original location.
Gravesend’s main claim to fame, though — at least since 1995 when Disney released its romanticised and largely fabricated version of the story — is as the last resting place of Princess Pocohantas (1595-1617). From the Powhawtan Confederacy in Virginia, Pocohantas allegedly saved the life of English colonist John Smith, later meeting and marrying tobacco grower John Rolfe, who brought her to England in 1616, where she lived with him in Brentford (on another London orbital walk, the Capital Ring). Next year the Rolfes took ship from London back to Virginia, but Pocohantas became ill, perhaps of pneumonia or smallpox, just off Gravesend, where she was taken ashore and soon died. The town has been quick to capitalise on her post-Disney fame. The life size bronze statue in the churchyard of St George’s Church (a handsome building with an imposing square tower, built in 1732, over a century after her death, and it’s by no means certain she’s buried in its precincts) dates from 1958. It’s actually a replica of one at Jamestown, Virginia, sculpted by William Ordway Partridge in 1922, but to me it bears a strangely appropriate resemblance to a ship’s figurehead, looking out across the river.
|Gravesned Old Town Hall and k6 phone box
For years the Civic Centre sat on an island choked by traffic, but the relatively calm environment of the town centre has now been extended southwards, with improvements to the public space creating the contemporary but very pleasant Community Square. New Road itself is an identikit pedestrianised shopping street that leads west towards the station, originally opened in 1849 when the North Kent Line from Rochester via the former Thames and Medway Canal tunnel was extended from Gravesend Basin through the London Bridge. Since 2009 it has also been served by high speed trains to St Pancras International via the HS1 line, of which more below, and is due for further redevelopment as part of a new transport hub and, possibly, the terminus of a future eastern extension of the Crossrail 1 line.
The first section of the route is coincident with the Wealdway, which soon heads off across Community Square to Wrotham Road: we’ll tangle with this signed route several more times over the next few sections. Linking the Thames at Gravesend with the coast at Hastings via both the North and South Downs, this signed route was first proposed by local volunteers from the Ramblers in the 1970s, with the first definitive guide issued in 1981.
Windmill Hill and Kings Farm
The route soon climbs the well-loved local viewpoint of Windmill Hill, a 59 m-high promontory of Thanet sands rising from the surrounding chalk to overlook the town centre and the river. Named for the windmills that surmounted it from the 14th century, it was also used for beacons to warn of approaching invasion forces, including the Spanish Armada in 1588 – the current beacon dates from the 400-year anniversary of that date in 1988. In the early 19th century the hill became a pleasure ground for visiting Londoners, with a camera obscura, hotels, pubs and restaurants. But Gravesend’s glory days as a resort soon passed, and in 1846 most of the site was acquired by the council: it’s now a protected open space and the heart of a conservation area. The view across the river to the Essex shore is superb: unless the weather is bad, you’ll easily spot the two forts, the power station, the docks and the forlorn grandeur of the landing stage. You can look forward to a closer view of many of these landmarks in 330 km’s time, on the final section of the London Countryway. Descending, the route briefly follows Rouge Lane, which enfolds the west side of the hill and reminds us that before the windmills this was known as Rouge Hill, possibly an alternative spelling of ‘rough’, and a little further on there’s a view to the south, with the unmistakeable line of the North Downs rearing up ahead.
After Windmill Hill we’re compelled to trudge the pavements of residential streets for some time, but they’re mainly quiet and traffic-calmed with occasional glimpses of interest and unexpected attractiveness. One of these soon appears at Echo Square, a six-way junction evocatively named after a landmark pub. Now a small roundabout, it retains a 1903 horse trough, drinking fountain and lamp standard and, with its benches, plantings and generally pleasing arrangement, something of an Edwardian charm too, though the former public toilet has long been closed and sold off.
The walk through Gravesend’s suburbs turns out to be a journey through successive layers of urban development. The hill was built up from the early 19th century, and substantial Victorian villas still stand in the streets around it, now punctuated by later infill. Immediately south of Echo Square along Sun Lane, the houses are early 20th century: when the trough was first installed, one side of the lane was still open fields. Further on is the neighbourhood known as Kings Farm, which was indeed a farm until the late 1920s when it succumbed to interwar sprawl. It was expanded with social housing in the 1960s, punctuated by sports fields, neglected recreation grounds and a squat little library. But our route through all this is impressively direct, and the way it continues ahead as a footpath when Cedar Avenue peters out at a securely-fenced school shows its origins as a much older rural track.
Watling Street and HS1
|Three generations of main road at Singlewell, looking west. The new 4-lane A2 on the left, the 1970s A2, now a walking and cycling track, centre, and the 1920s trunk road and former course of Roman Watling Street right.
The footpath emerges in the neighbourhood of outer Gravesend known as Singlewell, originally a separate village on what for millennia has been one of the most important roads in Britain. The constant expansion of this transport corridor has shaped and reshaped this area, leaving behind a fascinating accretion of abandoned partialities: dead ends, marooned shops and services and, most recently, a whole new linear park.
Traditionally the road is known as Watling Street, from the Old English Wæcelinga Stræt, after the Waecla tribe who lived in the St Albans area, but the route long predates Anglo-Saxon times. It was undoubtedly in use for many centuries before the Roman invasion as a Celtic and possibly pre-Celtic trackway linking the Kent coast, with its ancient ports serving mainland Europe, and a ford of the Thames near modern Westminster. The Romans improved and paved the route in the years 47-48, and it became part of Iter II, running all the way from Hadrian’s Wall via Wroxeter near Shrewsbury and London to the port of Richborough, with branches to Dover and Lympne and, via the Channel crossing, to Rome. The road continued in use after the Romans departed: as it ran through Canterbury on its way to Dover, it became an important pilgrimage route: this is the route Geoffrey Chaucer (c1343-1400) had in mind for the fictional raconteurs of The Canterbury Tales. But with no serious maintenance since the departure of the Romans in around 410, it became a broad and muddy scar across the landscape, with several parallel tracks trodden out to avoid problems.
Britain’s road system improved for the first time in around 1,400 years from the late 17th century with the advent of the Turnpike Trusts, businesses that invested private capital in road building and improvements in return for the right to levy tolls on users. In 1711 a turnpike opened between Northfleet and Strood, the second such road in Kent, effectively diverting through traffic on the main route between Dartford and Rochester Bridge to run northwards through Gravesend town centre, today’s A226. Later, sections of historic Watling Street were turnpiked: the New Cross Turnpike Trust took on the stretch between its eponymous southeast London suburb and Dartford in 1718. But the Singlewell stretch remained a local backwater for another couple of centuries.
By the 1920s, the determinants of road design had changed as the government began to plan for a road network enabling fast journeys by car, with bypasses to prevent through traffic from snarling up in urban areas. In 1924 the original Watling Street route was improved as part of the ‘Dartford Southern bypass’, and designated A2, providing much-needed work for unemployed locals as well as new infrastructure. In the late 1960s the road was widened to the south into a three-lane carriageway of near-motorway standards: in Singlewell this bowed slightly away from the original course to accommodate a strip of roadside housing. Then in 2008 an even wider road was created, deflected even further south to help reduce the nuisance to local residents.
Evidence of all these iterations is still visible today. First you encounter a straight stretch of local road, Hever Court Road, the alignment of the Roman road, as improved in the 1920s. A little to the east is the George pub, once a roadside inn. In the 19th century it was a popular destination for country walks from the town, and an annual fair was held in an adjacent field from the 14th century to the 1870s. Next is a grassy, landscaped strip with a broad tarmac path running through it – actually the remains of the 1960s trunk road now pleasingly reclaimed as a linear park and walking and cycling path. Westwards, this path leads to the Tollgate junction where the original Countryway route crosses the A2, and the adjacent Cyclopark, a venue offering cycling and other fitness activities also on the site of the abandoned carriageway. If you look carefully you can see the way the road bows slightly away from the straight Roman alignment to avoid the housing on the south side of Hever Court Road. Historically, this side of the road was part of a separate parish, Ifield, with its centre a little to the southwest: the original Countryway runs close to the site of its manor house.
Beyond this, its massive overhead signs clearly visible and its din still very much audible, if muted slightly by the landscaping, is the current A2. Prior to 2008, all this traffic on its way to and from Dover and the mainland would have rumbled precisely where you’re now walking. To your left, two neighbouring chain hotels on Hever Court Road, a Premier Inn and a Best Western, have supplanted the function of the old coaching inn. They’re rare examples of overnight accommodation right on the Countryway itself though they’re probably not most walkers’ notion of the ideal hostelry for a country stroll.
|A Eurostar on HS1 st Singlewell
On the other side of the new road is another parallel stretch of transport infrastructure: High Speed 1 (HS1), officially, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL). Opened in 2003 as the first phase of the UK’s first high speed railway linking the Channel Tunnel portal near Folkestone with London, the line was designed to follow main roads as much as possible, to minimise its environmental impact. Services from London through the tunnel started in 1994, originally using existing third rail lines. This didn’t entirely change until the second phase of HS1 opened all the way through to the rebuilt St Pancras International in 2007. The line, which is built throughout to French ligne à grande vitesse standards, with signing and signalling to match, has a complicated ownership history: it’s now ultimately owned by the state, but leased on a long-term deal to a Canadian pensions trust, and operated by Network Rail, partly from the track maintenance depot beside the line here. Look out not only for international Eurostars but also South Eastern’s domestic high speed services operated by Japanese Hitachi trains.
|Wood sculptures at Jeskyns near Cobham:
"A townie's idea of what the countryside needs."
Jeskyns is one of six adjacent large areas of public and semi-public open space managed by councils, government agencies and charities that together stretch from the east and southeast of Gravesend almost as far as the Medway. At the centre of this near-700 ha miniature regional park is the old estate and former mediaeval deer park surrounding Cobham Hall, an Elizabethan mansion that was home to the Earls of Darnley from the 1730s to the 1950s. The hall is now an independent school and its immediate surrounds are officially accessible only along rights of way and on intermittent open days, but the rest of the estate, including a spectacular neoclassical family mausoleum, is in the hands of the National Trust. Between Jeskyns and Cobham Park is the Woodland Trust’s Ashenbank Wood, while Plantlife’s Ranscombe Farm Reserve fills the space east of the park up to the M2 motorway. To the north, on the other side of the A2, is Kent County Council’s Shorne Wood Country Park, on the site of another mediaeval manor. There’s no collective name for this cluster of sites but the various managers work in partnership, and one of the fruits of this is the Darnley Trail, a 10 km circular route for cyclists and horse riders as well as walkers that links all the sites and connects with many other paths around the area.
Even the car park at Jeskyns has been thoughtfully designed, in a doughnut shape so that the paths across it don’t force walkers to cross fields of cars. In the central reservation, as well as a pond there are several information boards, with more scattered through the site, and on the other side is a decent park café. Just behind this to the left is an experimental area designated ‘The Forest of the Future’, planted in anticipation of global warming with a mix of trees likely to be more resilient of warmer climates, including native species like small-leaved lime and hornbeam and imports like walnut and oriental spruce, regularly monitored by research scientists. Our route soon picks up one of the historic rights of way that runs diagonally across the site, but you could detour along the signed loop routes to visit the biggest water feature, Henhurst Lake, and the orchards further south on the other side of Jeskyns Road. The main route passes wildflower meadows and, on the left, a restored chalk pit – a reminder that the chalk of the North Downs is only just below the surface here, and we’ll be seeing a lot more of it over the next few walks. You’ll soon spot one the site’s most distinctive landmarks: two tall figures flanking a path, sculpted with a chainsaw from a single tree by artist Walter Bailey.
By the sculptures the Countryway crosses the Darnley Trail, and enters the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, more of which in the next section. From here you can detour along the Trail to visit Owletts (see below), or continue straight to Cobham through another new woodland area, Jeskyns Glades, where, to the north, the adjoining ancient woodland of Ashenbank Wood is being encouraged to encroach into former farmland. Approaching Battle Street on the outskirts of Cobham, the distinctive cowl of an oast house rises above the trees. We’ll be seeing lots more of these structures, originally built to dry hops, as we pass through Kent.
|Drink with Dickens: The Leather Bottle, Cobham
A stout country lad opened a door at the end of the passage, and the three friends entered a long, low-roofed room, furnished with a large number of high-backed leather-cushioned chairs, of fantastic shapes, and embellished with a great variety of old portraits and roughly-coloured prints of some antiquity. At the upper end of the room was a table, with a white cloth upon it, well covered with a roast fowl, bacon, ale and et ceteras; and at the table sat Mr Tupman, looking as unlike a man who had taken his leave of the world, as possible.
Needless to say, the Leather Bottle does its best to please heritage tourists and Dickens fans today by living up to this evocative description, though in truth it’s been considerably rebuilt since the author’s time, notably after a fire in the 1880s, and the current half-timbered look is a more recent accretion. Still, it’s an atmospheric place, with a fascinating collection of Dickensia.
Cobham’s other Victorian artistic connection is with the paranoid schizophrenic painter Richard Dadd (1817-86), who was taken here by his family to recuperate in 1843 after a delusional episode in Egypt. Dadd knifed his father to death in Cobham Park, apparently believing him to be the Devil, and fled to France, where he was arrested and returned to England. He spent the rest of his life in Bethlem and Broadmoor secure psychiatric hospitals, where he continued to draw and paint. He’s best known for his intricately detailed fantasy scenes such as The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.
On the western edge of the village and on the Darnley Trail, Owletts is a late 17th century house that was the birthplace and family home of architect Herbert Baker (1862-1946), particularly noted for his work in South Africa and for designing South Africa House in Trafalgar Square. Baker extensively remodelled the house and gardens from the 1920s, and left it to the nation on his death, complete with a collection of artefacts amassed during his career. It’s now in the care of the National Trust and open to the public on summer Sundays.
Opposite the Leather Bottle and prominently sited at the highest point in the village, St Mary Magdalene is unusually large for a parish church. The oldest substantial surviving part is the chancel, built in 1220 with an endowment from the De Cobham family, though there are remnants of an earlier building on display. It was expanded significantly around 1370, and again in 1860. It’s particularly noted for its world-renowned collection of 15 De Cobham memorial brasses, dating back to the 1400s. Removed some time in the 17th century and bundled up in an old chest, they were relaid in 1837 and restored in the 1860s
|New College of Cobham: Not that new at all.
Immediately behind the church is the village’s real hidden gem, The New College of Cobham. Despite its name, this was originally founded in 1362 as a training college for priests by John de Cobham, also a founder of the Rochester Bridge Trust which invested the tolls charged on the bridge for charitable purposes. The college was closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution in 1540, and the place lay empty until 1598 when it was converted to almshouses following a bequest of William Brooke, Lord Cobham. The buildings were substantially unaltered for over 350 years until 1956, and were sensitively modernised in 1981, though remain in use as almshouses for pensioners of local parishes, still managed by the Bridge Trust. The site is usually open to the public during daylight hours, so don’t walk past without looking through the door behind the church at the secluded courtyard, as charming as a Flemish beguinage, with a central water pump installed by the Countess of Darnley in 1824. On the other side of the quadrangle and through another door are the remains of the 14th century kitchen, its fireplace still visible.
From Cobham there’s the option of continuing on the Darnley Trail, which keeps west through Cobham Park before looping back to Jeskyns via Shorne Wood. Alternatively, by the Darnley mausoleum, a connecting path runs southeast into Ranscombe Farm towards the chalk ridge and the North Downs Way National Trail, where ambitious walkers could keep east across the Medway via the M2 bridge then either on towards Dover or upriver to Rochester.
|Path through orchards between Cobham and
Originally Sole Street was a mere outlying hamlet of Cobham. It grew substantially when the still-attractive station on the Chatham Main Line opened in 1861 and again in the 1970s when the Sallows Shaw estate was built amid willow woodland, though its population is now a relatively modest 1,400. From the late 18th century to sometime in the 1950s, Sole Street was known for its varnish factory, in a now-derelict site just west of the station. There’s also a pub, a shop, a pretty village pond known as Sweeps Hole – and an unexpected and unremarked collection of murals decorating the wooden shelter on the down (Rochester) platform of the station. These show local scenes in the style of an unusual selection of modern(ish) painters — Meopham as interpreted by John Piper, Vincent Van Gogh, L S Lowry, Wassily Kandinsky, Friedensreich Hundertwasser and Paul Klee. The pastiches are crude ones, the works are damaged by grafitti and the Hundertwasser piece is particularly garish, but they certainly have some curiosity value.
Finding a new way
I was never happy with the opening section of the London Countryway as first described in this blog, so I was delighted to discover an alternative which not only makes use of new and improved access but includes several points of interest that were originally just off the way.
In common with many outdoor writers and route developers of the day, the Countryway’s creator Keith Chesterton tended to deal with unavoidable urban areas by taking the most straightforward and direct route through them, even if that meant slogging alongside busy roads. Funnelled through Gravesend by the limited availability of river crossings, the original Countryway simply heads south down the A227 Wrotham Road, to the A2 junction at Tollcross. From here it picks up a succession of ancient but undistinguished field paths via Ifield Court to Sole Street. The same solution is adopted by the near-contemporaneous Wealdway, the original guide for which suggests the walker might consider a bus between the town centre and Tollcross – surely the walking route deviser’s ultimate admission of defeat.
The shortcomings of this route are offset in the original guide as it is only the second part of a longer section, preceded by a much more interesting riverside walk and ferry crossing. And as the original start and finish point for the whole route is Dorking, the section occurs about three quarters of the way round, with more than enough good walking behind you to make up for the occasional dull stretch. But for the very good reason of stressing the importance of the river Thames to a circuit around London, I was keen to start instead at Gravesend, in the process casting a particularly harsh spotlight on the section to Sole Street. I tried to mitigate this with my first attempt by at least finding a quieter alternative to the Wrotham Road, but wasn’t entirely happy with the result, which wiggled around a bit too much with insufficient justification, and included a stretch of path where the access situation wasn’t clear.
Since then I’ve been introduced to opportunities that simply weren’t available when Chesterton was working up his route in the late 1970s. Foremost among these is Jeskyns, which only opened as a public green space in 2007: prior to this there were some rights of way through here but the opening up of wider public access across the site and the creation of numerous new paths of excellent quality has made it much easier and more interesting to head southeast rather than south. And then there’s the tempting prospect of the new cycleway on an abandoned stretch of the A2, which was still under construction when I first researched the route in 2009. Heading this way has also enabled me to squeeze in not only the classic Gravesend viewpoint of Windmill Hill but also a visit to Cobham. This is particularly pleasing as Chesterton considered but abandoned including this picturesque and historic village with its Dickensian connections on the route back in 1979, nonetheless allocating several paragraphs to it as a ‘there and back’ diversion.
Inevitably there’s still quite a stretch of pavement walking through residential streets that don’t offer much of interest except the steady unreeling of the layers of Gravesend’s growth, but at least they’re quiet (and if you really, really must, there’s a bus this way too). Overall this new section provides a worthy introduction to this amazingly varied outer-outer-London orbital, and I have no hesitation in recommending it as the new definitive line.
Download a route description for this walk (PDF)