Stage 232, 19th November: Hoo St Werburgh to Kemsley
It was a cold, misty but thankfully dry start back on the Saxon Shore Way. For a change I found myself following a shoreline, even if was only the shore of the River Medway. Nonetheless it was better than a sea-wall with no sea in sight or unkempt sticky fields with pylons for a view. This short stretch of narrow sandy shingle took me through the quaint villages of Lower and Upper Upnor and on towards Strood and Rochester with the peculiar sight of a dilapidated former Soviet Navy submarine moored and gently rotting away in the foreground to the misty cathedral and castle framed background of an ancient town and former city.
Rochester was purportedly one of Charles Dickens’ favourite haunts and a place where he based some of his novels. Having seen the grim and bleak reality of much of the marshland recently I could certainly vouch for the Dickensian heritage. But today Rochester was famous for something much more pressing. By-election fever was in town and there were clusters of heavy lens clad photographers hanging about trying to get a snap of some political heavyweights due in town to fight their corner. I noted equally numerous clusters of eastern european immigrants hanging about on street corners too and had a passing suspicion that maybe they had been planted there by the UKIP candidate. UKIP were favourites to win and in this neck of the woods the lot sitting in the blue corner would only be fighting an opponent from another blue corner.
Rochester, Chatham, Brompton and Gillingham all merged into one another and though the Saxon Shore Way insisted that I take the tourist route to pass by a castle, a cathedral and the odd museum or two, I saw through their cynicism and wandered straight into the high streets to try to get a feel for the real Medway towns…. and maybe sneak in a quick pie from Greggs.
As I left the Gillingham suburbs the Saxon Shore Way lost its way a bit and headed inland for me to enjoy the pleasures of a few more muddy fields and paths through to the bleak backwaters of Iwade and Kemsley hiding in the mainland shadows of the huge industrial plants over on the Isle of Sheppey. Ian had somehow found an open campsite with hardstanding, we were the only residents and we kept the doors locked.
Stage 233, 20th November: Kemsley to Whitstable
I barely skirted Sittingbourne and the huge paper mill at Kemsley. Now it was the turn of a grass topped sea-wall alongside the River Swale and a view out to the Isle of Sheppey. It was nearly ten miles of a dreary dull backdrop on a dreary dull day with only the boating haven of Teynham and the Swale Marina to break the monotony and give some respite to my numbing brain. But even the most picturesque villages can look dull on a grey late autumn day and Teynham was no exception.
The sea-wall ended as I dipped sharply inland at Faversham where Shepherd Neame, the oldest brewery in Britain, lay temptingly in waiting. I resisted the urge to nip in and opted for the joys of thick brown slippery wet fields back out towards the coast at Seasalter. Yes, it was coast. Not river bank, not marsh, not farmland but coast, proper coast with waves – admittedly small ones – breaking against the shore. However, Ian had texted to forewarn me of a bizarre and disturbing sight to steer well clear of. In searching for a campsite (so he claimed) he had come across a rather large, greasy man sitting naked in his car in a public car park and watching pornography. By the time I got there the man in the blue Proton had fortunately dressed himself but was still sitting there idly leering into the distance towards a nearby block of public toilets. I resisted the call of nature and pressed on quickly giving him my hardest “pervert” scowl as I strode passed. It was a subject of much mirth between Ian and I, as we likened his appearance to someone we both knew, but in truth it was a little disturbing and if he had still been naked when I passed by I think a call to the local constabulary would have been required.
Whitstable was my next town and last stop for the day. This small seaside town is renowned for its oysters but had recently become the predominant haunt of trendy Londonites. As a result, house prices had soared and though the quaint old pubs still existed they looked a little expensive for a quick pie and a pint.
Stage 234, 21st November: Whitstable to Kingsgate
Today I had the rare pleasure of keeping my feet dry and giving my boots an opportunity to fully dry out for the first time in, what felt like, weeks – if not months. Not only was the weather dry but so were the esplanades, promenades, paths and concrete topped sea-walls that I kept to all day. It was now more of a gentrified North Kent coast. The cleansed and modernised Herne Bay sea front set the tone and this continued unabated as I dropped out of sight from the town below the low cliffs of Bishopstone. Cliffs! Yes, Cliffs at last!
From St Mary’s Church and the roman fort at Reculver I was now on the Thanet Coastal Path and a concrete sea-wall took me along for an hour into Birchington. I now had my first proper sighting of chalk on the Kent coast and though they might not be the spectacular white cliffs of Dover they were still white cliffs and the path stuck firmly to their feet, meandering around the small headlands and hiding the town from view. I briefly emerged at Westgate Bay and Margate only to hide again as Cliftonville sat somewhere above me. The buildings now at the foot of the cliff told me a different story to the comparative wealth I had seen over the day. Cliftonville was rundown, decrepit and in dire need of regeneration. It certainly had an elegant if not grandiose past but it had lost that guilt edge and now sat at the bottom end of Kent’s towns of desire list.
An early start to allow Ian to head back to Berkshire for some rare time at home meant that I finished early and made my last formal crew change of the entire walk. I could have happily spent much more time in Ian’s company. We spent the evenings having devil’s advocate discussions about the world’s problems and by talking complete nonsense about any other trivia that might come to mind. We were always good at talking rubbish together and things hadn’t changed, other than a large reduction in alcohol intake. I was grateful to him for giving up his week to support me and though he managed to remain connected and get some work done, I don’t think it was as much as he had intended. Former work contact and long-standing friend, Mike, now took over and he picked me up and ensconced me back at his house in Birchington for some R&R and a new base camp.
Miles to Date: 4,807.2 Ascent to Date: 523,724 ft