Julian Hoffman Estuary Festival 2016 Favourite Walk
Walk: Cliffe Pools, Hoo Peninsula, Kent
Start point: St. Helen’s Church, Cliffe, Hoo Peninsula
End point: St. Helen’s Church, Cliffe, Hoo Peninsula
Food and drink: Six Bells Pub, Cliffe
Highlights: 13th century church of St. Helens, Cliffe Pools RSPB reserve, largest avocet colony in the UK, extensive river and marsh views, estuary skies and marsh harriers.
There are so many fabulous walks on the Hoo Peninsula, that wonderful spur of land that juts into both the Thames and Medway estuaries from the north Kent coast, that it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. But for a compact walk that takes in culture, nature and history on this largely unsung, beautiful and evocative peninsula, I would recommend the Cliffe Pools route that follows the seawall towards the Thames. You begin at the immaculate 13th century ragstone and knapped flint church of St. Helen’s in Cliffe, the village sitting atop an escarpment that commands dramatic views over the marshes of the Thames Estuary. And in the northwest corner of that graveyard stands a restored charnel house, one of only a few still to be found and kept in use until the early 20th century for victims of drowning, a poignant reminder of how many souls the great river took as it fuelled the growth of the imperial city.
To begin, return to the church car park and turn left at the Six Bells pub and follow Church St. as it slopes downhill, becoming Pond Hill and eventually veering left as Pickle’s Way. Follow this path until you take the second right-hand turn into the heart of the RSPB’s Cliffe Pools reserve. The lagoons and pools are a legacy of the local cement industry; now flooded, the old quarries support a startling range of birds, including little egrets, lapwings and around 800 avocets, making it the home to the largest colony in the country of these once imperilled birds. Only 30 miles from central London, you can hear rare nightingales and turtle doves in spring and summer along this track, a large parcel of wildness by the river.
Turn right as the path between the lagoons joins the seawall. With the Thames to your left, the marshes begin to open on your right, the extensive, lowland country riddled with sinuous waterways and dikes that Charles Dickens’ described so evocatively in Great Expectations, the same landscape that Magwitch escapes through from a prison hulk anchored off the Hoo Peninsula. The swelling songs of skylarks and corn buntings rise through the air and marsh harriers can be seen wheeling against a vast estuary sky. Along the seawall, as the river begins to bend towards the sea, stands a stone tablet marking Lower Hope Point. It was here that a defensive battery was erected in the late 1700s to repel invading ships on the river, but by the mid-1800s the battery had fallen into disrepair and was replaced by the Anchor and Hope pub, a reminder of the time when the Thames and its estuary were the essential and living heart of the city. It would have served lightermen and river workers who pulled into the numerous jetties and piers that spoked from the busy foreshore. The seawall path continues for as long as you wish to walk, but the route returns the way you came until you meet a public track on your left taking you back through the nature reserve along a different path to the village of Cliffe, where the Six Bells pub stands in for the long-gone Anchor and Hope.