The Thames pilot steered the foot ferry out of Tilbury dock, Essex, towards Gravesend, in Kent. He told me some of his passengers only travel one way.
- “Because they’re trying to walk the entire coast,” he said.
- “How many people say that to you?”
- “More than you think,” he replied.
It was 2018, and I was researching the England Coast Path for my book of the same name. When the route opens, hopefully next year, it will be the longest coast path in the world. And all those people who have tried, and failed, to walk the entire coast, without cutting miles inland, will now have a better chance to succeed.
The world’s greatest public right of way network
A monumental achievement. Not for the walker. But the landowners, volunteers and politicians, who across almost two decades, made it possible. The path will connect everyone of us to our salty waters via the world’s greatest public right of way network. A triumph of economic regeneration and mindful human experience in nature.
My own relationship to the coast is not associated with long walks. It’s linked to living in a seaside town at Southend, walking a little of the shore each week, crabbing as a kid and being mild ly obsessed with exploring new places that don’t involve tramping the coast every day for several years.
I like to walk, but I don’t think of myself as a walker. Any more than I considered myself a walker when I played golf.
The England Coast Path opens up a catalogue of mini adventures, sleeps, new foods and thirst quenching drinks like water, coffee and warm beer.
Cliffe Fort in Kent is one of my favourite mini adventures. I take my own water because there are no shops or cafes. Apart from that, the old ruin combines almost everything that’s good about our coast.
It was built in the 19th century at the mouth of the river Thames to guard London from French war ships. At one time it was fitted out with a launcher for the Brennan torpedo— the world’s first guided missile, until it accidentally sunk a Thames trawler [ . . . ]
Together with Coalhouse Fort, on the other side in Essex, the two forts once formed a formidable defence. Cliffe was used during both world wars until it was decommissioned and sold by the War Office to a quarry and cement firm.
Today it is derelict. Inaccessible, overgrown and heavily flooded. It is listed as “at risk” by the guardians of our heritage. The land on all sides is destroyed. Eroded by the Thames to the north and encircled by a moat of aggregates works on all other sides, and a moat of water inside. Trapped between business and beach.
My favourite writer, Marion Shoard, calls these places edgelands. Historic. Industrial. They’re the sort of places we played when we were kids. It’s the contrast between wild and industry that works so well.
Birds and fossils
This place combines three of my favourite past times. Bird watching, swimming and wading through mud to find the odd fossil. There are many birds: avocets, geese, marsh harriers. Angry black headed gulls. They seem particularly angry in winter.
The swimming here is not for some, too much iron and metal. But on a warm day last August, I think a dip saved me from sun stroke. The ability to dip into the Thames is analogous with the coast path’s dip in and out nature. Mini adventures that cool me down when I’m overheating on a cocktail of stress, domesticity and routine.
Set beside these dips into nature are the oases and of urban life. The stepping stones of cafes, restaurants, pubs and overnight stays. Gravesend is only five miles east of the fort.
The Coast Path near Cliffe Fort (Photo: Stephen Neale/wildessex.com)
The Creative Coast
This is a theme that has featured in the Creative Coast project that was slated to take place at Gravesend in July 2020, and other towns on southern shores (the date now very much tbc).
When it does go ahead, England’s Creative Coast will offer a chance for people to explore more than 800 miles of shoreline from the South Downs to the Thames Estuary through art, while lodging with artists and eating and drinking local food around the circuit. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the path, the path’s raison d’être. The Creative Coast project will connect the coastlines of Essex, Kent and East Sussex with seven new pieces of temporary art in Margate, Folkestone, Hastings, Bexhill-on-Sea, Eastbourne, Gravesend and Southend.
For a mini adventure to Cliffe Fort, I bring a pack lunch. This is one of the most remote places I know. But I don’t come to find myself. I come to anticipate the return to Gravesend. A cuppa and cake at Marie’s Tea Room. Another gander with the ferry pilot and then home.England is a nation of contrasts. Our coast is our greatest asset, both spiritually, economically and playfully.
I’m still thinking of setting off to walk the entire coast path just one time. I can fit 3,000 miles into a year at a sprint. But I like the slow lane. And the slow life.
So maybe I’ll stick with the return ticket on the Tilbury ferry. And just keep looking for more mini adventures.
Stephen Neale’s new guidebook, The England Coast Path, is published by Bloomsbury, £18.99. The ebook is available for £18.22
WALKING THE PATH
The England Coast Path will be the longest managed and waymarked coastal path in the world and is due to be completed in 2021. Sections are already open around the country.
England’s Creative Coast was due to run between April and November in Kent, Essex and Sussex, but could be delayed as a result of Covid-19. Check for updates at englandscreativecoast.com