In complete contrast to my previous walk through the blues and browns of the muddy North Downs, Saturday found us back in North Kent. We paused our coastal walk at Gravesend back at the end of August, having reached the first inland crossing of the Thames, the Gravesend to Tilbury ferry. For any other river, that would have been our cue to pick up the path back towards the sea, but we decided to make a special exception for the Thames, with all its history and significance. We will be walking the south bank of the Thames as far as central London, and then resuming our coastal walk from Tilbury.
This particular stretch of the Thames is very industrial, and will remain so for the next few ‘coastal’ walks we do. For the most part, we have left the lonely stretch of the marshes behind us, and Saturday’s walk was more grey than anything else. We were expecting it to be bleak, but were pleasantly surprised by the little scraps of history that kept emerging from the massed warehouses and wastelands.
We began here in the centre of Gravesend, where a memorial stone to Pocohontas, who died here long before the modern town was born, stands forlornly in the church yard.
Down by the river bank, we looked north across the water to Tilbury Docks. All day, we watched container ships slide glumly along the river, carrying their vast stacks of cargo.
Here are the run down remnants of the west end of Gravesend, an area once called Rosherville. Built in the hollow of an old chalk pit in the 1830s by one Jeremiah Rosher, this was intended to be a high class attraction for the best type of visitor; the Rosherville Gardens hosted entertainments and such features as a lake, a maze, a view tower and a bear pit. Rosher also built a hotel and several elegant villas. He never managed to attract the high paying customers he wanted, but the Gardens became a popular tourist attraction. Long before the railways opened up the beaches further east in Kent, steamboats plied their way down the Thames from central London to deposit thousands of visitors in the Gardens. Sometimes 30000 visitors a day landed at the wooden pier on the bank of the Thames.
The pier is long gone, though a jetty remains, and the ghosts of the gardens by the river’s edge are buried below piles of gravel. In the early evening of September 3rd 1878, this riverside would have been crowded with smartly dressed Londoners pushing to get back on board the steamer to London Bridge: hundreds of them had paid two shillings a ticket for the round trip–a good deal for the time. The ship they boarded was called Princess Alice. With between 700-800 people on board, she was massively overcrowded and undercrewed, but it was a warm September day and no one cared. She was almost back to Woolwich pier when she approached the Newcastle bound collier, Bywell Castle. The steamer captain, following common practice among Thames watermen, turned the Princess Alice port across the path of the collier to seek out the slack water where it would be easier to move against the tide. The collier captain, assuming that the steamer was following the standard procedures for open sea which would have meant passing to starboard, realised too late that she was turning. He reversed his engines, but it was too late and and all 900 tons of the Bywell Castle drove into the overcrowded and much smaller excursion boat, cutting her in half. The Princess Alice broke and sank below the collier’s bows and although the sailors aboard the collier desperately tried to rescue the passengers, it was to little avail. Over 650 people drowned in the sewage filled river. The Princess Alice disaster is the worst loss of life in any Thames shipping disaster (the Thames Police Museum has a very detailed account of the disaster).
These days the chalk pit is filled with industrial units, although the tower of the Catholic church above the quarry can be seen here. You can also glimpse the quarry walls. Also notable because an officious little man came out and told us off for taking photographs, thus massively exceeding his legal authority (there are very few restrictions on amateur photography in the UK and they all apply to military institutions not Lidl distribution centres).
Climbing slowly out of the old chalk pit, we glimpsed the river again across this patch of wasteland. There used to be a cement factory here, using the chalk from the pits, but only the scars remain.
On the edge of Northfleet, we came across this sad looking patch of water. This was once Northfleet Harbour. Now trapped behind a flood defence which cuts it off from the river (which is right there–see the passing ship!), it has been left to rot. A local group had covered the fence beside this landing slope with posters campaigning for the harbour to be opened to the river again. It can’t get any worse, so I say good luck to them.
And this is where old routemaster buses go–not to die but to be hired out for weddings 🙂
Finally, we reached our only patch of open ground in this walk. This is Swanscombe Marshes, where a very new nature reserve has been tucked against the side of the factories and a rough trail leads across to Greenhithe.
And this is the approach to Greenhithe, showing the great QE2 bridge at Dartford, the first bridge across the river. We finished our walk at Greenhithe, just before the rain came down and, just because we could, got the bus under the Thames through the Dartford tunnel and then back over it again over the bridge: this bus, incidentally, connects two modern descendants of the Rotherville Gardens: the Bluewater and Lakeside shopping centres, both built in old chalk pits and drawing improbable numbers of visitors to spend their money.