Grain to Cliffe - April 20th 2022
I travelled down to Strood the day before my walk and checked into the Premier Inn. I was given a top floor room overlooking the Medway and the 3 spectacular Medway Viaducts that carry the M2 and HS1trains over the river (I get excited over things like this!). The weather forecast for the next day was for perfect walking weather, with lots of sunshine, so I went to bed very happy.
The next morning, I woke to a beautiful day as I’d been promised. I filled my belly with the ‘eat as much as you like’ full English breakfast. What could be better than this? I caught the 170 bus into the centre of Strood. As there were to be no shops or pubs between Allhallows & Cliffe, I bought an M&S sandwich for lunch and a large bottle of water to fill my water bottles for the day. The 191 bus turned up on time and 50 minutes later at 10:00 we reached Grain.
Before starting my walk proper, I wanted to see Grain Tower Battery which is in the mouth of the Medway. I followed some signs and in no time I was staring at it, all alone in the mud flats. It was built in the 1850s amid fears of a French invasion that never came. It was used briefly in WWI and WWII and was decommissioned in 1956. It is now a listed building. A causeway from land is visible and walkable at low tide but even though it was visible at the time of my walk, I chose not to attempt to walk across it. Looking beyond the tower and to the right I could see a container ship docked across the other side of the Medway at Sheerness. Looking directly ahead I could see nothing but water because I was staring at the North Sea. To my left I could see land in the far distance; this was Southend-On-Sea and Shoeburyness on the opposite side of the Thames Estuary about 6 miles away. Thinking back to the official source of the river in Trewsbury Mead – dry for most of the year - it was mind-boggling to think how a tiny trickle of water ends up more than 200 miles later as this awe-inspiring body of water. Even the river at the Thames Barrier which up to now I’d looked upon as being pretty wide at about 600 yards, seemed rather insignificant! I was so glad I’d chosen to do this walk and see this for myself.
Turning left away from the Medway, after about 0.7 miles I reached Isle of Grain Beach where a sign directed me away from the river. You are turned away because a little further on the path is blocked, first by about 600 metres of listed WWII anti-tank concrete blocks and then by a fence warning of an MOD firing range (more later). I've searched for a precise definition of where the Thames Estuary transitions into the North Sea but there seem to be a number of them. In terms of the south bank in Kent, I couldn't be any further east, so I would definitely say that I was where the Thames meets the sea. My walk along the entire length of the River Thames was now underway!
The new, blue "Thames Path England Coast Path" signs directed me through the village of Grain, before sending me down West Lane towards the river. The imposing storage tanks of the National Grid’s Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminal dominated the scenery. Grain LNG terminal is the largest importation terminal in Europe and eighth largest in the world in terms of tank capacity. Tankers delivering LNG unload at 2 jetties in the mouth of the Medway. Continuing down West Lane I came to signs warning I was entering MOD property. All the marshland to the east of Yantlet Creek to Grain was requisitioned by the MOD in the 1920s for testing large weapons that fired long-range shells in a north-easterly direction across the estuary into shallow mudflats of the Maplin Sands; hence the fence on the beach at Grain. Testing ended in the 1950s and the site was subsequently used as a demolition site (whatever that is exactly!). It all looked pretty deserted to me now but come what may, I’m guessing there is a chance of unexploded shells still being present on the site. Anyway, I chose not to investigate and instead, dutifully followed the ECP signs.
It didn’t take long before I saw my second ship of the day – the Cap San Lorenzo, a container ship heading upstream to DP World London Gateway Port, opposite Cliffe on the north bank of the river. In fact, over all 3 of my ECP walks, I saw quite a few large ships of all types, reflecting the importance to trade of this end of the Thames. The path continued across wide open marshland before reaching Yantlet Creek. Whilst much of this ECP extension to Woolwich uses existing walking trails, this short section from the end of West Lane to Yantlet Creek is a newly designated walking route with shiny new gates and signs. The path now closely followed the left bank of the creek down to the river -yay! What an amazing sight at the mouth of the creek! Once again I was gob-smacked at just how wide the river was. At one time Yantlet Creek linked the Thames and the Medway, therefore making the Isle of Grain a true island. However, it silted up completely at the point where the ECP meets it and it now drains the Isle of Grain and Allhallows Marshes.
On reaching the river I noticed a monument poking out from the mud at the mouth of the creek. This is known as The London Stone, although it is just one of a number of so-called London Stones that traditionally marked the limits of water rights jurisdiction of the City of London. Continuing alongside the river it was impossible not to notice the Allhallows Holiday Park looming ever larger – it’s huge! The ECP passed between the holiday park and the river.
Having passed Allhallows, I would now walk the 12 miles to Cliffe on the remotest section of path along the entire length of the Thames. The only way to get to civilisation and public transport would be to continue to the end, turn back or turn inland for at least 3 miles to High Halstow. The path more or less followed by the side of the seawall with a landscape of marshland and saltings. My only company was a few cows and sheep. As I reached Cliffe Marshes, more or less level with the London Gateway Port on the north bank, I came to a flock of sheep and new lambs grazing on the marsh. What caught my attention however, were the identical, roofless and abandoned industrial buildings that had been built in a regular pattern on the land they were grazing on. Good old Google provided the answer as ever; this was the site of a former gunpowder and explosives factory built in the 1890s and closed in 1921. The fact that the buildings looked as good as they did is testament to how well they had been constructed more than 120 years ago - but then they had to be in case of accidents!
As the river completed its first large bend, the path had to take a left to be able to navigate around Cliffe Creek. At the end of Cliffe Creek I could have continued towards Cliffe Fort and Gravesend but that would have to wait for tomorrow. Instead, I followed signs towards Cliffe village that took me past RSPB Cliffe Pools Nature Reserve. I was hoping to see more wildfowl than I did but I am guessing my timing was wrong and more importantly I was way too impatient as I had a bus to catch!! The walk into Cliffe from the end of Cliffe Creek was about 1½ miles, so all in all this really was quite a long walk - probably about 19 miles.
Walking through Cliffe I passed a man walking his dog – the first person I’d passed since leaving Grain that morning! I headed for The Six Bells as this was where I had to catch my bus back to Strood. It was 5:25, so plenty of time to sit outside in the warm sunshine drinking my pint and more importantly, eating my piece of cake before the bus left at 5:55. This had been a very good walk, the highlight being taking in the scale of the river at this end of it. I'd be carrying these thoughts in my mind all the way to the source.
Would I like to do this walk again? I don't really think so.