We had two chores to do this weekend, firstly, the usual one of shopping and, secondly, the more intermittent but equally pressing one of the laundry. Which should we do today, either, neither or both? It was a fine day, so we were keen to get off on a ramble somewhere.
In the end, the shopping won. We trundled the trolley round to the Alpino for breakfast, and then set about ransacking Sainsbury for the things we like. At home, we put away the shopping, had a little rest while catching up on things going on online, and then…
“What about Gravesend?” said Tigger.
“There’s some sort of festival on there. Have you been to Gravesend?”
“Erm… not knowingly.”
So we went to Gravesend, which is a town in the borough of Gravesham (concentrate: you’ll get the hang of it) on the south bank of the Thames. You’ll find a map here.
Going to Gravesend involved getting a bus to London Bridge, and there taking a train to our destination, first checking that the dreaded weekend rail works were not interfering with travel.
We walked up the hill from Gravesend station and came to the pedestrianized New Road. It was decorated with bunting and the shops and cafes were open. In the absence of vehicles people could move about freely. I do wish towns provide more of these traffic-free areas. If there was indeed a festival taking place, we never found it.
Not knowing Gravesend or what might be found there, we set off and followed our noses. A number of pretty things soon came to light such as this bank on a corner of King Street and another building (currently being refurbished), a gift of Andrew Carnegie in 1905.
We walked up Manor Road, hoping to find a cup of tea. We discovered more bunting but of a slightly different kind.
We were rewarded by finding a cafe called Snack Attack where we stopped off for refreshments.
After tea we carried on into Harmer Road, passing a notable structure, which I shall come back to. I was intrigued to find a doorway with an escutcheon over it.
It turns out that the coat of arms you see next to the photo of New Road is that of Gravesham, the borough, while the coat of arms shown above is that of Gravesend, the town. (I said you should concentrate.) It shows a castle with, superimposed upon it a fire-breathing bull’s head resting on a crown. What would Freud make of that?
Returning to Milton Road, we find the notable structure that I mentioned above: an impressive clock tower in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, dated 1887 in rather small digits below the clock face. This elegant structure not only tells the time but also chimes it on a set of bells donated, according to a bronze plate, by Alfred Tolhurst in 1891. For more information, see here.
As is to be expected, there is a likeness of Queen Victoria and, not unusually, one of King Edward VII, unveiled by him in 1912. What is less common is that there is also a profile of the present Queen, added in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the accession of Queen Victoria (1987).
Walking and exploring, we gravitated naturally towards water and open sky. At last, we came to this agreeable place.
This may at first sight look like the seaside but it is in fact the Thames. Opposite are the docks of Tilbury. The water seems vast until one of the heavy tankers or container ships comes by and makes it look small again.
This is Riverside Park, a broad green space beside the river and on a day like today, a very pleasant place to be. There is a cafe and public toilets, everything you need to spend the day here, should you wish to do so. We spread a rug in the shade of a tree and ate a picnic lunch.
After our picnic and our meeting with the swans, we moved away from the water, through the park where there is a pretty lake with fountains.
Pleasant as this place was, we now turned back towards the town to explore further.
We walked back into town by a different route, passing Uncle Sam’s American Circus, and, once more, the Jubilee Clock Tower. This time, however, we encountered another historic institution.
The Borough Market was first founded in 1298 when Henry III issued a charter to Robert de la Parrock. It has continued since then, adapting and reorganizing as necessary. The current building dates from the 1890s and is incorporated into the old Town Hall.
From the market, you pass along a fairly narrow passage and out through the above colonnade into the High Street, otherwise known as the Heritage Quarter.
The High Street, closed to traffic, gives an impression of Gravesend in times past. During the day, it is probably busy with shoppers but at this time in the evening, the shops were closed and all was quiet, making it resemble a recreated street in a museum. It only needed a few people in Victorian costume to complete to scenario.
The High Street leads down to Pier Square. These days it seems a quiet place but, according to an information board, it would once have been a very lively place where many of the town’s activities took place. Not least, a ducking stool was in operation here. The Three Daws pub stands where a waterside pub is said to have existed for 500 years. The pub’s history can be found here, provided you can read the olde worlde fonte.
From here we walked along the riverside path, giving views of the waterway and the ships on it. It also reminds one of how many different environments one encounters along the Thames.
We watched the ferry come across from Tilbury and waited to see it depart again. The crossing probably takes only about ten minutes but in times past this link was vital to Gravesend and its economy.
We turned inland again, and came to the parish church of St George. It has an unusual and attractive white top to the tower, which I suspect is an addition to the original plan. The church is for ever connected in the popular imagination to an historic – or perhaps, legendary – figure.
The church is the burial place of Pocahontas, whose somewhat romantic statue stands in the grounds. Her story is too long and involved to be told here and, in any case, there are many bitter disputes over the facts. To discover the truth (if that is possible at this late date) one must dig deep. Two somewhat conflicting accounts may be found here and here.
The churchyard was quite a pleasant and peaceful place and we found we were sharing it with others, some human, some a lot smaller.
Beautiful as the day had been, evening was now coming on and the sun was declining. It was time to be thinking about returning to the station. We passed along cobbled Jury Street on the way.
I had not known what to expect when going to visit Gravesend so I was surprised by what I found. Our visit was short – just an afternoon – so we obviously could do no more than sample what it had to offer. I am sure we missed as much, or even more than, we saw. Gravesend revealed itself as a place of hidden depths and a character all its own.