Tag Archives: Saxon Shore Way

Saxon Shore Way- Camber Castle

Trail talk: The Saxon Shore Way- Dover to Hastings

This blessed plot

A lunch time halt on the hills above Folkestone- ‘This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

Shakespeare, Richard II Act 2 Scene 1

My final four days on the Saxon Shore Way beckoned. These offered possibly the most enjoyable walking of the whole trail. For my section from Dover to Sandling, I arrived at Dover Priory station early and despite the heavy rain and slippery grass on the slopes, I was up on the Western Heights, overlooking Dover, before seven. The rain clouds cleared and I looked forward to a walk along the chalk meadows above the cliffs. Before that I had to wend my way through various paths and peculiar routings, the route went up, down and most definitely around.

Looking down toward Dover Priory railway station from the Western Heights. The rain clouds are clearing and I only have sodden grass and muddy paths to content with

Looking down toward Dover Priory railway station from the Western Heights. The rain clouds are clearing and I only have sodden grass and muddy paths to content with

The 18th century Western Heights deserve a day to explore. Access to these will improve over the years to come and a lot of money will need to be spent to do this. The Western Heights Preservation Society is doing impressive work to the site though no public access to the Drop Redoubt at all is being permitted in this coronavirus year but a wander round the exterior is fascinating. The fort certainly warrants attention as these extensive defenses are impressive. Building work began prior to the Napoleonic Wars and occupancy by the military continued right through to 1961. Much is very well preserved.

The impressive Drop Redoubt of the napoleonic Western Heights. Photographed by Three Points of the Compass when completing the North Downs Way in July 2015

Part of the impressive Drop Redoubt of the Napoleonic Western Heights is passed by the Saxon Shore Way on the cliffs above Dover. Photographed by Three Points of the Compass when completing the North Downs Way in July 2015

Pre-dating this fort by far, the Saxon Shore Way also passes the clear remains of a 12th century Knights Templar church with its curious circular nave, the shape being an imitation of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The remains were only found when military engineers were strengthening the Western Heights in the early 19th century. The Knights Templar were formed in Jerusalem in 1118 to protect pilgrims visiting the Holy Land after the First Crusade.

Church of the Knights Templar, Dover

Knights Templar church, Dover, dating from soon after 1128 when the order reached England

World War II lok outs are dotted all the way along the cliffs south west of Dover, though m ost are now overlooking the far newer Samphire Hoe Country Park, built from spoil dug from the Channel Tunnel

Military look-outs from World War II are dotted all the way along the cliffs south west of Dover, though most are now overlooking the far newer Samphire Hoe Country Park, constructed from spoil dug from the Channel Tunnel

Orchid

Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis

The grasslands along this stretch are rich in chalkland specialist plants and invertebrates, though few insects were around I was battling my way through countless raindrop sprinkled cobwebs. Bees that had got caught out in the rain were buzzing in small pools in the grass, battling to shake off the rain before crashing off through a forest of grass stalks.

Concrete look-out posts left over from the last great world conflict abound along here. Some have toppled over the cliff edge or hang on precariously, others are barred with no access, some are very obvious favourite halts for those wanting to drink cans of cheap lager or have a crap. Two I wandered into were being used to store feed for the many horses grazing the landward slopes.

Walking the cliffs out of Dover and heading toward Folkestone

Walking the cliffs out of Dover and heading toward Folkestone

Concrete parabolic sound mirror

Concrete parabolic sound mirror

Beside one of the national cycle network ‘mileposts’ there is a rare survivor pointing out to sea- one of the ‘listening ears’, a large concrete dish, or mirror, that was used to focus and concentrate the sound waves from approaching enemy aircraft minutes before the sharpest of hearing could do so. More experimental than crucial, the building of post-WWI sound mirrors was cancelled due to the developing radar system.

National Cycle Netwrok milepost

National Cycle Network 2 milepost

I saw four of the iron millennium cycle network mileposts on this section out of Dover, all were of the ‘fossil’ design and each had its special code disc, not that I am collecting these.

Sponsored by The Royal Bank of Scotland (now NatWest Group), there were originally around 1000 of these mileposts when first erected twenty years ago but few, if anyone, seem to know how many have survived today and what condition they are in. Even the list kept by Sustrans appears to be incomplete.

Statue of seated RAF pilot at Battle of Britian Memorial

Statue of RAF pilot at Battle of Britain Memorial

From there it is enjoyable walking all the way along Abbots Cliff to The Warren, a country park at Capel-le-Ferne. Here I took a little time out at the Battle of Britain Memorial with its memorial wall listing almost 3,000 fighter aircrew who flew in the Battle. I get the fullsize replica Supermarine Spitfire MkI and Hawker Hurricane sited to one side, but I thought the large stainless steel sculpture of a Junkers JU87B Stuka crashing into the ground behind them of somewhat dubious taste. No-one else appeared to be around and the doors of the visitor centre were locked, so that meant the upstairs cafe overlooking the outside memorial was also not going to profer the hoped for mug of tea. A shame as I have been here a number of times and it is an interesting place. On my last visit I sat in swirling mist on the veranda and couldn’t see more than fifty feet, other times you can easily see France, just as one of ‘the few’ might have gazed over the water. Fittingly, there is an evocative statue of a seated RAF pilot looking out to sea.

Resting Dragonfly

Resting female Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator), aggressive, and the largest of the hawker dragonflies

Resting Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io). A commonly seen insect on the wing, but with wings closed, these can mimic a dried and withered leaf while hibernating

Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io). A commonly seen and brightly coloured insect on the wing, with wings closed, these can mimic a dried and withered leaf while hibernating

The trail then diverts a little inland to skirt coastal Folkestone. It is a cleverly laid route that keeps mostly to the best on offer, frequently with good views. And if not good, then interesting- the rattling huge trains with their artics and containers loaded in skeletonised carriages frequently passing below prior to disappearing beneath the Channel. Both railway and the noisy A20 tunnel deep beneath Round Hill and the remains of the ring and bailey castle atop Caesar’s Camp. I wandered the earth ramparts at the top, enjoying this stretch of the walk immensly. Later, a well placed bench with engraved Shakespearean quote provided a more than adequate lunch halt. The distinctive transmission mast on Tolsford Hill near Etchinghill is then the skyline target for much of the short remainder of the day. The last time I passed this mast was seven years ago, then with my teenage daughter when the two of us walked the 22 mile Elham Valley Way over two days as part of her ‘training’ for her Duke of Edinburgh expedition. We did it as a winter walk, camped in a pub garden overnight, it snowed and was bitterly cold. The two of us had a great and memorable time. This time I was walking in the opposite direction and the Saxon Shore Way loses the modest height it has gained as it drops down off Tolsford Hill.

Annoyingly, there was yet another of those pathside residences us hikers occasionally have to contend with- two snarling dogs came to the open gate, making short, threatening bluff charges until I was past, then venturing out to follow on my heels, snapping at me when I looked away. No-one around and I wasn’t going to try and find an owner. Instead I showed a fine turn of pace to get away from them, keeping my Leki pole ready. After crossing the M20 it is a sharp right turn off the route and a short walk to Sandling station, arriving mid-afternoon after a walk of slightly less than fifteen miles.

Miss Three Points of the Way climbing Tolsford Hill when completing the Elham Valley Way in 2013. The Saxon Shore Way decends this hill toward Sandling

Miss Three Points of the Compass climbing Tolsford Hill when backpacking the Elham Valley Way in the winter of 2012/3. The Saxon Shore Way decends this hill toward Sandling

A return to the trail the following day sees good weather forecast, perfect for a walk through the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. To begin with there are attractive and cool, if brief, stretches of mostly deciduous woodland, interspersed with cereal crops. These little woods with their birdsong would have been a lovely place to halt for my brief and meagre breakfast however I was intent on a ‘halt with a view’ at the Shepway Cross, or more accurately, the Cinque Ports War Memorial.

Woodlands approaching Pedlinge

Woodlands approaching Pedlinge

Crossing a field of barley and I was alerted to a low head peeking above the crop to my left. A small and rebellious group of sheep had escaped from their field a mile up the road, wandered down the lane and then broken through the hedge and were happily munching down on fresh greens in the neighbouring farmers field, I left them to it.

Embarrased looking sheep pretend they are not playing truant

Embarrassed looking sheep pretend they are not playing truant

The Shepway Cross

The Shepway Cross

The Shepway Cross makes for a lovely halt. It is now a listed monument and walking round to the back of the low wall encircling it gives opportunity to view all sides and provides a more than adequate rest point at which to consume a breakfast bar and rehydrate, the temperature was beginning to build and I was already sweating.

“where Grisnez winks at Dungeness

Across the ruffled strip of salt”

George Meredith

From my halt I could see across the flattened Romney Marsh to the distant lighthouse at Dungeness standing on its prehistoric strips of shingle. That stands only some twenty miles from its cousin on Cape Grisnez in France. The marsh was originally mostly under water and much of my remaining walk today would follow the old coastline (hence ‘Saxon Shore Way’). A glance at the map reveals the contour lines stretching south west along the marsh periphery. My route would hug the hills before dropping down the slopes to the Rother Levels, where the River Rother and Royal Military Canal cut across it. Two days of walking would take me to the inland port of Rye at the far side of this strange little reclaimed island.

The view from my breakfast halt revealed much of the days walk before me. Additionally, beyond Romney Marsh and the sea, can be seen the squat blocks of the nuclear power stations on the Dungeness headland

The view from my breakfast halt revealed much of the days walk before me. Additionally, beyond Romney Marsh and the sea, can be seen the lighthouse and squat blocks of the nuclear power stations on the Dungeness headland

The paths are old rights of way around here and no doubt they have proved meddlesome to recent land owners who have had to contend with people, quite rightly, snaking their way past their properties and businesses. Lympne now boasts a nondescript industrial park built on top of what used to one of the most important airfields in the country. In 1919 it was one of the first four customs appointed aerodromes in the country, In the thirties it was the starting point for numerous long distance record flights by the likes of Amy Johnson, her husband (to be) Jim Mollison, and Jean Batten. The World’s first air car ferry briefly operated from here to Le Touquet. Years later, during the Second World War, there was a plot to kidnap Adolf Hitler, once captured he was to be bought to Lympne. The list goes on, and on, but the airport stopped operating in 1984 and nothing remains today.

12th century St Stephens Church, Lympne

12th century St Stephens Church, Lympne

“keep along the bank, then turn down the hill, go past the giraffes, keep on to the canal, then turn right by the camels”

A little past Lympne is Lympne Castle, this is privately owned and used for weddings and such like so no general access. I was more interested in seeing the lovely 11th to 14th century St Stephens church adjacent. With its well situated bench overlooking Romney Marsh it would have made a far better halt than my previous one. It was here that one of the older residents pottered round with his dog and amiably spent a few minutes (socially distanced) chatting to me. Proud of ‘his’ church and ‘his’ view I remain a little unsure if he was just parochial or actually a local dignitary. It was Jim who delivered what must be my oddest set of directions.

View over Romney Marsh from behind St. Stephens Church, Lympne

View over Romney Marsh from behind St. Stephens Church, Lympne

For a while the Way hugs the edge of the high ground but having reached the first of the fenced enclosures of Port Lympne Wildlife Park (a zoo to anyone else) you pass the zebras and then drop down left, down muddy, slippery paths, snaking between enclosures holding bison (or is it buffalo) and impressive looking big-antlered gazelles of some type. Giraffes I can identify, so it was past them to the banks of the Royal Military Canal. Masticating camels peered at me from the fields on my right as I began the easy low level walking along the canal. This is a popular route for cyclists so to avoid them I moved up on to the adjacent snaking thin little track beside the canal, tripping over tree roots and catching my furled umbrella on overhanging trees, but I was away from dinging, splashing, bloody annoying, cycles being ridden with little thought of pedestrians.

How many UK walks offer views of giraffes striding the hillsides?

How many UK walks offer views of giraffes striding the hillsides?

Easy walking beside the Royal Military Canal

Easy walking beside the Royal Military Canal

Eventually the Saxon Shore Way emerged from the trees and it became a hot and sweaty walk. I left cycles behind me and had the trail to myself, no-one was around. I paused for a good while trying to get a photograph of Turtle Doves above. I haven’t seen one for a decade or so, but failed miserably to catch an image as they kept flying as I got near enough.

There were a lot of cows around and one some five hundred metres away decided I was of great interest and started, literally, to gallop toward me. I have never seen a cow move at that speed. Nervously I hopped over a fence and it slowed to a simple trot as it neared. It lost interest, I hopped back over the wire, carried on, and immediately attracted the attention of a large bull that decided to take a closer look. I am not normally bothered by bovine presence but these looked to be too inquisitive.

Curious bull- probably, possibly, nothing to be concerned about

Curious bull- probably, possibly, maybe, nothing to be concerned about

Studying the map, I climbed a fence and escaped the herd by taking an early path back up the contours to soon join the awkward constantly changing route inland that eventually emerges at Hamstreet. If there is one fault with the Saxon Shore Way it is this part. The trail here is a right mixed bag and it requires constant attention to remain on the right path. I think it would be better staying with the Royal Military Canal as I am not even convinced it is following any historic route by striking inland. As it was, the trail passes close to the railway station, a mile north of the canal and that was the end of another day with a further thirteen miles completed.

Leaving Warehorne the Saxon Shore Way follows ancient paths through the Low Weald

Leaving Warehorne the Saxon Shore Way follows ancient paths through the Low Weald

My next day on trail had me arriving at Hamstreet station with grey skies though I hoped these would clear later. It was comfortably cool walking and it is a treat to follow the very obviously old routes across the fields that join one isolated community with another, paths lead from church to church. The Woolpack Inn at Warehorne looked a treat, I vainly hoped for the usual mug of tea and a bacon buttie but nope. I shall return…

Church of St. Mary, Kenardington

Church of St. Mary, Kenardington

Window on south wall of St Marys reveals 'ghost tracery' of the original and much larger window

Window on south wall of St Marys reveals ‘ghost tracery’ of the original and much larger window

Leaving Warehorne I struck across fields, crossing the Horsemarsh sewer en route, sounds horrible, it is simply a ditch. The Grade II* listed parish church of St. Mary, Kenardington overlooks Romney Marsh and was, remarkably, open. I wandered in and explored the medieval church. This used to be a much larger church but has a chequered history. Built on the site of a Saxon fort, the church was severely damaged by a French raiding party in the 15th century and it was almost ruined after being struck by lightning in 1559. It was then rebuilt, greatly reduced in size and windows were partly or fully filled in.

In 2013, to open up its use to both the local community and those walking the Saxon Shore Way, a new-build ‘pentice’ was added that links with the previously isolated tower at the west end. The work is sympathetic and new glass has also been installed, marking the life of St Mary. I do hope that it occasionally fills with people as it all seemed very lonely and quiet when I visited.

Gusbourne vineyards

Gusbourne vineyards- established 2004. The Saxon Shore Way passes through the centre of these

The gently sloping south facing slopes in this part of the country have been farmed for a thousand years. I do wonder if the Romans had attemped a little grape growing when they were occupying the land here. Today, the Gusbourne estate extends over more than two hundred acres of vineyard and the Saxon Shore Way marches straight through the middle of them- Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes produce award winning wines. The estate is immaculate. Frosts can occur here though and frost fans are used in the lower fields to protect the buds in April.

Then it was back to crossing cereal crops. A rustle to my left and a familiar head showed above the grain, followed by another, and another. What is it with these renegade sheep? Another bunch that had decided that the grass was, indeed, greener in the next field and had formed an escape committee.

If anyone asks, you haven't seen us

If anyone asks, you haven’t seen us

One of the older square shaped oast houses, now converted to a residential dwelling. The corners of these oasts developed cold spots and circular oasts replaced them

Oast house at Stone in Oxney, now converted to a residential dwelling. The corners of these older square oasts developed cold spots and circular oasts proved more efficient

This is a Public Footpath, Right of Way and the Saxon Shore Way- deliberately (allegedly) obscured and unofficially re-routed to keep walkers off the fields edges and on a road instead

This is a Public Footpath, Right of Way and the Saxon Shore Way- deliberately (allegedly) obscured and unofficially re-routed to keep walkers off the field edges and on a road instead. No-one has walked this way in weeks, until me

The remainder of my walking today was mostly uneventful. At Appledore the path does a short loop round to Stone in Oxney before dropping, yet again, down to the lower levels- billiard table flat it appears. It was approaching the Military Canal here that I encountered the only piece of obvious trail route tampering. Way marker posts had been ripped up and slung into the nearby ditches. The absence of one very necessary sign led me the wrong way for a while, taking me along the farm road, the route the farmer obviously preferred, but then I backtracked and walked the correct public Right of Way at the field and ditch edge to rejoin the canal beside the accompanying ‘Military Road’. I did wonder if there had been a diversion of the official route but it was at the far end that I found signs pushed over and uprooted. Once off that particular farmer’s land and onto the Highways England maintained verge there was a good well appointed sign indicating the way I had just come- peeved. Who the hell will halt and instruct these damned people who decide that established routes no longer apply just because they don’t like it?

Dropping down from the higher ground, again, toward the lower marshes

Dropping down from the higher ground, again, toward the lower marshes

Signage beside the Royal Military Canal

The waterside path then leads the walker all the way to Rye where the Saxon Shore Way used to end before being extended to Hastings. The path itself is mostly unremarkable and follows scrappy field edges until branching through a small (seemingly) residential caravan and boat mooring, but the canal is pleasant. Most noticeable is the long line of low cliffs off the right shoulder. These very obviously mark where the original and ancient Saxon shoreline used to be.

More recently, disaster could still occur. On 18 November 1808 a terrific storm at sea was battering Hythe, further back up the coast toward Folkestone. The sea broke through the coastal defences and the sluice linking the canal with the sea at Seabrook was breached. A surge of water flooded much of the Romney and Walland Marshes. If the lock-keeper at Iden hadn’t opened the gates in time the flood would have broken the lock gates and extended much further, causing huge loss of life, as it was he diverted the surge into the River Rother and the unoccupied Rother Levels were flooded instead. The canal linking with the River Rother, with the sea to its other edge, means that the Romney Marshes are effectively a low lying island. Much of it was back under water following this flood.

Royal Military Canal at Boonshill. The low cliffs to the north west show the original land edge that butted up against the Rother Levels, once under water

Royal Military Canal near the Iden lock. The low cliffs to the north west show the original Saxon land edge that abuts the Rother Levels

The canal joins the River Rother and becomes tidal but the path at its edge is still easy going. I began to see the odd dogwalker, which felt a little strange as I had barely seen anyone on the actual trail for the last few days. With low water the muddy edges were exposed and sheep from the grazing marshes were wandering the tideline, picking off seaweed, spike grass and samphire. Their meat must taste fantastic. The saltmarsh found here is a rare habitat in Sussex. When I reached Rye the town was busy. Lots of traffic, lots of people. Yet again the chip shop was closed so I never hung around as I had a couple of changes to make on my rail journey home. I was now in East Sussex having left Kent. Another thirteen miles done and my final day on trail tomorrow.

Approaching Rye beside the tidal River Rother. The higher ground on the north side is still very obvious

Approaching Rye beside the tidal River Rother. The higher ground on the north side is still very obvious

Back in Rye the following day it was already hot and sunny. A cloudless sky and a very exposed first half-day followed by just a little shady shelter in the afternoon. Exiting the station it is only a few hundred metres and the trail is already back into the country. I took time out to try and find Martello Tower No. 30 that is shown on the map. It was built there to protect the sluices of nearby Brede and Tillingham rivers. The tower is hidden away on private properties and I had to dodge the traffic to stand on a scrappy verge trying to see it.

Martello Tower No. 30- hidden away in Rye

Martello Tower No. 30- hidden away behind private properties in Rye

There were 47 Martello Towers built along the East Sussex coast, 46 between Rye and Eastbourne and another at Seaford. These were a chain of gun towers built between 1805-1812 to defend the south eastern coast of England from invasion by Napoleonic forces, an invasion that never came. The British were so impressed by the resistance put up by the fortified tower at Mortella Point in Corsica in 1793 that its design was copied. Tower No. 30 was also one of only two that was built with a Cunette, a narrow moat in the middle of a dry ditch. I could see none of that from my precarious vantage point. Time to walk on to a much more accessible object of antiquity- Camber Castle.

Camber Castle

Camber Castle

Camber Castle. Image edited from that on Wikipedia

‘Tudor Rose’ Camber Castle. Image edited from that on Wikipedia

The low grazing marsh was all to myself this morning, no one else could be seen for miles and the squat Camber Castle, sitting on the slightest of rises, is a dramatic feature on the distant landscape. Enough so that Turner visited to sketch it between 1805 and 1807.

It is not really a castle, more a fort. The medieval forts signified the end of castle building for national defence and the move to defences that recognised the increased range and power of cannon. Henry VIII had twenty forts built to protect the south coast and construction was complete by 1540.

Exiting sewer and worn and weathered sandstone walls of exterior walls of Camber Castle

Exiting drainage channel through worn and weathered exterior sandstone walls of Camber Castle

Because of their shape they are known as ‘Tudor Rose’ forts. I had already passed others in this line of defence- Deal, Walmer and Sandown amongst them. By 1626 the sea had receded so far, today almost a mile away, that the harbour was out of range of its cannon and Charles I gave permission for the now useless castle to be demolished. For some reason it remained standing and eleven years later the military finally abandoned it. Today it is maintained by English Heritage and access to the interior is limited to only a few days a year. I peered through the locked wire gate before walking the exterior and returning to my path. It is then only a further mile and a half before rejoining the Royal Military Canal that had been my occasional companion over the past days. Exiting Winchelsea, this is an exquisite walk. First tree fringed, with reed and Greater Reedmace along the waters edge. Occasional gaps in the vegetation led to the water, each gap filled with a silent occupant surrounded by the paraphernalia of a modern day angler- green tent, chair, multiple rods with a miriad of tackle, and cooler bags filled with cans of lager. Before exiting the tree shaded section I paused to enjoy a melted Mint Chocolate and Nut Kind Bar (the very best of snack bars) and hydrate while watching a pair of buzzards with their noisy fledged youngsters quarter the far bank and the trees on the slopes beyond. Obviously good for raptors around here, a mile further on a Merlin flashed past me chasing a sandpiper.

Leaving Winchelsea behind, it is beautiful walking along the tranquil Royal Military Canal across the Pett Levels all the way to the coast at Cliff End

Leaving Winchelsea behind, it is beautiful walking along the tranquil Royal Military Canal across the Pett Levels all the way to the coast at Cliff End

Built as a defence against a possible invasion of England during the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Military Canal stretches 28 miles from Seabrook near Folkestone to where I was now headed- Cliff End, a little short of Hastings. Construction began 1804 and was completed 1809 having employed some 1500 navvies and troops. The canal is staggered, a kink being included every 500 yards (460 metres) to permit artillery fire along that length. A military road was built along much of the inland side and removable wooden bridges employed to cross the canal. Beside being a physical barrier to invading forces, the canal was also used for quickly transporting soldiers, stores and equipment across the levels. It is a lovely walk in its own right and there is a dedicated trail that does this. The canal may not have seen much in the way of military action but did later aid the authorities in attempting to control smuggling. It was more profitable to export untaxed wool from the heavily fleeced flocks grazing on Romney Marsh than to import contraband French lace or Flemish brandy.

Approaching Ecclesbourne Glen with Hastings beyond

Approaching Ecclesbourne Glen with Hastings beyond

Cliff End, where the canal ends, is well named, for this is where the only slight sting in the tail for the Saxon Shore Way begins. The end of the days walk involves some rollercoasting along the cliff paths to Hastings, taking in Hastings Country Park, Warren Glen, Fairlight Glen and Ecclesbourne Glen, some of the climbs and drops are steep, some paths diverted due to rock fall and I found one dip, having dropped all the way to the stream crossing at the bottom, entirely blocked to passage due to ‘deterioration in the path’, necessitating a climb back out and another route round. Some sections are thick with growth and impassable other than via the established paths but grazing Belted Galloways and Exmoor Ponies are slowly crashing through and opening the slopes up.

Reaching East Cliff it is a gentle walk down the slopes to the edge of Hastings Old Town. The East Cliff funicular railway isn’t working these days so it is a steep descent by steps down into the town, suddenly emerging to a throng of people out enjoying the lovely coastal town, ice creams and, wait for it… freshly fried chips from numerous open chippies.

Part reward for completing the Saxon Shore Way- socially distanced fish and chips at Hastings

Part reward for completing the Saxon Shore Way- socially distanced chips at Hastings

Descending on the West Cliff Funicular railway, the second carriage is ascending

Descending on the West Cliff Funicular railway, the second carriage is ascending

Entrance to the 1891 built West Cliff Railway, Hastings

Entrance to the lower station of the 1891 built West Cliff Railway, Hastings

I had one more treat before walking to the railway station and making my way home. The West Cliff funicular is tucked away off the main drag, but it was open. Despite the new railings installed to control visitor numbers, I was the only one travelling up and down the 19th century cliff railway. Building work began in 1889 and was completed 1891. It travels up through a brick lined tunnel rather than up the outer surface of the cliff. Originally powered by gas, it has been electric since 1971. A short and smooth ride up and down, I enjoyed it more than I perhaps should.

Having placated my inner schoolboy, it was a short walk from there to the railway station after walking a little over 13 miles on the final section of the Saxon Shore Way. The trail is 163 miles long and with a little extra walking to and from railway stations I had covered 176 miles over 11 day sections.

Is the trail worth following? Absolutely. Some days are better than others, but that is the nature of any longer trail. Every day offers up something of historic interest, every day offers at least modest views, every day is different. For those in the South East corner of England who may wish to shy away from hills, or wish to indulge in what is mostly low level walking, or like Three Points of the Compass, have been struggling to regain a little trail fitness, it is ideal.

Saxon Shore Way

Saxon Shore Way

The Saxon Shore Way:

  • Section 1: Gravesend station to Strood station
    • 21.12 miles, 1304 feet ascent
  • Section 2: Strood station to Rainham station
    • 11.25 miles, 785 feet ascent
  • Section 3: Rainham station to Sittingbourne station
    • 17.2 miles, 764 feet ascent
  • Section 4: Sittingbourne station to Faversham station
    • 14.73 miles, 470 feet ascent
  • Section 5: Faversham station to Herne Bay station
    • 21.93 miles, 580 feet ascent
  • Section 6: Herne Bay station to Sandwich station
    • 19.26 miles, 733 feet ascent
  • Section 7: Sandwich station to Dover Priory station
    • 16.83 miles, 2686 feet ascent
  • Section 8: Dover Priory station to Sandling station
    • 14.77 miles, 2540 feet ascent
  • Section 9: Sandling station to Hamstreet station
    • 13.19 miles, 1310 feet ascent
  • Section 10: Hamstreet station to Rye station
    • 12.85 miles, 693 feet ascent
  • Section 11: Rye station to Hastings station
    • 13.15 miles, 2331 feet ascent
Reculver Towers

Trail talk: The Saxon Shore Way- Sittingbourne to Dover

Sandwich Rope Walk, 1915

Sandwich Rope Walk, 1915

Oyster Bay House, Faversham. A three-storey nineteenth century granry store built beside Faversham Creek. A contemporary 'spritsail' barge moored alongside

Oyster Bay House, Faversham. A three-storey nineteenth century granary store built beside Faversham Creek. A contemporary ‘sprit sail’ barge was moored alongside

A second week on the Saxon Shore Way comprised of four days of walking between Sittingbourne and Dover. The trail follows the north Kent shoreline before branching off inland along the old dividing line between mainland and what was once a separate island- the Isle of Thanet, then reaches the coast a little beyond Sandwich and its famous golfing links, finally following the coast round to Dover. These are four easy walking sections each with a very different character. Actually it was only three days of walking as I had already completed the Sittingbourne to Faversham part earlier in the year and that blog was published on the Cicerone website. I was looking forward to the three days that would take me to Dover.

Continuing from where I had finished the first three sections, the fourth section on the Saxon Shore Way reaches along the coast from Sittingbourne to Faversham. Earlier in the year, prior to lockdown really clamping down, we had been permitted one form of exercise a day and I took the opportunity to isolate myself from others on that lonely stretch of shoreline. I had been considering early retirement from work and this day walking alone provided an ideal opportunity for solitary thought and decision making.

Favourite is the last surviving oyster yawl in Whistable. Built in 1890, her working life ended when shot at by a German fighter in 1944. She now sits in a garden besdie the Saxon Shore Way

‘Favourite’ is the last surviving oyster yawl in Whistable. Built in 1890, her working life ended when shot at by a German fighter in 1944. She now sits in a garden beside the Saxon Shore Way

The Saxon Shore Way from Faversham starts with the pleasant and easy walk out and round Faversham Creek, past silent boatyards and out on to the sea wall on Nagden and Graveney Marshes. Harty, on the Isle of Sheppey is just a mile away, across the tidal Swale, that lonely and hard to reach place was the birthplace of British aviation. The water was low and a lot of mud was exposed. A couple of seals bobbed around out in the channel, no doubt looking for flat fish in the increasing current. Waders were in abundance but distant. Bright white Little Egrets paced the waters edge and I began to see, and hear, a handful of Little Terns as I approached Seasalter. In this Covid year the caravan park there was still closed when I walked past but the site owners were taking the opportunity of applying a lick of paint to spruce the place up. A brief wave, they went about their work and I went on with my walk. I was approaching Whitstable and I had hopes of fish and chips for lunch.

The town was heaving. The weather was fantastic and thousands of people, confined to quarters for too long and starved of stimuli, had descended on the place. Social distancing was an impossibility, the paths were full and I had to walk in the road, car mirrors brushing me as they threaded their way through rammed streets. I passed through the town, famous for oysters and other seafood, without halting. Looked like my simple cheese sarnie in my pack was going to suffice.

Approaching Herne Bay the Saxon Shore Way begins to pass brightly painted beach huts, now selling for tens of thousands of pounds each

Approaching Herne Bay the Saxon Shore Way begins to pass brightly painted beach huts, now selling for tens of thousands of pounds each

Yellow Horned Sea Poppy

Yellow Horned Sea Poppy (Glaucium flavum) abounds

From Whitstable it is a wide and flat esplanade wander all the way to the end of my day at Herne Bay. It is a long enough stretch of coast that the many hundreds out enjoying the summer sun were mostly spread thin and there was plenty of room to keep up a swift pace.

Beach huts and coastline properties sell for a lot of money along this sheltered stretch. New builds are squeezed in where they can. A couple of years ago a developer upset the locals when they discovered that the latest building project was called ‘Impressive Erections’.

Having reached the pier it was just a half mile walk uphill to Herne Bay station, arriving mid-afternoon having completed almost 22 miles on easy almost flat surfaces all day.

The Heron public house stands next door to Herne Bay railway station. Like all others, they were eagerlly anticpating being allowed to open in this coronvirus year. This was eventually permitted on 4th July

The Heron public house stands next door to Herne Bay railway station. Like all others in England, they were eagerly anticpating being allowed to reopen following coronvirus lockdown. This was eventually permitted on 4th July

Back the following morning to continue my walk, I found Herne Bay a charming and tidy place, lacking in much of the general tattiness and tackiness that afflicts so many English sea towns these days. An historic past and links with figures from history are evident, none more so than record-breaking Amy Johnson who disappeared offshore having crashed there during World War II. She was the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia and was an accomplished pilot, navigator and engineer. The cause of her death remains a mystery but rumours abound, one being that she perished under the propellors of the ship sent to rescue her.

Bronze statue of Amy Johnson gazes out to the estuary where she disappeared on 5th January 1941 when ferrying an aeroplane as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary

Bronze statue of Amy Johnson gazes out to the estuary where the pilot disappeared on 5th January 1941 while transporting an Airspeed Oxford as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary. She baled out after possibly running out of fuel. Another rumour suggests she was shot down by anti-aircraft crew after failing to give the corrent identification signal

Clock Tower in Herne Bay

Clock Tower in Herne Bay

I pottered around Herne Bay a little before properly striking off as not only was I in search of a cup of tea and a bacon sarnie (unlucky in both), but it is also a lovely espanade and the clock tower alone demands a little time to admire it. Built in 1837 it is the oldest purpose-built, free-standing clock tower in the UK. It stands 85 feet (26m) tall including the weather vane. The two canons standing at its base were dredged from the sea bed when the town pier was being completed in 1899. Possibly Dutch in origin, they used to fire blanks as a fog warning to shipping.

It was off the coast here that Barnes Wallis and his colleagues experimented with the Upkeep Bouncing Bomb in April and May 1943 and Highball prototype in April 1943. Today there was little to see at sea other than an array of wind turbines and the distant Maunsell Forts.

Leaving Herne Bay it was more easy walking along the coast until a gentle rise up to Reculver Country Park. Plenty of dog walkers around taking all the pavement width with leads stetched from one side to the other. Its OK mate, I’ll go round you then…

There is a plethora of benches well sited, all with good views out to sea and I made use of one for a mid morning halt to rehydrate and snack on an oat bar. The weather was again kind and I had again packed along three litres of water as there are few places to replenish on this route. Soon after, it was the long sweeping drop down to the dramatic Reculver Towers.

Plan of Reculver Fort. Courtesy of English Heritage

Plan of Reculver Fort. Image courtesy of English Heritage

The 12th century towers atop a monastic church can be seen for miles across the flat landscape. So noticeable are they that they were rebuilt as a navigational aid for shipping. However the site’s history is far older than that as it was formerly a Roman fort. The coastline is extensively eroded here and the fort and subsequent church used to stand far inland. The encroaching sea has taken half of the fort and now laps at the feet of the towers. Recent sea defences may yet prevent them toppling.

After a decent wander and explore of the site, I found a small cafe that had just opened the day before, following months of lock-down closure. A good bacon sarnie was accompanied by a mug of tea, the proprietor followed my demands for ‘strong’ tea to the letter- superb. Why-oh-why is making a decent cup of tea a dying art!

Exploring Reculver Towers

Exploring Reculver Towers

Crossing the Isle of Thanet takes in countless drainage ditches and streams. Frogs and voles abounded. Shrews and Mice crossed my path frequently, a lone Weasel chased on and Kestrels were also on the hunt

Crossing the Isle of Thanet takes in countless drainage ditches and streams. Dragonflies quartered their ‘patch’. Frogs and voles abounded. Shrews and mice crossed my path frequently, a lone weasel chased one and kestrels were also on the hunt

Leaving Reculver my path now headed inland. The Saxon Shore Way runs concurrent with the Wantsum Walk and Stour Valley Walk for much of its way as it crosses the Isle of Thanet, missing out the top north east corner. Thankfully as otherwise the route would wander needlessly through Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate. That part of the coast now being almost completely built up.

Following on from a few days of mostly coastal walking, the Saxon Shore Way takes on a very different flavour on this inland section. My weather was superb- warm, sunny and dry. The air crackled with heat and bees and flies buzzed me companionably.

This part of the walk was so enjoyable that I might return one day to explore this area further. No-one was around and I had the paths to myself all the way to Grove Ferry. The large pub there was closed but an enterprising youngster had set up a caravan in the car park and was doing good trade with paddle boarders and anglers. I joined the two metre spacing queue and was soon enjoying yet another decent mug of tea and a quality burger. Lunch may have come early but sitting in the shade of a birch tree with a Flycatcher loudly snapping at flies on the wing infront of me, an hour sped by. Unusual for me who doesn’t normally halt for longer than is necessary.

Stour Valley Walk is a mixture of quite roads and paths, rough grazing and farm crops. Hamlets and villages are dotted around and all is quintessentially British

Stour Valley Walk is a mixture of quiet roads and paths, rough grazing and farm crops. Hamlets and villages are dotted around and all is quintessentially British

From there it was another couple of hours of pleasant quiet walking all the way to Richborough Power Station with no-one beside inquisitive (perhaps too inquisitive) cows and skitterish sheep as occasional company. We all find interest in different things and Three Points of the Compass paused at two large Bailey Bridges that had been built across the River Stour for the farmer to move his cows across. I cast a critical eye over these as I have built dozens of them in another life decades previous.

A grassy riverside trail follows the Stour all the way to the end of this days walk at Sandwich. This was aperfect day to be trying out a new piece of gear- Sun Gloves from Outdoor Research

A grassy riverside trail follows the Stour all the way to the end of this days walk at Sandwich. This was a perfect hot and sunny day to be trying out a new piece of gear- Sun Gloves from Outdoor Research

These flat lands have been inhabited for thousands of years and evidence of Roman occupation continues to be unearthed. One place that was preserved years ago and is well worth a diversion is the Roman fort that is just a little way off-trail at Richborough. Even during its Roman occupation, the ‘castle’ underwent massive change. From AD43 Richborough was the major British port and from here legions would spread out across Britain, starting off along Watling Street, which commences here. The route today indicated by a little inconsequential concrete farm track. A large triumphal arch, possibly 25m high, was built straddling the road and entry through the arch signified formal arrival into Britannia. The arch foundations remain however the rest was utilised as building material for a Saxon fort built across the site around 277.

The Romans occupied Richborough from AD43 and the extensive and fascinating remains of the Roman fort at Richborough are well worth exploring. The site was considerably altered over the centuries. Here, the mid-thirteenth century ditches cut right through the foundations of second century buildings

The Romans occupied Richborough from AD43 and the extensive and fascinating remains of the Roman fort are well worth exploring. The site was altered considerably over the centuries. Here, mid-thirteenth century ditches cut right through the foundations of second century buildings

From Richborough it is a short walk into Sandwich. This is possibly one of the most pleasant entries in to a town you could have, along the raised Rope Walk with shading trees and green spaces on both sides, looking down to some lovely period homes as you walk. A supermarket toward the end might just have been visited to pick up a bottle of Shiraz with which to celebrate another 19 miles completed.

Keep to the path while crossing the grounds of the Royal St. George's Golf Club. Host to the Open Championship on occasion

Thatched starters hut at the first hole on the Royal St. George’s Golf Club. Occasional host to the Open Championship

Deal Time Ball Tower

Deal Time Ball Tower. Built as a shutter telegraph in 1795-6, a message from here could reach the Admiralty in London in two minutes. Rebuilt as a semaphore tower in 1816, it was again rebuilt as a time-ball tower in 1833. At 12.55 a ball was raised half way up the mast and to the top at 12.58. At 13.00 an electrical current from Greenwich dropped the ball, enabling ships off shore to properly set their chronometers

The next day on the Saxon Shore Way sees an easy exit from town that heads toward the nearby coast, soon crossing the hallowed short turf of the Royal St. George’s Golf Club, founded in 1887, I wondered how the thousands of golfers over the decades have regarded hikers popping up and wandering across ‘their’ course. The trail dips and climbs over a few dunes as it crosses and there is little danger of being struck by an errant golfball. Lots of specialised mowers were going about their business taking another millimetre off the grass.

Saxon Shore Way marker- this trail is well sigposted for almost all its length

Combined Public Footpath and Saxon Shore Way marker- this trail is well sigposted for almost all its length

The England Coast Path was supposed to be completed in 2020 but is running severely late. This part of South East England was amongst the first to be completed and signage is already in place

The England Coast Path was supposed to be completed in 2020 but is running severely late. This part of South East England was amongst the first to be completed and signage is already in place

Having butted up against the shingle and sea it is a sharp right turn and follow the coast again. A lot of joggers, dog walkers and very polite and proper locals taking a stroll. The Royal Cinque Ports Golf Links is passed and the shoreline closely followed all the way to Deal. Immediately noticeable is Deal Time Ball Tower, in use until 1927 and now a museum. Typically, due to Covid, it was closed.

Fishing boats hauled up on to the shingle near Deal

Fishing boats hauled up on to the shingle near Deal

In 1539-40, Sandown, Walmer and Deal castles became part of Henry VIII’s ‘Castles in the Downs’. Colonel Hutchinson, signatory to Charles I’s death warrant, was imprisoned at Sandown by a peeved Charles II. Little remains to be seen of Sandown Castle as you pass its shoreline situation as the council encased it in concrete and made it part of the seawall, but squat Deal and Walmer Castles are largely extant. All three castles were captured by Royalist troops during the civil war and held for three months. The clover leaf bastions were designed to deflect cannon fire. All interesting enough but come on, you can even go inside Walmer Castle and see a pair of tall leather boots that Arthur Wellesley asked his shoemaker to make for him. Later, as Viscount Wellington, he defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Soon everyone wanted to be seen wearing a pair of ‘Wellingtons’. The castles can be visited with prior booking but I’ve seen the boots before and could live without such excitement, so I contented myself with a few photos of the castle exteriors and walked on. I found the towns busy with activity and braced against a stiffening wind. I wasn’t sure I could agree with William Cobbetts assessment in 1823- ‘a most villainous place. It is full of filthy-looking people’.

Walmer Castle is one of England's finest Tudor Castles, built under the instruction of Henry VIII

Walmer Castle is one of England’s finest Tudor Castles, built under the instruction of Henry VIII

Car sticker for the pirate Radio Caroline

Car sticker for the pirate Radio Caroline

This part of the British shoreline has been notorious for centuries. Off-shore are the ‘Downs’ a safe area of water for ships, just inside the treacherous Goodwin Sands, a sandbank some six miles offshore that has claimed thousands of boats. Even the South Goodwin Lightship was taken in 1954. Three Points of the Compass grew up listening to pirate radio. MV Ross Revenge, from which Radio Caroline was broadcast, went onto the sands in November 1991. That was the end of off-shore pirate radio in Britain.

Daniel Defoe wrote of Deal men setting out to sea when they saw a boat had foundered, looting the wrecks and ignoring any survivors on the sands, condemming them to death when the tide rose. The town accused him of libel.

My verse should blast that fatal town,
And drown’d sailors’ widows pull it down;
No footsteps of it should appear,
And ships no more cast anchor there.
The barbarous hated name of Deal shou’d die,
Or be a term of infamy;
And till that’s done, the town will stand
A just reproach to all the land

from- Daniel Defoe, The Great Storm of 1703

The occupants of this island have been relying on good land grazing and bounty from the sea for thousands of years. Over 4000 years ago the Beaker folk were burying their dead at Kingsdown on the coast. The tumuli survive to this day. Neolithic cattle compounds, or krall, have been found. Flints and limpet shells have been excavated, these date from the Middle Stone Age 1200 BC onward. In more recent times, smuggling of goods such as tea, brandy and cloth occurred. Today, it seems to be people smuggling that is in vogue. What I found at Kingsdown was an open cafe. Signs instructed me to wait until permitted to enter and I impatiently loitered outside until beckoned in. Before ordering I dropped my pack on to a chair and checked I had a wallet and, more importantly a card to pay by as cash was not being accepted. Having placed my order, I moved to one side should anyone else enter the shop, providing sufficient social distance. I browsed the menu and considered ordering something for later but decided against it. Take-away tea and bacon sandwich prepared, I was beckoned forward, I paid through the perspex screen and retreated to an out of the way table to pack my sarnie away before donning the pack. Just as I was leaving, the proprietor came out to thank me for my custom and inform me that because I had touched a chair, a table, the menu, the counter, another chair and another table, he was now going to have to clean and disinfect half the seating area. It is going to take some getting used to this ‘new normal’.

It was at Kingsdown that the first woman to swim the English Channel made landfall in 1926, taking 14 hours and 34 minutes, almost two hours faster than any of the five men who had managed the swim previously. France is just 21 miles away but 20 year old Gertrude Ederle had to battle severe currents and swim 35 miles The first person the American record breaker met was an immigration officer who demanded a passport from “the bleary-eyed, waterlogged teenager“. She wore motorcycle goggles, sealed against her skin with paraffin, to protect her eyes from the salt water. Rather her than me…

Sea front statue, presumably the sport of fish wrestling is a big thing round here

Sea front statue, presumably the sport of fish wrestling is a big thing round here

Onward, onward, keep following the shore toward the next change in the Saxon Shore Way. My walk had been mostly pretty flat to date but it now began a gradual climb and offered a little rollercoasting as it neared Dover

Gradual and undemanding climbing on to cliffs at St Margarets

Gradual and undemanding climbing on to cliffs at St Margaret’s at Cliffe

South Foreland Lighthouse. Built in 1843. Under Faraday's supervision, in 1858 it became the first lighthouse in the world to utilise an electric light. In 1898 it was chosen by Marconi for his experiments with wireless radio transmissions. The first ship to shore transmission was made that year followed by the first international message in 1899

South Foreland Lighthouse, built in 1843. Under Faraday’s supervision, in 1858 it became the first lighthouse in the world to utilise an electric light. In 1898 it was chosen by Marconi as the site for his experiments with wireless radio transmissions. The first ship to shore transmission was made that year followed by the first international message in 1899

My day on trail was drawing to a close. I have walked these cliffs many times. My own family wandered far and wide when Miss Three Points of the Compass was just a nipper and the cafe at the top made a great place to bring my mother for a ‘cup of tea with a view’ as she lost her ability to walk far.

I often practiced my useless flora identification skills on the wide range of flowers and grasses found here. Though usually I would simply give up and go and watch the peregrines terrorising the nesting fulmars and gulls. I was too late in the year for that so I contented myself with watching the ferries in the busy port below. At least I was looking around. The only other people on the cliffs were teens all seemingly engaged in getting the best Instagram picture.

It is a surprisingly long walk to the station even after you have dropped down from the cliffs. There are a lot of new roads and the route has been carefully routed through these and the depressingly forgotten and grimy back streets and is followed with ease.

The Saxon Shore Way drops down to Dover town. Sadly the medieval castle is not on route

The Saxon Shore Way drops down to Dover town. Sadly, medieval Dover castle is not on route

Charles Stewart Rolls, the first man to cross the channel and return in a single flight

Charles Stewart Rolls, the first man to cross the channel and return in a single flight

A number of statues and memorials are passed- those who fell in World War I, the Merchant Navy Seamen lost in World War II, Operation Fuller, even one for Charles Rolls who looked at what Louis Blériot had achieved and said ‘I can do better’. I wondered how long before some miserable woke individuals decided that these offended them and demanded their removal.

Having met the confluence of three paths- where the North Downs Way ends at the Dover shoreline, meeting both England Coast Path and the Saxon Shore Way, I soon branched off to the railway station at the end of an interesting and enjoyable section of almost 17 miles.

My next four days on trail would see me moving in to the neighbouring county of East Sussex. Still to come I had a military canal, a zoo, more ups and downs than you can shake a stick at, and I might finally get the fish and chips that has so far evaded me.

Dover- the confluence of three great trails

Dover- the confluence of three great trails

The Saxon Shore Way

  • Section 1: Gravesend station to Strood station
    • 21.12 miles, 1304 feet ascent
  • Section 2: Strood station to Rainham station
    • 11.25 miles, 785 feet ascent
  • Section 3: Rainham station to Sittingbourne station
    • 17.2 miles, 764 feet ascent
  • Section 4: Sittingbourne station to Faversham station
    • 14.73 miles, 470 feet ascent
  • Section 5: Faversham station to Herne Bay station
    • 21.93 miles, 580 feet ascent
  • Section 6: Herne Bay station to Sandwich station
    • 19.26 miles, 733 feet ascent
  • Section 7: Sandwich station to Dover Priory station
    • 16.83 miles, 2686 feet ascent
  • Section 8: Dover Priory station to Sandling station
    • 14.77 miles, 2540 feet ascent
  • Section 9: Sandling station to Hamstreet station
    • 13.19 miles, 1310 feet ascent
  • Section 10: Hamstreet station to Rye station
    • 12.85 miles, 693 feet ascent
  • Section 11: Rye station to Hastings station
    • 13.15 miles, 2331 feet ascent
Saxon Shore Way

Saxon Shore Way

Saxon Shore Way- Medway section

Trail talk: The Saxon Shore Way- Gravesend to Sittingbourne

Saxon Shore Way is well sign posted for most of its length

2020 has been an odd year for us all. Upsetting for many and permanently life changing for quite a few. The plans Three Points of the Compass had made for walking various trails were dashed alongside a national lockdown. Furloughed at home, muscles wasted and the pounds piled on. Finally, as lockdown eased and we were allowed to make tentative steps outside it was time to look at what was ‘do-able’ close to home. Overnight camping was still not allowed at the time and hotels and hostels were still closed, I cast around for something and settled on a trail that I first heard of in the 1980s and had languished on my ‘to-do-one-day’ list for far too long.

Three Points of the Compass picked up the available Saxon Shore leaflets around 1987. The trail at that time only ran between Gravesend and Rye. So it has only taken me 33 years to complete it

Three Points of the Compass picked up five locally produced Saxon Shore leaflets around 1987 thinking that the trail could be completed the following year. The trail at that time only ran between Gravesend and Rye. It has only taken me 33 years to complete it!

The Saxon Shore Way is a mostly forgotten route these days. If follows the ancient and changed coastline from Gravesend in Kent round to Hastings in East Sussex. It starts off following the flat marshlands of the River Thames and Medway estuaries. A number of forts are passed on the walk and much of the way follows a shore line that the Romans would have recognised. It is mostly easy going so well suited to someone who has been getting steadily heavier in this Covid-19 lockdown year. Castles, churches and a cathedral are passed, Victorian seaside towns abound, lonely Romney Marsh is a delight and the sea cliffs are met near Dover along with reminders of Norman presence. The final day on trail says a decent goodbye with a few dips and climbs. There is even a zoo for good measure! While parts of the trail are well marked and followed by thousands being contiguous with other known walks, other parts are lonely, unloved and forgotten and probably only have a handful of hikers passing through each year. Supposedly measuring 163 miles in total, I completed 176 miles over 11 day walk sections, which just accounts for a few extra miles walking to and from railway stations.

Crossing a long unused railway line crossing fields on a little visited section of the Saxon Shore Way- day three, approaching Sittingbourne

Crossing a long disused railway line poking from the grass of rough and scrappy grazing land on a little visited section of the Saxon Shore Way- day three, approaching Sittingbourne

The route has been slightly revised and also extended in the intervening years and little seems to exist today in the way of readily available guide books. Three Points of the Compass found five little simply printed leaflets in the 1980s, two of which are shown above, but they are not really up to the job of aiding route navigation today. The author Alan Sillitoe did also write something in 1983 but I was reluctant to rely on anything that failed to account for route revisions. Even the official Arum press trail guide by Bea Cowan hasn’t been revised or republished in many years and the only second hand copy I could track down online was being offered for silly money. It is an official regional route however and is shown on the appropriate Ordnance Survey maps. For on trail navigation I carried the paper O.S. maps (with trail highlighted in pink the previous night) but these stayed in the pack and, unusually for Three Points of the Compass, I relied each day on my cached route on O.S. Maps, which I followed on my phone.

Saxon Shore Way

Saxon Shore Way

I broke the trail in to sections that I could easily access by train and made my plans. Three days of walking would see me to Sittingbourne and these were completed over my first week so I looked for the best days of forecast weather, it didn’t look great so just went for it. As it was it turned out to be grey, breezy and hard rain set in later. Regardless, it was grand to get out on trail.

ill on board ship, Pocahontas was bought ashore at Gravesend where she later died. She is now buried in St. George's Church

ill on board ship, the lauded though unfortunate Pocahontas was bought ashore at Gravesend where she died. She is now buried in St. George’s Church

I never dawdled long in Gravesend, having travelled there in the morning by train it was a short walk to the coastal start to the Saxon Shore Way. I paused briefly to view the lovely statue to the kidnapped native American Pocahontas, now buried in the vault below the parish church of St. Georges. Having been presented to the court of King James, she was returning to her native land in March 1617, unwell, she was bought ashore at Gravesend either dead or dying.

The oldest existing cast iron pier in the World sits somewhat unloved and ignored, close by the start of the trail. The town itself is quite tatty in parts but retains much of its historic past and would warrant further exploration however I had a day’s walk to complete so set off.

Gravesend is still a gateway port to London and tugs abounded, waiting to be set to work. I took a couple of snaps as my uncle used to be a skipper on one and was based here for a number of years. Then it was properly off, wending my way through various parks and streets, then back alleys and past light-engineering works to finally exit the town and find extensive green space- the rough pasture that forms the beginning of this part of the trail.

Tugs at Gravesend

Tugs at Gravesend

Hundreds of horses were grazing and there was no-one around. The occasional small vessel passed close to shore and large ships further out. The walking is easy and I never halted until I reached the first point of real interest, taking time out to explore the easily accesible and extensive remains of Shornmead Fort.

Grafitti on Shornemead Fort. Built by General Gordon in 1868 to protect the river approaches to London

Grafitti on Shornemead Fort. Built by General Gordon in 1868 to protect the river approaches to London

Forts were built by the Royal Engineers along this stretch of the coast to protect the mouth of the Thames from invasion by French warships. These mid-nineteenth fortifications were the first built since those constructed during the Napoleonic Wars. It doesn’t seem as though anyone visits these fortifications today besides those seeking solitude to drink cheap alcohol and practise their graffitti skills. In recent years, one young lad died while off-roading on a friends motorcycle. It appears someone felt spray painting a memorial to him on the walls of a Victorian fort a fitting way to show respect.

Rough pasture between Gravesend and Cliffe

Rough pasture between Gravesend and Cliffe pools

The coastal marshlands along this stretch have now been mostly drained and make for rough grazing with a sea wall bordering these all the way round to the small promontory at Cliffe where there is the option to cut the walk short but I continued out through scrappy and thorny Mallow, Hawthorn and Blackthorn, nettle and thistle, beside the excavated pools, complete with numerous wildfowl and gulls, toward the next point of interest.

Irish born Australian Louis Brennan patented what was probably the world’s first practicable guided weapon in 1877. For 15 years the Brennan torpedo became a standard harbour defence throughout the British Empire until being replaced with something with greater range. Little remains to be seen of their history anywhere in the world and an anonymous rusting launch station at Cliffe is a remarkable survivor, though how much longer it will survive I have my doubts. I wandered past the iron rails to the waters edge and attempted to place myself in the minds of those who planned on sending a torpedo out in to the sea here.

Exploring the remains of a launch site for the Brennan Torpedo

Exploring the remains of a launch site for the Brennan Torpedo

“The officers’ quarters at Cliffe are a mere hut, an abominable stinking place in summer, very cold and wet in winter. It stands by the side of a foul ditch which cannot be cleaned, for the mere disturbing of its contents would endanger the health of the officers”

Report of the Chief Royal Engineer, August 1864

The remains of the torpedo launch site lay beside my second fort passed today. This was another built by General Gordon in response to the fears of a French invasion. Building of Cliffe fort began in the 1860s and was completed in 1870. All of this land around here is pretty marshy and the newly built fort was unstable and cracks soon appeared. There were frequent outbreaks of malaria and bronchitis amongst the military personel. Military use continued though. Despite being abandoned due to flooding in 1927 it was used for anti-aircraft guns during World War II. I wasn’t able to explore it as it is now overgrown and lies behind a palisade fence marking the boundaries of privately owned land. Various diggers were being driven around the site shifting aggregate. The unloved and ignored state of these two forts is a national disgrace and both will continue to simply rot away over the coming decades.

Cliffe Fort, beyond reach

Cliffe Fort, now on private land owned by an aggregate company

On the far side of Cliffe fort my route passed directly beneath the trundling conveyor belt loaded with aggregate being bought ashore from a ship and I made my only extended halt of the day to prep a hot chocolate and eat an oat bar while watching both the ship unload and the large ships passing close to shore.

Some sizable ships pass close to shore near Cliffe

Some sizable ships pass close to shore near Cliffe

Outer gatehouse of 14th century Cooling Castle

Outer gatehouse of 14th century Cooling Castle

After Cliffe fort the trail passes through Cliffe Pools where the racket from thousands of nesting gulls and terns is pretty impressive. The extensive lagoons here were originally dredged for clay to mix with chalk for use in cement making. With an excess of raw materials, from the second half of the nineteenth centrury there used to be a large number of cement works situated along this coastline- more than sixty between Dartford and Faversham. All are now gone.

The route then moves inland a little and having photographed the impressive gatehouse to Cooling Castle I paused briefly in the adjacent churchyard at Cooling for a quick bite to eat just as Dickens might of as this churchyard was his inspiration in part for Great Expectations. And it was a quick halt as the thunder rolling around me was increasing. I was going to get wet…

Soon after setting off I began the enjoyable climb up Nothward Hill and it was here that the rain moved through, thankfully the wind and rain was on my back and there is some tree cover atop the rise. Through the woods and it wasn’t long before I was descending again, toward the River Medway.

Climbing up through the rain to the national nature reserve at Northward Hill

Climbing up through the rain to the national nature reserve at Northward Hill

On reaching the Medway, or Mudway as we used to accurately refer to it, there is a choice of routes, inland if high tide, along the shore if low tide, I followed the shoreline as I wanted to see the two forts off shore in Gillingham Reach. One of their orginal purposes was to string a chain between them in an attempt to halt any invading war ships.

Darnet Fort (left) and Hoo Fort (right) can be seen on islands in the River Medway. Both were built on the recommendation of the 1859 Royal Commision and were eventually disarmed prior to the First World War though both were used as observation posts in the Second World War

Darnet Fort (left) and Hoo Fort (right) can be seen on islands in the River Medway. Both were built on the recommendation of the 1859 Royal Commision and were eventually disarmed prior to the First World War though both were used as observation posts in the Second World War

Following the shore approaching Medway, the Saxon Shore Way passes a second World War pillbox that has been undercut by the River Medway

Following the shore approaching Medway, the Saxon Shore Way passes a Second World War pillbox that has been undercut by the River Medway

Russian Submarine moored at Strood. Rochester Cathedral and Castle beyond

Just metres from the railway station at the end of a days walk, the Saxon Shore Way passes a retired Russian submarine moored at Strood. Rochester Cathedral and Castle beyond

From here it was a fairly short jaunt along the shore and paths into Strood to catch my mid-afternoon train home. Despite having paused frequently for photographs all the way along this stretch of river, I was still early enough to miss any commuter crush. I had completed 21 miles and it had been a grand first day on trail.

Norman tower keep and Cathedral in Rochester were both closed as I passed through the Medway towns early morning on my second day

Norman tower keep and cathedral in Rochester were both closed as I passed through the Medway towns early morning on my second day

The following day was also wet but I expected it to dry out later. After another early train, I was too early to visit either Rochester Cathedral or Castle as neither were open so I simply walked around their exteriors before a wet and long walk through various backstreets and a few greenspaces of the Medway towns. There were a couple of paths closed off which was a tad annoying considering there was no re-routing or signage as to why despite this being a Regional Trail, albeit, little used.

Classic English public house. Due to Covid-19, these wouldn't be allowed to open for some weeks yet. The roots of the Style & Winch brewery in Medway go back to 1799. They ceased brewing in 1965

Classic English public house. Due to Covid-19, these wouldn’t be allowed to open for some weeks yet. The roots of the Style & Winch brewery in Medway go back to 1799. They ceased brewing in 1965. The pub sign relates to the dividing line I was now crossing- Kentish Man to the London side of the River Medway, and Man of Kent having crossed the river further into the county

I began the steady climb up toward Gillingham, passing the old naval dockyard where the period buildings are much sought after for fim location work. I was saddened to see the state of what remains of the barrack block in Kitchener Barracks on the other side of the road. Dating from 1757 and named after Earl Kitchener in 1928. The British Army vacated the site in 2014 and they were sold to a property developer who is building 295 homes. I was stationed there for two years in the 1980s when serving with the Royal Engineers. My old home looked a mess.

Kitchener Barracks. This block was rebuilt in the 1930s-1950s and is now a sad testament to the declining military presence in the Medway towns

Kitchener Barracks. This ‘modern’ block, where Three Points of the Compass was stationed when serving with the British Army, was rebuilt in the 1930s-1950s and construction (or destruction) work at the site is now a sad testament to the declining military presence in the Medway towns.

Notice in window of closed cafe in Gillingham

Notice in window of closed cafe in Gillingham

Across Great Lines, the old squaddie married quarters, more back streets and tatty little paths. In this coronavirus year, it was strange walking up the length of Gillingham High Street, past extended and silent queues of people waiting to access small supermarkets, cash points and Greggs, all stood two metres apart, many wearing face masks, all staring fixedly at their phones.

I paused at the lovely medieval Church of St Mary Magdalene, though the doors were locked. With parts dating back to the late 13th century it is the oldest building in Gillingham and its raised situation acted as a navigational aid for shipping. I could occasionally see it far behind me hours after I left. Soldiers from the Dutch raid of 1667 are buried in its churchyard.

Church of St Mary Magdalene

The Saxon Shore Way passes through the churchyard of the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Gillingham. Will Adams, the first Western samurai and the man who built Japan their first navy was baptised here in 1564.

Back down to the shoreline, past silent sailing clubs and the almost deserted Strand with its sea water bathing pool built in 1896. This used to welcome 22 000 visitors a day. Today, beside myself, there were just a couple of dog walkers. Beside this sits a squat and now rare, surviving gasometer, usurped by the introduction of natural (North Sea) gas. My mother and uncle would often tell me of the admiration held by their community of one of their neighbours who climbed atop the edifice one night during a raid by German aircraft in the midst of the Second World War. He threw a flaming incendiary off and saved every house in the vicinity from being flattened by a cataclismic explosion of the coal gas stored within. The admiration amongst the children was tainted slightly by knowing that their school, beside the gasometer, would also have been levelled.

A ‘modern’ esplanade led my way along the shore past more rotting hulks all the way to Riverside Country Park where I enjoyed a cup of tea from the cafe that I was surprised to find open there. I was instructed to take my drink far from the open window and adjacent area to consume it. After a bit of a wander out to Motney Hill, the sewage works there, sorry- ‘water treatment station’, mostly unobtrusive, it was a short walk through orchards and residential housing up into Rainham to catch my train soon after midday. A further 11 miles completed.

Pear orchards on the slopes leading down to the waters edge at Rainham

Pear orchards on the slopes leading down to the waters edge at Rainham

My third day on trail this week coincided with yet another bank of weather moving through. I knew today would be a lonely days walking as despite being fairly near to habitation, it is a lonely stretch of North Kent that sees few people. The banks of rain moving through today provided a great opportunity for me to continue my recent experimentation with a trekking umbrella from Euroschirm. Combined with a lightweight jacket from Frog Toggs, it worked great. It wasn’t cold so I simply allowed the lower half of my body to wet out and then dry in the wind.

Sopping cereal crops on the slopes at Lower Halstow

Crossing sopping wet cereal crops on the slopes at Lower Halstow. A break in the rain so my Swing Liteflex umbrella is temporarily stowed

A short stretch of coastal walking then saw me moving slightly inland, passing through apple, pear and plum orchards, trudging through muddy and wet cereal crops before moving out on to the desolate counter wall toward Chetney Marshes. I am sure there are many that would abhor this section, I found it fantastic and the ghosts of disused brick works, wharves and long gone local industry can be felt in the rotting remains, spoil heaps and shoreline. Many old wooden built lighters and Spritsail ‘muddies’ were abandoned long ago and the rotting ribs protrude from the mud all along this part of the coast.

Three Points of the Compass likes to potter around a church if the trail goes past it. In this coronavirus year, most were closed

Three Points of the Compass likes to potter around a church if the trail goes past it. In this coronavirus year, most were closed

Creeks, docks and wharves between Medway and Faversham used to support various industries- brick making, cement works, oysters and cockles, paper making, gunpowder and ship building amongst them. Cement to build the Aswan Low Dam across the Nile River came from Frindsbury and cement from Gillingham cement works repaired the damage caused in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. I passed those two Medway towns yesterday.

The little quay at Lower Halstow was once used for loading of bricks from the Eastwood Brickworks, a firm that gave its name to the street where Mrs Three Points of the Compass grew up. Now, the Edith May, a wooden Thames sailing barge built in 1906 is a lone occupant of the dock. This and the neighbouring village appeared in 2016’s Wonder Woman film- imitating a military camp on the Belgium coast.

Passing the Edith May moored at the empty dock at Lower Halstow, rain fell steadily

Passing the Edith May moored at Lower Halstow, rain fell steadily

Rotting and abandoned wooden remains poke from the mud at Bedlams Bottom, off Chetney Marshes. Three Points of the Compass counted at least 22 ships here

Rotting and abandoned wooden remains poke from the mud at Bedlams Bottom, off Chetney Marshes. Three Points of the Compass counted at least 22 barges in just one bay here

My trail took me up through cereal crops above the burnt out and abandoned Funton brickworks. This factory was built in the 1930s but didn’t start production of bricks until after the Second World War, they used to turn out lovely hand-made sandy coloured bricks, each imprinted with the brickmakers name. Then a walk past a messy, extensive and probably illegal tip and down to follow the lonely sea wall out and around the isolated Chetney Marshes, passing large groups of geese in the pools. Waders mobbed me frequently as I passed their nesting sites. A male Marsh Harrier quartered the ground beside me, probably picking off the fledgling waders. Two hundred years previous, the corpses of convicts from the prison hulks moored off shore were buried on these marshes and coffins and bones had recently been found exposed by the shifting mud at Deadmans Island a little further round. Eventually my route swung round to head toward and then pass under the ‘new’ Sheppey road crossing. Actually the third bridge to be built across the Swale to the Isle of Sheppey- the ‘Isle of Sheep’, where I completed a walk at the ‘birthplace of British aviation’ on another day.

The landscape here could by no means be called pretty, undustry clearly visable on the skyline, however it is a fascinating place

The landscape here could by no means be called pretty, electricity pylons link the industry clearly visible on the skyline. However the marshes are a fascinating place and wildlife abounds

In some UK beauty spots the electricity companies have buried their cables deep below the surface. The marshes here are unloved and didn’t fit that criteria, consequently, it is almost impossible to look in any direction and not see gaunt pylons stetching across your field of view. Pylons have their fans. Though I am not one of them, I do feel that pylons have become as much a part of this sodden North Kent landscape as the abandoned barges rotting in the mud around the shoreline.

Now over these small hills
they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude, giant girls that have no secret

from: The Pylons, Stephen Spender

Saxon Shore Way approaches the A249 Sheppey Crossing, completed 2006, it largely replaced the vertical lift Kingsferry Bridge on which a train a crossing, that in turn had replaced the 1860 bascule bridge built for the London, Chatham and Dover Railways in 1860

Saxon Shore Way approaches the A249 Sheppey Crossing, completed 2006, it largely replaced the vertical lift Kingsferry Bridge, over which a train is crossing, that in turn had replaced the bascule bridge built for the London, Chatham and Dover Railways in 1860

From here the Saxon Shore Way worked its way through increasingly scrappy paths, between lorry parks and river side industry, mixing with overgrown fields and rough grazing. I shouldn’t think more than a hundred hikers pass this way each year. I then followed the Milton Creek up into the depths of Sittingbourne. The creek used to be very important to the town, enabling vast quantities of goods to be transported to and from London and the continent. None of that industry remains and yet more hulks poke from the silt. The weather had brightened up and I reached the end of my days hike, another 17 miles completed, soon after midday. This was the end of my first three sections. The next week would see me leap frogging the four sections to Dover.

The Saxon Shore Way:

  • Section 1: Gravesend station to Strood station
    • 21.12 miles, 1304 feet ascent
  • Section 2: Strood station to Rainham station
    • 11.25 miles, 785 feet ascent
  • Section 3: Rainham station to Sittingbourne station
    • 17.2 miles, 764 feet ascent
  • Section 4: Sittingbourne station to Faversham station
    • 14.73 miles, 470 feet ascent
  • Section 5: Faversham station to Herne Bay station
    • 21.93 miles, 580 feet ascent
  • Section 6: Herne Bay station to Sandwich station
    • 19.26 miles, 733 feet ascent
  • Section 7: Sandwich station to Dover Priory station
    • 16.83 miles, 2686 feet ascent
  • Section 8: Dover Priory station to Sandling station
    • 14.77 miles, 2540 feet ascent
  • Section 9: Sandling station to Hamstreet station
    • 13.19 miles, 1310 feet ascent
  • Section 10: Hamstreet station to Rye station
    • 12.85 miles, 693 feet ascent
  • Section 11: Rye station to Hastings station
    • 13.15 miles, 2331 feet ascent
Euroschirm Swing Liteflex trekking umbrella on Saxon Shore Way

Gear chat: EuroSchirm Swing Liteflex umbrella

I never thought the day would come when I would include an umbrella with a lightweight hiking set-up. But it has. For the past few day hikes, enjoying some of the best summer days the UK has experienced in some time, Three Points of the Compass has been tucking a Swing Liteflex umbrella from EuroSchirm into the side pocket of an Osprey Manta 28.

Umbrella is still large even while stowed

Non collapsible umbrella is still large even while stowed

Umbrellas do not form part of traditional British hiking. They have been used by thousands of long distance hikers in the US for years, especially when passing through hundreds of miles of desert sections on longer trails, but in our less UV intense, wetter and windier climes, there are very few hikers using such an item on UK trails.

Furled umbrella, kept closed with velcro fastening

Furled umbrella, kept closed with velcro fastening

An umbrella is obviously of use when it rains. I have commuted to London for decades for work and hate with a passion the use of umbrellas on crowded streets. I have been poked in the ear and eye, walked into, jabbed, bashed and scraped by hundreds of unwary, uncaring and selfish umbrella brandishing folk. If not literally scarred, I am mentally scarred for life. You will never see me using an umbrella in a city. Even as a glasses wearer, where rain is the bane of our life, I simply put on a brimmed hat, sometimes combined with the raised hood of a waterproof. Perhaps that is one reason why I have resisted carrying an umbrella for so many years while hiking. However I attempt to be open minded, there are obvious benefits to an umbrella. The question is do the benefits from an umbrella on trail outweigh the increase in weight and bulk when carrying such a piece of kit?

Width while walking has to be considered

Width while walking has to be considered

EuroSchirm is a family business based in Germany, Eberhard Göbel have been making specialist umbrellas since 1919 and Three Points of the Compass has been considering purchasing one of their trekking umbrellas for a number of years. It was only while browsing their website toward the end of 2019 that I noticed their move toward the cheaper, possibly more rubbish, end of the market that I began to wonder how long they would bother to continue to offer what is quite a niche and relatively expensive product. So I bought one. Then put it on a shelf and ignored it for another half a year.

'Socially distancing' on station platform, waiting for a train to take me to the beginning of the days hike

‘Socially distancing’ on station platform in 2020, waiting for a train to take me to the beginning of the days hike. Umbrella sits with single trekking pole in pack side pocket while en route

In this strange, dangerous and odd year, my hiking plans have gone awry. About the best I am managing are day walks. Living in the South East corner of England, I have no grand mountains to scale, sweeping airy ridges to stride along, few decent cliff paths to speak of. I have walked most of the longer named trails in my corner of the country- North Downs Way, South Downs Way, Wealdway, London Countryway, London LOOP, I am steadily working through the Greensand Way with Mrs Three Points of the Compass, so it was time for me to finally complete the Saxon Shore Way as a series of day hikes. This is something that I can tackle mostly by utilising trains to return to each days start point.

1m wide with a silver coating

Umbrella is one metre wide with a silver reflective coating

This long distance path is 163 miles (262km) and commenced in Gravesend, Kent, then follows the coast of South East England as it was in Roman times, following the line of Roman and later fortification, ending at Hastings in East Sussex. Walking through a grand summer, I felt this may be an ideal opportunity to carry this umbrella with me to try it out with intense UV. If it is a wet winter, I’ll be giving this umbrella another crack to see how I get on with it while hiking in constant rain.

Umbrella has a black interior surface

Umbrella has eight ribs and a black interior surface

The  Euroschirm range includes trekking, golf and city umbrellas. The trekking collection includes fixed length and collapsible umbrellas in a wide range of colours. I purchased the Swing Liteflex. This a fixed length umbrella that cannot collapse. While this means that it has a length that constantly has to be contended with, there is less to go wrong and break, and less moving parts so less weight. There are no metal parts to this umbrella at all. There are no clips to the opening/closing mechanism, it simply slides and locks into place under tension. The umbrella has a fibreglass shaft and ribs. Covering the ribs is a Teflon coated polyester canopy. It has a short, dense EVA foam handle with a short adjustable wrist loop. My canopy is a silver metallic outer that reflects sunlight, with a dark interior. This has a UV protection of UPF 50+. The classic hiking umbrella for many years in US circles was the Golite ‘Chrome Dome’. More recently, other US companies also advertise their own variants. Almost all of these are actually the umbrella that I have purchased, made by Euroschirm, and simply re-branded with their company logo. There are eight ribs on my model, this gives greater strength over the six ribbed models also available.

The weight of an umbrella is an obvious downside, even with a model such as this that excludes excess fittings wherever possible. My Swing Liteflex tips the scales at 241g (8.5oz), EuroSchirm advertise it as weighing 207g, it does not. Weight is excluding the carry case that I immediately dumped. The other hassle with this umbrella is its length. I realised this prior to purchasing it but I prefer the lack of things to go wrong over any advantage from a collapsible model. It is 635mm long and you can see in a couple of images here how it looks when stowed on my day pack. There are collapsible trekking versions available from EuroSchirm that close to a length of 275mm but, as said, these probably introduce points of failure to the product. I may yet buy one of those too as they will probably travel better overseas.

When in use, it is a doddle to hike with hands free. I have my sternum strap done up over the shaft, the wrist loop is passed through my packs hip belt before that is fastened, then it simply rests on my pack and back of my head. It can be carried over one shoulder or the other depending on sun aspect, or in the case of wind and rain, from what direction that is coming.

Orientate according to where shade is required

Orientate according to where shade is required

The umbrella is a metre wide and provides total shade to head, shoulders and top of upper body. I haven’t carried a thermometer with me to accurately measure, but on a recent day hike, on an exposed section of seawall, the sun in a cloudless sky and measuring 32°C (89.60 °F), I would guess it was between five and ten degrees cooler beneath the umbrella.

Swinglite Flex

The umbrella simply sits across back of head and top of pack

This umbrella would have been absolutely fantastic on some hikes I have done on exposed Mediterranean islands. I have sweltered along relying on my faithful Tilley LTM5 AIRFLO hat to keep shaded. I will definitely be taking this or a similar umbrella when I next return to those hot and exposed islands.

View from rear

View from rear

I haven’t carried an umbrella with me while hiking since I packed along a small folding city type ‘brolly’ when hiking the bald Bavarian hills over a couple of summers in the 1980s. After almost forty years it feels strange to return to one. The upside is that I can walk hands free with no bouncing or discomfort from such a piece of kit. Downsides already noted is the width and extra height. This set-up is in no way suited to paths with overhanging branches, nor on narrow tracks with brambles and thorns. I shall persevere, for now.

Sheep look for shade on a hot day. I carried mine with me

Sheep look for shade on a hot day. I carried mine with me

 

Trail talk: Solvitur ambulando

Self-isolating on the North Kent Marshes

Working from home, in strange times, Three Points of the Compass is heeding current advice from Public Health England. However the weekend calls for a break from the week’s work and to distance myself from these four walls if possible. Current online Government advice on ‘Social Distancing’ includes: “You can also go for a walk or exercise outdoors if you stay more than two metres from others“. So, looking for wide open spaces with few other visitors expected, I decided a return to a walk that has given me enormous pleasure in the past- the coastal section from Sittingbourne to Faversham on the North Kent Marshes.

“the saltings and the shore, with the slub, was No-man’s Land, as far as a man’s legs could carry him on a long day’s prowl. There were boards fixed on stout poles, here and there, which set forth in complicated legal terms the rights of certain individuals to the flotsam and jetsam of the foreshore, with all privileges thereunto belonging. But these were unheeded; no one stopped to read them. On a warm summer’s day the folks would have fallen asleep over so tough a job, and in wintry weather, with a gale from the nor’ard, fowl coming up off the sea, and the salt spindrift making your eyes smart, you would not care to spell the matter out”

My walk mostly follows the raised seawall with short, sheep or rabbit cropped, grass, though the tread through mud from any recent rain can make the going hard. If any mechanical works have been carried out to repair the battered seawalls after winter storms, ruts, stones, chalk, turves and clag can twist your ankle in an instant. However it is normally easy and pleasant going. It was Mothering Sunday and I was unable to visit my mum in her Care Home, closed from visitors by (hopefully) temporary decree. With a fine day forecast, Three Points of the Compass strode out at dawn to revisit a walk he last explored over a decade ago. It was time to put the concerns of today to the back of my mind and try and think about some future issues that have to be decided upon. Possibly problems solved by walking. A decent leg stretch was called for.

The North Kent Marshes is the combined area formed by the estuaries and the neighbouring countryside, especially marshes, of the Swale, Medway and Thames. The Swale is the tidal channel separating the Isle of Sheppey from mainland Kent and connects the Medway estuary in the west with the Thames estuary in the east. It was the southern shore of the Swale that formed today’s walk.

“It was a splendid prospect in the clear crisp air of winter; for, the trees being leafless, you could see all the sequestered homes and farmsteads to which those narrow drift-roads and lanes led, for miles round. Besides these, you saw the snug hop-gardens in the hollows, and the poles stacked up, looking from this distance like rows of tents. Orchards and fruit-gardens too, with the quaint farm-houses to which they belonged, were there; and the buildings where the hops were dried, locally termed “hopoasts,” topped by those curious cowls that look like inverted cones with a quarter cut out of them. Then you saw the river Thames and the Medway at their meeting-place with the tide. Those rivers were never called by their proper names in the days when Denzil wandered about over the marshlands. With the natives they went by the names of the London river and the Chatham river. Any one calling them by different titles would have been stared at by the marsh dwellers as a “furriner.”

Today's walk would follow the Saxon Shore Way on the seawall between two once thriving North Kent towns

Today’s walk would follow the Saxon Shore Way on the seawall between two once thriving North Kent towns

Almost all of the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and it is also designated a Ramsar internationally important wetland. Local and National nature reserves abound. There is something of interest year round but winter is special for the large numbers of over-wintering raptors, vast numbers of waders and wildfowl both over-winter and call in while on migration. The murmur of thousands of Brent Geese is pure joy. Large roosts of waders occur when the tide pushes them ashore. In spring and summer some rather special birds nest- Quartering Marsh Harriers and Barn Owls are a regular sight in the summer and waders feed on the mudflats, flitting between there and nest sites on the cropped grass of the coastal margins. In previous years I have even seen Osprey fishing for Dabs.

Much of the area is grazed by livestock and levels in the many dykes and reedbeds carefully managed. Views are extensive but much of the area could never be called pretty. Industry and the two Swale crossings can be seen from afar. The steadily mouldering evidence of past industry, works and long gone business is often evident. The spines of rotting Lighters and Barges poke from the mud. Flotsam and jetsam join the stinking seaweed where Dunlin, Turnstone and even Purple Sandpipers poke around. Bearded Tits have pinged over my head before posing on the reeds. I have seen Bittern in the shallow pools and once an Otter crossed the Murston pits without seeing me. I visited a flooded scrape on Sheppey once and unexpectedly saw Grey Phalarope bobbing its way around. The same flooded fields shocked me another year when two White Winged Black Terns dropped by. At times, with a careful eye and great luck, a Long-Eared Owl or two will be seen deep in the Blackthorn at Conyer. Spend some time on the North Kent Marshes and there is always something unexpected. Today, my first bird song encountered as I reached the marshes proper, was the explosive call of a Cetti’s Warbler. It is a special place.

After a long walk through abandoned Sittingbourne and its extensive Business Park, the first thing of any interest is Murston Old Church.

After a long walk through abandoned Sittingbourne and its extensive Business Park, the first thing of any interest is Murston Old Church. It was originally pretty large with three chancels and three aisles, square tower and wooden turret, sadly almost nothing remains. Built between 1375 and 1550 it is now mostly forgotten and unloved, despite several well-meaning plans over the years, it is now the victim of theft, vandalism and arson.

The mouldering remains of many vessels gradually sink into the stinking ooze wherever there was once a bust dock or wharf

The mouldering remains of many vessels gradually sink into the stinking ooze wherever there was once a busy dock or wharf

Outside the towns, the North Kent Marshes are sparsely populated today and few live adjoining the estuaries beyond the odd farm. It wasn’t always so. The small communities that used to live on the margins of the Swale suffered especially when cholera first came to Kent in 1832. It came via the ports, roads and newly built railway. The hop-pickers from London and those on the quarantined prison ships, including boys aged 8-15, also suffered terribly. Poor sanitation, lack of running water and a lack of understanding on how the disease was transmitted all paid a part.

Before the week was out news came that one had died suddenly, down in the
marsh, before medical aid could reach him. Then the plague was in the town, one here
and one there was taken, two or three a week. After that it came in full force…

There were outbreaks in 1832, 1849, 1853 and 1865. Each outbreak lasted years and from a population far less than it is today, cholera killed some 2684 in Kent alone.

… at last the cholera left Marshton, as suddenly, it seemed, as it had entered.
Business became brisk again; the fishing-boats were afloat once more; and the living
had time to visit the large graveyard and count their graves. The brown rough heaps of
earth showed conspicuously apart from the green turf. Healthy life began to stir and
throb in the place once more… but more than once did Den hear that terrible sound of a man
crying out in the agony of grief, ring through the Marshton burying-place.

Small roost of Black Headed Gulls on the grazing marsh below Tonge Corner Farm, one of the few habitations along this stretch of coast

Small roost of Black Headed Gulls on the grazing marsh below Tonge Corner Farm, one of the few habitations along this stretch of coast

There isn't a lot of shelter from the stiff cold wind along the seawall, so I made use of one of the concrete sluices to breakfast on hot chocolate and Quaker's Golden Syrup Porridge To Go

There isn’t a lot of shelter from the stiff cold wind along the seawall, so I made use of one of the concrete sluices to breakfast on hot chocolate and Quaker’s Golden Syrup Porridge To Go

I completely failed to notice the trail runner until he was past me, so engrossed with watching a Common Seal leisurely following the rising tide, and a group of restless Curlews on the marshes inland

I completely failed to notice the trail runner until he was past me, I was so engrossed with watching a Common Seal leisurely following the rising tide, and a group of restless Curlews on the marshes inland. To the west, the two road crossings from mainland Kent to the Isle of Sheppey can be seen

“From the crest of the Nor’ard hills the water was in some places only two or three
miles away, according to the way the land lay; in some places it was much nearer. If
you looked seawards, there was the Isle of Sheppy, with the man-of-war ships at anchor,
and then the open sea. Inland you had orchard after orchard, great fruit-gardens and
fields under the plough. A beautiful sight at any time; but when the fruit-trees were in
full blossom in those grand old Kent orchards, the view from the top of the Nor’ard hills
was simply glorious”

A short diversion inland to cross Conyer Creek. No-one about in the attractive village other than a handful of dog walkers

A short diversion inland to cross Conyer Creek. No-one about in the attractive village other than a handful of dog walkers. Half a dozen bright white Little Egrets explored the mud

Two wartime rifle ranges are passed on this walk. The crumbling concrete butts are simply part of the grazing marsh landscape today

Two wartime rifle ranges are passed on this walk. The crumbling concrete butts are simply part of the grazing marsh landscape today

“You may know a marshman – or a man of the “ma’shes,” as he is locally termed- wherever you chance to come across him, by the way he grasps his stick. In his native marshes it was rather a pole than a stick that he carried — one about as thick as your wrist and pointed at its stoutest end… with his long ash leaping-pole, having a circular piece fixed at its bottom, he would leap and clear all the dykes that came in his way,

The marshes are now well drained as a result of the dykes dug across their expanses. A century and more ago, locals would carry a leaping pole with them to cross the ditches. Land that was once impassable by no-one other than skilled marshmen that knew the hidden routes, is now mostly fertile land used for both agriculture and grazing, and has been for a hundred years. There are still hunters in just a few areas where it is permitted. An anachronism in my mind, so close to honeypot reserves. What bird knows which side of a field boundary is safe? Swans have been found carrying shotgun pellets, Harriers have been poisoned and years previous I even once witnessed a damn fool take a pot shot at a woodpecker looping across the fields.

“On and about the lagoon, all over the surface, fowl are swimming and paddling. One lot are coots, clicking and clanking. Over them, high up, a marsh-harrier, the duck-hawk of the marshes, is sailing. He comes lower — lower yet — he is near enough and pounces. The coots are as ready for him as he for them, and as he pounces, with a loud clank they flirt the water up, enough to swamp him, before they dive. The marsh folks have always a reason for their local names of the birds; they call him the coot-teaser. The fowl do not, however, always escape him so easily. Green plovers, pewits, are all round about, screaming and squeaking out their mournful pewit”

Sitting resting while I drank from my waterbottle, my attention was drawn to a large bird in the field opposite. A Marsh Harrier stood amongst the mole hills, occasionally making short forward flights into the stiff wind before dropping back down to the grass. Each time it rose sufficiently high enough that it could be seen from the tideline, the Avocets feeding there would set off in a wide arcing flight before returning to the waters edge.

“as a rule, a man’s companions were his gun and fishing net. Our longshore shooters had, many of them, to trudge three or four miles night and morning to get to their fishing or shooting grounds. A man living only a mile away was looked on as quite a near neighbour”

Freshly pillaged shells are frequently seen underfoot where some creature has bought them ashore to the short turf for better purchase

Freshly pillaged shells are frequently seen underfoot where some creature has bought them ashore to the short turf for better purchase

“None but those who have tried it know what dirty and dangerous work it is to get
at a good mussel-scalp, or to go after shell-fish of any kind in the old-fashioned days.
The finest mussels were as a rule in the most dangerous part of the ooze. As to clams,
they were worse to get at than mussels. You had to go into the gullies up to your waist
in foul ooze and water, and to dig them out of the banks like potatoes. This is all changed now, and shell-fish are cultivated on scientific principles.”

Dan's Dock is a disused Jetty near Oare. Difficult to appreciate that this was once used to load both bricks and explosives on to ships

The disused Dan’s Dock near Oare. Not used since 1919, it is difficult to appreciate that this was once used by local brickwork owner Sampson Dan to load bricks on to ships and, later, by the Cotton Powder Co. to load explosives. Just inland from here, more than 100 munition workers were killed on 2 April 1916 when the gunpowder, cordite and TNT exploded

“every man in each company of a dozen drainers- some of the shore-shooters even had been obliged to turn to that work as a means of living- carried a gun, or rather had one close at hand, to use as the chance offered. Denzil saw the stock part of some of these peeping outside the rough jackets that had been laid down on the dry flags, the long barrels being concealed inside the drain-pipes. ‘Many turns like this would give a fellow the blues’ said Larry, as they fired off their loads in the air before being ferried over the creek. ‘With all this draining we may just hang up the guns as fireside ornaments.’ And so it was; for as the railroads gave facility for placing product in the London markets and elsewhere, cement-works, wharves, and ship-yards appeared along the water-side, as though by magic it seemed to the slow thinking and acting graziers, and old marsh dwellers; and in the spots where at one time the silence had been broken only by the cry of the wild-fowl, rang out the clink and hum of machinery and the clang of hammers, the fowl having flitted for good.”

The Old Watch House at Oare Marshes

The Kent Wildlife Trust acquired Oare Marshes as a local nature reserve in 1984. The Old Watch House that used to function as their visitor centre is now closed due to vandalism

Lady Daphne, Oare Creek

Lady Daphne in Oare Creek, Faversham. Now derigged and covered, she is undergoing maintenance, cleaning, repair and repainting prior to sailing through Tower Bridge in London in 2021 to commemorate Sir Ernest Shackleton setting sail to the Antarctic 100 years previous. She is a Thames Barge built by Short Brothers in 1921, one of the few wooden barges built following the Great War

Shipwright's Arms, Hollowshore

My path passed the Shipwright’s Arms, Hollowshore. Recently closed due to nationwide Government restrictions. I proposed to Mrs Three Points of the Compass here over thirty years ago. She said no, that time

Oyster Bay House, Faversham Creek

Oyster Bay House. Approaching Faversham via the tidal Faversham Creek, the trail passes opposite the mid-nineteenth century warehouse. Locally known as the ‘Big Building’, it once stored hops from the hop gardens of Kent, destined to the London brewers, transported by sailing barge

Faversham Guildhall

Having completed my walk, it was only half a mile or so through town, past the fantastic Guildhall, built 1574, through almost empty streets, to the railway station

My day’s walk over, it was through town without stopping. Not that anything was open beyond a chippie hoping for business. Just a two minute wait at the station for my twelve minute train journey back to where I had started some seven hours earlier. It had been a grand days walk of around fourteen miles. I had seen perhaps two dozen people on the trail, mostly dog walkers at the Oare Nature Reserve. Back home, a quick shower and a welcome pint of tea. Though still concerned, my mind was now clearer- Solvitur ambulando.

Quotes above from:

Annals of a Fishing Village. Drawn from the notes of “A Son of the Marshes”. Blackwood & Sons, London 1891.

These are the recollections of Denham Jordan. Baptised in Milton Regis, in North Kent, the young teenager spent much of his childhood and adolescence exploring the North Kent Marshes and included many of his observations of life, people, habitat and experience into his ten books. He witnessed the draining of the marshes and the coming of the railway.

Marsh Scene, by Denham Jordan

Marsh Scene, by Denham Jordan