Touring around Gravesend
Set course now for England’s most famous river and navigate its lesser-known stretches. Gravesend grew up on the Thames because it was the first safe landing place in Kent for boats travelling up river, a fact recorded in Domesday 1086. In Victorian times the town was a popular destination for day-trippers from London and it’s still an easy jaunt. Uncover a waterside full of historic surprises, whether on the trail of a 19th-century general or a Red Indian princess. The surrounding countryscapes of Gravesham conceal haunts that Charles Dickens kept close to his heart, as well as lovely villages in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Days out don’t start more teasingly than this: how did a Red Indian princess come to be buried at St George’s Church in Gravesend? It’s a tragic-romantic tale. Pocahontas (1595-1617), daughter of the powerful chief of the Algonquin Indians, became one of the most honoured women in American history, having saved the life of Captain John Smith, leader of the British colony of Virginia. She married colonist John Rolfe and later came to England, only to die on the return journey aboard a ship off Gravesend. See the stained-glass memorial window given by the Colonial Dames of Virginia in the church, and her youthful statue in the grounds, where a board tells more of her story.
Book a guided walk from Gravesend Visitor Centre or pick up a themed trail leaflet to stroll through more of the town’s history and sights. A riverside exploration takes in the oldest remaining cast-iron pier in the world, as well as Bawley Bay where scores of hopeful emigrants departed for new lives in Australia or New Zealand – Mr Micawber and the Peggottys left from here, too, in Dickens’ David Copperfield. The Royal Terrace Pier became ‘royal’ after Princess Alexandra arrived from Denmark in 1863 to marry the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII).
Or maybe follow in the steps of General Gordon – ‘Gordon of Khartoum’ – who lived in Gravesend 1865-71. As Commandant of the Thames Forts, he updated coastal defences including New Tavern Fort whose remains and bristling guns can be viewed in Fort Gardens. However he was not just a military hero; he was also a great benefactor to the local poor, work that included using the 19th-century Mission House as a reading room for children. The colourful Gordon Gardens and Khartoum Walk are further memorials to this great man.
Take refreshment in an historic pub – The Three Daws beside the town pier is over 500 years old and boasts smugglers’ tunnels. Then return to the 21st century at the magnificent new Gurdwara, one of the largest Sikh temples in the country. Or cruise the river that has always been the lifeblood of the town: the MV Princess Pocahontas is operated by freemen of the River Thames whose keen knowledge of the historic waterway makes for an informative and entertaining trip.
Equally enticing is to take a leaf out of Charles Dickens’ books. Keep your feet on dry land and follow the author on his favourite personal walks. He lived his final years 1857-70 at Gad’s Hill Place, Higham, a few miles southeast of Gravesend – today his home is a school, though you can visit on occasional open days. Across the road Dickens’ local, the Sir John Falstaff Inn, offers friendly hospitality.
Less visited and more compelling are the places the writer frequented on his rambles between Higham and Gravesend – he loved walking and often covered 22 miles in a day. Stride out for example to Chalk, where Dickens stayed with his new bride Catherine (née Hogarth) in 1836. Three properties claim to be their honeymoon home and you’ll also come across the weatherboarded model for Joe Gargery’s forge and cottage in Great Expectations. Pause at the 11th-century Church of the Virgin Mary, on its hilltop overlooking the north Kent marshes. Dickens was entranced by the strange carvings over the doorway of the porch and always stopped to “greet” the comical stone monk.
Toddle on to St Peter and St Paul Church, a mile or so to the south in Shorne. Dickens described it in Pickwick Papers as, ‘One of the most peaceful and secluded churchyards in Kent, where wild flowers mingle with the grass, and the soft landscape around forms the fairest spot in the garden of England.’ He loved Cobham, too, where the 13th-century church contains one of the finest collections of medieval brasses in England. Dickens was a regular at the half-timbered Leather Bottle inn, where he also sent the Pickwickians to look for love-struck Mr Tupman. Tuck into Oliver Twist’s Rabbit Pie, Fagin’s Wild Boar Sausages and other Dickensian-styled dishes on the menu.
Then, energy restored, amble off to Cobham Hall and Park in the footsteps of Dickens and Mr Pickwick. The Elizabethan hall (with later additions) belonged to the Earls of Darnley; in 1883 the 8th Earl captained the victorious England cricket team against Australia and first brought home the iconic Ashes trophy. Cobham Hall is now a girls’ school but opens to the public on certain days during Easter and summer holidays.
You could return to Gravesend, perhaps to sup at The Ship and Lobster pub – inspiration for The Ship, one of the ‘lone public houses’ where Pip and Herbert rest during their attempt to get Magwitch out of the country in Great Expectations. Or maybe you’ve caught Dickens’ walking mania. Villages like Meopham and Luddesdown are well-served by footpaths, and the long-distance Wealdway and North Downs Way also thread through Gravesham’s refreshing countryside. Trosley Park gives panoramic views of the Weald and Camer Park is ideal for picnics.