Strongholds that watch over the busy Thames Estuary
At Gravesend the Thames is still a recognisable river, rather than the wide estuary it becomes a few miles further downstream. Gravesend and Tilbury face each other across a few hundred yards of water, while the twin Victorian forts of Coalhouse and Shornmead recall the strategic importance of the Thames little more than a century ago. East of the Isle of Grain, the Thames is joined by the Medway – smaller in size but just as full of history.
A road through East Tilbury ends by the river at Coalhouse Fort, a massive stone stronghold built in the 1860s to guard the lower reaches of the Thames. The gunports pierced in its curved front look out on to a peaceful little riverside park. There is a good walk westwards past the power station to Tilbury Fort, with wide views of Gravesend Reach.
The road from East Tilbury to Tilbury is hardly more than a country lane – a rustic survival amid the industry of Thameside. It passes by West Tilbury, which looks out over the marshes and the river and is the probable site of the camp where Elizabeth I reviewed her troops in August 1588 before the onslaught of the Spanish Armada.
Tilbury itself is at river level. Its giant container port is largely hidden behind a high wall, with only the tops of the cranes visible from the road. The docks were opened in the 1880s, but have been greatly expanded in recent years and now handle timber, grain and general cargo. A passenger ferry runs every half-hour across the river to Gravesend.
Just downstream is Tilbury Fort, a long, low fortification built in 1682 to defend the Thames against the Dutch and French. Its brick walls are surrounded on the inland side by a moat, while on the river side it has an unusual entrance resembling a triumphal arch. It is open daily, and offers fine views across the Thames to Gravesend.
For centuries Gravesend has been a centre of activity on the Thames. As early as the 14th century Gravesend’s ferrymen had the monopoly of waterborne passenger traffic to London (the ‘Long Ferry’), and across to Tilbury (the ‘Short Ferry’) which still runs every half-hour. Gravesend is the headquarters of the Port of London Authority’s Thames Navigation Service, which is housed in a modern building with radar scanners rotating on the roof. Below it is the pretty little Royal Terrace Pier, from which the PLA’s two pilot boats put out to guide ships navigating from Gravesend to the Tilbury docks and the docks further upstream.
The best place from which to watch the busy shipping on the Thames is Gordon Promenade – a wide esplanade, with gardens behind, giving superb views of the Essex bank of the Thames. Just inland is a canal basin, full of small boats, which was once the Gravesend terminal of the Thames and Medway Canal linking the two rivers. The promenade is named after General Gordon, who as a Royal Engineers officer in the 1860s supervised the building of Coalhouse Fort and Shornmead Fort.
Gravesend’s other famous character was the Red Indian Princess Pocahontas, whose bronze statue stands in St George’s churchyard. A romantic and tragic figure, she saved the life of Captain John Smith, one of the early Virginia colonists, and married another settler, John Rolfe, who brought her back to England in 1616. The following year she died of fever as she set out on her return voyage to America, and was buried in the chancel of St George’s.
Gravesend is the northern end of the Saxon Shore Way, a long-distance walking route which follows the coast for 140 miles to Rye in Sussex.
When they were built in the 1860s, the twin forts of Shornmead and Coalhouse would have provided murderous crossfire over the river, and even in decay they are still darkly impressive. Shornmead, today more ruined than Coalhouse, can be reached on foot along the river-wall from Gravesend. Cars can approach it down a side road from the A226 just north of Shorne as far as a locked level-crossing gate, after which there is a half-mile walk to the fort across a rifle-range, closed to the public when red flags are flying.
West of Cliffe, worked-out quarries and gravel workings stretch for more than a mile to the river. As its name suggests, the village itself is on higher ground; its sturdy 13th- century church is built of alternate bands of stone and squared flints, and inside has considerable remains of medieval wall painting.
By the road is the frowning battlemented gatehouse of Cooling Castle, built in the 1380s and decorated on one of the turrets with a large copper replica of a legal document and seal. In the early 1400s the castle was owned by Sir John Oldcastle, who is supposed to have been the model for Shakespeare’s convivial knight Sir John Falstaff. Oldcastle, however, was a successful soldier, and as a follower of the church reformer John Wycliffe was tried as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1417. The castle is not open to the public.
NORTHWARD HILL NATURE RESERVE
This reserve, run by the RSPB, is hard to find; it is north of High Halstow village, and is reached from a housing estate up a path marked ‘BP Oil Kent Refinery’. The reserve has Britain’s largest heronry, with 220 pairs recorded in 1981; however, there are no herons to be seen from August to January. Other birds on the reserve include nightingales, whitethroats and blackcaps; and the rare white letter hairstreak butterfly can sometimes be seen. The ground gets very muddy after rain, so it is wise to wear thick footwear when visiting the reserve.
ISLE OF GRAIN
The name of the peninsula – almost, but not quite, separated from the mainland by the narrow Yantlet Creek – derives from the Old
English greon, meaning ‘sand’ or ‘gravel’. The village of Grain has a small esplanade giving a distant view of Essex across the Thames, and a nearer one of Sheerness across the Medway. Port Victoria Road in the village recalls the days when a jetty was built on Grain from which Queen Victoria embarked on the royal yacht.
Jutting into the muddy waters of the Medway is the wedge-shaped bastion of Upnor Castle, built early in Elizabeth I’s reign to guard the approaches to the naval dockyard at Chatham. The unobtrusive doorway to the castle is at the foot of Upper Upnor’s steep little High Street; cars should be left in the car park beyond the village at the top of the hill. The castle has been excellently restored, with a ferocious frieze of sharp wooden stakes round the battlements, and exhibits inside showing the evolution of the Medway defensive system.
This system failed dismally the only time it was put to the test. In 1667 the Dutch admiral De Ruyter attacked and burned the fortress at Sheerness; he then sailed up the Medway, defied the guns of Upnor and attacked the British fleet anchored off Chatham, burning several ships and towing off the flagship.
Lower Upnor, a little way downstream, is a small sailing centre, with fine views across the river to Chatham. Until 1974 the sail-training ship Arethusa was moored off Upnor; but she has now been superseded by the land-based Arethusa Venture Centre, which runs environmental and adventure courses for young people. A new 70 ft ketch, completed in 1982 and also named Arethusa, carries on the sail-training tradition.
Charles Dickens called Rochester ‘Dull-borough’ and ‘Cloisterham’; and made it the background for many scenes in Great Expectations and Pickwick Papers. Mr Pickwick stayed at the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel; Mr Jingle explored the castle and the cathedral; while the novelist himself spent the last 12 years of his life at Gadshill, 2 miles north-west of Rochester. A Charles Dickens Centre in Rochester, housed in a 16th-century mansion, has relics of the novelist and tableaux modelled on scenes from his books.
The story of Rochester goes back 2,000 years or more before Dickens. When the Romans came, there was already a British stronghold guarding the Medway crossing. The Romans had a camp there, and built a bridge to carry Watling Street, now the A2, across the river. The first bishop was appointed in AD 604, and soon after the Normans arrived they built the cathedral and the castle, which stand side by side overlooking the river.
The cathedral is on a small scale, but is architecturally fascinating and full of monuments, including one to Dickens, and has a magnificent Norman crypt. The spectacular castle keep, which is open daily, towers to over 100 ft, and gives magnificent views from its battlements. Among Rochester’s many other historic buildings are the 16th-century almshouses of Watt’s Charity, the 17th-century Guildhall Museum, and the Restoration House whore Charles II is said to have stayed overnight on his journey to London at the time of his restoration to the throne in 1660.
Chatham has been a naval dockyard since 1547, when Henry VIII first maintained a storehouse in ‘Jillyngham Water’. Down the centuries the great names of maritime history – Drake, Hawkins, Nelson and many others – have sailed from Chatham; and it is only with the recent closure of the dockyards that this long tradition has at last ended.
A commanding hill, known as the Great Lines, rises behind the town. The hill gets its name from the 18th-century earthworks which once defended it, and from its summit there are panoramic views of the Medway. Fort Amherst, a Napoleonic fortification on the Great Lines, is being restored. Dickens spent some years of his childhood at Chatham, where his father worked in the Navy Pay Office. Dockyard tours start from Main Gate.
A sprawling residential town, Gillingham has a small shingle beach at The Strand, and an excellent, wide stone slipway in the Dock, reached down Pier Approach Road.
Seemingly miles from anywhere, Otterham stands at the end of a little creek, where ancient wooden pilings and boat hulls decay quietly into the mud.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Allington Castie. 7 miles S of Chatham, off A20. 13th century. Afternoons daily.
Cobham Hall, 4 miles W of Rochester Elizabethan mansion. Some afternoons in summer.
Ightham Mote (NT). 15 miles SW of Gravesend. Medieval moated house. Some afternoons.
Knole (NT), near Sevenoaks, 16 miles SW of Gravesend, off A225. Medieval and Jacobean mansion. Most days in summer.
Luliingstone Roman Villa, near Eynsford, 10 miles SW of Gravesend, off A225. Daily.
Maidstone. 8 miles S of Chatham. Museum and art gallery, weekdays; Tyrwhitt-Drake Museum of Carriages, weekdays, Sun. afternoons in summer. !