Today the weather was perfect for cycling so I got up and at 'em early, heading out for Gravesend in Kent just after 10am.
I started off on Sustrans route 1 from Gravesend, heading east. I've always avoided this town, I think it's the name that gives me the shivers plus the train station doesn't give the best impression of the town. But it has a fascinating history, some beautiful buildings and a view of the Thames that may not be glamorous but is certainly compelling.
Apparently Pocahontas was buried here, a canal was built in the 1800s to connect the Thames and the river Medway, and it was an important site for defence of London, her ports and shipyards (including Deptford of course!) Clifton Baths no longer exist, but aren't they glorious?!
The route of the cycle path follows the old canal, which is overgrown and weed-choked along the parts I saw, but I passed a work party clearing scrub around the obelisk near Higham, and it seems there is an active group working to preserve and improve the canal.
After Higham I turned north to the Hoo peninsula itself, leaving the scrubby industrial land behind and riding through fields of cabbages, grazing horses, orchards and polytunnels. I was following the Heron Trail, or local route 18. You can download directions and a map from the link; I had an Ordnance Survey map with me, which had the cycle route marked on. Whatever you do, don't rely on signposting. Even with my map I missed a couple of turns.
I've been wanting to to explore this part of the world for some time, inspired in part by Colleen who seems to be adept at finding pearls among the swine of our city's industrialised margins. It is a strange and compelling landscape - much bigger than you imagine from the maps, and endowed with a strange feeling of otherworldliness. It is so close to London and yet so far removed from it - the scenery, wildlife and views are full of promise and the little villages like Cliffe and Cooling are picturesque in the extreme. There are huge expanses of marshes and flooded gravel pits teeming with birdlife - the RSPB is very active in this part of the world, with quite a few reserves in the area. Cliffe Pools and Northward Hill are two of the main reserves on the peninsula, and both have local walks and events throughout the year.
The great thing about this cycle ride is that you are within sight of water for most of the day - from the industrialised banks of the Thames you then turn south towards the Medway, a very different waterway with lots of sailing boats and dramatic vistas. Hoo Saint Werburgh and Chattenden are uninspiring villages, but then you come to Upnor, nestled at the corner where the Medway swings around St Mary's Island and heads towards the sea.
This is a truly beautiful little village, watched over by Upnor Castle which can be visited via a gate at the bottom of the delightful cobbledy street (except in winter, when it's closed!).
The view to St Mary's Island and Chatham's historic dockland (earmarked for a future visit). Who let those bloody towers be built there ffs?
The only downside was having to pass Strood and its environs to get to Rochester. At least I think it's Strood - it's very difficult to tell with these Medway towns, they don't really have any boundaries. Suffice it to say I had to cycle past a vast expanse of modern warehouses; a light industrial estate which has reproduced like the proverbial rabbit, and sprawled out across every inch of the riverside at this point.
Rochester itself is well worth the effort - this was the final stage of my trip, 26 miles on, and made for a pleasant end to the day. The regeneration crowd seem to have been working their magic on it since I was last there, and the high street units were mostly occupied with very interesting looking independent shops. I popped in a couple but made a note to take the train down for a day trip one day soon.
There's also the castle and the cathedral to visit, of course, not to mention the many other fascinating old buildings to peruse.
Finally while waiting half an hour at the train station I fiddled with my camera and reminded myself that black & white photos can make even the dullest scene take on new interest!
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