02 January 2014 by Sarah Gardner
What makes a good walk? Most people would choose rolling countryside, perhaps some green fields with hay stacks and gamboling lambs. Or woodlands full of vibrant colour, hills with stunning views, coastlands where the sun sparkles behind cliffs. But what about the places on the edges, the industrial landscapes, places that were once powerful working hubs and have now fallen into quiet disrepair? These places are described by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley as the "edge lands", a no-man's land between urban and rural.
Derelict sites, sewage plants, power stations, the declining working Thames, scrap-yards, fields lined with bits of driftwood and plastic... these aren't most people's idea of a re-energising, life-enhancing walk. Yet to ignore them is to miss something quite unique.
I've always had a thing for apocalypses. I used to dream I'd wake up to find everyone had disappeared and I was left to wander abandoned high streets. The first time I read John Wyndham and watched 28 Days Later, I felt like someone was finally speaking my language. Because of that, I have a real love of walking anywhere that looks like an apocalypse has just occurred and I'm walking my way through the ruins of 'civilisation'.
So when I discovered the Ramblers needed someone to check a new route from Dartford to Greenhithe, described as a place “where the normal rules do not apply”, I knew I was the woman for the job.
It was another route by Chris Smith, a Ramblers volunteer and route developer, whose beautiful walk in Sussex I'd enjoyed not long ago. This was an altogether different kind of walk. As Chris warned on the routecard, “This is Kent, but not the garden of England. It is the Thames, but not the picturesque Thames of Oxford or the familiar London river. This is a walk through the edgelands, where everything is in a state of flux … where human endeavours, great and marginal, crop up quickly, flourish and decay, leaving only remains.” Blimey.
Chris also says, “This can be a lonely walk. Enjoy this is you like it. Take a friend if not.” I took his advice and twisted the arm of a friend – not too hard, this kind of thing is right up her street (or should I say, path) too.
The walk started at Dartford station. After a series of frustrating circles, we worked out that the station had been developed since Chris has created the route, and therefore his instructions needed amending slightly. I merrily scrawled down new ones on the routecard. We finally found the river Darent two minutes from the station, and crossed the wooden footbridge which showed signs for the Darent Valley Walk.
Immediately we were walking in an industrial estate. Huge fencing to our left, hiding warehouses and big patches of unappealing grass. We reconnected with the river Darent soon enough, and arrived at the A206. So far, so bleak.
But it was about to get a whole lot lonelier at the Dartford Marshes. This marshland once stretched all the way along the Thames estuary but there's only a small piece left, which now comprises of a hotpotch of arable fields, grazing lands (with cattle), drainage ditches, motorcycle trails, old boards and huts used as shooting targets and scrubland.
The weather was perfect for this; a slate grey sky with infrequent, lazy drizzle. The clouds were oppressively low, as though someone had wound down the sky to keep us boxed in. Some would say it was a dismal place, and they may be right. But as my friend and I wound our way along the curved path, as it snaked through the marshes, we were all agog at the scenery in front of us.
The space was wide open; nowhere to hide. A tall chimney from Littlebrook power station, wind turbines and pylons, like huge monsters strutting along the horizon, towered over the river, which was a flat gun-metal grey in the dreary light. Everything else was greens and browns; the grass, the mud and the battered 'pillbox' structures (flood defences or military bunkers?). It was in no way depressing, but I was glad to have company so I wasn't the only small human in the bleak open space.
It was certainly desolate. But it also presented a picture that you don't usually get a chance to see – the spaces left behind after development and industrial decline. The power of the landscape was still there, brooding below the surface, and it was all too easy to imagine the vast impact the marshland would once have had on this area. It wasn't where the fictional Pip encounters Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations, but looking at this reduced piece of marsh gives you an idea why Dickins was inspired by the Kent marshes.
After an almost-altercation with an excitable bullock, and a mildly anxious ten minutes putting some kids shooting at tin-cans behind us, we found ourselves at the Thames.
We turn right at the vast concrete Dartford Creek Barrier and an incredible vista opens up. Ahead is the Queen Elizabeth Bridge and spreading far out, further than you would believe possible, is the Thames.
I am a Londoner born and bred, so the Thames has a special place in my heart. I also work right beside it and see it rise and fall on a daily basis. But I'd never seen the river like this. I could see why Chris had described this walk as an insight into “the wild, wide, working Thames, frightening in its potential power”. The river must be very deep here, but who can tell - it's thick and impenetrable. It probably holds all sorts of secrets.
We walk down the shingle path by the river. Huge container ships lay far out of reach and we can make out cranes and the roofs of buildings far, far on the other side of the river. Seaweed lays in black patches by the water's edge, contrasting with the bone white pieces of stone in the sand. Flocks of gulls dip and turn in trailing ribbon formations. We reach Littlebrook power station. The chimney rises up before us like the Eye of Sauron or some absurd cigar. Little pieces of plastic are caught up in the whorls of barbed wire keeping us out.
As we reach the graceful Queen Elizabeth Bridge and the widest part of the river, the sky undergoes a transformation. The sun is setting, and it casts a gorgeous pink hue on the clouds, which have broken up as though churned or ploughed. Blue sky peeks through grey cloud edged with pink and white. We walk under the bridge and marvel at the thick pillars reflected in the water. The sky is growing increasingly pinker, gifting a softness on this bleak, unforgiving landscape.
From here, it's a bit of a muddle to get to Greenhithe; more development has changed the landscape from Chris' instructions. We work it out in the end, after several dead-ends - one very enjoyable one, a wall, overlooking the river as the sun sets, complete with fishermen; and a less enjoyable one at the back of Asda, a path which grows increasingly more narrow and overgrown until we admit defeat and turn back.
However this is part of the fun of route-checking and it's quite enjoyable contributing to something bigger than just one walk; someone else will follow in our footsteps and get to experience this wild walk in all its desolate glory.
If you would like to check or create a route for the Ramblers, it couldn't be easier, just sign up. It's a brilliant way of getting to know a new area to walk in, and introduce the joys of walking to other people.
Alternatively, experience the wild, wide Thames by walking this route from Dartford to Greenhithe.
You can also read Walking Class Hero's ruminations on edgelands.
Sarah Gardner blogs about solo hikes, walking with groups, and working alongside volunteers. Find out more about her and read her previous blogs.