A Merry Perambulation, Part 1 – By Carol Donaldson
Originally commissioned for Kent’s Coastal Week by the MSEP, this is the first of 4 instalments detailing Carol’s journey across the north Kent marshes in the footsteps of the 18th century artist William Hogarth and his friends. The following 3 instalments will be published here in the coming months.
In 1732 William Hogarth and four friends set out from London and travelled to north Kent by sea and land passing through Gravesend, Rochester, the Hoo Peninsula and onto the Isle of Sheppey. It was not a journey long in the planning. On a Friday night in the pub they dreamt about the trip and on the Saturday morning they set out on their journey. On their return, Ebenezer Forrest, one of the party, wrote an account of their travels. They printed and bound the account with drawings by Hogarth and artist Samuel Scott, a map created by John Thornhill (Hogarth’s brother in law) as well as accounts by the businessmen William Tothall. Once returned, they read their diary to the regulars in the Bedford Arms, Covent Garden, where they had set out. The book then stayed with Forrest, and it wasn’t until 14 years after Hogarth’s death that the diary was first published.
When I first read Mr Forrest’s account of his five-day walk across the countryside of north Kent, what struck me was not how the countryside had changed, but how little people had changed. Here were five lads on holiday and they were doing what five lads do. Yes they walked and drew and spent a lot of time looking at church memorials, but they also ate and drank and chatted up women, got in with the locals and had a lot of mock fights. This was a jolly ramble, a reward for a period of hard work and success for the men in question, notably the acclaim Hogarth had received, on publication of his series of paintings The Harlot’s Progress. This was a boy’s holiday, so when I was asked to repeat the journey, it seemed obvious that I couldn’t do the walk alone. Wandering the countryside in Hogarth’s footsteps having deep solitary thoughts would be totally out of keeping with the spirit of the trip and so I set out to acquire a gang of fellow walkers. I also wanted to turn the ‘lads on tour’ thing on its head and see how things would be different with a group of women.
When I put the call out to the women I knew in the vicinity, I was unsure who would join me on the walk, as no one thinks of walking from Gravesend to Grain and around the Isle of Sheppey as tourists. However, I was not short of people; some came to walk and visit parts of the county they would never have ventured to under normal circumstances; some to draw and take photographs; some to attempt the delights of flinging cow dung and indulging in water fights. For whatever reason they joined me, I am glad that each and every one of them did.
Saturday, 4 August 2012
Day One – Beer, beef and biscuits – Gravesend to Rochester
I ate mussels for tea last night; mussels, bread, butter and homemade nettle beer. This seemed a suitable meal to immerse myself in 18th century cuisine. Shellfish, it seems, were big in the 1700s, at least they were along the north Kent coast. Hogarth and companions bought them regularly from half blind women and roadside stalls. My shellfish, mussels in garlic butter, were on special offer in Tesco’s for 75p, but they seem to be sitting ok.
My companions today are Rachel Bull, Debbie Powell, Angie Murray and Katie Zurakovsky, all pretty normal 21st century women with stories and histories and internal battles, with ages ranging from their 20’s to…oh, somewhere in their 70’s. Our plan today is to walk the not inconsiderable distance from Gravesend to Rochester. Amazingly this only took Hogarth and pals two hours but we have rejected their route, which, nowadays is not the ‘merry perambulation’ described by Forrest, but a noisy, boring slog along the A226. We will join their footsteps outside of Rochester, but the A226 is not conducive to having a chat and we are women after all.
Everyone arrives at my house and we spend some time repacking Debbie’s bag which contains a several changes of clothes, 10 pieces of fruit, a mega sized bag of savoury crunches, a pack of chocolate biscuits, at least 6 pints of juice and a library book. We convince Debbie to leave some of this ballast behind, but still the bag weighs a ton.
We catch the train to Gravesend, full of excited people heading off to the Olympics for what is to prove one of the best days for British athletics ever but we leave them to it and head out into Gravesend and, following in Hogarth’s footsteps, visit the market place. Stepping beneath the columns into a busy courtyard we accost Roy, a local man, outside to take photo’s of us and head through the railway tunnel entrance to find that, nowadays, the market sells mobile phone covers, leopard print shopping baskets and racy undies which we are tempted by but ultimately feel will be a little restrictive for walking in.
Heading down to the water we visit the pier where Hogarth landed in May 1732, having spent the night in a boat sleeping on a bed of straw. The pier is an elegant building made of metal to replace an earlier wooden one, on which the watermen of Gravesend rioted over the loss of their monopoly on transporting visitors to the town from boats moored in the Thames to the land. The building of the pier made this service unnecessary and the boatmen repeatedly burnt the pier to the ground until the current one was built in 1834. Today the Town Pier is a fancy restaurant and the boats land at a decidedly more workaday walkway a little further on.
The Gravesend Ferry from Tilbury is just heading across the water, a local watches us pass, staring openly.
“Tourists?” he enquires.
“Going for a walk,” I tell him.
“The ferry used to run 7 days a week until they cut it,” he laments.
I watch the ferry come into the jetty.
“Now it’s only 6 days,” he says sorrowfully.
I am almost certain that this man has never been on the ferry in his life, but just likes to watch it come and go.
Heading away from the dock we walk up to St George’s Church. Forrest’s diary tells us of a visit to, ‘the new church and the unknown person’s tomb.’ Now the church is 280 years old and Pocahontas, a rather hippy chick in suede skirt and braids, stands arms out in the churchyard.
It’s time we got to walking. We have chosen a route along the river to Shornemead Fort and then inland past farms, oast houses and orchards, joining up with the ghosts of our pioneering brothers outside of Rochester. Our path takes us through the industrial alleys which link Gravesend with the marshes. One day these back ways, full of buddleia, rotting mattresses and piles of burnt out rubbish, worthy of Arts Council sponsorship, will be swept away and gentrified. The industrial smells and clankings and suspicious looking poisonous puddles will vanish and Gravesend will be poorer for it.
At the Ship and Lobster pub we hear the national anthem playing. I stick my head in through an open window, which seems to surprise no one sitting at the bar and get an update on the latest gold.
“The men’s rowing team” one punter says. “It’s almost getting boring now,”
Finally we hit the River Thames and break out from the concrete and industrial squalor onto the sea wall. The police shooting range stretching out across Shornemead marshes is quiet today and several fishermen are nestled beside pop up tents. We stop to chat. The fisherman have caught several flounders already but thrown them back, “Too small to bother with,” they tell me. They seem amazed when we tell them where we are headed.
We stop on the sea wall for biscuits (ginger nuts seemed to me to be the kind that would have been on sale in 1732) and then head on past saltmarsh full of golden samphire. A barge called Daybreak is moored out from the shore, having raced its way along the river as part of a regatta the previous weekend. Now the sails are down and two giant wings are folded against its sides, making it look like a moth which has fallen into the water and failed to escape.
We pass a gang of gypsy ponies. Angie scurries on. Angie only ever seems to encounter horses which rear and plunge, so is more than a little wary. However, despite my best efforts to baby talk and make friends with the chunky, multi-coloured ponies and their brush tailed foal, these equines just eye me warily and carry on ripping away at the wiry grass.
A pile of dried horse dung attracts our attention. Animal droppings of all kinds seemed to hold an endless fascination for men in the 18th century. They hurled the stuff at each other with abandon. We wade in gamely, kicking the dung at each other with little accuracy but we all draw the line at picking the stuff up and declaring full scale war. After all, 280 years of improved hygiene and greater life expectancy has had to have taught us something.
We reach Shornemead Fort, one of a series of derelict outposts that line the river left behind from the Napoleonic wars. The wall sweeps away in a series of bulbous windows, with narrow slots that once housed the guns. Now the fort is the domain of oystercatchers and local biker gangs whose mopeds whine around the ramparts like demented mosquitoes. The boys are happy to pose for a picture.
“I’m not the law,” I tell them.
They hide their faces anyway.
Debbie heads off behind the fortifications to commune with nature and we settle down for lunch. Two walkers arrive and head over to explore the fort. I call them back, fearing the sight of Debbie’s behind, complete with frog and hedgehog tattoos, might scar all parties for life. The men are walking to Gillingham to watch Charlton Athletic play. Debbie re-emerges, tattoos covered and dignity intact and I unpack my 1700s lunch; beef, beer and biscuits, which turns out to be a cracking feast. The beer is Old Tom, an award winning brew, which goes straight to my head as I weave inland past banks of wild carrot and sweet pea.
We reach the old Thames and Medway Canal, now a swampy everglade and breeding ground of a zillion gnats. We are all beginning to flag a little, but the sight of a field of pink hemp agrimony with a mysterious memorial rising from it’s midst sparks our interest. We peer through Debbie’s £5 binoculars trying to read the inscription, but the view is so blurred we are forced to give up.
Reaching Lower Higham we collapse on a bench. If any of us are to turn back, then this is our last chance. We could nip on the train and be in Rochester in minutes, but we all agree to carry on. Angie produces some boiled sweets, which gives us the energy to find the next footpath which leads past fields of flax and a beautiful old barn with a roller coaster roof. We head up through fields of uncut corn and reach the shade of an old oak tree, undoubtedly a sapling in a hedgerow when Hogarth passed close by.
The view back to the Thames is a stunner; though of course it has changed immeasurably since our fellow walkers viewed it in the 1700s. Today huge container ships are chugging along the central channel but, compared to Hogarth’s day, the river is silent and where as their eyes would have been drawn to the distant hills of Essex, ours are guided along the river by the pillars of power stations to the distant high rises of Southend. But still, there is something unchanging in the Thames and what’s left of the marshes and fields. It is easy to strip away the layers of modern life here, the past is always visible like a wash under oil paint and I am beginning to notice that I am viewing everyone I meet differently. The slightly crazy men hanging around the docks, kind gentlemen in the market, fishermen on the sea wall, men who spend all day in the pub have all become classic Gravesend characters. These people have always been here, dressing differently, talking differently, but the same nonetheless. It’s a never ending revolving of genes and types with nothing other than cosmetic change. Culture changes, I am thinking, but people do not, we just adapt.
Emerging from a trackway we head onto Dillywood Lane across a motorway bridge. Debbie clings to Angie in horror, not liking bridges of any type or height. Finally we fall in with Hogarth on the A226 and are hit by the sound of sirens and traffic. It is a shock and we collapse on a wall with a view of Rochester Castle and Cathedral in the distance. Katie produces chocolate. I love Katie.
We walk on through Strood looking for a suitably ‘Evil House’ as Hogarth and friends described The Dover Castle, where they stopped for a drink. I had several evil houses in mind, having once lived not far from Strood, but to my distress they have all been closed, boarded up or swept away to make way for a Tesco Express or blocks of flats. At last we settle on The Prince of Wales, nestled below Rochester Bridge. The pub is resisting the need to modernise, it is big and cavernous and sells ancient looking sandwiches on the counter, but the staff are friendly, as are the perennial bar propers.
A woman in a pink tracksuit takes a shine to me and somehow we getting talking about the extortionate prices in charity shops these days. Hospice shops are the cheapest we agree and the British Heart Foundation is way too expensive, but the best. She reaches into her handbag and shows me a photo of herself in her wedding dress bought on ebay.
“Still married?” I enquire.
“Just,” she says, nodding at a sallow looking man in acid washed jeans, a hoodie and a baseball cap. Still they leave together, blinking into the sunlight.
At last we reach Rochester and head straight for the train station, as we are back here to enjoy its attractions tomorrow. Back at my house we all flop around drinking tea, Rachel and Angie head off, while Katie, Debbie and I head out for a fish supper. Returning exhausted, I make up a bed for Debbie on the couch.
Carol Donaldson is a nature writer and conservationist. Originally from Essex, she now lives in north Kent. She has worked for a number of Britain’s wildlife charities and currently runs her own environmental consultancy. As a writer, she has written for Wanderlust, BBC Wildlife Magazine and The Telegraph. She was BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Travel Writer of the Year in 2011. Her first book On the Marshes, will be published by Little Toller Press in 2017.