Higham, Kent, Circular

Five EFOG members met at Stratford International Station on Sunday 21st July for Lynne’s Dickens-themed walk in Kent.

higham strat 190721 102923955cIt takes little time to get the two stops to Sheerness, and about the same to wait for the one-sto-down-the-line train to Higham. What occurred to me as we walked out of the station and across the bridge to our proposed footpath was the number of butterflies alongside the railway. This may have been a lot to do with the almost-forest strip of buddleia that ran parallel to the railway lines. The relevance of that I was not to find until I looked things up – much later.

Almost immediately, we were on a public footpath, with a single row of houses on our right and fields of wheat to our left. There was a gentle incline, and although the Sun was shining and it was warm, a breeze across the fields tempered things for pleasant walking conditions. Shortly after the row of houses ended, the footpath became a lane, and we passed what had been oast houses, and had now been converted into dwellings. We realized that it was the cowls of these that we had seen above the chalk cliffs that had formed the car park for the station. We were likely walking above the railway tunnel.

higham thames 190721 114107311cWe passed a nice weatherboarded and tiled-roof barn at White House Farm, and then – at something over 100ft altitude – looking behind us we were able to get some good views across the Thames, with familiar Essex locations identifiable. Clearly to be made out were the Langdon Hills, and as the viewpoints changed slightly, the Hadleigh Downs and even Leigh and Southend.

The railway station is actually at Lower Higham, which was the original settlement. We were walking southwards, so we entered the now-larger village of Higham. Lynne had already given us an introduction to Dickens’ association with the area, and – after a short visit to the (very high – but not just the tower) St. John’s Church and walking through the village – we passed Gads Hill Place. We were told that when Dickens was 9 years old, he and his father were walking through Kent. He saw the house, liked it, and bought it in 1856. It was his country home, and he died there in 1870.

Nearby, on the other side of the road, is the Sir John Falstaff pub., so we went in there for some refreshing drinks. Although, apparently, a perfectly ordinary, pleasant – and presumably much-frequented – pub, we had the strange feeling that the majority of the clients were eyeing us during all of our stay. Odd. But then it is Kent...

Resuming our walk, we climbed the lane over Telegraph Hill, perhaps named because of the one-time higham 190721 114210843cpositioning of a semaphore station there. These were built around 1795 for the Admiralty to warn of invasion from France. Chains of shutter telegraph stations were built, including the first, which was London to Deal and Sheerness. Messages passed from London to Deal in about sixty seconds. The prominent position at Higham would have been ideal to relay messages across the Thames, such at to the Westley Heights at Langdon, and there was definitely a semaphore station at Great Wakering.

However, on the hill at Higham now is a more recent edifice, which we duly visited. This is the Larkin Memorial which was constructed in 1835 to the memory of Charles Larkin (1775–1833), an auctioneer from Rochester who promoted the Parliamentary reforms of 1832. Although it is at the highest spot at Higham – and likely where the telegraph had been positioned – it is now almost hidden from sight by vegetation, and there is no view at all. The concrete monument was in danger of collapse by 1860, but was repaired. It was renovated again in 1974, but we were concerned about some rather major cracks as we looked at it!

higham 190721 132445944cLeaving Higham, we walked beside a quiet road along a nice ridge, with views north to Southend and south across rolling countryside - with lots of horses - towards Hillyfield, and then southward and downhill, passing more horses and across fields of wheat and barley, to Lillechurch Farm. After a short road-walk, a track and then a footpath across fields took us to Church Street, where the small St Mary’s Church is situated. It is in a remote position on the edge of the marshes that run to the Thames, although we didn’t go far enough down the lane to experience that aspect. It is Grade 1 listed, originally Norman building, both charming and somewhat eccentric. It was remodelled and enlarged in the fourteenth century, so that the newer and larger nave to the south is where the main chancel now is. The original chancel is still maintained as such, and is separated from the nave by a heavy wooden fourteenth-century chancel screen, a remarkable survival. The stone font is Norman and apparently one of the oldest in Kent.

From the church, and initially by way of field-paths we made our way towards the village of Lower Higham, at the edge of which, in Bull Lane, we walked along a very attractive long row of – I suspect – originally farmworkers cottages. Almost all of the tiny front gardens were well cared for and individual in style.

Suddenly, it seemed, passing ‘Station House’ on our left, we were walking back across the bridge and the buddleia to the butterfly-infested Higham Station to begin our train journeys home.

About the buddleia: I really ought to research places before I visit rather than on the return. Something had struck me as odd about this long parallel strip of land, adjacent to the railway and now full of buddleia. Beyond Higham station, heading towards Rochester, the railway plunges into a tunnel. This now railway tunnel had been the second longest canal tunnel in Britain, after Standedge. The railway company took it over from its disuse as the Thames and Medway Canal, and originally ran a single-track line through it, parallel to the canal. It was BIG - the tunnel could accommodate Thames sailing barges. The strip of land, of course, is the course of the original canal.

The walk was about 6.5 miles, and Cathy, Jinan, Trevor and myself accompanied Lynne. What a nice walk!

Paul Ferris, 26th July 2019