Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Travel Tuesday : the Thames Path day 17 - Dartford to Gravesend

Walked June 15, 2002

Today was a relatively short -- and uninspiring -- walk from Dartford, up along the Darent to the Thames then along the river (most of the way anyway) to Gravesend.

I took the train to Dartford and found the other side of the Darent River in town. I noticed that the river was foamy, and  passed a factory ("mill") emitting a frothy green goo directly into the river.

Huge clouds of wobbling, billowing foam gathered at the outfall, and occasionally a large clump would be caught by the wind and lifted in the air a few yards downstream.

Further along I negotiated an underpass filled with a 6-inch-deep mixture of manure and mud by balancing on a narrow concrete wall. All was peaceful for a while -- concrete bunkers, remnants of WW2, now manned only by some very antsy cows, the river doubling back on itself, songbirds and rustling reeds by the river. 

Then another sound -- the whine of the motorcycle. To my surprise, a large motorcross course stretched off to my right, with dozens of riders flying over jumps, bouncing over hoop-de-dos, and wiping out on hairpin turns. I suppose a distant arsh is a good place for that sort of thing -- with the exception of the handful of caravans inhabited by people living off the grid -- no neighbors to complain about the noise. 

Motorcycles have become something of a recurring theme on my walk, as -- with the single exception of plastic soda bottles -- burnt-out motorcycles are the most prevalent item left along the path or in the shallows of the river. I had been keeping an unofficial tally of ruined bikes from the source to this point in the back of mynotebook and can report to you that I have seen 27 dead motorcycles. At one memorable point, I saw three motorcycles in varying states of decay, all in the same small stretch of river. I felt like I had stumbled across the fabled motorcycle graveyard...

But these motorcycles were very much alive, and being ridden by a wide variety of people, from a 20-something woman, her hair falling out of her helmet as she took a break and waved at me; to a young boy on a small bike, looking like a proud papa. Later I would see four young boys clad only in shorts and flip flops who zoomed up to me on 2 rattling motorcycles. I chatted with them for a few minutes; they told me they come out here every weekend to ride. They could practice on hills and on loose dirt, and it was the perfect place to learn. They seldom saw walkers, and viewed me with some interest. Walking to Gravesend? That seemed very far. They offered me a go on one of the bikes, but, mindful of my operating-room-nurse-mother's request that I never ride without a helmet, I politely declined, and the raced off along the seawall. 

I arrived back at the flood barrier (albeit on the other side of the Darent) to continue my Thames walk. 

I soon became aware of another establishment well-suited for the empty marshes: a rifle range. As I walked along the seawall  I was very happy to see that a higher, secondary earthen wall stood between me and the rifle range. The pop-pop-pop of gunfire was unnerving as I wondered which direction they were firing. I wondered how think of an earth wall it would take to stop a bullet. I wondered if I'd hear the fateful bullet come whizzing toward me. I also wondered if I, Matrix-like, would somehow be able to avoid it. (Doubtful.)

I continued down the seawall, each gunshot making me wince, though I reasoned that, whether or not they were concerned about striking the occasional walker on the footpath, there were presumably stritch laws against shooting at shipping on the river. 
A few hundred yards along and I could finally relax, and that "duck-in-a-shooting-gallery" feeling disappeared. Looking upstream on the Thames estuary:

There are plenty of pleasant sights along the estuary, though this surprisingly non-smelly sewage works was not one of them. Did I mention that the estuary is the largest nature preserve in Britain? 

I passed underneath the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, the above-ground part of the Dartford Crossing (two tunnels go under the river). Sadly, there's no pedestrian option here, though I assume there are buses. 

I was able to keep to the river most of the way, with only an occasional jog inland to go around some old factory or  shiny new ASDA.

Looking downstream near Stone Marshes (note: that's what my notes say; but I don't see that name on a map!)

I know I stepped off the path to the river bed, thinking it would be stony and solid. Nope. I nearly lost a shoe in the mud! See this sign on the disused jetty? They're not kidding! 

I walked out on the jetty; here's a view upstream toward the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. I can't tell you how much I wish this bridge had a pedestrian lane!

One inland jaunt took me down the old High Street in Greenhithe, with its two pubs and some old shops converted to housing. At the end of the High Street I came out into a small riverside garden and noticed that, for the first time, the air smelled of the sea. The salt and seaweed smell reminded me of home, where I'd be returning in just over two weeks. 

The path then led out onto the Swanscombe Marshes, lush and green and pleasant. I was getting a little antsy as, according to my map, the only footpath cut inland across the neighboring salt marshes, and I didn't want to miss a turn and end up boxed in with a chainlink fence ahead of me. I somehow managed to pick the correct path when faced with a variety of dirt roads in the marsh and found my way. Again I was amazed by the level of detail in the Ordinance Survey maps and could predict exactly where I needed to be by the power line pylons, the tiny canals, and the occasional small shed, all marked on the maps. 

Funny estuary art, at Swanscombe Marsh:

Once across the marsh, an industrial estate (including a warehouse for "Land of Leather" ... sadly a furniture company...) came between me and the river and I was forced to turn up the A226 into Rosherville. I was looking for a footpath headed back toward the river and got lucky on my first try. It led me down a narrow, rubble-lined path  opening out onto a wider paved path that ran through a large factory of sorts. Everything was coated with a thick, grey durst, and I later discovered that it was a cement plant called Blue Circle Cement works.

Past a few large buildings and the main office I saw a sculpture that looked quite a bit like a seated Frank Lloyd Wright garden sprite. It turned out to be a handsome, art deco Britannia atop a memorial to the men of Bevans -- the cement works founded by Thomas Bevan on this site -- who died in the Great War.  As the Historic England site notes, it's appropriate that a war memorial honoring the employees of a cement works is made of cement. I should also point out that amid the dust, the memorial was very clean, so was clearly being looked after. 

Thomas Bevan founded a cement works here in the late 19th century, when I walked it was the Blue Circle Cement works. Staring and aerial views in Google Maps, it seems like the cement works has been demolished, though the war memorial, being protected, is still there.

Then inland again, and around some large buildings, but then back out to the river for my first glimpse of Gravesend. I passed the old gates to the now disappeared Rosherville Pier, built in the 19th century to receive ferries from London full of visitors to the nearby Rosherville Gardens. The pier was used as a mine-spotting platform during WW2, watching for parachute mines dropped by the Germans. 

Once in Gravesend I passed the old ferry dock, once home to the much missed Gravesend-Tilbury foot and bicycle ferry. Taken out of service in 2001, there was no way for pedestrians to cross the river unless they retreated all the way to Woolwich. I'm happy to see that in 2020 the ferry is back in service.

But I had to look across the river sadly to Tilbury Fort -- surprised at how low-lying and unimpressive it looked -- and recited one of history's great political speeches to myself. 

The speech, of course, was Queen Elizabeth's famous Tilbury address, when she appeared, armoured, on horseback, in front of her troops readying themselves to defend against the invasion of the Spanish Armada. 
I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too...
establishing herself both as a warrior queen and an object of desire to her subjects. Genius.

An annual pageant is held each year on the anniversary of the Tilbury speech, complete with Gloriana Triumphant rallying the troops. 

Leaving the river to get to the town center, I passed the Princess Pocahontas Memorial in the churchyard of St. George's Gravesend. disney fans (with the exception of the 47 who saw Pocahontas II) may be surprised to learn that the Native American woman doesn't end up living happily ever after with Captain John Smith, but instead marries John Rolfe and then journeying to England where she became a celebrity and even met James I. Preparing for a return to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill and died of unknown causes in Gravesend and was buried with great ceremony in 1617. 110 years later the church burned down, but was rebuild in 1732. The statue here is actually a replica of one standing in Virginia, depicting Pocahontas in a flared, knee-length buckskin gown... surely more an expression of 1950s American views of Native Americans than anything based in fact.

I spent the day walking rather than watching the Ireland - Spain game in the World Cup. As the first game in the knockout, one team would go through to the quarter finals and the other would go home. As I walked through Swanscombe, I heard a woman say, "Oh no! They've scored!"

Without thinking I blurted out, "Ireland or Spain???" in a voice evidently loud enough for her to hear through the window. "Spain" she said, and then there was a weird silence as she probably realized that I wasn't the person she thought she'd been talking to. This weighed on me a bit for the remainder of the walk, but on the outskirts of Gravesend I heard a noisy whoop and another woman shouting, "C'mon Ireland, just one more!" 

I figured that Ireland was down 1-2 and needed another goal to draw even. A few more minutes later (when, given the time, I assumed the match was over) I walked into a pub to find that it was still underway, but but in "Golden Goal" overtime. (Isn't "Golden Goal" so much nicer than "Sudden Death"?)

Two scoreless 15-minute overtimes later and it came to the cruelest of sporting moments, the penalty shootout. 

It seems the easiest thing in the world -- one on one with the goalkeeper, banging the ball in the back of the net. The shooter has the great advantage, only rarely is a ball blocked. I had once, long ago, won a packet of cigarettes -- a handsome price I then bestowed on some surprised viewers -- at a town fair somewhere in Turkey for putting 3 penalties past a keeper. I think I got lucky on the first two -- the keeper was so amused at being faced by a woman he barely moved at my first strike. I guess he thought I had just been a fluke on my first one when I beat him with my second shot. My third -- the one for the prize -- I managed to sneak by him by somehow putting the ball in the top right corner. A true lucky shot for me. Of course, the Turkish men watching this all unfold heaped scorn on the keeper for being beaten BY A WOMAN. They also congratulated my then boyfriend for having such a useful "wife". 

I watched the torment -- in, in, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, in, in, in -- in a small pub in Gravesend, moaning and shouting with the rest of the clientele. When the game was finally over, and Spain had won on penalties 3-2, I felt drained and tired and ready to go home. 

Up next : Gravesend to Allhallows-on-Sea

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