This unexpectedly interesting walk along the banks of the River Thames began early on Saturday morning at Grays railway station. A large group of sleepy walkers met at 7.30am, some still rubbing their eyes in the sun. After being introduced to the flag, with its images of the river’s wildlife and its industrial and military past, we headed off immediately towards the mighty river.
Our group of 30 walkers followed the riverside path, past the logistics depots with their piles of containers, past the conveyor belts and cranes and pulleys that would load them onto the ships already waiting in the Thames. We surprised some dads and their kids, up early for a little fishing, and a solitary seal popped his head up to look at the gaggle of noisy walkers making their way along the path in a brightly-coloured crocodile.
After a couple of miles we stopped at the ancient St Clement’s Church, made famous in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. The church itself is dwarfed by the gigantic Procter and Gamble factory glinting behind it, its distinctive stripes of black and white flints contrasting sharply with the looming red metal of the factory. There’s been a church on this site since before the Norman Conquest, and present building has been changed and added to numerous times through the centuries. The church is no longer in regular use, but had been opened especially for the walkers, who enjoyed some respite from the hot sun inside while they heard about the history of this ancient place.
Further along the path there are remnants of the area’s military past. Although it was closed to visitors on the day of the walk, the Purfleet Heritage Centre is housed within one of the magazine stores, constructed in 1759, where gunpowder and munitions were stored during the Napoleonic wars.
Pushing on along the path, we were all impressed with the mile-long graffiti wall. In 2007, a group of young graffiti artists aged between 11 and 32 had been given the opportunity to decorate the concrete sea wall, and the results are well worth seeing.
In Purfleet we stopped for a welcome cold drink, and then continued to the RSPB nature reserve at Rainham Marshes. One of very few ancient landscapes remaining within a stone’s throw of London, these medieval marshes right next to the River Thames were closed to the public for over 100 years and used as a military firing range, but in 2000 they were acquired by the RSPB who set about turning it into a great place for people to visit to see wading birds, voles, kingfishers and rare dragonflies, all accessible not only to walkers but also to cyclists and buggy and wheelchair users too. Many of our group had never visited before, despite living nearby, and everyone vowed to come back soon!
Leaving the bird sanctuary, we headed eastwards again, ending our walk at High House Production Park, an extraordinary new resource established to support an international centre of excellence for the creative industries in Thurrock. It’s now home to the Royal Opera House’s production workshops, to the Creative & Cultural Skills’ Backstage Centre, a world class production, rehearsal and training venue for performance, broadcast and live events, and Acme Studios, home to all sorts of artists including Kinetika, who are delivering Thurrock 100. The Fused festival was going on when we arrived, with a day of celebratory events, live music and dance and open studios. The walkers were greeted like conquering heroes, and given a warm welcome by Matt Lane, Head of Learning and Participation for the Royal Opera House, before enjoying a barbecue or an ice cream and resting their aching feet!