Sunday 7 May 2017

London Loop alternative: Dartford Crossways - Crayford

Welcome to the Enchanted Woodland, actually a smallpox cemetery in disguise.

Completing my proposed alternative route of the London Loop using the public bus service across the Dartford Crossing, this is a moderately short and largely urban but pleasant and interesting walk linking the bus stop at Crossways in the suburbs of Dartford with Barnes Cray, back on the official route. Along the way, you can enjoy flooded gravel pits remodelled as landscape features of business parks, a closeup view of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, and a visit to an enchanted woodland. The final stretch sticks to riversides through Dartford Marshes followed by an optional extension along the official trail to Crayford station.

There are plenty of opportunities to split the walk by bus, including the frequent FastTrack dedicated busway services linking Dartford, Bluewater and Gravesend, although these don’t accept TfL cards. And you’ll pass close to Dartford station which although outside London is now conveniently in TfL’s Zone 8.

Since the Crossways bus stop is a short walk from the south bank of the river Thames, another obvious way of completing this walk would be to use the riverside paths more-or-less throughout, upstream along the Thames to Crayford Ness then upstream along the Darent to Bob Dunn Way Bridge to meet the route described below. This is a very good walk, and a little more straightforward, but it’s 2 km longer. At some point I plan to explore the Thames Path and its actual and possible extensions in more detail in these pages, so for the time being I’ve found a more varied and surprising route inland. For more about the issues of completing the Loop in the east and why I’ve proposed this alternative as a bonus feature to the official trail, see my previous post.

Dartford, Kent

It’s appropriate that the geographical area where our circuits of London start is named after a rim or border. The word ‘Kent’ most likely derives from a Celtic term with this meaning, Latinised by Julius Caesar as Cantium. Its people, whom Caesar described as “by far the most civilised” of the Britons, were known to the Romans as the Cantiaci.

As the closest part of England to the European mainland, Kent will always be border country. But borders are rarely entirely impermeable, and the county has long been the conduit for people, cultures and ideas. Caesar himself first landed in Walmer near Deal from Boulogne in 55 BCE, and the ancestors of the Belgic and Celtic people he encountered had likely reached England via that same shoreline. The force that finally annexed most of Britain to the Roman Empire during Augustus’ reign in 43 likely landed at Richborough. Where their march northwest was interrupted by the Thames, they created a river crossing on the line of the later London Bridge, and inadvertently founded London.

Following the withdrawal of Roman rule in the 5th century, Jutes from what’s now southern Denmark migrated to East Kent and Saxons from western Germany followed them to West Kent. By 597, the year the Italian Christian priest Augustine landed at Reculver, Kent was a stable Anglo-Saxon kingdom, under Æthelberht, the first reliably attested king, some of whose laws survive as the oldest-known written English texts. Augustine completed his mission to convert the king, and became the first archbishop of Canterbury. The next and, so far, most recent successful occupation of Britain, by William of Normandy in 1066, was an exception, beginning in Sussex rather than Kent. The fact that William’s troops marched through Kent without formally demanding a surrender is the explanation for the county’s traditional motto, Invicta, meaning ‘undefeated’.

There’s still an echo of that old split between Saxons and Jutes in numerous institutional divisions between east and west Kent, and in the folk distinction between the demonyms ‘Man/maid of Kent’ for the east and ‘Kentish man/maid’ for the west, with the boundary almost but not quite following the river Medway. As these pages don’t look much beyond the immediate hinterland of Greater London, Jutes and men and maids of Kent are beyond our area of interest.

From Roman times, London itself has formed part of this rim country, the first big metropolis where the flow from the southeast eddied and often settled. So the city became the greatest borderland of all, flourishing as a multicultural, polyglot melting pot and a laboratory of new ideas. It’s long maintained a Kentish foothold, with a royal palace at Greenwich since before 1300, and a later royal dockyard at Deptford, both effectively extending the capital downstream along the Thames. When the county of London was belatedly created in 1889, it formally incorporated those parts of Kent roughly equivalent to today’s Greenwich and Lewisham boroughs. London returned for more in 1965, absorbing Bexley and Bromley.

And as everywhere, that borderline status of both London and Kent has remained problematic, its permeability both desired and resented. You’re forcibly reminded of the border if you’re unlucky enough to get caught up on the M20 approaching Folkestone during Operation Stack, the periodic clampdown on vehicle passage through the Channel Tunnel. Sadly, the current trend is hard rather than soft: in the referendum that sparked the current self-harming process of the UK leaving the European Union in June 2016, while almost 60% of Londoners voted to remain, 59% of Kent voted to leave.

Dartford takes its name from the ford on the river Darent around which the original town grew in Roman times. It’s the easternmost of three ‘Ford’ towns where the Roman highway later known as Watling Street, and highly likely its Celtic predecessor, crossed Thames tributaries. The others, from west to east, are Deptford, the ‘deep ford’ on the river Ravensbourne, and Crayford, on the river Cray – the destination of today’s walk. I’ve said more about Watling Street when discussing the London Countryway, which crosses it between Gravesend and Sole Street.

In the Roman period, Dartford could well have been an important local centre, given the attested presence of several apparently prosperous villas in the fertile Darent valley. The road later became a pilgrim route to Canterbury, as made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer, and Dartford, which could be reached from London in a day by an energetic walker, was an important stop on the way.

By the 14th century the town boasted two priories and a weekly market, and was likely one of the key rallying points for the rebels from Essex and Kent who marched on London in 1381 during the ill-fated Peasants’ Revolt. Alongside Deptford and Maidstone, it’s a claimant to the birthplace of revolt leader Wat Tyler, though there’s no proof of this. I’ll have more to say about this incident in a later post, likely on a walk visiting Blackheath, much closer to London along Watling Street.

Dartford industrialised comparatively early, thanks to a convergence of geographical factors including the river and road links to London, the abundance of good water which also provided power for mills and, like Purfleet and Thurrock across the Thames, the presence of chalk deposits close to the surface. The first paper mill in England opened here in 1588 and more soon followed. There were chalk pits in mediaeval times, and more recently pharmaceuticals figured highly among the local produce, as we’ll see. Among Dartford's more recent exports is Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, who has a local arts centre named after him.

By the mid-20th century, Dartford had effectively become a commuter suburb and continuous urban sprawl connected it to London in several places. It was one of the areas reviewed by the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London in the late 1950s for possible inclusion in an enlarged capital. But the Commission’s final report stopped short of recommending this, presumably because the town was still relatively self-contained: unlike some places outside London encountered on the Loop, it wasn’t excluded at a later stage following local protest.

In 1974, the Victorian-era Municipal Borough was enlarged with the inclusion of the rural hinterland to create the present Borough of Dartford. A more recent proposal to create a unitary authority by merging it with Gravesend was also rejected, so it remains part of the two-tier local government system of Kent. Unsurprisingly, though, the idea of Dartford becoming part of London is still regularly discussed, and local opinion appears almost equally divided on the issue.

Like many other places just outside London, Dartford is dominated by the capital without being able to enjoy the benefits of belonging to it. Local identity and viability have been placed under enormous pressure from industrial decline and retail competition from the West End and closer by. The giant Bluewater shpping mall just downriver, is widely blamed for turning the once-flourishing town centre into a denuded parade of closed shutters, charity and pound shops. But today’s walk avoids the historic centre in favour of its post-industrial hinterland, so we’ll need to wait for a later post to test this judgement.


Former chalk pits at Crossways are now lakes enjoyed by local workers.

Observant walkers who have crossed the Dartford Crossing from the previous section will notice that the surroundings on both sides of the Thames here are telling essentially the same story. Both are the recently redeveloped sites of former chalk quarries.

Once across the river, the bus from Chafford Hundred stops at the Galleon Boulevard stop in the Crossways Business Park, right by a Campanile hotel set behind an attractive pond complete with a fountain. This area was once part of Stone, then the next parish downstream along the Thames from Dartford, and was known as Stone Marshes. As on the other side, the marshes were successfully drained in mediaeval times to create quality farmland. Then chalk was found in the late 1860s, and over the next few decades, fuelled by the demand for cement from the London building industry, no less than four quarries appeared, with associated cement works and other facilities, all linked by a private tramway. By the 1930s they had all been incorporated into one giant undertaking, the Dartford Portland Cement Works.

These works fell into progressive disuse after the war and were finally demolished in the 1970s, leaving a blasted landscape of pits and slag heaps. Regeneration began in 1988, with a big distribution depot for supermarket Asda soon opening on the riverside, and the former cement wharf next door becoming a freight shipping terminal. The 120-ha Crossways Business Park now houses over 50 businesses employing 5,000 people. Rather like Stockley Park on section 11 of the Loop, it just missed the change in planners’ thinking towards more mixed-use development, so it’s one of those places that feels oddly compartmentalised and lonely, although there are two hotels and a scattering of residential properties.

This may seem an unpromising environment to walk in but turns out to be more pleasant than expected, helped enormously by a network of off-road paths and numerous water features remodelled from chalk pits, like that Campanile pond. Soon, you’re walking beside another, rather larger example known as Cotton Lake. Until the late 19th century there was a farm here, Cotton Farm, later overwhelmed by the pit which forms the basis of today’s lake. North of the lake, an 1870s map shows watercress beds steadily being encroached by chalk workings.

Our route leads straight across the Littlebrook Interchange connecting Dartford and Crossways with the M25 and the Dartford Crossing. This was first opened as part of the initial construction of Crossways in 1988 and substantially enlarged in 1996. The main interest here is the view from the flyover end-on to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and down to the tunnel approaches. Try to imagine the scene in the 19th century when this was Littlebrook Farm: the only survivor from this era other than the name is the fragmented strip of woodland that surrounds the A282 to the southwest. There’s a lot more about the Dartford Crossing and the bridge in my previous post.

View from the Littlebrook Interchange: tunnel beneath, bridge below.

Joyce Green and Temple Hill

Repurposed fence posts in the Enchanted Woodland
The residential streets west of the interchange were built on farmland as social housing between 1951 and 1960 in response to the post-war housing crisis, and still comprise Dartford’s largest area of deprivation. The neighbourhood is known as Temple Hill, recalling the fact that this was once Temples Manor, gifted by Henry II to the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Temple Farm stood in the northwest corner until it was demolished to make way for housing during the original development.

The trail runs through another fragmentary strip of woodland surviving from Littlebrook Farm, before following streets named rather pompously after poets and authors: Wordsworth Way, Wodehouse Road, Chaucer Way. Another familiar name around here is Joyce Green, not after the experimental Irish novelist but another farm to the northwest, which still survives, unlike the hospital which borrowed the farm’s name in the 20th century.

Following the advance of epidemiology in the late 19th century, but before the perfection of effective vaccines and antibiotics, highly infectious diseases like smallpox, which spread rapidly in densely populated urban areas, were contained by isolating those already infected. In a grim echo of the prison hulks from the Napoleonic period, in 1881 two former Royal Navy wooden warships were pressed into service as offshore hospitals. At first, they were moored off Deptford but in 1883 were moved to Long Reach off Dartford where they were joined by a third vessel, a former cross-Channel paddle steamer.

But conditions on board were far from ideal for the purpose, and in 1901 the Metropolitan Asylums Board began work on a land-based isolation hospital at Joyce Green Farm, a little inland from the ships. Work had barely started when a new smallpox epidemic hit London, so two further hospitals were built originally on a temporary basis a little closer to the river, known as Long Reach and Orchard hospitals.

Joyce Green hospital opened with 940 beds in 1903, though the outbreak of the previous year turned out to be last major smallpox epidemic in London, so in 1910 the hospital was repurposed to handle fever cases. It remained largely empty for periods in the 1920s and 1930s before becoming a military hospital during World War II, at one point reserved for the Free Dutch Forces based in Britain. Later it was a general hospital, becoming part of the NHS in 1948. It finally closed in 2000, superseded by Darent Valley Hospital near Bluewater.

The site is currently undergoing redevelopment as a housing estate and science park known as the Bridge. The curious layout of the original hospital, so distinctive on contemporary maps with its 22 separate ward buildings arranged symmetrically in an echelon formation and originally connected by a horse-drawn tramway, has been completely obliterated by demolition.

One curious corner of the hospital does survive, though in a rather different form. In the early 20th century there was no effective treatment for smallpox and the mortality rate was high, so a corner of the grounds to the southeast was consecrated as a cemetery. The site was last used for burials in 1951, and gradually became overgrown. By the 1960s it was surrounded by new houses, and it became known locally as an informal open space, especially after 1993 when it was severed from the hospital site by the construction of the new A206 road. But it also suffered major problems with litter and fly tipping.

Following the closure of the hospital, a local campaign pushed for the creation of a community woodland on the cemetery site. It was bought from the Department of Health for £1 in 2009 and reopened under the management of charity the Temple Hill Trust as the Enchanted Woodland, remarkably the only substantial area of public woodland in Dartford. With little funding available, the restoration and maintenance of the site, including the removal of over 20 t of illegally dumped rubbish in 2013, has largely been a volunteer-supported project. Since 2016 it’s been managed by a local school, the Temple Hill Primary Academy, and students have embarked on a new programme of planting using saplings nurtured in the surrounding house gardens.

Visiting the woodland requires a horseshoe-shaped deflection of the route but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s worthwhile. It’s a dappled patchwork of mature trees planted when the hospital was first developed, ivy-carpeted secondary woodland, more recent saplings and patches of grass. In spring, it’s noted for violets, likely descended from some that were once planted on a grave. Dotted throughout are more recent and often quirky decorations, like hand-carved signs, and an old fence line turned into a decorative feature, lending a distinctive and intimate feel.

Only one headstone remains, commemorating a nurse, Ethel Chapman, who died in 1922. This, and the overgrown yew trees, are among the few on-site clues to the site’s origins. So it’s astonishing to learn that 1,039 bodies are buried here, of which 802 are from a single year, victims of the last great London smallpox epidemic in 1902. According to the official history compiled by the Trust, at the peak of the epidemic a new communal grave was dug each day, and filled with up to 14 corpses in sacks stuffed with straw and charcoal to absorb the bodily fluids. Most graves were marked with a simple numbered metal spear, none of which still stand, though some are preserved by the Trust. There are two military burials from World War I but, unusually for war graves, even these are unmarked. After 1936, there were no more burials until the final five in 1951.

The walk then threads through grassy strips that formed part of the original estate design, and suddenly you find yourself atop a modest cliff. A wide view opens north towards the Queen Elizabeth II bridge and the Thames, with the low hills of Essex visible on the other side. The cliff appears on mid-19th century maps and is likely a relic of chalk diggings, although from an earlier period than the large scale works of the 1870s and after. Today, a flight of steps leads down it to a children’s playground nestling in its shadow, known as the Joyce Green Lane Recreation Ground.

Clifftop view north over Joyce Green Lane Recreation Ground and the marshes.

A gate from the playground leads onto Joyce Green Lane itself, once an old farm track from Temple Hill into the marshes, and later the route travelled by hospital patients from the station. Then another grass patch, Wellcome Avenue Open Space, bridges the transition to an area of rather different character. The clue is in the name, for Wellcome Avenue commemorates one of Dartford’s most significant industries.

Industrial Dartford

This birch on the corner of  the former Wellcome North Site
overhangs the route of a cement works tramway.
The marshy area to the north of Dartford town centre, with the tidal river Darent close at hand for water, power and transport, has been an industrial zone since at least the 16th century. Back then, a tidal-powered steel slitting mill stood on the riverside near the northern end of the High Street. Over the centuries this grew into the biggest milling complex on the river, known as the Phoenix Mill and used at various times for timber, cotton, flour, mustard, linseed oil and paper. This last commodity is something of a local speciality, produced in the area since at least 1588 until early in the 21st century.

In 1889, the mills were sold to pioneering pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co, founded by two US-born pharmacists, Silas Burroughs and Henry Wellcome. This originated in Wandsworth, on another Thames tributary we’ll be visiting on later walks, in 1880 but soon outgrew its original site. If you break your walk at Dartford Station, you’ll be able to see the mill pond, remodelled by Burroughs Wellcome into a decorative lake with artificial islands, providing a suitably attractive frontage for what was intended to be a model factory. The station opened when the South East Railway extended its North Kent Line west from Gravesend towards London in 1849, improving the connectivity of the mill site still further.

Burroughs Wellcome played a lead role in establishing the pill as a form of medication, and is further noted for the emphasis it placed on research: among other things it made major advances in the production of antihistamines, insulin and, more recently, the antiviral drugs used to manage HIV infection. Its philanthropically-inclined co-founder wanted the profits spent on improving human health, and after his death in 1936, his legacy was used to set up the Wellcome Trust, still a major funder of medical research, as well as the owner of one of London’s most fascinating museums at its Euston Road headquarters. But the original company has subsequently been absorbed through mergers, and is now part of the world’s sixth largest pharma multinational, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

At first Wellcome occupied only part of the mill complex, with some of it leased to a flour miller, but in the early years of the 20th century the drug company expanded to fill the rest, and then beyond. Immediately to the north, and to your left as you begin to walk south along Central Road, was one of the late 19th century cement works, connected to a wharf on the Darent by a tramway which crossed your path through what are currently the locked gates on the right a few steps further south: an interpretation board marks the spot. Another tramway ran north-south along Central Road to the mills. The cement plant was disused by World War I when it housed German prisoners of war before being occupied by Wellcome.

The area on the right (west) side of Central Road, known as the North Site, was farmland attached to Temple Farm until as late as the 1980s, when it too became an extension of the Wellcome plant. This use proved relatively short-lived: GSK closed the entire plant in 2011, laying off 650 staff – equal to half the 1,300 who had worked at the site in its peak years. Unsurprisingly given its proximity to the station, the whole lot is being redeveloped as housing. At the time of writing, building has only just started on the North Site, but 400 homes on the older site opposite are nearing completion. Pleasingly, the new neighbourhood will be known as the Phoenix Quarter, reviving the old name of the mill.

The land between the North Site and a former paper mill close to the station is occupied by a later 20th century development of light industrial units: not especially attractive or distinguished, but providing a straightforward walk along the obviously named Riverside Way to the Darent and the more open surroundings of the final stage of the walk.

Dartford Marshes and the Darent

Boardwalk alongside the river Darent by Riverside Way Industrial Estate, looking upstream at low tide.

The river which gives Dartford its name rises from the Greensand ridge at Crockhamhill Common, south of Westerham, close to Kent’s western boundary with Surrey and only a few hundred metres from the route of the London Countryway through Kent Hatch. The Darent skims the northwestern edge of Sevenoaks and runs through Otford, Shoreham, Eynsford and Dartford to join the Thames on the marshes at Crayford Ness, a distance of 34 km. It’s a chalk stream, one of several encountered on these walks, and the exceptional purity of its water is one of the reasons its valley is associated with the paper and pharmaceutical industries.

A 31-km signed walking trail, the Darent Valley Path, traces the river’s course. Although this runs entirely outside London, it’s entirely within the London Countryway and therefore within the scope of this project, so I’ll discuss the river in more detail alongside the trail when I get around to it. This route follows a short section of the northernmost part of Darent Valley Path between Riverside Way and Bob Dunn Way Bridge.

The Darent is tidal below Mill Pond Road near Dartford station, where there’s a now-derelict lock that gave access to Phoenix Mills. As is the custom with Thames tributaries in the London area, the tidal section is known as a creek, Dartford Creek. Quite large boats could once sail this far at high tide, and a right of navigation still exists, although silting has made boating difficult. The recently formed Dartford and Crayford Creek Restoration Trust is currently working to remedy this.

From Riverside Way a decent riverside path, augmented by a newish stretch of boardwalk, leads downstream into the marshes, soon leaving the industry behind. With Crayford and Erith Marshes (section 1 of the Loop) further up the Thames and Rainham Marshes (section 24) on the Essex side, Dartford Marshes forms the largest surviving remnant of an environment that once stretched much further upriver, and is now a designated Site of Nature Conservation Interest. Managed and drained since mediaeval times, the marshes were traditionally used for grazing, though also for activities that require isolation, such as explosive storage and testing and, as previously discussed, the treatment of infectious diseases. We’re far enough down the estuary here that the section closest to the Thames is salt marsh, though we won’t get that far today.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the marshes are a unique environment in the London area, both in terms of their wildlife value and their special and rather curious sense of remoteness. Yet they are undervalued and underappreciated. Fragmented ownership, split between ten different landowners on the Dartford side including the council and private interests, makes coherent management difficult, and paths and access points are limited. For the confident walker, this can provide a surprising sense of escape – sometimes you seem to have the whole marsh to yourself – but it provides insufficient surveillance to deter the likes of fly tippers and illegal off-road motorcyclists and partly explains the local reputation for antisocial behaviour. Don’t let this put you off – you’re unlikely to be troubled and can enjoy the space and the bird life on the muddy creek.

When I first walked these paths in the very early 1990s, there were no crossings of the Darent below Mill Pond Road, so the only possible riverside route north from there was all the way to the confluence and downstream along the Thames towards Gravesend. But in 1993 they opened the new A206 bypass, the road which severed the hospital site, originally known as University Way, but later renamed when the planned university failed to appear as Bob Dunn Way. Dunn, who died in 2003, was the Conservative MP for Dartford throughout the Thatcher and Major years, from 1979 until the ascent of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997.

This fast and busy road crosses the Darent just south of the mouth of the Cray, and pedestrian access from the riverside to the bridge has thankfully been provided, so although the traffic is something of an intrusion, there’s at least the opportunity to nip across the river.

Looking towards Dartford Salt Marshes from just north of the Bob Dunn Way Bridge.

From here you follow the river wall around the triangle of marsh between the Darent and its lowest tributary the Cray, soon turning to walk upstream along the latter as you’ll continue to do for the rest of this section. This stretch of river is also tidal and therefore known as Crayford Creek. It forms the boundary between Kent and Greater London here and the official route of the London Loop from Erith lies within hailing distance, along the corresponding path on the other side. Nearing the industrial buildings of Barnes Cray, you cross a footbridge over a minor tributary, the Stanham River, or rather a straightened arm of it that was once served the industries in Crayford like the Vickers works.

Crossing the footbridge, you leave Kent and enter the London Borough of Bexley, but there’s still a good path following the river as it bends past the waste reception centre and under the 1849 brick rail viaduct that also provides a distinctive feature on the official Loop route nearby. On the opposite bank, a bicycle is hoisted improbably on a tall pole above a ramshackle collection of huts and old containers: perhaps a trophy captured by the locals on nearby National Cycle Network Route 1 and displayed here pour encourager les autres. The Cray’s appearance changes dramatically here: you can see how it’s been straightened, widened and culverted, with boat docks and a turning bay. This work was largely carried out in 1840 to improve access to the mills on the site.

Did the locals seize this bike from a hapless cyclist on NCN1? River Cray, Branes Cray.

And so our walk reaches Thames Road at Barnes Cray where it finally meets the official London Loop as well as the more local Cray Riverway trail. There are buses from here, but I’d recommend continuing at least a little further into Crayford, enjoying the river’s further change of character into a more rustic and verdant stream, as well as the satisfaction of having actually completed a circuit around London, even if a short part of it had to be by bus.

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