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11 June 2015

To the Hoo Peninsula, where Marlow and Magwitch met – but no modern folk ever tread

It may be because London’s docks have migrated downriver that the city has so little psychic involvement with its own far-eastern hinterland. . . or not.

By Will Self

There are many ways of going for a walk; my friend Antony and I have been walking the length of the Hoo Peninsula for over a decade now. Obviously we haven’t been promenading non-stop – from Gravesend in the west to Grain in the east is only about 20 miles’ comfortable strolling – but doing it in instalments. We did the first leg around 2005: out along the Thames’s south bank to the weird Second World War ruins at Lower Hope Point; then inland, skirting Cliffe marshes to the village itself. While we were waiting for the minicab to come and take us back to Gravesend we committed to completing the walk, but what with one monumental artwork on Antony’s part and another modernist novel on mine, it was only a fortnight ago that we finally returned.

This is a reversal in the ordinary order of things: normally our traverse of space and time is correlated well enough to convince us at the subjective level of their absolute character; but if you take ten years to walk approximately 14 miles, relativity becomes only too apparent: space-time begins to warp and buckle, as if it were a squeeze-box manipulated by a sozzled busker, bringing disparate events into close proximity and ­simultaneously separating once-contiguous locations. Needless to say, such effects become still more noticeable when you stomp around somewhere like the Hoo Peninsula, which is a landscape at once over-imagined and under-imagined.

What do I mean by that? Well, it is on a yacht moored downstream from Gravesend that Marlow tells his tale of the heart of darkness – and it’s in a churchyard a short distance away that Pip first encounters Magwitch. Looked at this way, the Thames Estuary’s littoral is at the very heart of Englishness, while the river mouth remains the key entry point to the physical reality of the country. Yet hardly anyone comes here; and unless I’ve missed it, I can’t think of a single depiction of the Hoo Peninsula in contemporary popular culture. From Cliffe, where the austere medieval church is rendered with unusual bands of knapped flint, Antony and I walked through housing estate outskirts, then across fields and past the bramble-entangled towers of Cooling Castle to St James’s Church.

I’ve no doubt if we’d been on a deliberately “Dickensian” tour, accompanied by the pathetic fallacy of a “raw afternoon”, with the wind rushing from the “distant savage lair” of the sea, we probably would have felt nothing when we came upon “Pip’s Graves” in the churchyard. As it was, in bright late-May sunlight, we looked upon the ten ­little cylindrical tombs, the two gravestones and the three larger tombs that Dickens appropriated for the family of his orphaned protagonist, and we were visited with a profound sense of the uncanny. In front of us – as for Pip – the land fell away, yet this was no “dark, flat wilderness” but a bright green strip of land, beyond which a giant oil tanker, blazoned with another place name, HAMBURG, was coming in to dock by Coryton Wharves on the Essex bank.

It may be because London’s docks have migrated downriver that the city has so little psychic involvement with its own far-eastern hinterland – or it could be because the Isle of Grain (an alternative name for the peninsula) has ceased to live up to its name, and instead of remaining a rustic breadbasket, transmogrified throughout the 20th century into lodgement for the vast and sooty hulks of carbon-based technology: the power stations at Grain itself and Kingsnorth, together with acres of storage tanks and gasometers. Or possibly it is the anatomical queasiness of the place that dooms it to obscurity; because if we view the British Isles as a seated figure, then the Thames ­becomes its anus, the Medway its vagina and the Hoo Peninsula its green and pleasant perineum.

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From Cooling we went on to Northward Hill, which at a towering 65 metres is the highest eminence hereabouts; and next, we descended towards Kingsnorth, with the Medway mudflats glinting in the late-afternoon sun. Yes, late afternoon – because in this relativistic landscape, the ordinary measures no longer seemed to apply: it had taken us hours to travel a scant eight miles. Across a railway line, at the river’s edge, we found a group of travellers squatting. They had a pickup, a caravan and a pair of fine-looking bay horses cropping the ferny floor. We went on, and found a deep creek full of boats, some obviously utilitarian – dredgers, tugs, fishing smacks – the others narrowboats and Thames barges converted into dwellings by water gypsies. It was a peaceful scene: rigging tink-tinking in the breeze, while in the mid-distance a freighter inched its way towards the port at Sheerness.

We turned our backs on the estuary and, munching on salty sea kale leaves Antony had gathered from the mudflats, we walked up towards Upper Stoke. On the outskirts we passed a neat little cul-de-sac lined with newly built Tudorbethan houses. A sign on the verdant verge read “DICKENSIAN CLOSE”. Yup, you read me right: “Dickensian”, not “Dickens” – which might imply that its inhabitants are raising their children “by hand”, as Pip’s sister did with him; or that they’re all rather jocose and exaggerated, like the characters in a Dickens novel. I chose to interpret the sign differently: for with my queered space-time perception the Dickensian was indeed . . . close.

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