The London Countryway – Day 17

February 16, 1988: East Tilbury to Sole Street

Coalhouse Fort

Coalhouse Fort

The next outing on the LCW took place on Mardi Gras, 1988, a Pancake Tuesday during our school’s “Ski Week” midwinter break. Tosh, Harold, Toby and I were accompanied for the first time by Marge Rogers, the Lees friend from Boston – who would later joined us for many miles on the Southwest Peninsula Coast Path, among other routes.  Dorothy was at work, but the rest of us were prepared to take advantage of some mild weather in order to complete stage seventeen of our round-London jaunt.

Toby and I left the house at 8:10. I stopped for a moment to get my clip-on sunglasses from the car, for it was already very sunny. Toby was a real pain in the park. He jumped into a “forbidden area” three times, took forever to do his first doo-doo, and was hard to drag away from Chuck Sidman’s Chelsea.

It was crowded on the Bakerloo Line and I had to carry the dog for several stops. When we got to the correct platform at Baker Street there was an even more protracted waiting period before the Circle Line showed up. There was a public address announcement apologizing for the delay and assuring us that there was a train already at Edgware Road. Again it was hard to find a place to put the dog down – once this train finally showed up. He put his paws on a seated black youth, who squealed in shock. Finally I got a seat. We inched toward Tower Hill, but I could see that I would be late for my rendezvous and the 9:20 train. As we trotted toward Fenchurch Street station I spotted Tosh buying coffee from a kiosk. She told me not to worry about being late – they had cancelled the 9:20.

I met Margie, who had once been a high school colleague of Tosh. She was wearing a pair of borrowed tennis shoes and there was some talk of her returning at the halfway mark, but she did quite well and stayed the course. We went up to the platforms and waited for the 9:47. The women wandered off for newspapers and snacks. We had only a few other passengers in our compartment – which was quite warm due to the bright sun. I pared a bit off a toenail and prepared my pack. We passed through industrial and maritime suburbs and arrived in East Tilbury shortly before 10:30.

I decided not to backtrack the mile or so to the Countryway itself, but to head straight south toward the river and pick it up again in East Tilbury village. Toby was therefore on lead as we headed south on the pavements of East Tilbury town. We got no further than a shopping center – where the girls disappeared for more snacks (well, Tosh also visited a loo). Toby and some Lhasa Apso had a pissing contest on a lamp post in the car park.

Across the street was the Bata shoe factory – a large complex that now served as an industrial park. It was too far away to see who was being honored by a statue in front of the main building (Mr. Bata himself?). There was also a monument on our side – “to the unknown instep” was my guess. We passed a gravel factory – with signs warning lorry drivers not to splash children on their way to school. Road works slowed us down as we neared East Tilbury village. In fact we stopped altogether for a memorial snap – I had just reached my mile 1250.

There were very nice views of the sun shining off the surface of the placid Thames. We did a circumnavigation of Coalhouse Fort ­– more in search of Tosh’s next loo than the for the scenery, but this was very nice indeed. Tugboats were chugging around a little inlet and I hooked Toby before he could jump in. It took us a while to find the track out to the riverside – it could be reached from the parking lot, but only by abandoning same to cross a ditch on a little bridge. We kept this ditch on our right and went through some bushes on a muddy path. I told the girls that these bushes were likely to be the last cover available for some time, so we all snuck off for a pee with Toby, unhooked, rushing about to see what was keeping us.

The next stretch of the path, along the top of a grassy riverside dyke, seemed very muddy, so Harold found a way round on the bankside. Toby, however, had started on another little ridge and to rejoin us he plunged downhill and threw himself headlong onto the green surface of a scummy marsh pool clogged with junk. His surprised head never went under, but his swimming was impeded by several boards floating on the surface of the pool. These he climbed over and at last reached dry ground, shook himself off, and raced forward as though nothing untoward had happened. I was a bit anxious at first, for the dog would suddenly take off like a fuzzy grey rocket and disappear around the next corner. But he soon returned and my calls at least slowed him down. This was his first outing in months and he was feeling his legs.

On the riverside beachcombers were poking among the ancient rubbish heaps looking for prize bits of Victoriana. Tosh engaged some of them in conversation while I found a nice old medicine bottle – with its Earls Court address still visible. Harold seized this for a friend who collected these artifacts. I could see why Chesterton had found this stretch unsatisfactory for animals – there was a lot of broken glass about, but Toby seemed to dash through unscathed. A fallen wire fence separated us from still more of the dump on our right and the shoreline was also littered with junk, but it was still a very pleasant place to be on a bright sunny morning in February. The Kent side of the river was lovely and occasionally a giant container ship would head out to sea. Basically the river was empty – which tells us a lot about the decline of London as a port.

Fisherfolk and joggers were our only companions. For almost two miles we made our way westward on the dyke top, with a giant power plant as the next target. Here we actually encountered pavement below a tall keep-out wall – our progress slowed by graffiti reading. Most of the slogans were about love and identity. Someone called herself a “modette.” There were also political slogans. My favorite was the prophetic: “1997 – another piece of the empire gone! Hong bloody Kong.”

There seemed to be no passage over a conveyer belt – in spite of Chesterton’s promises – but we found a way under this obstacle and proceeded forward along the pavement, rounded a corner and saw our first view of tourists atop Tilbury Fort. We had to make our way over several metal stairways and I was amazed at how bravely Toby took them. Not only were they open at the back but the risers were only grillwork. As we neared the fort he was having a great time rounding everyone up by running back and forth on the cement walkways. The fort looked quite attractive with its ornate Water Gate, but Tosh had been nagging me about a promised pub – the World’s End – between the fort and the ferry.

We arrived at our resting place at about 12:45. Dogs were not permitted inside (or kids) so I sat at a table in the car park with Toby while the others went inside and ordered food and drinks. Harold brought me a half lager. Tosh did too. It was not too bad sitting outside, though I wore my wool cap and tan bomber jacket throughout the day. I gave Toby an egg. He was bored and it took forever for the food to arrive. When it did Tosh relieved me at the bench and I went inside to gobble an order of oily place, chips, and peas. I had a third half and went outside to relieve Tosh. She had rushed up to the parapet to see a large container ship, taking Toby with her, but leaving my camera and other gear behind!

Shortly before 2:00 we walked onto the ferry slip at Tilbury Riverside, going over more iron grillwork staircases and along a last stretch of pavement and seawall to get there. A local lass was actually removing her name from a graffiti heart on a wall. I was surprised to discover that the ferry was for pedestrians, bikes, and motorcycles only. We watched it fighting the current as it neared our shore and at 2:10 we were off. Behind us the cranes of Tilbury Docks receded and Kent grew larger in front. The ride was over too soon – after only a couple of minutes. I couldn’t help thinking about Bertie on the Ullswater ferry.

When we landed in Gravesend we walked past the church, with its monument to Pocahontas, and into downtown traffic. Tosh already wanted another coffee and settled on takeaway cups from McDonalds. Hot coffee sloshing over my fingers, I lead us down the shopping precinct and Windmill Street and asked a traffic warden if this were the A227 to Tollgate. She seemed startled by the question and, with a continental accent of some sort, replied that we needed to use a parallel street to the east. We dutifully took her advice, but outside the tourist information center I could see a map that confirmed I had been right the first time! So we backtracked to the original road and headed south – following the A227 for a mile and a half, past some interesting almshouses and the rest of suburbia. Toby was quite good on lead and slightly less panicked than usual about not being first in line. It was a bit chillier, with the sun encountering some cloudy opposition on occasion, and I put on my gloves.

We crossed a complicated roundabout system and walked under the A2. Then we turned left and darted across a busy road to the Tollgate Moat House motel. Then we took a sidewalk along the A2 for a short distance, encountering here the start of the Weald Way – which we were planning to complete at some time in the future. For today our LCW route would coincide with the first three miles of this route. We climbed a stile that put us behind some of the motel bedrooms and almost walked by a turnoff that put us on a thin track, going southeast, across a field. We were quickly in rural settings at last. I celebrated by ducking behind the first bush for a pee. Toby was let loose, but he was content to follow along now – his frisky energy had burned out for the day.

We headed south on a concrete track. A lovely rolling Kent panorama beckoned. I used the Weald Way guidebook – it had very good Wainwright style maps. We passed a number of farmhouses, following tracks to Nash Street. As we left this hamlet we were directed down a mucky sunken lane between wire fences but this seemed an impossible challenge for boots – and especially for Margie’s tennies. There were cows blocking the path too. I decided to do a little scouting, descending the hill on clean grass next to one of the fences. I could see a stile at the bottom leading out of the muck path into this very field ­– so I called on the others to follow me. Toby had been on lead because of the cows but he was freed again. We turned right and came up to a road where pumping equipment was emptying water from the next portion of our track. One of the workmen suggested we would do better walking in the adjacent field. At the end we crossed a paddock containing a horse with a blanket on, a shaggy pony and a curious heifer with horns. We walked on Whitepost Lane briefly and through a wood dominated by suburban back yards. I saw a grey squirrel climbing an oak – a Michigan scene. A short stretch of road walking in Sole Street brought us to the train station, where a train was just pulling in. We missed it.

Misdirection by the traffic warden in Gravesend now meant that we had to wait until 5:10 – thirty minutes more – for the next Victoria train. I sipped coffee from my little thermos. A wonderful sunset lit the sky. Tosh went into a store and bought a paper and some digestive biscuits for Harold’s supper – poor man. We arrived at Victoria at 6:00 and had to fight our way through commuters to pay for our tickets. Another journey of despair on the Circle Line followed. One Sloane looked down at Toby and said, “I like his eyebrows.” We got home at 6:50.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day 18: Sole Street to Borough Green