Saturday, August 18

Rainham and Tilbury, a day of unexpected delights

Last week I took a day off work specifically to spend it out on the bike with my good friend and ace photographer Gareth. We chose one of the hottest days of summer so far, deliberately of course. And our chosen route? Not a picturesque spin round the green lanes of Kent, or a trip to the beach to wallow in coastal scenery - no, a ride along the gritty northern edge of the Thames estuary, from Rainham to Tilbury and beyond.

Luckily it's not all grit, warehouses and landfill sites. Rainham Marshes, the first part of our journey, is beautiful - several miles of paved bike tracks, flowers, drainage ditches and these beautifully appropriate bridges which suit the landscape so well.

The parapets of the bridges, so simple and yet so effective, are made of Corten weathering steel ('rusty' to the general public - designed to corrode a certain degree with the rust eventually protecting the remaining steel from further corrosion. That's the theory - check back in 30 years for the facts.) The route to the Thames and beyond to the RSPB reserve is signposted by these beautiful Corten route markers; I love the cutout style and the fact that the colour of the wording changes depending on which way you look at it and on what bit of sky or cloud lies behind it. I think I took about 30 photos of these signposts, their aesthetics pleased me so much!

Where the path meets the river is a graveyard of old ferro-concrete barges, permanently moored up and in various states of buoyancy. 

Gareth negotiates a rather complicated bike gate at Rainham, presumably designed to keep motorbikes and quad bikes off the path. God knows how anyone without an engineering degree manages to get through it.

The RSPB visitor centre at Rainham marshes is an interesting building which has a cafe overlooking the reserve and a large picnic area in the garden below. We didn't have time to get out into the reserve but it has several hides and a load of boardwalks so could be a good place to check out for a future day out.

The 'world's largest yacht' (I always thought yachts were meant to have sails) the MV Octopus passed by as we were at the cafe, leaving London after being berthed there during the Olympics.

In Thurrock a complete surprise awaited us as we came across the Royal Opera House's education and set-building centre at High House Production Park. It was a weird discovery of a little oasis of culture and beauty among grim housing estates and grubby industrial parks.

The poor sods have a view of the Dartford Crossing, one of the ugliest bridges in western Europe, in my opinion!

Further on from the ROH site we headed to St Clements Church, a peculiar sight right next to Proctor & Gamble's chemical works in the middle of a huge industrial estate. A smell like the combination of every pongy cleaning fluid in the world hung in the air, it did not make the place feel clean - quite the opposite in fact.  St Clement's is a lovely church in a totally bizarre location; apparently was used as the location for the funeral in Four Weddings and a Funeral (not that I can remember, which won't surprise anyone who knows me and my memory for films :-/).

At Grays we decided to hop on the train for one stop, to avoid having to ride along busy roads with all the articulated lorries and white vans which we'd already had our fill of. Grays is a depressing place. And then we arrived at Tilbury Town and immediately revised our opinion of Grays.

Luckily we weren't in the 'town' very long and were soon heading back to the river en route to Tilbury Fort, one of the country's best preserved forts, originally founded by Henry VIII. Best photographed from the air, as the link shows!

Unfortunately we chose one of the two weekdays when it happened to be closed, but on the plus side, it was a quiet and peaceful time to be there and we pootled around for a while enjoying the views over the river and the power station, and watching the boats go by.

We weren't sure if we could get along the river much further - there's no official cycle route but seemed to be a footpath marked on the map. Luckily we met an old chap on a bike coming the other way who assured us that apart from having to carry our bikes up and down a couple of sets of stairs, we could get right through to Coalhouse Fort, our ultimate destination. 
He was right, although the path was a little overgrown at times and required a bit of negotiation - past the power station it's a narrow concrete ledge below a big high wall, deteriorating to a muddy footpath for half a mile or so before the asphalt is reinstated coming into Coalhouse Fort. We took bits of vegetation back to London in the spokes of our bikes - very pretty and slightly hippyish!

Final stop before the train home was the modernist Bata factory in East Tilbury, specifically requested by Gareth for architectural curiosity. Lots of photos were taken, I'm sure they'll be up on his blog before too long!

A glorious sunset over Tower Bridge and the Shard rounded the trip off beautifully. Despite a long and hot day out, the ride home cooled me down and made for a fitting end.

Wednesday, August 15

Shellness, Isle of Sheppey

It was a sunny Sunday so Sue and I went in search of a beach. First thought was Margate - lovely sandy beaches with safe swimming, an art gallery and the regenerated old town with its shops and cafes. But nearly three hours on the train, and probably a couple to drive, which I wasn't keen on.

Whitstable? More accessible but muddy beaches and lots of DFLs (Down from London) to which we would add a couple more.

So with nothing more than a vague idea of what we would find, we headed for the Isle of Sheppey simply because someone we knew had told us she was going there a couple of days ago, and frankly what's good enough for her should be good enough for us. Plus it was less than an hour to drive and I knew the way!

Well it took us a while to find the good bit of Sheppey, but we got there in the end. We rejected Sheerness beach because it was too exposed, and Minster for the same reason. Heading towards Leysdown we discovered it was everything that we suspected it might be - rows of chalets, karaoke bars, fish and chip shops and acres of badly-dressed white flesh.

But the secret is not to give up - continue to the end of the road and you will discover a landscape without chalets and largely devoid of people too. This is Shellness and the coastal park.

We followed the coast past a smattering of ramshackle beach houses, some of them nothing more than shacks, others tarted up and obviously well used. Some had boats in the garden, others were surrounded by huge rosemary bushes, evening primrose, and arty sculptures made of flotsam and jetsam.

The following stretch takes you through the naturist beach - best to be aware of it so that you can take it in your stride, so to speak. It was quite busy when we passed by, a mixture of couples and families dotted among the sand-dunes and a number of single men standing proudly (some quite literally, ahem) next to their windbreaks.

Beyond the naturist beach is the private hamlet of Shellness, all fenced off quite aggressively with signs everywhere. But the land is only private above the high water mark, so you can walk around the beach quite easily and peer into their windows if you like

It's worth doing so, because the beaches beyond are full of shells, with sandy stretches, and lovely views over to Whitstable. It's a peaceful and quiet place, with very few people passing by, and only the sound of the waves and the plaintive cries of Oyster Catchers and Curlews. We earmarked a walk for our next visit, taking in Harty Ferry and the Ferry House Inn when we have more time.

It's a peaceful and quiet place, with very few people passing by, and only the sound of the waves and the plaintive cries of Oyster Catchers and Curlews for company.

We earmarked a walk for our next visit, taking in Harty Ferry and the Ferry House Inn when we have more time. Colleen has written about this part of the island a few times, in a way that makes me yearn to visit it.

We never got our swim in the end - the sea was way out beyond the muddy flats and the breeze was quite stiff. But it was a glorious end to the day after such an unpromising start, and we came back with pockets full of shells and beach debris.

Saturday, August 11

Preserved lemons

I know that I promised this recipe a long time ago when I published the recipe for preserved lemon, mango and coriander chutney, but I've only just got round to doing the pictures and finding a little time to post it. It's extremely easy to make preserved lemons, and if you have a local market nearby, incredibly cheap too. Here in Deptford we can often buy six or eight lemons for £1 and so you can make a jar of these for little over a quid. They are very versatile for adding to salads, stews and so on, although so far I've only used them for chutney making.

1kg small lemons
150g good quality sea salt (I just use table salt)
1tsp black or pink peppercorns
a few bay leaves
1 tsp coriander seeds

Ideally you should use unwaxed lemons, but I would have to make a special trip to Sainsbury's or something, with no guarantee of success, so I just buy waxed ones and give them a thorough scrub with a vegetable brush first.  Set aside three or four which will be juiced.

Make two deep slits lengthways through the rest of the lemons but don't cut them right through, so that the lemon stays intact. The first time I did this I left both ends attached but found it difficult to get the salt in, so the second time I just left one end intact, it was much easier.

Rub a good teaspoonful of salt into the inside of each lemon, and pack them as tightly as you can into a large pickle jar (use the ones with the screwtop lids not the ones with the swing lids as I did in the picture below - the salt will rust the metal attachment.)

As you pack them in, sprinkle the peppercorns, coriander seeds and bay leaves between the lemons along with the rest of the salt. Juice the remaining lemons and pour the lemon juice into the jars, topping up with water so that the lemons are fully covered. It will take about four weeks for the skins to go soft and for them to be ready to eat. Usually it's only the skins that are used; wash the brine off the lemon, scrape out the flesh and then chop the skins into small pieces or whatever the recipe calls for. A beautiful, intense lemon flavour!

One thing I've found is that I have had trouble keeping the top lemon fully immersed in the brine - they tend to float up to the top of the jar. If anyone has any tips for how to prevent this, please share in the comments!

Wednesday, August 1

Weymouth to Corfe Castle: Walk 2012

Although I've been following the development and planning of Walk 2012 ever since it first kicked off, I wasn't sure whether I would be able to join in until the very last minute. Rather inconveniently the dates of the Olympics (and hence of Walk 2012) clashed exactly with the period during which the quarterly magazine I edit goes to press.

But as the start date approached I realised that I was well enough prepared for the magazine to be able to take a bit of time out for leisure, and what's more the weather forecast was good. It turned out that by getting up at 5am on Saturday morning I was able to get a train all the way to Weymouth in order to be at the Jubilee clock tower in time to meet the walkers setting off on the Games Way.

The long-distance walk (184 miles from Weymouth, where the Olympic sailing is taking place to the Olympic stadium at Stratford in east London) was the idea of Mark Stanley, who can be seen in the picture above being interviewed for Radio Solent. He has been aided and abetted in his development, testing and planning of the walk by his partner Felix, a sound artist and keen knitter whose blog I started following long before Walk 2012 was even a twinkle in Mark's eye.

So it was a keen bunch of about 16 who set out from Weymouth on the first leg of the walk, to Durdle Door some 14 or so miles away. The sun was glorious, the scenery devastatingly beautiful and the hills were relatively gentle to begin with.

As we neared Durdle Door, the hills became much steeper and tougher - having attempted this route in the opposite direction and given up last time, I knew more or less what to expect. But it didn't make it any easier and by the time we reached Lulworth Cove - someone's mad idea to go on up another big hill to have a drink or two in the pub before heading for the campsite (oh go on then) - our legs were a little the worse for wear.

Luckily the pub offered some fine, refreshing ale and what's more I was able to head down to the cove for a refreshing dip before we went back to the campsite for the night. Turned out I had the biggest tent out of the five - even bigger than the one being shared by Mark and Felix. A bit embarrassing but what can I say? I like my home comforts!

Below is a picture of Lulworth Cove, just in case you didn't realise what an idyllic spot it is. This was taken at about 10am on Sunday morning as the hard core of seven remaining walkers (plus Poppy the dog, who I fell a bit in love with) set out towards Wareham.

A great deal of the walk from Lulworth Cove to Tyneham skirts around military ranges which are often closed to the public, making for curious views of the surrounding countryside scattered with burned out skeletons of tanks. The total lack of cultivation this land has experienced over the decades also makes for incredibly rich flora and fauna, which was evident in the wide range of flowers and beautiful beetles and enormous crickets we came across.

First stop was the fossil forest, on the photo below, which is apparently actual Jurassic land dotted with the fossilised remains of trees (or at least of their surrounds). I was kind enough to stay at the top of the big flight of stairs to look after the bags (truth is my knees refused to take me down and then back up any unnecessary steps..!)

Soon after, the hills became bastardly with the first big climb leading me to muse on the fact that large rucksacks really should be fitted with quick-release cords. There were a few points at which I was convinced the rucksack was going to tumble over the cliffside with me attached to it, not a pleasant feeling. That and the suspicion that my knees were wearing themselves out damn quick, didn't help with progess.

Luckily the scenery was still jaw-droppingly wonderful, so every step upwards brought a new perspective to the view.

Here we are at the top of the 'brutal' hill having just enjoyed a rewarding chocolate biscuit each - Mark, Felix, Hodge, Ollie, Liz, Alison and of course Poppy.

A brutal downhill to a hidden cove that would have been deserted in normal circumstances (but in fact was awash with construction crew) led us straight into another brutal uphill, with the main difference being that the threat of violent death was much diminished with the path a substantial distance from the cliff.

Finally we followed a long ridge to Corfe Castle, with views unfolding in every direction - inland towards Wareham, east towards the Isle of Wight and south to Tyneham and the continuing coastal route. I think this was my favourite bit, and the lack of hills made my feet and knees appreciate it even more.

In Corfe Castle we stopped for food and drink, and I decided that I should duck out at this point and take the bus on to Wareham, I was pretty sure I wouldn't manage to walk another six miles, no matter how flat. All the same I was pretty proud of what I'd achieved, given the size of the hills and the weight of my backpack!

I'll be following the progress of the rest of the group over the coming days, Mark is tweeting about the walk when his phone battery allows. Although they were down to just four by the time I left, others plan to join on later stages of the walk, and I might even be able to hook up with them again on the last leg of the journey through London next week!