A circular walk around RSPB Cliffe and the Thames estuary path, as long as you like, we walked about 5 miles in total (8 kilometres). All year round, I walked in July and October with the family.
There’s something that I like to do every now and again, but it is perhaps not for everyone. I like to go to sleep in a deconsecrated church with the bats and wake up next day in the chancel with stained glass light on my face. I’ve done it several times now, but one of my favourite churches to do it is in the North Kent marshes at Cooling, a church Charles Dickens loved, and which is where, in the marsh mist, Pip first meets the terrifying escaped convict Magwitch in Great Expectations.
Outside the church are the tiny graves of 13 children, which Dickens reimagined as Pip’s graves; inside is a tiny cockle shell vestry. It’s exactly the kind of place you should consider sleeping in on Halloween. Which is just what we did last year.
Quite apart from the bats and the ghosts, a cold sea fret away from the church is Cliffe Pools nature reserve, out on the Kent side of the Thames estuary and a landscape with wide open skies that you will be unlikely to forget. The Thames here is almost the sea, harsh and industrial and the reserve is sheltered but remote, an often temporary home to hundreds of thousands of wading birds. The noise from the brackish lagoons can be deafening as it was when I went in July, the loudest bird noise I have ever heard.
It is possible to walk from the church in a round about way, but there is a small car park by the entrance to the reserve, right on the Saxon Shore Way, another long distance path which runs through the pools, part of which has also been incorporated into the new England Coast Path. In theory you can now walk all the way from here to the source of the Thames near Lechlade. But here it feels like the back of beyond, and it’s beautiful.
There are trail leaflets you can download but it isn’t necessary. From the road there are several paths which take you in, any one of them will give you otherworldly views across the pools. If you walk as far out as you can you will meet the wide salty river as it meets the sea. We first parked near at the end of appropriately named Salt Lane and walked straight out from there, the second time from the car park further down. All paths lead to the sea.
There are high paths and low paths, and ones which seem to disappear into the marsh, and those ones you should definitely take.
Just when you’re not quite sure where you are going, with luck you’ll find a sign to reassure you, but reassure you of what I cannot say.
I read recently that it’s one of the best places to hear nightingales but I didn’t know that then so now I have to go back. It’s also a place to hear cuckoos in spring, so I’m thinking I should go back very soon, before all of these birds have gone for ever.
Eventually after much wandering we find ourselves at the sea and gaze out across the water to Coalhouse Fort and Tilbury Docks, which you can read about here. It’s an odd feeling to be on both sides of the river, wide as it is here. The gravel works is busy loading up a boat bound for the Netherlands and the sound is metallic and immense like an iron giant.
On the shore are the remains of a much older wooden jetty and Cliffe Fort with its torpedo launch from the 1870s. Military as well as industrial hardware. Evening is falling now and lights are beginning to appear on cranes over the water as I gaze towards London.
The sky is expansive and there will be enough light to get back but the moon won’t rise until much later. It’s already time to get back to the church, time to make up our sleeping bags, light up our lanterns (there is no electricity) and spend halloween with the bats and eat dinner by candlelight. Could any night be more perfect?
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The website and parking info for RSPB Cliffe Pools is here. If you would like to find out more about Champing, or camping in churches go here. I understand that the England Coast Path has been given a new name and it’s full of teeth: henceforth it is known as the King Charles III England Coast Path, something which I somehow doubt will catch on, but I expect it will give the fingerpost woodcarvers some more money if they charge by the letter.
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