It was time to forge further east along the Thames and pick up a Thames-side route from Dartford to Rochester, and with the days getting longer and the weather forecast set fair, I seized the day. My mission was to stick close to the Thames with the main attraction of this stretch being the Hoo Peninsular, which has a lonely but beautiful ‘other worldliness’ to it that is similar to other flat and forgotten corners of the British Isles (like the marshlands around Dungeness). I was particularly lured to a remote section of path marked on the OSM outdoors map as ‘Curlews, Convicts and Contraband’. The route to this remote section included a lot un-surfaced tracks with a few potential ‘dead-ends’ which needed investigating, so I set out knowing it wasn’t go to be easy, even if it was flat.
I started out from Dartford station, which is now becoming quite familiar, and picked up a path that ran alongside the River Darent. I followed it’s wiggles to the Thames and the Deptford Creek flood barrier, before heading east over the Deptford marshes to the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. The marshlands where packed with birds and flys and, as I coasted along the river path, I approached a photographer complete with tri-pod and all the accessories, assuming that he was filming the wildlife. Alas no! As I got closer I spotted a scantily clad lady in heels definitely not designed for bird-watching. I was tempted to look back, but didn’t! If that wasn’t enough to make me feel queasy, riding next to the massive legs of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, brought on slight vertigo. It was all too much this early in the day.
Onwards to the Thames-side towns of Greenhithe and Gravesend, which were crammed with the kind of history that fascinates me. Due to it’s position on the river (being the first easily accessible dry land) it was the International departures and arrivals point for ships bound to all points east, from the huge ships of the East India Company in the 1600 & 1700’s bound for China, Indonesia and India, to the Australia-bound ocean liners taking £10 poms to a new life in the 1950 & 60’s. I stood on the promenade at Gravesend thinking of all those people setting off and returning from massive life-changing adventures over the centuries, and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
I picked my way out of Gravesend, choosing the path that runs along the Thames, rather than the Sustrans route 1. It involved a couple of styles and gates and the odd patch of bog, but was 90% rideable. The path led to Shornemead Fort, which was built in the mid 1800’s but has since been demolished and is now a gallery for graffiti. An interesting mix of old and new, with framed pictures of the Thames rolling by, through the fort casements. From there I decided to make a detour inland to find an easier surface to ride on, which led me to a mobile cafe serving up anything fried with tea, coffee or a sugary drink. Perfect! It was next to Hoo junction, and as it was at the end of an un-surfaced road on the edge of a marsh, it didn’t have a FB page, and rarely gets a stranger. Bacon butties were good!
From here, things got a little wild. A local cyclist warned me of the disintegrating path around Cliffe Fort but I decided to go for it. How else was I going to get to the Curlews, Convicts and Contraband section? The path around the front of the fort had indeed been swallowed up by the Thames and had been diverted through a sand and gravel works, via another flooded section of path. Having negotiated it without getting my feet wet, I was then faced with an extremely narrow over-grown section, which thankfully only lasted for around a 100 metres. Having passed these tests, the Hoo Peninsula lay before me, in all it’s …….flatness! The path ran parallel with the Thames but on the marsh side of the flood barrier, so although the surface was reasonably fast, the views where so similar for the next half an hour that I ended up thinking I was stopped and the scenery was moving. I was completely alone for the entire section. Just me, the reeds, the vast sky and a load of Curlews and Sky Larks. I couldn’t help feeling that I needed to be a few metres above sea level rather than below, for a truly enjoyable experience. By the time I got to the Curlews, Convicts and Contraband section of the track, tiredness had kicked in, and all I felt was an urgent need for a bit of tarmac. Ho hum!
Once back on the black stuff, and having stopped for some dried mango and flapjack, I was feeling more together but decided not to go to Grain as I didn’t want to hit rush-hour back in London. The Hoo Peninsular to Waterloo East at rush hour, what a contrast! I meandered along the coast through Hoo St Werburgh to Rochester, where I boarded the train home, and had the dubious pleasure of sharing my carriage with some Boys from Westminster Cathedral Choir School. I learnt some new words, but won’t be sharing them here, in case my Mum reads it.
The longest mileage on un-surfaced roads yet undertaken on my road bike. It was a hard 67 km, but I certainly don’t regret any of it. When I do it again I will include more landward small lane sections, through Cliffe, Cooling & St Mary Hoo! Anybody considering doing the section from Cliffe Fort to High Halstow needs to be able to lift their bike over a number of 5-bar gates! I’ll only load a tamer version of this ride onto The Rides page.
This ride includes a section of coastline close to Halstow Marshes which has been altered as recently as October 2016, by building a new more landward sea wall, breaching the old sea-wall and allowing an area of the marsh to revert back to intertidal mud-flats. It was the largest controlled breach of a flood wall in the UK to date and you can read about it here. Even the Ordnance Survey Maps have yet to be altered, so my red-line on the map below may well be the first published up-dated map!