It’s a strange coast, the North Kent coast. For a start, it’s hard to find. As the marshes fold around long creeks and sandbars offshore sometimes bloom into islands, a coastal walk often means wandering along the side of an estuary in search of a crossing, or cutting across the tip of a headland closed off as a nature reserve or an industrial site (or both). It’s an ambiguous coast, where even if you do make it out to the sight of open water, you’re looking at the meeting between the River Thames and the sea (somewhere out on the far bank of the river is Southend, where the river officially meets the sea, but the first crossing is much further inland).
Tucked along the creeks are the remnants of old industries. Some have become country parks or tourist attractions, many have been simply abandoned to sink back into the marsh, and a few, like the little old brick-making and barge-building village of Conyer, where we began our walk this summer, have sprouted marinas (there are no bricks made in Conyer now, although barges once carried their bricks up the Thames to build the railway viaduct that links London Bridge to Greenwich).
Conyer Creek winds up to the Swale, a channel which separates North Kent from the Isle of Sheppey. The Swale is neither river nor sea, but a river valley that was overwhelmed by the sea at the end of the last Ice Age. It is tidal, and gleams with mud under even the dullest sky. Here’s Conyer Creek as it meets the Swale.
Once there were ferries across the Swale to Sheppey, but the building of road and railway bridges finally saw them off. The remains of old landings and crossing points still litter the water’s edge, a constant reminder that this was once a busy coast. Here the double posts mark the line of the old crossing, while the new bridges rise up in the distance.
We wondered whether the boats abandoned here were old ferryboats, but a little investigation when we got home suggested they were WW2 relics. Rotting boats line the coast, and nobody seems quite sure where they come from or what they were. Various people told us different stories: the war, old brick or clay barges left to die, or the simplest answer of all, the one we got when we asked in the museum at Rochester, “Sometimes people just tie them up and leave them.”
It was a hard day’s walking, that first day, one of the worst coastal walks we’ve ever done (and we’ve been slowly beetling around the coast for over fifteen years now). It was July and ferociously hot, and once the sun came out there was no shade. A walk which looked short on the map became a long slog, along the side of dreary creeks and round the back of one of those monstrously huge industrial sites you sometimes find perched out on deserted shorelines, modern and stinking in the middle of the lonely marshes. We finished at the bridge over the Swale, hours after we’d intended to, exhausted and overheated.
There’s not much there: a factory a mile’s walk away, two modern bridges, one low and one soaring, and a tiny, mysteriously located station with two trains an hour in each direction. We got the train over the Swale to Sheerness on the Island of Sheppey. It’s one of those towns, like my own home town, that conceals a lot of history behind a shabby, rundown facade. We didn’t have time to go hunting for the ghosts of old Sheerness, so settled for a sitdown in a cool supermarket cafe, a cold drink or three, and a wander up onto the huge concrete seawall to peer over the water and try to spot Southend.
We returned to Swale station a few weeks later, braced for another tough walk, but were rewarded instead. It was a slightly cooler day, and the tide was in, and we saw a different face of the marshes.
We also got an unexpected treat: as we sat down for a mid-morning biscuit break, we spotted this chap sunning himself on the end of a sandbank. He was eventually scared away by the passing of a very large boat (there are still docks here, tucked into the deeper creeks, where ships load up with cargo).
The drier patches of the marshes are good grazing too.
By now, we were turning our back on the Swale. We couldn’t get any further along the coast until we crossed the River Medway at Rochester. The landscape looks no different, but now we were slowly swinging inland. We found more abandoned boats along the way.
We were now approaching the outskirts of the Medway towns, a little cluster of towns which grew up around the Navy’s dockyards on the river. They’re not affluent towns, but they are dense with history. As we drew closer, we started walking through orchards as well as marshes. Kent has a reputation for being the garden of England, and the trees were heavy with pears. We stopped for an excellent pub lunch in the village of Lower Halstow, which is a quiet little place, and has been so since Roman times. There were brickworks here once, barge making, a royal quay. In the eighteenth century ships entering the Thames were forced to wait out their quarantine in Halstow Creek, watched over patiently by two lazarettos, hospital ships created from the hulks of old forty-four gun ships.
The tiny church of St Margaret of Antioch stands at the head of the creek, and an old Thames barge is moored opposite her.
From there, it was a slow wander around a last twist of marshes, where quays and moorings are hidden by high plants and then a swing back through pear-heavy orchards to the outskirts of Rainham.