The nightingale sang as though its heart would break. The infinitely slow and sweet contralto warbling filled the scrubby wood at the RSPB’s High Halstow reserve, an operatic aria against the plainer chorus of blue tits, chiffchaffs and wrens, and the stage-hand knocking and hammering of great and lesser spotted woodpeckers.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
There can’t be a more poignant or a richer bird song anywhere in England on a misty spring morning, and it held us enchanted on our way down the Isle of Grain’s escarpment to the moody Kentish shore of the River Thames.
We followed a path out of the woods through green wheatfields and a blue haze of linseed towards the first glimpse of the Thames – a broad leaden tideway rolling seaward, the tall spindly stacks of an oil refinery on the Essex shore misted out into grey and white spires like a city in a dream.
A rough old lane led north between vigorous young elm hedges, a puddled track under a thick grey sky that brought us through the dead flat grazing meadows of Halstow Marshes to Egypt Bay in a crook of the sea wall that rims the Isle of Grain.
Yellow cockle shell sands lay at the feet of low black cliffs, leading out to a wide sheet of bird-haunted tidal mud, slippery and glutinous. In Egypt Bay the overarching imagination of Charles Dickens tethered the dreaded prison hulk from which the convict Magwitch escaped to terrorise young Pip in Great Expectations. There really were hulks in Egypt Bay in Dickens’s day – stinking, superannuated men-of-war in which convicts were incarcerated to rot away in hellish isolation.
Nowadays Egypt Bay and neighbouring St Mary’s Bay hold nothing more threatening than oystercatchers, avocets, curlew and brent geese. They are beautiful, sombre, wild places, destined to be overwhelmed if ‘Boris Island’, the monstrous Thames Estuary airport now under consideration, ever comes to pass – because it would be built right here.
A herd of bullocks paced the sea wall, evenly spaced one behind the next like the wagons of a slow-moving goods train. We left them to it, took a last lungful of salty estuary air, and made inland for the pretty duckpond hamlet of St Mary Hoo and the homeward path.
START& FINISH: RSPB car park, Woodside, High Halstow, Kent ME3 8TQ (OS ref TQ 781757).
GETTING THERE: From M2 Jct 1, A289, A228 towards Grain. At roundabout on outskirts of Hoo St Werburgh, left down Dux Court Road (‘Deangate Ridge’). At High Halstow church, right along The Street past school. Left into Harrison Drive; 2nd left into Northwood Avenue; immediately left down Woodlands to RSPB car park.
WALK: (8 miles, easy, OS Explorer 163):
From car park, don’t take the path with several arrows, but the other path through a swing gate with ‘No Fouling’ notice. In 150 m, left (‘Toddler Trail’); in 100 m, right, in 150 m, right again (‘Heron Trail’) up slope. At top, at T-junction, left; in 250 m, ‘Woodland Trail’ points ahead but turn right here up steps. In 100 m, with stile on right, turn left; in 50 m, right on Saxon Shore Way/SSW (782761). Leave wood; bear left along edge of picnic field, through hedge (785761) and on over field. In 200 m, left along field edge (787762; yellow arrow/YA). At top of field dogleg right and left (787764, YA) and on through scrub wood to road (787766). Left past Decoy Farm to Swigshole (788776). Over stile (YA; ‘Curlews, Convicts & Contraband’/CCC). In 100 m at fork, keep ahead (CCC) on Manor Way track for ¾ mile to end of track (783786). Left over stile (CCC) and next one; bear left along flood bank. Soon you cross stile with 2 YAs; bear right up onto flood bank at Egypt Bay (778790).
Right over stile (YA; CCC) and follow sea wall for 1½ miles. At south-east corner of St Mary’s Bay, right over stile (796788); head inland along green lane. In ½ mile, cross stile (796779; YA); ahead past sheepfold (797776; CCC); up slope to cross stile (798772; YA) and follow track to gate and stile into lane (801769; CCC). Follow lane round Ross Farm buildings to road in St Mary Hoo (803766). Ahead to visit church and pond. Retrace steps; at right bend (803766) keep ahead down stony lane (fingerpost, YA), through fields to pass Newlands Farm. Up steps by corrugated barn (797763; YA); on across field. At path crossing rejoin SSW (792763); ahead to road. Ahead round next bend; left (789762, SSW) to where SSW enters Northward Hill Wood (783761). Bear left on wide grass path across picnic field to gate and road (782759). Right (YA); in 250 m, right (RSPB sign) down Woodside to car park.
LUNCH: Red Dog, High Halstow (01634-253001; reddogpub.co.uk)
RSPB: Northward Hill and High Halstow Reserves: 01634-222480; rspb.org.uk
INFORMATION: Medway Visitor Centre, Rochester (01634-843666); visitkent.co.uk
www.ramblers.org.uk www.satmap.com www.LogMyTrip.co.uk
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