As you may know, I’ve been enjoying myself in recent weeks with The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club, a joint venture with my old friend Tim Wright. We’re taking one of our favourite books, Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, out for a walk through Schleswig-Holstein and the East Frisian Islands, revisiting the scenes from the book on the same day as they appear in the story – which is, to coin our oft-used phrase, curiously specific about dates and locations.
Sadly, though, there’s one bit of the trip we can’t replicate: the journey taken by Charles Carruthers from London to Flensburg via the Flushing steamer. You can read about that journey in detail here, and last week we hunted out the shadow of that old route to Europe on the north Kent coast.
We took the train from London Victoria to Sittingbourne (just like in the old days), changing onto the branch line to Sheerness and getting off at the little station at Queenborough, the old wool port on the Swale that these days is a sleepy high street with some lovely old buildings, and creek with dozens of little craft waiting for the tide to come in.
At the pub at the end of the High Street, a small crowd were all taking photos of something across the Swale and the Medway. ‘What’s going on?’ we asked. ‘They’re blowing up the power station,’ they said. There wasn’t much to see – just an odd plume of smoke over the old stack at Grain.
From there, we walked back around the town and out across the spit of land, along which a little branch line once ran from Queenborough. The only remnant of it is an overgrown gravel track, beautiful in its own way.
After a fair bit of scrambling past old signs warning of imminent imprisonment and death, we found the old pier: a crumbling wooden structure out where the Sheppey mud meets the Swale. Trains would run directly out onto this pier, and passengers would climb down off the train and directly onto the steamer.
It was an extraordinary sight – a hundred years ago, this was the busiest route from London to Germany, carrying mail and passengers twice a day. Now it’s forgotten, ignored and left to rut under the watching cranes of Thamesport. Capitalism, eh?