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Beauty and urban decay in Kent and Essex

The latest in our series of cycling stories is from Bricycles member Marie Sansford.

Weary from lockdown and keen to see new places, in late August 2020 I took the train to Sittingbourne in Kent, then cycled towards the Isle of Sheppey. Along the way, I asked two women if I was on the right road to Bobbing, a nearby village. They said they hadn’t heard of Bobbing. There were no signposts so I suggested I take the road ahead. They both exclaimed, ‘That’s the Old Bobbing Road!’ as a new understanding visibly dawned.

The Old Bobbing Road led to the old Kingsferry Lifting Bridge over the River Swale, running alongside the A249, on which there was a 100-vehicle pile-up during fog a few years ago. Several people later asked me if I’d come over the A249 bridge. Heading for Queensborough, I set off down a concrete surface by the water, which wasn’t really a cycle track but did the job of one, even though there were humps, steps over pipelines and narrow sections between industrial areas and parking areas. A taciturn but friendly cyclist called Chris, looking a bit like a wizard, magically materialised and helped me over the obstructions until the track ended at Minster. After that I got back on roads and tracks and at Eastchurch looked at the memorial to people such as Rolls, Short and Sopwith who invented the aeroplane on Sheppey. At Leysdown-on-Sea I asked for permission to camp at farms, campsites and even a fun fair, but was denied permission, with Covid quoted by some, so spent the night in the open air, where the wind from incoming Storm Ellen kept me awake. Dog walkers loomed from 5.30 am.

Marie, near the Wakering Stairs

In the morning I set off on bridleways to the Ferry Inn, the only building on the south of the island, where refreshments revived me. Cyclists told me this short ride was the best on Sheppey. Then it was off on the busy B2231 to the bridge. Side winds were ferocious, so I walked across this time. I enjoyed noticing a large rabbit warren down the bank, and escaped cabbages growing wild by the roadside – surely a happy coincidence?

Back on the mainland, I headed through a despoiled area, with fridge-freezers and kitchen units littering roadside ditches, and fenced compounds where rubbish was piled high. I stopped to buy vegetables from a farmer who complained about travellers, and about ramblers demanding access to her land. After lunch in the local churchyard with lovely fresh tomatoes I caught the train from Lower Rainham to Gravesend as I had previously ridden this very urban stretch. I took the ferry to Tilbury and cycled across a strange industrial/rural landscape towards a campsite at Walton Hall farm where I had stayed previously. It was open, but only to contractors (mainly couples in identical uniforms) who worked nearby and lived in mobile homes. Nevertheless I was allowed to pitch on a sheltered field, and enjoyed the spotless facilities for £10. I slept like a log despite the heavy regular thumping noises and smoke coming from an industrial site behind the hill.

Then it was off through Stanford-Le-Hope and South Benfleet, north of Canvey Island, to cycle tracks through Hadleigh Castle Country Park and roads through delightful Old Leigh-on-Sea and then Southend-on-Sea to Shoeburyness where I hoped to visit Foulness Island. QinetiQ Security explained on behalf of the MOD that this was only possible for a few hours a month as the island is used for artillery practice. Access to the Wakering Stairs on the coast was allowed but uninteresting. At low tide it’s possible to walk on the sand from there to the north of the island which has non-military residents, farms and hamlets.

Among winds and motorbikers coming in all directions I went on through unlittered open country and bought salad outside a house where someone was vigorously cleaning windows while observing. He didn’t respond when I said hello. Those must be the cleanest windows in the area. After Rochford I arrived at Wallasea Island where I hoped to get the ferry to Burnham-on-Crouch. This was cancelled because of the wind, leaving me no option but to camp at a nearby holiday park for £18. The showers were locked up, due to Covid, but not the toilets. Maybe the site was saving money on hot water? Sadly there was more rubbish on Wallasea Island and it wasn’t the beauty spot I’d anticipated despite being an RSPB reserve. During an evening walk I found the pub boarded up and was seen off by a large, threatening man who was observing all movements near his house.

Grayson Perry house, Wrabness

At 9 am I was on the first ferry over the Crouch, and just had the strength to pull the bike up a very steep ramp, like a solid ladder, onto the wharf. Road conditions were the same as before with the addition of very fast cars, and I rested at Maldon, then went on through country roads to Colchester. All cyclists I met complained of headwinds in every direction. It was tiring, so I caught a train to Wrabness where I visited the house designed by Grayson Perry, which sits prominently and controversially on the edge of the village. I was then tempted back on the train via London to Brighton. I had been away for four days, which felt like weeks, with a number of goals satisfyingly achieved, and a slice of a more guarded/neurotic/anarchic England observed.

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