GRAVESEND:Bang opposite Tilbury, on the southern banks of the Thames, that's where Gravesend lurks [photo]. It's the last settlement before the estuary opens out and the marshes take over, for mile upon mile upon mile. Gravesend's been around for centuries, where the tip of the North Downs nudges down to the river, the ideal spot for maritime embarkation. More recently it's had a tougher time, and it's not the first place you'd think of for a day out. But its mood suited a grey cold day, and there was plenty to see, and hell, it's only two stops from Stratford.
Pocahontas: She's the one trump card Gravesend possesses, and they play her well. Not the Disney Princess, but the actual daughter of the tribal chief who met Captain John Smith on his first voyage to America. The girl from Tsenacommacah befriended the Jamestown colonists, then sailed back to England with one of them as a symbol of the "tamed" New World. Pocahontas lived in Brentford for a bit, was paraded in front of high society, met the king, that sort of thing. And then after a year she sailed home, or at least started to, but fell gravely ill as her ship reached Gravesend. Her immune system wasn't ready for smallpox, pneumonia, tuberculosis or whatever it was, and she died shortly after coming ashore. Her funeral took place in March 1617 at St George's Church, close to the foreshore, and her body was laid to rest in a vault beneath the chancel.
St George's burnt down in 1727 - these things happen - but Pocahontas is still buried beneath the Georgian replacement. The church is usually locked, but it was open yesterday so the good ladies of the parish could arrange the Easter flowers. They have a splendid space to fill, watched over by classical candelabras and several stained glass windows. Two of the latter are gifts from the Society of Colonial Dames of America, a Virginian group, and feature their beloved princess being baptised and looking angelic and stuff. In 1958 the Governor of Virginia came over to unveil a bronze statue, and that stands outside where anyone can see it. Arms splayed back, one foot behind the other, she stares out across a car park towards the inner ring road. [photo]
Gravesham council know they're onto a good thing, so the town's tourist information office is located immediately opposite. You'd probably not find it otherwise, hidden round the back of a modern shopping centre, past the multi-storey, beneath a coffee shop, doubled back down a ramp. It's a good place to start your explorations of the area, not least because they've done a fine job of highlighting all the other sites of interest the borough has to offer, and this borough explains its heritage rather well. Try not to gawp too long at the Charles and Diana memorial clock near Mothercare, none of the locals do, and in 1983 it would have seemed perfectly respectful. Instead consider the unlikely chain of events that plucked a native American girl from obscurity and led her to die in a town she never knew, but which now claims her as its own.
General Gordon: He's Gravesend's other claim to fame, the General of Khartoum, though again he wasn't born here. After honourable service in the Crimea and China GeneralGordon came to the town in 1865 to oversee the building of river defences, and to be a philanthropic citizen. Several forts were built to guard the mouth of the Thames, including Shornemead and Coalhouse Forts downriver and New Tavern Fort in the town. That's now part of a modern riverside park, with adjacent swings and a bandstand in the middle. But you can still climb the ramparts and look out across the Thames, maybe even pretend to fire one of the heavy guns at Tilbury Power Station [photo]. Part of the underground magazine is open to the public at weekends, but only from April to September so alas I missed out.
Town Pier: Gravesend boasts the world's oldest-surviving cast iron pier, built in 1834. It's not especially outstanding, except in longevity, but by rights it shouldn't be here at all. Passenger traffic boomed on the Thames in the 19th century, with millions sailing up from London to enjoy the river air and the formal gardens. But then the railways came, and the pleasure steamers ceased, and even the Tilbury ferry switched to alternative moorings in the 1960s. It took a council buyback and a lottery grant to rescue the place, since reopened with a rather swanky restaurant along its length. Perhaps too swanky for the average Gravesend resident - the covers didn't look at all busy yesterday lunchtime - but at least the clock tower and bell tower are still standing. [photo]
The Tilbury Ferry: It's the lowest public crossing point on the Thames, from the heart of Gravesend to a vague extremity of Tilbury, and somehow I've never ridden it before. Even better, just this month the service has switched back to use the Town Pier for the first time in half a century, departing from a brand new pontoon snaking out into the grey. Nobody's yet thought to advertise this on the southern side - the signs on the pier entrance Pier are all Restaurant Restaurant Restaurant with not a single mention of Ferry. The boat's not big, because these days the service is merely for foot passengers not vehicles [photo]. Inside is a bleak cabin with a few chairs and boxes laid out to sit on, plus a central desk where a deckhand waits to sell tickets (very cheap, only £3 return, for this is no fancy cablecar) [photo]. And every half hour he casts off, and the crew shuttle their no-frills human cargo across the estuary. A five minute voyage is all it takes to cross the shipping lane, maybe longer if you get caught in the wake of a passing container monster. They send a connecting shuttle bus to save you a long trek on the northern side, or you can walk to Tilbury Fort, or (if you don't mind a querulous stare from the deckhand) you can ride straight back again.
Gravesend town centre: Step out of the station and you're greeted by a battered pub, the backside of a Tesco Metro and a UKIP anti-immigration advert. For Gravesend is no tourist hub, more a maritime town on the slide with its fair share of social problems. One of the nicest bits of town, if you're on a whistlestop tour, is to walk up the 'Heritage Quarter' High Street[photo]. Start in Town Pier Square, by the Three Daws smugglers' haunt, and climb past the market hall to the old Library [photo]. Don't walk much further, things get rapidly worse, although the view from the top of Windmill Hill is worth the ascent. Elsewhere the 1887 Clock Tower has Victorian whimsy, and some of the riverside buildings have tales to tell, but head too far along the Thames - either west or east - and you'll regret it.
The Ship and Lobster: Depending on how you're counting, this is either the first or the last pub on the Thames. Dickens mentions it in Great Expectations, much of which was based on the marshes to the east. I thought I'd walk from downtown Gravesend following the Saxon Shore Way, a long-distance footpath hugging the coast of Kent from here all the way round to Hastings. Sheesh. The walk started out OK, past the Port of London's pierside HQ and a large marina (formerly the end of the Thames and Medway Canal). And then the road crossed a swingbridge to pass down an alley of tumbledownsheds, formerly hotbeds of marine engineering, now deserted. Ulp, I thought, what with there being no obvious means of escape should anything nefarious be lurking. At the far end the path opened out to a backroad lined by vehicle depots, truck exhausts chugging, and at the next junction another road led off into nothingness. I turned left where the canal restarts, this entirely overgrown, to track down the pub within a small industrial estate. A dead end surely, except past the redundant lighthouse there it was, The Ship And Lobster. Poor thing. It used to face the Thames but the front door now opens out in front of a concrete sea wall, attracting no passing trade except walkers intent on striding into the empty marshes [photo]. And yet the pub was open, and vaguely welcoming, although with only the publican's children crawling over the furniture inside. I'd guess it's busier Monday to Friday, when workers from hereabouts pop into their only local for a well-earned pint. But my vote's with "the last pub on the Thames" - so out of the way that I'm impressed it survives.