Day 151 – Grain to Rochester: 18.1m: 6.5h

Our 7 am breakfast is perhaps a little disappointing, but we can get a good cab ride out to Grain and are able to set off from the pub in good order, in time to see a fox enjoying the early morning before the regulars have even reached the Hogarth. We must go to the eastern end of the Isle of Grain but that is reached swiftly: we walk down the sea wall for a mile or so, looking nervously out to see the S.S. Richard Montgomery’s masts peeping above the water outside Sheerness. We then turn inland to get past one of the power stations that, together with big gas and oil storage tanks, seem to be an Isle of Grain speciality, and begin the slow walk back westwards along the southern edge of the Hoo peninsula towards Rochester again, hugging the meandering shore of the Medway and occasionally crossing the railway line and road which connect Grain to the outside world. The wind of yesterday has abated, so it is warm and pleasant (though raining in Winchcombe apparently), but we feel slightly cheated by not being rewarded for yesterday by having a following wind today.

On our way we are delayed by a coarse fisherman (a man who fishes for coarse fish, nor a rude angler) who wants John to photograph him with a carp he (the fisherman, not John) has just pulled out of the water. This was a bit of a whopper (the fish, not the story) and allegedly weighs 19lb 11 oz. John’s deed of mercy done, we carry on past another power station (Kingsnorth) and, John and Ben now beginning to feel the two days’ walking wearing on us, trudge along the Saxon Shore way to a pub that Mike knows (is there any other sort), the Ship at Lower Upnor. A reviving pint allows us to muster the energy to carry on, up the inevitable hill to Upper Upnor and a thriving industrial estate, past Strood station (previously mooted as a bail out or is it bale out) and across the Medway, reaching Rochester in time for John and Ben to catch the 3 05 and leaving Mike to take the St Pancras train in due course, with perhaps a beer at the Wetherspoons in prospect to ease his journey north.

Day 150 – Cliffe Pools to Grain: 15.7m: 5.4h

Gary drops a bombshell before the walk to say that he may be suffering from COVID, as Sally definitively is, and pulls out of the walk. After hasty discussion the rest of us decide to go ahead, even though this will leave Ben trying to get to Rochester on his own. John manages to make sure this is achieved without incident by diverting via Victoria, from which Ben’s train departs, leaving Mike to find his own way on the other line from St Pancras.

The meet up at around 10 am goes smoothly. Ben deposits his rucksack at the hotel (a mere stone’s throw for Rochester station), also containing a few possessions of John’s, leaving them both with a lighter pack. Mike eschews this concession to being a southern softy. Despite an accident causing local snarl-ups,the taxi deposits us in approximately the right position for our mile or so walk out to the end of last excursion’s walk at Cliffe Pools.

The walk is perfectly pleasant for the first, second, third and indeed fourth hours: the Thames away on our left, a slow and from time to time eastward meandering along the north edge of the Hoo peninsula. We meet no other walkers or indeed other human beings before finally we make it to Allhallows, which, despite the novelty of it being the first actual place we had reached all day, seems a comparatively uninteresting holiday park full of chalets and caravans, though we do spot a house or two of more permanent nature. We are beginning to get a bit tired as the wind has been directly from the east into our faces throughout, though it has been dry, mostly sunny, and a pleasant temperature for walking

After leaving Allhallows, we strike off toward the Isle of Grain, which is we believe accessible via a single bridge which, it being late in the day, we are relieved in the end to see. We are now only a mile or so from Grain itself, which we reach by soon after 4 and enter the Hogarth Inn (the finest on the Isle of Grain, we are told: there may not be substantial competition) for a reviving drink. The pub is doing a decent trade for that time in the afternoon, and indeed some of the customers appear to have been there since the advertised hot breakfast. We are told one or two tales of smuggling tunnels and the S.S. Richard Montgomery, a ship that has been marooned off the east coast of the island since 1944 and is full of enough unexploded munitions to flatten the island apparently (though it is in truth flat enough already). We are warned about the exorbitant cost of taking a cab back all the way to Rochester but nonetheless do so, reaching the hotel in time for John to struggle with the Wi-Fi connection for which he apparently paid £2.99. We venture into Rochester to eat and are rewarded for our initiative by a rather good fish restaurant, which does us proud and is doing a decent trade for a Monday (having said that, everywhere else appears to be shut). Returning to the hotel, John and Mike partake of a couple of stickies while Ben makes his excuses and leaves

Day 149 – East Tilbury to Cliffe Pools: 10.1m: 3.8h

Ben awakes with a dry cough and a few concerns over his energy levels which, perhaps not surprisingly, lead to suspicions of COVID. Hopefully, they will prove to be inaccurate diagnoses. Today we’ll be crossing the Thames into Kent via the Tilbury/Gravesend ferry. This only runs every hour and our key timing requirement is to get to the Tilbury terminal for the 10:15 crossing. We reckon that the terminal is not much more than three and a half miles away from the Coalhouse Fort. However, this assumes a direct route alongside the river being available and, to give us the time to deal with any navigational issues such as those which arose yesterday, we’ve decided to allow ourselves a couple of hours to get to Tilbury. We’ve therefore booked a cab for 7:30, so it’s an early (and substantial) buffet brekker, and we’re back at the fort car park in time to get under way at 8 o’clock.

In fact, the route sticks to the river bank all the way to Tilbury. The underfoot and overhead conditions are good and, without rushing, we’re approaching the terminal just after 9 o’clock. There’s a crossing at 9:10 and we can see the ferry coming over from Gravesend, so we increase our pace and reach the terminal a couple of minutes before the ferry starts to board. The crossing takes just 5 minutes, so we’re now an hour ahead of schedule. Our destination is Cliffe Pools on the Hoo Peninsula and our cab pick up point is the Six Bells in Cliffe at 1:30. We don’t want to spend an extra hour in the pub (no, really!), so a mid-morning coffee in Gravesend is called for. We anticipate that there will be a suitable stopping point in or near a riverside park complex on our way east out of the town. However, part of the route through the park is closed and we have to make our way around the closure via some roads and small industrial estates which don’t bring us back to the river until we’re outside Gravesend. We therefore make our stop at a mobile refreshments stall by the entrance to a police training establishment which doesn’t serve the best coffee in the world, but at least achieves the objective of delaying our progress, if only by 10 minutes.

Back by the Thames, we’re just three and a half miles or so away from the Hoo Peninsula, and the route seems pretty straightforward through grassland alongside the river. However, Ben is beginning to feel increasingly weary and, having passed by a firing range and the Shornemead Fort, we initially miss the turn onto the path which leads directly – and with more purity – to the peninsula. By the time we’ve doubled back to walk along the path and arrive at the fenced off Cliffe Fort, we’ve almost entirely eaten into the time which we saved by catching the earlier ferry. Once round the fort, it takes almost 30 minutes to reach our finishing point on the coastal side of the RSPB site at Cliffe Pools and then the same amount of time to walk into Cliffe itself. We arrive at the Six Bells shortly before 12:45 and manage a couple of drinks before our cab arrives. This takes us to Strood station from where we’re due to be catching a high speed service to St Pancras International. However, on reaching the station car park, we’re told by staff that no trains are running in that direction due to an incident on the line. The only alternative is the service from nearby Rochester to Victoria, and the cab driver gets us over the Medway to Rochester station in a matter of minutes. It’s also a matter of minutes before a train to Victoria pulls in, and we leave Rochester almost 20 minutes before we were due to leave Strood. Therefore, although (to nobody’s huge surprise) it’s a slower journey than the high speed route, we still arrive in Victoria with more than enough time for John and Mike to cross London and catch their trains from Paddington and King’s Cross. And so far as Ben and Gary are concerned, Victoria provides a very convenient direct tube line home.           

Day 148 – Pitsea to East Tilbury: 15.8m: 6.2h

Our 2022 walks start a month later than originally planned, due to John testing positive for COVID shortly before the scheduled February date. He’s now been negative for 2 or 3 weeks, but says that his energy levels are not at their highest and has suggested that we might take a break for lunch today. With this in mind, Ben and Gary have both prepared sandwiches (or have had them prepared) before leaving home. In other medical news, Mike has made a full recovery from his hip operation and is on the starting grid for the first time since last July. However, David has been suffering back problems and is unable to join us. John and Mike catch early trains to London and join Gary at Fenchurch Street for the journey to Pitsea. Ben has taken an earlier train, but has only been waiting outside Pitsea station for 5 minutes when the rest of us arrive, with the first task for John and Mike being to purchase lunchtime supplies from the station shop. We set off at 10:20 and immediately make a navigational error by turning left at the end of the parade leading from the station rather than crossing the road onto a path into some fields, helpfully signposted “England Coast Path”. Our mistake is quickly rectified, but it does mark the start of a day when the availability of paths along our route isn’t 100% certain and during which we have to stop to study maps and/or retrace our steps on several occasions. The path through the fields initially takes us westward, but we soon turn left and much of the next two hours is spent zigzagging our way through and alongside Vange and Fobbing Marshes (to include the Fobbing Horse flood barrier), generally in a southerly direction towards the cranes at the London Gateway Port on the banks of the Thames. However, when we emerge from the marshes, we’re still a little way north of the river and have to turn right onto a cycle path running alongside the A1014. We’re expecting this to take us to a point just beyond Corringham where we hope to find a road crossing and make our way through Mucking Flats to the river bank, but the path comes to an end about a mile earlier than anticipated. A pause for consideration of alternative routes reveals that there’s a pub in Corringham which it doesn’t take us long to conclude should be a suitable venue for our lunchtime break. Finding our way through some fields between the cycle path and Corringham takes 20 minutes or so, and we arrive at the Bull Inn at about 1:45. Beers are purchased and we’re told that it’s perfectly ok for us to eat our lunch at the tables behind the pub. We leave, duly refreshed, 20 minutes later and immediately encounter another navigational problem. We believe that we can reach the point where we’re hoping to cross the A1014 by going through the ground of East Thurrock United - aka “the Rocks”, and struggling at the foot of the Isthmian Premier League. We’re even assured that we can do so by some gentlemen chatting behind the main stand. But despite walking all the way around the ground, we can find no way out other than at the road which we crossed when leaving the Bull. We cut our losses and walk down that road to the point where it meets the A1014 and, with the traffic being pretty light, are able to cross there into the fields on the opposite side. Once through the fields, we come to a bridge which takes us over the far busier road leading to the Gateway Port and brings us to Mucking Flats and, shortly afterwards, the bank of the Thames. Our destination today is the Coalhouse Fort from which it’s a short walk to the Ship pub in East Tilbury where we’ve arranged for a cab to pick us up at 5 o’clock and take us to our overnight stop, the Best Western Hotel close to the M25 at Purfleet. Whether we get to the Ship on time will depend on how closely we can stick to the river bank. In particular, there’s a jetty on the edge of Mucking Marshes and it’s not clear whether we can simply walk past it or whether an inland diversion will be necessary. When we arrive there, we initially have to go along the landward side of a wire fence but over the fence, about 300 yards away on the other side of what looks like an old landfill site, the riverside path is clearly and temptingly visible. And it seems that we’re not the first people to be tempted because, lo and behold, there’s a section of fence where the wires have been forced apart to leave a gap which even Ben and Gary have to admit will not be difficult to deal with. So we scramble through the fence, cross the landfill site and regain the river bank. But our progress has been slow throughout the day, Ben has recently had to stop for his third al fresco “squat” of the whole walk (this one possibly being caused by the ham in his lunchtime sandwich which was well beyond its sell by date) and timely arrival at the Ship is still looking cuspy. John therefore phones the cab company to put back the pick up time to 5:30 and we continue alongside the Thames towards Coalhouse Fort. As it turns out, no diversions are necessary. We arrive at the fort around 4:45, so we have enough time to walk around the moat, finish on its south side, get to the Ship and have a leisurely pint before the cab arrives. It takes nearly half an hour to get to the hotel. We check in, get sorted out in our rooms, and reconvene in the bar over a pre-supper bottle of white – or pint of lager for Mike. There’s some slight confusion when we place our food order, but the result of this is merely that Mike gets an extra egg on the side with his burger. A further couple of bottles accompany the food and, to mark the beginning of the walking year in the way to which we have become accustomed, we conclude with a large sticky and are back in our rooms shortly after 9 o’clock.

Day 147 – Canvey Island Sea Front to Pitsea: 11.8m: 4.3h

We reconvene in the hotel car park shortly before 7:30. The reception desk is closed and the door to it is locked but, having already paid for our rooms, drinks and supper, no check out admin is required other than to leave our keys in a box on the outside wall. As we walk along the street leading back to the leisure park, one of the few establishments which seems to be open is a Greggs, but we decide not to investigate its takeaway breakfast offerings in anticipation of finding somewhere on the esplanade which we reach at 7:50. However, as we resume our journey alongside the Thames, this prospect quickly becomes more and more remote. After not much more than 10 minutes, the limited retail outlets around the park have disappeared and we’re into a completely residential area and, 15 minutes or so later, we’re beyond the houses and walking past a series of what appear to be gas and oil storage depots. When we reach the end of this stretch after another 45 minutes and turn north, it’s too early for the Lobster Smack pub on the south west corner of the island to be open. Comfort has to be derived from the fact that our purchase of crab sandwiches yesterday has left us pretty well stocked with fruit, chocolate and cereal bars and, for reasons which are not immediately apparent, we convince ourselves that, after leaving Canvey, we might find a café in Benfleet. For now, we continue along a grass bank into an area of open countryside (the scenery on Canvey has been varied if nothing else). We’re not completely sure of the route we’ll take to get across the various creeks and inlets which run round and through this part of the island. One possible creek crossing proves to be a locked sluice gate and, a little way further on, there’s no path up from the grass bank to a road which crosses another creek. Two of us decide somewhat more quickly than the third that we’re not going to investigate less conventional ways of trying to make the ascent! Instead, we walk under the road and keep going along the grass bank, before eventually turning east and reaching the road over Hadleigh Ray which brought us onto Canvey yesterday. Back on the north side of Hadleigh Ray, it isn’t too long before we reach Benfleet station. However, as this isn’t a particularly major point on the rail network, it is perhaps not surprising that it doesn’t feature anywhere selling something akin to breakfast food, but a sign pointing towards a short tunnel under the railway line indicates that there’s a café at the other end. Our raised hopes are quickly dashed. The café is closed and, to all outward appearances, it’s a permanent closure. None of us experiences (or admits to doing so) a mirage of Greggs, but several comments are made about the folly of foregoing its delights 3 hours earlier. We return to the road on the other side of the station which, after a couple of hundred yards, bends to the right at a path which takes us into some fields. We walk through the fields along a track which soon curves to the south and follows the west side of the creek to the road which we walked under on the east side about 90 minutes ago. Again, we walk under the road and then turn right to continue on paths through some more fields towards Pitsea. Our pace increases on the final stretch which runs along the north side of the railway line leading to Pitsea station. John has worked out that, if we manage to catch the 12:21 train, we’ll be back in London sufficiently early for him to get across to Paddington at a time when there are 3 services to Kingham in the space of 1 hour. A later departure from Pitsea risks him missing the last of these trains and having to wait at Paddington for up to an hour for the next one. On such important considerations is the admin of the round England walk conducted. Anyway, our acceleration has the desired effect. We catch the 12:21 which arrives just after 1 o’clock at Fenchurch Street from where Ben and Gary catch their tube trains home, and John gets to Paddington shortly before the departure of a train which results in him getting home at 3:45 which he subsequently pronounces to be “the earliest ever by a long way”. This marks the end of our 2021 walks. We’ve made 7 trips and completed 205 miles which, given the restrictions which were in force earlier in the year, is perhaps more than we could have anticipated. And, shortly after this trip, we hear that Mike’s consultant has given him the green light to resume the walk next year. So here’s looking forward to February 2022….hopefully.

Day 146 – Southend-on-Sea to Canvey Island Sea Front: 16.2m: 5.8h

Once again, Mike and David don’t make the starting grid. Mike is due to be seeing his consultant this week and, according to John, David might be doing something called work. Ben and Gary catch the 8:32 from Liverpool Street which John joins at Shenfield (having been at his father’s over the weekend) for the rest of the journey to Southend Victoria. Our walk back to the pier takes us past The Last Post, but we’re not tempted to check whether the bar there has indeed opened at 9 o’clock. We take the steps back down to the esplanade (the lift doesn’t seem to be operational in any event) and set off westwards just before 10 o’clock. We are, in fact, accompanied by a new – or replacement – member of the team, namely the book in which Ben has been recording hourly distance (and occasionally height) data since the Thames Path Walk in 2010. Up until now, it has been with us for every day of the Round England Walk and, whilst it was dropped on 99 (Amble beach in 2017) it recovered – or was recovered – to complete its century. Unfortunately, 150 has proved to be 5 runs/pages too far, and its rather grizzled opener’s reliability has been replaced by a far flashier middle order type which should see us through to the finish. Anyway, enough sporting analogies for one day, and on to the weather which is dry and calm, but with a bit of a chill in the air. It’s certainly a relief to be continuing along the Thames without a strong wind in our faces, and, by the end of the first hour, we’ve completed 3 miles and have arrived in Leigh-on-Sea. We can’t be certain whether we’re in downtown Leigh (if such a thing exists) but the route which we take, close to the estuary, has much to commend it. It’s a narrow cobbled street with 4 pubs – all of which look very tempting, but seem to be closed – and a number of cafés/food outlets, most of which are open. And one of them, Osborne Bros Seafood Merchants, is sufficiently tempting that we stop and purchase crab sandwiches for consumption at lunchtime. At the end of the street, the surroundings become less appealing – a small and rather dilapidated industrial estate alongside the railway station. However, it doesn’t take too long to find our way around this, and we then cross a narrow stream onto Two Tree Island. This is a small nature reserve managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust, with trails running all the way around it which we complete in about 75 minutes, to include a very brief and uncharacteristic stop at a hide to look at some of the bird life (avocets and egrets I believe). Once off the island, we continue west along the north side of a stretch of water called Hadleigh Ray, pausing for 10 minutes to enjoy our crab sandwiches and then crossing Hadleigh Ray, just before Benfleet, to get onto Canvey Island. As with Two Tree, we’re walking around Canvey in a clockwise direction. We’re aiming to complete much of the eastern half today, finish on the sea (or Thames) front, and then walk inland to our overnight stop, the Oysterfleet Hotel. Because Ben is recovering from a heavy cold, there is the possibility of an earlier end point on the north side of the island, but fresh air and the crab sandwiches appear to be having a restorative effect. And so, having walked alongside Castle Point Golf Course (well maintained but pretty featureless) and paused to witness three very different swings from one of the tees, we continue past a residential area and on towards a country park and boatyard. It’s around now that brief mention of the fact that the short form of last Friday’s date (12.11.21) is a palindrome, prompts the realisation that day 2 of our next planned walk in February is a long form date palindrome (22.02.2022) and a typically fascinating conversation ensues, attempting to identify other future dates of this kind, and contrasting the position with regard to dates using the US notation. Remarkably, this conversation doesn’t last much more than 10 minutes. In fact, as we approach the boatyard, the more immediate question arises as to whether, as part of our circumnavigation of Canvey, we should walk to the end of the jetty beyond the yacht club which, along with the walk back, would be an extra mile or so. By the time we reach the yacht club, we’ve come to the very tentative conclusion that it will depend on the route which we would have to take and, with the yacht club gates padlocked, it soon becomes apparent that the first part of the only other route would be muddy and overgrown at best, and probably not walkable. We therefore turn and set off along the eastern esplanade, catch a brief glimpse of the Park Lane Stadium (home to The Gulls – aka Canvey Island FC) and eventually reach our destination for the day, a waterfront leisure park, shortly before 5 o’clock. It’s still three quarters of a mile directly north to the Oysterfleet where, once we’ve checked in, we repair straight to the bar. From the dark attire of a group of people already there, along with the West Ham flags draped around the shoulders of two of the more inebriated characters, it would appear that the bar might be hosting an East End wake (how the devil do you do it Poirot?) but we find a relatively quiet corner in which to rest our weary limbs and have a couple of pints before going up to our rooms. An hour later, we return to the bar for supper. We haven’t needed to book a table, but have been told that reservations are required if we want breakfast tomorrow morning. However, this won’t be available until 8:30, so we’ve decided to leave around 7:30 and hopefully find some sustenance in Canvey. With this in mind, Ben and Gary order something more substantial (supposedly) than usual, namely gammon and chicken pie respectively, whereas John sticks to the traditional fish and chips. The other traditions which are followed are a couple of bottles of wine, stickies, and bed shortly after 9 o’clock.

Day 145 – Little Wakering to Southend-on-Sea: 12.5m: 4.5h

The Last Post opens its doors for breakfast at 7:00, and the staff saw fit to inform us last night that alcohol isn’t served until 9 o’clock! However, we’re back downstairs for food opening time and the breakfast offering is just as competitively priced as everything else. The bill for the three of us totals just over £15, although this includes only a bacon butty for Ben who, in the light of yesterday’s digestive problems, thinks that he should take things easy – on the food front at least.

It was announced yesterday that Southend is to be granted City status in recognition of the campaigning for this which had been done by the local MP, David Amess, who died last Friday having been attacked and stabbed at a constituency surgery. When we leave The Last Post just before 8 to await a cab which we ordered over breakfast, the only noticeable difference in our surroundings is the fact that there’s been quite a bit of overnight rain. There’s still some drizzle in the air but, not for the first time, it seems that we’ve been fortunate in missing the worst of it.

We return to Little Wakering and resume our meandering around the creek at 8:20 in what are now dry but quite windy conditions. This initially takes us east, and then north around Fleethead to bring us back south to the Wakering boatyard opposite Potton Island and, beyond that, Foulness. Under our admittedly rather flexible rules regarding places separated from the mainland, neither of these will form part of our walk, in addition to which we haven’t sought permission from the MOD to visit Foulness. We therefore continue past the boatyard and towards another MOD installation, the Shoeburyness Firing Ranges. Around this time, John receives a phone call from The Last Post. They want to know what to do with a T-shirt and water bottle which have been left in one of our rooms – which turns out to be Ben’s. Our aim today is to get to Chalkwell, or perhaps Leigh-on-Sea, but this will take us through Southend and the pub isn’t too far from the sea front. We therefore say that we’ll call in to collect Ben’s belongings, although given the price of Ruddles and the proximity of Southend Central station, there’s a chance that this could affect our finishing point.

More immediately, we’re not too sure of the route which we’ll be able to take in order to get beyond the firing ranges. We’ve read that there are some paths through the ranges, but it isn’t clear when (if at all) they might be open. It becomes crystal clear as we approach the boundary fence: gates locked and no entry signs everywhere. We therefore have to walk on paths around the perimeter on the landward side of the installation until we regain the coast at Shoeburyness East Beach. Having done so, it soon becomes apparent that the current MOD properties/ranges are the most recent in a history of military defence structures in the area. Over a distance of no more than a mile, we pass a garrison memorial, gun emplacements and Victorian “quick firing batteries”, and in a small park there’s a cairn bearing a 19th century artillery shell which serves as a memorial to 7 Royal Artillery personnel who were killed in an accidental explosion during tests on gun fuses in 1885. Perhaps this feature of the area is not surprising given its location at the entrance to the Thames Estuary, and it wouldn’t come as a huge surprise to encounter a similar landscape on the opposite shore when we walk through Kent next year.

For the moment, we continue along the north side of the estuary past Thorpe Bay and on towards Southend and its pier which is apparently, at 1.33 miles, the longest pleasure pier in the world (but not extending into the open sea – cf Frinton pier: see day 136). The distance there from the East Beach at Shoeburyness is not much more than 4 miles, but seems longer because we are walking directly into the strong wind. The pier marks the point where we suspend our route westward to make the short diversion to The Last Post in the town centre and, rather than following Ben to the series of steps leading to the streets above the esplanade, John and Gary take advantage of the lift conveniently situated opposite the entrance to the pier. This is probably as good an indication as any of whether we’ll be resuming our walk today. Indeed after reaching The Last Post, retrieving Ben’s effects and ordering pints of Ruddles, the decision is quickly reached not to return to the pier. Of course we seek to rationalise this with comments such as we would only be continuing for a couple of miles or so, and therefore we won’t be affecting plans for the next walk. But clearly the truth is that, rather than spending another hour walking into a headwind, we’d far prefer to have a relaxing beer before wandering over the road to catch an early train home. So that is what we do.