A Merry Perambulation, Part 4 – By Carol Donaldson
Originally commissioned for Kent’s Coastal Week by the MSEP, this is the fourth and final instalment detailing Carol’s journey across the north Kent marshes in the footsteps of the 18th century artist William Hogarth and his friends.
Saturday 25th August 2012
Day 4 – A can of good flip – Sheerness – Queenborough – Minster – Sheerness.
People were dropping like flies with the forecast for Rain. Debbie had blisters, Rachel an electrician on the way, but I rallied them on.
“It’s Angie’s birthday, the Isle of Sheppey awaits us and, besides, I’ve already made the flip.”
Our 18th century travellers turned to flip while staying in Queenborough, washing down a bacon and egg supper with several cans of the stuff. I had brewed the flip on the stove the previous evening, having found the recipe in a book called Drinking with Dickens. Flip, it turned out, was not the eggnog concoction known to Americans, but an old English drink consisting of equal measures of rough cider and brandy with a dash of ginger, cloves and cinnamon, heated, ideally with a hot poker.
As I board the train at Rainham, the flip is sloshing around in my thermos, which, unfortunately has leaked, so I’ve already begun to smell like a brewery.
It feels quite wrong to be leaving from Rainham Station, instead of from Grain beach as our predecessors did, but nowadays I could stand on the shore a long time and hail my heart out at passing boats to no avail and landing at Sheerness Garrison is out of the question.
This becomes apparent as I meet the others at the station and walk to the Garrison, taking a photo produces a young man in a yellow, high-vis jacket. He is very apologetic.
“I am going to have to be all official with you,” he says. “You can’t take photos here.” I tell him our business. “Hogarth cut his toenails here you know,” I tell him, an act which, even as I say it, seems out of keeping with a military zone.
He knows who Hogarth is, he says, as his mum works in the library.
“It’s all still there,” he says. “The tunnels, the gun emplacements, the pump house. They don’t let people in, in case you’re terrorists,” he explains. He looks us over. Debbie beaming, Angie and Katie hovering in the background. “You don’t look like terrorists,” he surmises. “I’ll ask my supervisor if you can walk around.”
I am excited, this is more than I expected. The security guard goes off.
“He’s scrumptious,” Angie declares, seeing all men under 30 in the guise of the little boys she used to teach at boarding school. Indeed, he is a cutie but comes back sadly telling us his supervisor has said no.
“You can go along the beach and see where some of the guns were,” he tells us as way of compensation. “Or maybe the local museum can organise a tour.”
He really is a honey and most helpful.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Can we take your picture Jack?” I ask.
“Not here,” he says furtively, eyeing the security camera, “round the corner.”
So Jack, taking his life and his job in his hands, disappears around the corner with four women, who secretly wish to put him in a sandwich and eat him or at least pinch his chubby cheeks. Instead, I control myself, take a snap of him and Debbie, shake his hand and thank him for his help.
We head on, through Blue Town with it’s sex shops, colourful pubs and restored music hall. Then along past an industrial site, which, unlike modern industry, hidden behind warehouses and shrubbery borders, makes no apologies. Here is industry so naked it is indecent, with its clothes off and its guts spilling out, slag heaps, electricity sub stations, circuits and tubes all on show. We stop to gaze in wonder at the sublime awfulness and hurry on to be channelled into the concrete corridor that has replaced the beachside walk, along which our brotherhood of lads perambulated merrily. Above us high metal fences are festooned with razor wire bunting and the buzz of security cameras chart our progress. We pass mile upon mile of new cars awaiting shipment.
Finally we surface onto the sea wall with views across to Grain and Deadman’s Island. We stop as rain clouds threaten, crack open the flip and decapitate the ginger bread men Angie has bought along for her birthday. Queenborough still has considerable charm. People walk the quiet streets, signs point the way to seafood stalls. The creek is crammed with working boats and coils of rope.
We head to the church and wander through the gravestones. Much to my delight I find a couple of stones from the 1700’s, ghoulish, gothic creations adorned with skulls, reminding me that Hogarth’s era was one of disease and pestilence and public hangings, as well as jolly japes. Inscriptions have been eaten up by weather and pollution but preserved by the growth of ivy, recreating names and dates and sentiments like lemon juice on invisible ink. The cemetery is packed with bodies, probably among them are the gravedigger, the parson and the mayor who Hogarth and chums met and heard tales of during their visit.
Hogarth and friends struggled for sustenance if not entertainment in Queenborough. ‘The town has two market days yet there was not one piece of fresh meat of any sort nor any poultry or fish except lobsters to be got,’ Forrest lamented. It is still difficult to find a decent meal in Queenborough, but luckily we have bought our own supplies, so we head on up to Queenborough Castle to visit the well where our predecessors encountered some sailors who had fallen on hard times and begged a few pence with which to buy cockles. Rather ignoring the pathos of their hunger, we tuck into bacon and egg sandwiches and hot cross buns, washed down with more flip.
The steep road to Minster beckons. We trawl upwards, hating the sudden traffic and the changeable weather which forces us to swap raincoats for sunhats seemingly every few steps. The ‘delightful and pleasant country’ through which the guys passed has been in-filled with a random collection of detached houses, ranging from bungalows with charm, to builders mansions and derelict properties sprouting a tangle of ivy hair. Angie despairs at the gardens covered over with concrete and stonework, creating vast driveways for fleets of cars.
Past the Halfway House we collapse under a tree, receiving strange looks from passing traffic.
A boy yells, “free eats,” out the window of his souped up motor.
“Where?” I call.
Debbie points out he is actually yelling “Freaks.”
I take it as a compliment. I like the freakiness of being a tourist in places where holidaymakers have long since departed. I like looking at Strood and Sheerness and Grain, not as the God forsaken holes they are now reputed to be, but places with character and history and interesting locals. If this journey has shown me anything, its been to look again with fresh eyes at my local patch. When I set out, I thought I was being jolly cheeky to ask others to join me on long rambles through dead end towns and industry blasted countryside, but my companions have loved the walks, finding interest and fun and beauty in unlikely places. None of us want to stop, we want to keep up this exploration of places little explored.
We reach Minster and pass the Prince of Waterloo, formerly The George, where the gang had procured a key for the Horse Church, so called because of the golden horse head which once adorned the roof. The Prince of Waterloo, like so many pubs, along our route, has recently closed. The sign still sways but the door is barred. Luckily the church is in full swing, the second wedding of the day is turning out. The new Mr and Mrs St Ledger walk along the path followed by their family and we take the opportunity to scurry through the door of the beautiful St Mary and St Sexburgha Church. Inside the bells are still ringing and a team of ministers and churchwardens bustle around tidying things away before the next group arrive.
We view the monument to Lord Shurland. Forrest’s diary recounts the Shurland legend of a twisted man who got his comeuppance at the hands of his horse. Lord Shurland reclines across his tomb, head propped upon his elbow, in couch potato fashion. At his feet his horse grins in a knowing way. The vicar informs me that the beautiful stained glass alter window comes from a non-conformists church which has been closed. Why are all our communal meeting places being lost? Churches and pubs are vanishing from every village and town. Are we all now simply ‘meeting’ online?
We leave the church as the next wedding party begin to line up at the door and head to The Highlander for a drink. The men propping up the bar look shocked at the arrival of a party of women and, indeed, the only other females in the place are the barmaid and two children perched on cushions in a corner playing games with their fingers while dad, presumably stands at the bar. The view from The Highlander is stunning, miles of marshes stretch away to the Swale and the new bridge. This is the undamaged, unchanging Sheppey of mud and water and grazing cattle. It has to be one of the best views from a pub in the whole of Kent, but the pub itself doesn’t seem to recognise this. A redundant snooker table has been propped up in the picture window and the beer garden consists of a shabby piece of concrete and two underused picnic benches. I am pleased to be giving these places some trade, but want to scream at them to get their act together before they are lost.
Away from Minster we head down to the beach, the sea has become the cloudy green colour of road filings, a translucent green, reflecting the deep and the sky and the coming storm. The colour of a pebble to be put in the mouth and rolled around your tongue. A rumble of thunder is heard in the distance, we choose to ignore it, too locked up with the intricacies of skimming stones. White against grey against green they bounce, Angie’s hair glowing against the darkening sky, skimming stones on her birthday, competing with Katie. Searching for pebbles with the right shape and balance, white orbs crossing and peppering the water with inky splashes. Debbie and I try and fail to compete until my stone bounces twice and I jump with joy.
Raindrops begin to fall. Up on the sea wall the storm hurls the tail end of its force at us. Katie disappears to pull on her waterproofs. Angie and I stand, watching Debbie’s hat making its way towards us from behind a wall. The rain rolls down Angie’s waterproofs and disappears soggily into mine.
“Happy Birthday Angie,” I say.
The storm passes over. Angie suggests we stand like cormorants to dry out, but before we have a chance the rain returns. My legs are beginning to loose the will to revolve any more, but we plod on. A couple, the man in a cardigan and the women in a floaty skirt, pass us and give us strange looks. Us? We are not the ones out for a romantic stroll in high heels. The Neptune pub beckons. “Come on,” Angie says, “Let’s double their trade for the evening.”
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, was published by Little Toller Press in April 2017. To celebrate its publication, the MSEP has printed a signed limited edition of 30 copies of ‘A Merry Perambulation’, for £6 (inc p&p). See the website for further details.