Grain Village to Strood Kent
I've always liked the Hoo Peninsula / Isle of Grain and I can strongly recommend a visit to this remote part of Kent, especially for walking. However in the 18th century Grain was considered an unhealthy place because of the prevalence of Malaria, a quote by Kent Historian Edward Hasted in 1798 states "the badness of the water, makes it as unwholesome as it is unpleasant". Peter Ackroyd in Thames: Sacred River describes the marshes in melancholic and marginal terms, such as "uninhabited", "desolate", "wild" and "eerie". This notion of emptiness may have resulted in negativity and been reinforced in the first half of the 18th century when ships were quarantined in the Medway during outbreaks of the plague in Europe. In Charles Dickens book, Great Expectations, there is a perception of lawlessness drawing on reports of escapees from prison, hulks anchored off the peninsula and reports of historical crime such as theft, robbery and smuggling may have added to the peninsula's negative image. Thankfully the native Mosquito (Anopheles Atroparvus) has greatly declined and Britain's last recorded outbreak of Malaria was in 1918.
Someone else who liked it here was Queen Victoria, bizarrely she chose Grain village as her departure point by passenger ship to Germany. So after the South Eastern Railway (SER) decided to build the Hundred Of Hoo Railway line from Hoo Junction to St James (Grain village), a pier, station and modest hotel named Port Victoria soon followed. The idea behind this extension was that to get from London Charing Cross to St James it was only 40 miles compared to the journey to Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey, which was 52 miles. SER were convinced the route would be successful creating a better interconnecting rail and ferry port, with potential for expansion to Atlantic and Continental traffic served by a docks. However it soon became clear that the new route was not as popular as first predicted and when a new docks opened at Tilbury in 1886, it eventually sealed its demise.
Our walk starts from Grain Fire Station and from the start we will follow beside the busy B2001 main road. When we cross over the Grain Rail Crossing the road becomes the A228 and virtually at that point we turn off onto the marsh, beside Colemouth Creek, before following the foreshore toward Stoke.
These old buffer stops and rail sections are stored within the National Grid's Grain Terminal, which covers 600 acres. This area of land is part of the largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) importation terminal in Europe. It has facilities for the offloading and reloading of LNG from ships at two jetties on the River Medway. The terminal can handle 15 million tonnes per annum, that's 20% of all UK gas demand and store one million cubic metres of LNG. Interestingly Grain LNG is classified as an Upper-Tier site under The Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Regulations 2015. A siren is installed in Grain village, it would be used in the event of an incident occurring at the Grain LNG site, that requires the activation of the external emergency plan, not a noise you would want to be hearing while sitting in your bath I guess. :)
It was also near here on the River Medway, that on Thursday May 27th 1915, HMS Princess Irene exploded killing 352 men, including 78 workers from Chatham and Sheerness dockyards, and people on the foreshore. A passenger liner converted to a Minelayer , she had been activating mines ready for her third minelaying operation in the Thames Estuary. At 11.12 am a huge explosion ripped the ship into 10,000 fragments and it is said that you could distinctly make out the forms of men amid the flying wreckage. The explosion was that large that human remains were distributed over a 20 miles radius. Only one man survived, but was badly burnt and three crewman had a lucky escape because they were on shore leave. The cause of the explosion is unclear, however it has been suggested that problems with the way the mines were primed by untrained personnel and hurried procedures could have led to the explosion or a faulty primer. It was even suggested at the time that sabotage was the cause, after several similar ships had suffered a similar fate.
This brick structure is the former Grain railway station building on the old Hundred Of Hoo Railway Line and a remnant of the station built here in 1951. It replaced the earlier Grain Crossing Halt and Port Victoria stations and was built primarily to serve the employee's of Kent Oil Refinery Ltd, although passenger traffic did use it too. The matching signal box was demolished in the 1970's and the platforms, which I have actually stood on, as part of my job as a railman, were flattened in the mid 1990's, leaving just this building as a reminder of the station that closed to passengers in 1961.
Seen here in the BP terminal is a Freightliner locomotive used to haul aviation fuel.
Russ, seen approaching Grain level crossing, had recently learnt that he had been accepted as a DB Schenker Train Driver on the freight at Dollands Moor near Folkestone. Having worked with him for some years as a High Speed Driver in Kent, I know that DB have gained a great driver and a great character. It's always sad to see your mates move on, but we all wish him well and hopefully we will see him walking from time to time. It's sidings like this that he will eventually visit and I know he can't wait to get started.
Grain Level Crossing Box is actually quite rare, being the only Stevens & Sons signal box to survive on the railway system in Britain. Built in 1882 it is now a grade II listed building and apart from the windows not much as changed. The beaded vertical timbering in the gable ends is typical of all Stevens boxes. It still retains its original South Eastern Railway tappet lever frame of nine levers, which operated interlocking points and signals within the yard and a cast iron token machine once used for the single line. Today it doubles as a ground frame-cum-crossing cabin for those operating the crossing gates. All signalling is now controlled by Ashford Signal Box.
Colemouth Creek, looking north east toward Grains LNG Terminal, once formed a single watercourse separating the isle of Grain from the rest of Hoo Peninsula and providing a shipping channel from the River Thames to the River Medway. It was the preferred way for Medway boatmen to reach the London River, being shorter and less hazardous than passing by Queenborough. A substantial single arch stone bridge, known as Grain Bridge, crossed the creek at a point on the line of the present day A228. It allowed both the passage of boats along the creek, and the passage of road traffic over to Isle of Grain village. The tides from the Thames and the Medway came together at the bridge. The bridge which may have been of Saxon or Norman origin disappeared some time prior to 1760. It was replaced by a causeway which at first may have been more like a ford at low tide, forming a spit-way at high tide. Over decades the channel silted up and whether the blockage was caused by the collapse of the bridge or neglect, as the channel needed to be dredged, has not been established. Over sixty years the causeway was raised, built over the creek and the locals eventually came to see Colemouth and Yantlet as separate waterways.
Stoke airfield is home to Two Two Fly, the brain child of Greg Burns a flying instructor from Stansted. Here he runs a flying school for both Flex and Fixed wing microlights and a disabled pilots service. Due to it’s location, the airfield offers amazing views of the Medway and the Thames Estuaries and with Greg's expansion plans the business is looking to grow further. Please look online for further details.
Interestingly Russ mentioned the airfield runway numbering (here 24) being orientated according to compass bearings, something I hadn't realised. Runway numbers are based on the compass with 360 representing north, 90 representing east, 180 representing south, and 270 representing west. Runways are numbered between 01 and 36, removing the last digit and for the sake of simplicity the FAA rounds headings to the nearest ten, meaning heading 307 degrees, would become 31 instead. Most runway's are oriented to take advantage of prevailing winds to assist take-off and landing, so most runways have two compass heading numbers either end of the airstrip, you learn something everyday. :)
The third jetty here is Kingsnorth Jetty extending from the old power station site out into Long Reach of the River Medway. Originally used to deliver coal to fire the 2GW dual fired coal and oil Kingsnorth Power Station, which has now been demolished, the jetty is closed and it's future uncertain. Today the old power station site has been redeveloped as part of the London Medway Commercial Park. However, long before the power station was built here the site was a former World War 1 Royal Naval Airship base opened in 1914, RNAS Kingsnorth. Initially operating as an experimental and training station, it later moved onto large scale production of airships. Until closure in 1921 it was the lead airship training facility in the Royal Naval Air Service.
Barely visible from the banks of the Medway and featured in my title picture, is the circular Palmerston style Darnet Fort, built in 1872 to counter the threat of invasion from France. It is one of a pair, along with Hoo Fort, (to the right in the same photograph), built at the same time, to protect Pinup Reach, the inner navigable channel of the River Medway. The Medway was an important military location for the country with Chatham Dockyard then in its prime. Originally designed for two tiers of guns mounted in a circle the fort was beset with subsidence and after extensive cost overruns the fort was eventually finished with only one tier of 9 inch rifled muzzle-loading guns. Designed for a garrison of up to 100 men, it was never used in anger and closed before the outbreak of the World War 1 in 1914.
World War 2 type 24 pillbox next to the seawall near Abbots Court. Forming part of the Hoo Stop Line anti invasion defences of 1940, it was part of Britain's Outer London Defence Ring. The purpose of this line was simple, to delay and hold back the German armoured advance that was expected to invade inland from nearby beaches and ports. This defence line was 8 miles long and stretched from the River Thames near Cliffe to the River Medway near Hoo St. Werburgh.
Whitton Marine part of the extensive Port Werburgh, previously Hoo Marina situated at Hoo Creek on the River Medway. Hoo, meaning "spur of land", is featured in the Doomsday Book as Hoe. This riverside marina grew from industrial beginnings as part of a huge Brickworks which once stood here beside the River Medway. The Hoo Peninsula is rich in natural resources such as clay, gravel and chalk all used to make bricks. These brickworks capitalised on their riverside location for transporting the finished bricks out by barge to London and further afield, and for bringing in much needed materials such as chalk and lime, to help in the brick making process. Soon jetties and piers grew up along this section of the foreshore the legacy of the marina we see today. Hoo marina had a name change in 2013 to Port Werburgh, making the marina that little bit more trendy.
In this picture, but harder to see on the outer edge of the marina, except for their large light-house style lights, are several Lightships or Lightvessels, now used as houseboats. These include Lightship 86 Nore built in 1931 by White J Samuel & Co Ltd, Cowes, Isle of Wight. She was stationed at various locations including Edinburgh, Cork, Blackwell and Nore, which is at the mouth of the River Thames. Also the South Rock lightship Gannet, which for over 50 years guarded the dangerous area off the County Down coast from which she gets her name. Built in 1865 by Charles Hill & Sons Bristol, she was the last lightship to be retired in Northern Ireland in 1982. Also Lightship 80 (Orwell) was built in Liverpool by H & C Grayson in 1914, she was one of several lightships that marked the hazardous Sevenstones Reef of Lands End Cornwall, before being retired and sold becoming the headquarters for the Sea Cadets Corps in Ipswich, which renamed it T.S. Orwell, after the River Orwell and lastly the lightship Albatross built in Leith Scotland in 1925 by H. Robb Ltd, her last assignment was at Arklow off the County Wicklow coast. She is missing her light which is now displayed on the Arklow waterfront Ireland.
Leaving behind Port Werburgh's busy marina we soon end up walking on the foreshore below Cockham Wood. This narrow muddy pebble beach is the Saxon Shore Way lower route and at the highest tides of the year is impassable, so please check the tide table before walking this section. There is an upper route for safety, but I have to say, everything you would want to see is on the lower route, so please plan your walk accordingly.
Little seems to be known about this early brick landing stage slipway or hard on the foreshore at Cockham Wood. It may date to the same age as the nearby Cockham Wood Fort constructed in 1669. The bricks look to be slightly older though and from the Georgian period, so roughly a 100 years later, meaning that the landing stage was built at the latter stages of the forts existence. Being opposite Chatham Dockyard it may have been used as a crossing point between both the fort and the dockyard or to Fort Gillingham its twin fort both built at the same time to guard Chatham Dockyard. However on early maps there is no record of it or the fort probably for security reasons. So I hereby name it the Cockham Wood Fort Hard. :)
Cockham Wood Fort was constructed in conjunction with Fort Gillingham on the opposite bank of the River Medway in 1669. Both Forts were built to defend Chatham's Royal Dockyard after a raid by the Dutch Navy that humiliated Britain and King Charles II in 1667. The earlier Upnor Castle further up river had proved to be ineffective in defending the dockyard, although gun fire from the castle and from other adjoining emplacements did eventually force a Dutch retreat. However the Dutch had managed to burn the dockyard itself, 13 ships were lost, 2 ships were captured, including the Royal Charles as a trophy and 50 killed, change was needed. So Upnor Castle lost its role as an artillery fortification, so Cockham Wood Fort and Fort Gillingham were constructed. Cockham Wood Fort had a brick base supporting an upper tier of earthworks and had 21 guns on the lower tier and 20 on the upper tier, however the fort was abandoned around 1818 after several decades of gradual dilapidation, leaving the red brick lower battery a prominent feature here on the foreshore.
Upnor's shingle beach starts to form into a proper beach just past Cockham Wood Fort and as the river turns toward Rochester becomes a very pleasant foreshore enjoyed by sailors and families alike. Upnor roughly means "at the bank" in Old English or "upon the bank" in Middle English and is separated into two distinctively different parts, Upper and Lower. Lower being down by the foreshore and the upper part being the cobbled high street area near the castle.
A bit of high jinx and Russ attempts to re-level this type 22 pillbox that has slipped down the steep bank onto Upnor beach. The type 22 pillbox is hexagonal in shape with an entrance to the rear of the firing position. It has walls between 12" and 24" thick and was essentially designed for use by rifleman. Inside there would have been an internal Y-shaped blast wall, doubling as a support for the ceiling and if you look at the rifle holes (loopholes) the bricks step in, making a smaller area to shoot out of, but an even harder one for enemy fire to shoot into.
Medway Yacht Club now sits on the site of the old Hilton's Portland Cement Works which closed in 1902. Acquiring this site here in 1948, it was originally based at Rochester Esplanade further up the Medway. It was registered with the Yacht Racing Association in 1880 and by 1894 it had 86 members including the Earl of Cavendish, Lord Beresford, marine artist W.L. Wylie and war correspondent and children's novelist G. A. Henty. I did read and found it slightly amusing, that in the 1920's an incident was recorded in the clubs accident book, after a member was shot, when live, rather than blank cartridges were used in the clubs starting cannon. Proudly in 1940 six Medway Yacht Club boats helped rescue troops from the beaches of Dunkirk.
The Powder and Magazine gastro restaurant in Lower Upnor is housed in a former war department contact Mine Store which was part of the Naval Ordnance Depot for Chatham Dockyard. Beside it is the filled shell store. All these buildings were served by a narrow gauge (2ft 6") railway, which was part of the Chattenden and Upnor Railway. This line connected to the main line at Sharnal Street, which was part of the earlier mentioned Hundred Of Hoo Railway line. The site here is said to have stored Britain's first H-bomb during the 1960's.
The railway cutting for the Chattenden and Upnor railway just opposite the Ordnance Depot at Upnor. The railway originally built as part of a training exercise for the Royal School of Military Engineering based at Chattenden Camp opened in 1873 as a 18" gauge line. Over the years additional lines were added to serve associated munitions and training facilities and it was converted to 2ft 6" gauge by the 8th Railway Company of the Royal Engineers in 1885. It played a pivotal role for many years especially during World War 2, but due to the end of hostilities, it closed in 1961.
The main gate to Upnor Castle House, the house was accommodation for the storekeeper, the officer in charge of the magazine. The plaque's either side of the gate show Queen Elizabeth 1st standing in front of the castle during a thunderstorm. They probably hint at the storm that wrecked the Spanish Fleet on the coast of Scotland and Ireland,(called the Protestant Wind), when it tried to retreat to Spain after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Sadly these high walls impede a view of the castle itself, which is now owned and run by English Heritage. The castle was constructed to protect Chatham Dockyard between 1559-67 on the orders of Queen Elizabeth during a period of tension with Spain. It has a triangular gun platform projecting out into the river and was garrisoned by around 80 men and 20 cannon.
We finally arrive at another gem in Upper Upnor, the fabulous Kings Arms voted one of Kents best pubs. Great for food, it also has a large selection of local real ales and bottled Euro beers, it's a welcome break on a long walk around the Hoo Peninsula. Positioned at the top end of the delightful cobbled High Street, it's a must stop at for a thirsty walker.
At the bottom of the High Street the Saxon Shore Way returns to a muddy foreshore, although it's dry on the path itself, but it could be a problem with higher tides. From before 1708 and until 1820 it was from this spot that a public ferry used to operate crossing to Princess Bridge at the north end of the Chatham Dockyard.
The Royal Engineers still have a presence in Upnor at the hard and bridging site on the banks of the River Medway. The Royal School of Military Engineering (Riverine Operations section) maintains classrooms, workshops, training of Royal Engineers Assault Boat Operators and Watermanship Safety Officers, who continue to operate craft on operations all over the world. The section operates Mk 1 and 3 Rigid Raiders, and Combat Support Boats, as well as teaching use of the Mk 6 Assault Boat. This area is also used for other training purposes by the RSME.
A slipway within Upnor Hard, on the opposite bank of the River Medway the large covered slipways of Chatham Dockyard. Today they number 3 to 7, right to left, after No.1 was taken down and No.2 was lost to fire. Slip No. 7, furthest left, will always have a place in my heart, because my Dad hired it to restore his boat 'Diver' there in the 1990's. Sadly, he passed away while restoring the boat, but the memories of helping him there are treasured ones to me. It was also the slipway that was used to construct British submarines from 1907 to 1966.
Once over these lights, on the busy A289 Vanguard Way, our walk will turn rather industrial snaking around an industrial estate. I wish I could end it here, but sadly there is still some more river front to walk, before arriving at Strood Railway Station. I'm not going to publish many photo's of this section as it really does take away from the previous part of the walk. If walking direct to the railway station from here it takes around 20 mins.
On the opposite bank, near Chatham's Sun Pier, is this large white boat resembling a floating block of flats. Once belonging to the Dutch Navy it sleeps 200 people and is described as an accommodation barge. It is up for sale and rumour has it that it was going to be used as a prison hulk due to the overflowing prison population. However this has been partially debunked and it's meant to be quite plush inside with air-conditioning, ample leisure and communal areas, catering facilities, a bar area, and a cinema for 80 people, sounds far to good for our criminals. Although I do take warmth from the thought of 200 harden criminals being tossed about on the high seas as punishment.
Further up river we get a glimpse of Rochester Castle and Cathedral, however this view will soon change with new homes and commercial buildings being built as part of a huge Riverside Development on the 74 acre brownfield site. The 200 tonne shipping crane on the bank was originally one of a pair, built in 1957 at Cory's Wharf on Rochester Riverside. It had a 10 tonne lift capacity. They were used to unload aggregates for the nearby cement works. The cranes were dismantled in 2006 to allow the construction of the new river wall. In 2007, one crane was reassembled and re-painted in its original colour before being erected at the edge of Blue Boar Creek. The crane provides a link with the sites historical past and acts like a new landmark for the area.