It’s been a whole month since my last local walk, (not counting walks involving the portage home of comestibles) and it really was time to get out again. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve lived in this area for 16 years, and never done any exploring of the walking that is to be had along the river – not until last month that is. So I’m on a mission to rectify that oversight.
Today’s plan was to head downriver for the first of a series of walks that will ultimately take me to the sea. I’ve planned the whole series and they’re all really easy to do as they all start and end at stations. Even less excuse for not doing them then.
I leapt off the train at Tilbury Town, quite happy to get off due to a large group of rowdy schoolkids, and started walking east to get out of the built up area, crossing the railway and arriving at the riverside. And here 4 of the 5 main sights that would define today’s walk were visible. So let’s do them in order.
First, the London International Cruise Terminal. You didn’t know London had a cruise port did you ? Hey, some of you may not even know that London is a port, as it’s not as obvious as places like Southampton or Liverpool which are properly coastal. But it is a proper port bringing in the raw materials of what heavy industry remains in this country, as well as handling passenger traffic. Actually, it used to be the largest port in the world, and is still the UK’s second biggest – which I had to look up, and which also told me a surprising result for the one that beats it, making it feel a bit like a round on Pointless*. Anyway, the port stretches all the way downriver to Tilbury. The Cruise terminal itself is housed in the former Tilbury Riverside station, which I vaguely recall visiting on a school trip in about 1988. A whole school trip to a station I hear you say ?! Well, it was part of our sixth form general studies curriculum – a module on local history – and seeing as school was in Gravesend just across the river, an afternoon looking at the station and a ride on the ferry probably makes more sense now, doesn’t it?
Not only that, but Tilbury has its very own cruise line – Cruise & Maritime (CMV). You’ve probably never heard of it, but their most well-known ship is the Marco Polo, a stalwart of the cruise industry, built in 1965 for the Russians, but most recently known for a norovirus incident in 2009 that laid low most of the passengers and wrecked the cruise. That’s not put me off sailing in her, though. Indeed, as a smaller cruise ship, the Marco Polo, as the name suggests, gets to go to some pretty intrepid places. Fancy a cruise to the Amazon anyone ? Yes you really can cruise the Amazon from Tilbury. It takes one to two months (depending on route), mind.
Right next to the cruise terminal is the ferry terminal, which consists of a jetty and nothing else. The Tilbury ferry whisks the good folk of Essex across to Gravesend, my proper home town. Gravesend doesn’t look much from across the river, being a fairly bland vista of houses and square commerical properties. All the interest in the view is provided by religious buildings. St George’s church dead ahead and a couple of hundred yards from the ferry’s landing point is best known as the burial site of Princess Pocohontas (of Disney movie fame), although actually no one is 100% sure where she was buried.
Just along to the left two giant white domes poke up from the mundanity of the view. Completed in 2010, the Guru Nank Darbar Gurdwara is one of the largest Sikh temples in the UK, and indeed one of the largest outside India. It’s a stunning building up close, but even the sight of just the domes gives a clue that it’s going to be spectacular.
But enough about the other side of the river, it was time to focus on this side. A short hop along the sea wall, brought me to the World’s End pub, which I first encountered on a misty November morning when it poked mysteriously through the gloom on the shuttle bus ride from the ferry to the station. At that time it really did seem like the last hostelry before you fell off the edge of the earth. But today, in clearer, albeit still quite grey, conditions it was anything but and was indeed the gateway to today’s uncharted territory.
If you look closely in the above picture you can see a stretch of water in the background, and a short way along the sea wall brought me to Tilbury Fort. What you can see in the picture is one of its moats. Here’s a better idea.
Zigging and zagging, these moats show the unusual design of the fort, designed to be a pentagon with angular bastions, moats and defensive slopes. The main motivation for this was the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667, where they attacked and burned pretty much at their leisure. Improvements to the tudor forts were deemed necessary, and of course we called in a Dutchman to do it! Subsequently modernised several times, by which time we were pretty much masters of the seas anyway, and the fort’s sole military honours consist of a single zeppelin shot down in the first world war.
A short distance past the fort, I came to the feature which dominates the skyline of the whole of today’s walk – Tilbury Power Station.
None of your nuclear, wind, wave etc power, this was good old fashioned fossil fuels. Originally built to burn coal, and also able to run on oil, old tyres or anything that will take a flame (including it seems the fabric of the power station itself as it’s tried to burn itself down a couple of times), it’s currently re-commissioning as a biomass-only plant, and will when fully operational be the largest biomass power plant in the world.
None of this stops it, however, from being a bit too industrial for a countryside stroll, and so I didn’t pay it much attention, and continued on my way along the sea wall. And having dawdled a bit I picked up the pace and nearly missed this:
Today’s grafitti offering was much lower key than the walk upriver last month, but I still didn’t expect to see it on a bit of innocuous sea wall by a power station. Good Queen Bess delivered this speech (the weak and feeble one, not “Hello Bendy”) in Tilbury when attempting to motivate the troops ready to fight off the Spanish Armada, which by that point was already dead in the water courtesy of Lady Luck. But nevertheless, it gave her a chance to dress up like a man for an afternoon, wear some armour, and deliver her most famous line.
Onwards, and the sights got bleaker. Washed out greys across the river meant I could only just make out Shornemead Fort, built during the Napoleonic Wars but found to be fatally flawed because of being built on marshy ground. Which several rebuilding attempts couldn’t solve, consigning it to target practice for the Royal Engineers, which was rather more successful.
Now I was onto landscape more reminiscent of the marshes which give the area its name, but the actual path underfoot was still pretty good. Remnants of wrecks and abandoned structures were dotted about, adding to the general sense of bleakness.
Coalhouse Fort appeared ahead. Originally an artillery battery, it was expanded in Victorian times into a proper fort, but today is a museum of WW1 and WW2 memorabilia. It’s also the scene of quite a lot of strange paranormal activity, apparently.
Up ahead JCBs moved on the skyline, shunting earth from one area of bleakness to the other, and soon I reached a fence. The path disappeared into undergrowth on the seaward side of the sea wall, leaving me with a dilemma. Whilst it looked walkable, there was no sign of a path and there was no way of knowing whether I would not reach a dead end a mile or two further along. Much of this land is used for landfill or as part of the Thames Gateway development. I decided not to risk what could be an irritating about turn and followed the fence inland, which after all was the route I’d planned. The path, squeezed between the high wire fence and brambly undergrowth got muddier and muddier until it was just one 4 inch deep muddy puddle stretching from one side to the other. Attempts to gingerly walk around the edge failed, and I found myself walking straight through the muck, having had nice dry feet for the entire walk so far.
The path brought me out in East Tilbury and I followed lanes and paths to Stanford-Le-Hope, a rather dull end to the walk, but mitigated slightly by the last bit through Stanford nature Reserve, where I stopped briefly at the board listing an impressive array of species.
Stepping carefully so as to avoid the writhing mass of adders that the board warned me of, I left the nature reserve, and headed along the street to the station and the ride home.
Next time, I resume in Stanford Le Hope, and we get to explore yet more marshes.
*The UK’s largest port is apparently Grimsby and Immingham, which I suspect would have got you a decent low score on Pointless.