diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 03, 2014

A Thames Estuary Airport isn't the first impractically grand scheme to have foundered on the Hoo Peninsula. There were once plans for the best holiday resort in Europe to be built here, on the northern coast at Allhallows-on-Sea. The fact you may not even have heard of the place should give some hint as to how far short those plans fell. And now, with Boris Airport definitively crossed off London's regional hub shortlist, there's nothing to stop this small village from living out the future in continued obscurity. I visited at the weekend too. (11 photos)

There are two villages here, one old, one new. The old is a mile inland, that's Allhallows, which grew up around the church of the same name. Like many churches on the peninsula this was established in Saxon times, although the present building dates, in part, to the 12th century. It's very pretty, with a tiny tower perched above castellated walls, but also very locked, usually, if you were hoping to take a look inside. It's also the second Grade I listed church that the Thames Estuary Airport would have obliterated, this under one of the western terminal buildings and Grain's under the end of a runway three miles to the east. You can see right over to Grain from the lane close by, across harvested fields and liquefied gas tanks, in a peculiar mix of utterly rural and utterly not.

And Allhallows village might have remained undeveloped had it not been for the keenness of the Southern Railway to create a new holiday destination to compete with Southend. Herne Bay and the Isle of Sheppey they deemed too far away, while Gravesend was lacking in beach, so they alighted on the Hoo Peninsula as their best compromise. A railway already ran to Grain, not profitably, but it was easy enough to drive a branch line across the marshes to a new station called Allhallows-on-sea. Services began in 1932, and by 1934 almost ten thousand visitors made a bank holiday daytrip to this fledgling resort. They didn't find much, apart from what they made themselves. A large Charrington's pub was built by the station, The British Pilot, but the promised spread of shops and attractions never quite developed. World War Two then put paid to dreams of hotels and enormous swimming pools, and afterwards the crowds never returned, having worked out that Brighton was easier to get to and a lot more fun.

The station's long demolished, replaced by a long thin caravan park which looks like the affordable face of retirement. The British Pilot survives, now reliant on local residents and car-driving families, although don't think of walking in across the marshes because Patrons With Muddy Boots are Not Welcome. A few folk were out following the footpath along the estuary at the weekend, this being the relatively less squelchy part of the year. I'm not sure quite how far they were heading, although they seemed to be aiming for the monument at the mouth of Yantlet Creek. This is the London Stone, the traditional beginning of the Thames estuary, and once marked the boundary of the City of London's fishing rights. I understand the creekside path runs far enough to join up with a back lane though the marshes and thence to the village of Grain, but round here the existence of a line on the map is no guarantee of safe passage.

What seems most peculiar about the village of Allhallows-on-Sea today is the lack of access residents have to the coast. I should qualify and say residents in houses, because what's grown up between the last road and the sea is a substantially-sized caravan park. Two guards sit in a hut by the entrance, and they'll raise the barrier for your car if you can give the name and number of your caravan without stumbling. Pedestrian access seems to go unchallenged, but finding a direct path through the estate isn't entirely straight-forward, and in particular there are no obvious signs directing non-residents back to the exit.

The park's on the large side, spread out along a kilometre of sloping foreshore, and divided into two very distinct halves. To the east nearest the ex-station are the older chalets, more shed-like than mobile, while to the east are more modern metallic cuboids. Families who like this sort of holiday are in abundance, most taking advantage of the onshore watery facilities (pool with flume) rather than having anything to do with the beach. You can see their point. From the greensward promenade the view is of grey estuary, passing ships and a thin strip that turns out to be Southend. Step down through a gap in the sea wall and the beach is, well, extensive, and might be sand or might be mud depending on how good a PR agency it's hired.

It's extremely hard to picture Allhallows-on-Sea as the best holiday resort in Europe, as Kent County Council and the railways and once hoped. Equally it's extremely hard to picture an artificial airport spread out for miles across the mudbanks and marshes, destroying the ancient landscape and dislocating the past. Intriguingly the eastern side of Allhallows was pencilled in as the terminus for the new High Speed railway, reopening a connection that lack of interest had formerly closed. But that's not going to happen now, except in Mayoral pipedreams, leaving this dead end oddity of a village to survive as best it can on estuarine charm.

How to get to Grain, Allhallows and Hoo: Take the train to Strood or Rochester, either fast from St Pancras or slow from Victoria. Then you'll need the 191 bus which runs approximately hourly most days, but only two-hourly on Sundays. The route twists to take in every sizeable village along the way, so the bus takes all of an hour to reach Grain at the tip of the peninsula. But the double deckers afford an excellent grandstand view across the landscape, and there probably won't be anyone battling you for the front seat. A Medway saver ticket costs £6, allowing you to nip off as the fancy takes you, which is how I got to visit Grain and Allhallows before lunchtime, and then take a walk in the afternoon...

High Halstow to Cliffe (5 miles) (11 photos): One terribly impressive thing about even the smallest village on the Hoo Peninsula is that they all have clean, open, functioning toilets. They also all have old churches, and are mostly named after them, although not the 10th century survivor in High Halstow. This village is located at the highest point on the peninsula, and lies adjacent to a large RSPB reserve at Northward Hill which supposedly has the largest heronry in Britain. I saw no herons on my woodland wander, but I did catch a ghastly mis-carved apostrophe, and was amazed to spot Docklands and the Shard rising faintly on the horizon. The next village along is Cooling, one of Charles Dickens' favourites, and he took regular constitutionals to the church. Outside the main door are a dozen baby-sized gravestones which inspired the opening to Great Expectations, and are known colloquially as Pip's Graves. The church is now redundant, but that's good news for the visitor because a charitable trust keeps it maintained and open. At the western end of the village is Cooling Castle, once overlooking the estuary, now two miles inland. Its impressive gateway survives, while the interior contains a more modern dwelling currently owned by none other than Jools Holland. Across the fields, past orchards dripping with excess pears, lies the ancient settlement of Cliffe. This consists of one long street along a low chalk escarpment, leading to one of the largest parish churches in Kent at its tip. Had Boris's Estuary Airport been built then residents here would have been first in line of fire from the southern flightpath, although that's far better than under a previous plan whereby the airport was located on top of Cliffe rather than Grain. As it is, the whole of Hoo can continue in peaceful obscurity, at least until some other dreamer with a grand plan turns up.

» 40 photos from the Hoo Peninsula (the new ones are at the bottom, sorry)

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