At this season, The Gentle Author always enjoys an annual late summer excursion beyond Spitalfields in the form of a day trip to the sea and this year’s holiday destination was Gravesend
There is an undeniable romance about arriving by boat at a place you have never been before. This was how I arrived at Gravesend. Certainly, the vast terminal for cruise liners at Tilbury encourages a sense of expectation, even if your voyage is not across the ocean but simply over the Thames.
Yet as we approached Gravesend, it was a journey of a more melancholy nature that filled my mind. Since it was here that Pocahontas, one of the very first Americans to visit Europe, landed when illness forced her to abandon her return journey on March 21st 1617. The ship turned from its course before it left the Thames estuary and sought harbour at Gravesend where Pocahontas died just a few hours after coming ashore. Only twenty-one, she experienced much in her short life and left a young son, Thomas. He was taken back to London and completed her aborted journey home in adulthood, while his mother was buried at St George’s church, where today a handsome bronze figure embodies her presence to greet the pilgrims.
My arrival in Gravesend and a brisk walk up the steep High St were sufficient to displace these thoughts, replacing them with astonishment at the number of tattoo parlours and nail bars in such a small stretch of shops. Well-tended hanging baskets of flowers at every turn spoke eloquently of civic pride, while the many high quality buildings from earlier centuries evidenced the former wealth of Gravesend.
The appealing architectural vernacular of this shambolic medieval High St, interspersed by the Victorian grandeur of the Market Hall and the Carnegie Library, enticed me up the hill to the square where a group of senior Sikh gentlemen sat, happily passing the time of day and looking dapper in their turbans of multiple hues of blue.
Before long, hunger beckoned and I set off past Bawley Bay, where families once emigrated to the Antipodes, and St Andrew’s Mission church, built out over the water in 1871, and the Clarendon Royal Hotel, conceived as a palace for James II, and the Customs House of 1812, and the fourteenth century Milton Chantry, the oldest building in Gravesend, and the New Tavern Fort, constructed in expectation of an invasion by the French.
My point of arrival was the Promenade Cafe, an elegant thirties pavilion set back from the sea behind a wide lawn, thronging with customers, young and old, and everyone quite at home. This eastern stretch of Gravesend is where local residents, especially families, come to enjoy their leisure, offering paddling, feeding the swans, dog-walking and the quiet spectacle of passing traffic in the estuary. Among other hungry customers, I sat patiently at my table until a waiter should call out the number of my dinner ticket and deliver my plate of fish and chips.
‘Number Six!’ called the waiter, wielding a tray laden with two steaming fish dinners and inspiring everyone to turn their heads to see who was to be the lucky recipient. ‘Number Six?’ the waiter bawled at the top of his voice. Mystified by lack of any response, ‘Number Six?’ he queried, before returning inside shaking his head in disappointment. Puzzled glances passed between the dinners until a senior gentleman in a corner perked up. ‘Did he say Number Six?’ he asked, speaking his thoughts out loud. Observing nods of assent from neighbouring tables, he leapt to his feet clutching his ticket and hurried inside declaiming, ‘He didn’t speak loud enough, did he?’ and ‘What’s wrong with you, can’t you speak up?’
East of the promenade and over the canal, an atmosphere of extravagant post-industrial decay prevails. I walked for a mile along an overgrown narrow path between huge abandoned factories to emerge in a light industrial estate where small businesses still thrive, mostly in maritime related trades. At the very end, where the Higham Marshes begin sits the Ship & Lobster, occupying a position as the first and last pub on the Thames. Of significant history and in a breathtaking location, it was refreshing to encounter this friendly unpretentious local pub that serves the community of workers from the industrial estate, and has successfully evaded tourism or tarting up.
Before I returned to the ferry and the train back to Fenchurch St, I had one more landmark to discover. Sitting on the hill above Gravesend, the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara Sikh Temple looks for all the world as if had been magically transported there by a genie from the Arabian Nights. Built entirely of gleaming white marble, on an equal scale to a European cathedral, this a compelling piece of architecture rendered even more remarkable by its unexpected location. Approaching through the elaborate gatehouse pavilion, I could not resist crossing the car park and walking right up to it – I should not have been surprised if it had vanished like a mirage.
A woman in long coloured robes hurried towards me. Immediately, I felt that I had trespassed and prepared my apology, but instead she welcomed me openly and invited me inside, explaining where I could find a cloth to cover my head and where I could leave my shoes if I wanted to attend a service. The interior of the temple with its enormous blue dome, lined with mosaic, and ceremonial staircase was no less impressive than the exterior. Yet the atmosphere was relaxed and I found myself reciprocating polite nods with worshippers passing in the hallway. My first foray into the world of the Sikhs.
The shadows were lengthening and my feet were sore when I climbed aboard Tilbury ferry at the end of a memorable excursion, crammed with wonders. I was enchanted by my day trip to Gravesend. Gravesend has so much to recommend it, I thought.
The Gravesend ferry ready to leave from Tilbury
Cruise ship at Tilbury seen from the Gravesend ferry
On the ferry
Looking back to Tilbury from Gravesend
Gravesend has the oldest cast iron pier in Britain
Arrival at Gravesend
St George’s where Pocahontas, one of the first Americans to visit Europe, is buried
Traditional Undertaker at Gravesend
At the Promenade Cafe
Along Wharf Rd
In Mark Lane
The Ship & Lobster, the first and last pub on the Thames. Featured in Great Expectations, this pub was supposedly founded when Charles II and his brother James raced barges here.
Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara, Sikh Temple
Plan your trip at www.visitgravesend.co.uk
You may like to read about my previous trips beyond Spitalfields at this time of year