A Merry Perambulation, Part 2 – by Carol Donaldson
Originally commissioned for Kent’s Coastal Week by the MSEP, this is the second 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 final 2 instalments will be published in January and May 2017.
Sunday, 5 August 2012
Day Two – Hop Scotch in the Colonnade – Rochester to Hoo
Service was something Hogarth and friends had no trouble finding in 1732. In every village and windswept outpost where they stayed locals were available to feed and shave them, powder their wigs, wash and iron their clothes and generally keep them in the fine style expected of an 18th century gentlemen. I imagine what services I might find today in Frindsbury or Lower Stoke, possibly I could get a haircut but powdering my wig? No chance. Still, I do my best to play the good tavern keeper and rustle up buttered toast and coffee for Debbie and Katie this morning, before we catch the train back to Rochester.
Today we are to be joined by Karen Phillips, Hilary Clayden and Jenny Cotterill. We meet the others at the station, where it is raining hard and head along the cobbled high street avoiding the temptations of charity shops just opening and coffee outlets with suitably Dickensian names (Peggoty’s, Mr Bumbles and the like), to the Six Poor Travellers house. While the others go off to dutifully read labels amid the white clapboard rooms, I head out into the colourful garden, where a wall fountain splashes away somewhere hidden amid the foliage. I park myself on a bench to watch the swirling legions of desperate bees, doing the rounds of the flowers and trying to dodge the showers.
We visit the cathedral and the castle and furtively watch passing men trying to pick someone to pose as my Mr Somebody and emulate the strange, scary drawing that Hogarth made outside the castle. Mr Somebody, I later find out, is a representation of a puffed up and pretentious man but I don’t know this at the time and, anyway, I have a limited number of passing men to choose from. We try to decide between a strapping man in shorts and a man with a fawn hat pulled tightly on his head. We choose the hat and I approach him, gabbling about Hogarth.
“What do you want to do?” He asks.
“Just photograph you outside the castle,” I say, “but you mustn’t tell me your name. You have to be Mr Somebody, see?”
He doesn’t see but his wife looks keen, so he agrees and stands there looking embarrassed and confused as I snap away.
We head up the steps to the castle and I once again babble on about Hogarth to the man behind the desk.
“I want to visit the well in the middle wall.” I tell him. “Hogarth watched a young boy take a jackdaw from a nest there.”
“Do you want to photograph the well?” he asks.
“Well, yes, that would be nice.”
“Is it for commercial purposes?”
“I’m not sure, I just want to photograph it.”
“If it is for commercial purposes, then you will have to apply to Medway Council for a form.”
“It’s not then.” I say and I am allowed inside the glass doors and am delighted to find the well that looks very narrow and dark and not at all pleasant to crawl down, even for the prize of a Jackdaw.
Hopscotch under the Guildhall proves a little tricky at first as we cannot find a stone to throw, only a fag butt and none of us can remember the rules of Hopscotch, but, once we are underway, we find it great fun. A young couple lounging against the wall watch us in despair.
We head back across Rochester Bridge and have lunch looking back at the castle. This time I have gone for sardines, ginger beer and more biscuits. It’s tasty but a mistake as I stink of sardines for the rest of the day. Heading round the corner we find the exact spot drawn by Mr Scott on the morning of Sunday 28th May 1732. The struts of the wooden piers, which support a small island, are still here. The island, a former warehouse on the river, has been left alone for many years and the piers have remained untouched. Now the island is ringed with bags of aggregate and a digger sits ominously, silently in the centre. New riverside flats are coming no doubt and the old wooden struts will be seen as inadequate and dangerous and swept away.
We head along the river front to Frindsbury, where the gentrification has already begun and the riverside walk is full of weed infested flower beds and keep fit machines but, beyond the fencing, the old industrial world of abandoned ships, submarines, and the arse end of industrial yards still exists. We find the footpath, which our gentlemen used to reach the church at Frindsbury. It is very steep and we toil upwards between high, mesh fences, which keep us away from the steep drop of a cliff edge on top of which the church balances precariously. The view of the river from the top is fantastic, wide and silvered it bends away between the hills. Looking down from the viewpoint I notice that the old church wall is full of useful graffiti, pointing out things on the horizon and historic dates. The wall is becoming weathered and the graffiti hard to read with many items overgrown with ivy. I am not a graffito by nature but find my broken penknife and scratch the date of our visit into the soft, red brick. Meanwhile the others, no doubt embarrassed by this act of vandalism, head off, only to find the church door shut. Debbie makes friends with a man who is tending the grave of an organist from Rochester Cathedral. “We have to lock the church or everything will be nicked.” he tells her “They have already taken all the lead from the roof and the rain got in.”
We head back downhill and find our way through the industrial estate. McDonalds appears on the horizon. We head in to use the loo, although Hilary forbids me from buying a milkshake.
“Not from McDonald’s,” she pleads.
Finally it seems we have found our Evil House. The staff however are friendly and give us directions towards Upnor.
The footpath leads past the sewage works. Signs warn of, ‘Heavy Plant Crossing,’ and a buddleia is making its way slowly across the abandoned roadway. We arrive in Upnor with the tide firmly in. The sun is baking and having forgotten my hat, I am beginning to feel decidedly woozy. I flop by the castle gates and begin to pull out the little Tupperware box of pineapple chunks I have carried for just this moment. The thought of the pineappley sweetness revives me a little.
Hilary is impatient. “We’ll miss the bus from Hoo, come on,” she urges. “The men’s hundred metres is on tele later.”
We walk up the cobbled high street past fishing cottages and Upnor House’s huge main gates heading towards Lower Upnor along a shady, damp footpath where cats, who have abandoned all signs of domestication for the day, prowl and pounce in the undergrowth.
In Lower Upnor I take a vote on stopping for a drink in the pub. Hilary is keen to head on, wanting to be back home in time to see Usain Bolt deliver the goods. She is outvoted. We stop for lemonade and pork scratchings and the final moments of Andy Murray winning the Tennis.
As we head down to the beach, the tide has only just dropped low enough to expose a foot of shingle to walk along. Even so it is a slimy, muddy business. We look for old pipes and try to rescue jellyfish who have become stranded on the stony shore. We set one afloat only to see hundreds more, like a line of beggars needing help. It is getting late, so I avert my eyes and hurry on, past a toppling pillbox, slowly lurching into the mud and Cockham Wood Fort, with its amazing red brick wall. The tide has eaten away at each sandstone brick so they stand out in crazy zig-zag relief, like the wall which leads to Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. I feel if I touch the right combination of bricks the wall will open up to reveal its past, when the fort was built to defend the coast against Dutch raiders. We follow the line of an old wooden walkway, which would have led people safely to the fort. The walkway has long rotted away and the fort is crumbling a little with every tide. The miner bees are making a feast of what’s left of the mortar between the bricks and one day the whole place will just float out to sea.
We reach Hoo Marina with its lines of fabulous houseboats and lighthouse ships, stopping at the boat brokers to see what we can buy. Nothing as it turns out; although maybe one day some of the rusty rotting boats propped up on runners awaiting restoration will be within our reach.
It is hot, it is late, we are all exhausted and we don’t visit the church at Hoo. We reach the bus stop, just before the last bus of the day.
Back in Rochester we find we have a long wait for the train on an empty platform. Jenny reaches into her bag and comes up with some fully laden water pistols in honour of the water fights, which our predecessors were so fond of indulging in. Katie and I edge forwards. Katie gets her gun first and the three of us run in circles around the seating shelter squirting each other, firing through holes, ambushing each other, changing allegiances, ganging up until our pistols run dry and Debbie releases the hand grenade of her water bottle over my head and drenches me. Hilary disapproves, “I mean it.” she tells me. “It is dangerous, I am not happy.”
Throughout the day the others had asked me how old Hogarth was when he undertook this walk. He was 34. They ask, I guess, because to our eyes his antics of hopscotch, water fights and flinging cow dung at each other seem so juvenile. In this way people have changed, we are all more sophisticated, humour is not so slapstick, larks are for kids and teenagers and, well maybe, still gangs of men on holidays. Actually I’m beginning to think we have got it wrong, maybe we have all grown up too much, because what I am finding is that hopscotch and water fights and kicking horse dung at each other is jolly fun and I am not too old for it at all.
Later that evening when everyone has headed home I defy Hilary’s disapproval and sneakily send Jenny a text saying that the water pistols were inspired.
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.