diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 30, 2016

I have again been somewhere you won't go. I have been to a remote bend in the Thames east of Gravesend. This is why you have not been.

I have been to Cliffe Fort, which is a fort at Cliffe. More accurately it's two miles west of Cliffe, and Cliffe is the last village up a dead end road north of Rochester before the marshes begin, and this again is why you haven't been.

Cliffe Fort was one of three artillery forts built in the 1860s to guard the entrance to the Thames from maritime attack by the French. The others are at Coalhouse Fort which is much easier to get to, and Shornemead Fort which is probably harder. The forts were decommissioned in the 1920s, and Cliffe is now in ruins.

If you want to see inside a Victorian fort you should go to Coalhouse. Coalhouse is actually open today, if you're interested. But I went to Cliffe, and you can't go inside at Cliffe because it's in ruins. Indeed there are several warnings at Cliffe warning that attempting to go inside would be perilously unsafe and very stupid. So I didn't.

Bends on the Thames downstream of London are often quite isolated, and this one's no exception. The land rolls down to the estuary across bleak Dickensian expanses of marshland, with the cranes and chimneys of Tilbury clearly visible lined up in the distance. At the apex of the bend, by a footbridge of sorts over Higham Creek, I found a cluster of chunky concrete blocks. A few ponies had clustered here, perhaps for shelter, there not being much else to cluster around.

Inland the view is of cement works, and of large lakes where cement and gravel have been quarried since the 1850s. Indeed to get to this point I'd had to walk across a ploughed field to a gravel works, up the side of the railway sidings to the gravel works, then alongside the gravel works and at one point across it, before continuing alongside again past heaps of sand and silos and a long sea wall. This is another reason you have never been.

Two long jetties stick out into the river, and these are still in commercial operation. A wooden boat decays nearby, a Danish schooner called the Hans Egede, beached in the mud in 1957. And the footpath wiggles on as the Thames bends north, following a narrow raised dyke, inexorably approaching Cliffe Fort and the supposed highpoint of the walk.

It turns out Cliffe Fort is not very exciting. It would be if you could get inside, but you can't, so it isn't. Instead the Saxon Shore Way passes around the front of the building, which is quite low so there isn't much to see. The casement is crumbling, and overgrown, and festooned with those warning notices I mentioned. It's not especially worth the six mile round trip, alas.

Much more interesting is the torpedo slipway. An experimental system was installed in 1890 by Irish/Australian inventor Louis Brennan, making Cliffe Fort the site of the world's first practical guided missile. His torpedo was powered by wired propellers linked to the shore, and could travel at speeds of up to 30mph, to be targeted at any French ships which might attempt to invade London. No ships came, and after fifteen years the technology was superseded.

But the torpedo slipway survives as a concrete slot aimed across the the Thames, though in increasingly poor shape, and with parts of the guideway recently broken away. Someone's graffitied it too, with a tag and a bad Lisa Simpson. You can clamber down, or try walking precariously along the upper rim. This is proper military archaeology. I spent at least two minutes looking at it.

Awkwardly, the footpath immediately to the north of the slipway has crumbled away. It's a long drop down to what passes for a beach, and then you have to get back up again, which is OK so long as the bricks haven't washed away and it isn't high tide. A sign on the other side of the break, by the cement works, warns that this section of the Saxon Shore Way is actually closed. But there hadn't been a sign in the direction I'd approached, which was my excuse for continuing.

I was getting quite blasé about walking through cement works at this point. It was also no longer much of a novelty to be walking underneath elevated conveyor belts. I was less inspired by a broad puddle which covered several yards of footpath and forced me to get my boots and socks wet in order to avoid having to retrace all my steps thus far. I'm aware that I'm not selling this walk particularly well.

Tramping along the edge of the Thames I was surprised to spot a familiar sheet of plastic spread across the path. I recognised it as a Smiths crisp packet, blue and white so presumably salt and vinegar, with a special 'Supercolour fibre tip pen offer' emblazoned on the front. That looks old, I thought, they don't make packets with vertical crimping any more. And I was amazed when I stooped down and read that the closing date for the special offer was February 15th 1974.

They say plastic lingers in the natural environment for years, and they're not kidding. Here was a packet of crisps from my childhood, indeed one I might have saved up tokens for myself before sticking them (along with a 65p postal order) into an envelope. The world has spun thousands of times since 1974, and yet here was a wrapper still mostly intact, its special offer still legible, washed up on the shore as if only recently thrown away.

The estuary-side path north from Cliffe Creek round the Cliffe Marshes is something else, a truly remote trek along the seawall with no connections back inland for miles. I might walk it one day, but this did not seem the time. Meanwhile the inland marshes are popular with birdwatchers. They don't mind coming all this way to stare across large quarried pools at birds, not that there are many birds in October.

Cliffe has a decent pub, once you get back that far, perhaps via Pickle's Way, perhaps up Buttway Lane. I had a pint in The Six Bells and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, Golden Wonder this time, taking care to dispose of the packet properly before leaving. A trip to Cliffe Fort has this effect, it seems. Not that you'll ever go.

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