I have missed a couple of walks due to a nasty virus, but managed to go on this walk, in Gravesend, which was fascinating, although accompanied by constant rain. Our guide was Sandra Soder from the local Historical Society, who was a fount of knowledge!
Firstly we discovered the origins of the name 'Gravesend' - and it has nothing to do with graves! It literally means 'at the end of a grove'. In Saxon times if you stood by the edge of the river and looked inland you would see a large grove of trees descending down towards you. There is of course the Victorian and Edwardian version - they believed it meant the home of the headman who collected tithes from the local villagers and tribes. In the 1300s there was certainly a local searcher for King Henry living here, and Gravesend has long been associated with the collection of taxes.
Towncentric the local tourist information office and our first port of call was right next door - St. George's Church - the burial place of Pocahontas. This is the parish church of Gravesend although in medieval times the parish church was originally in the Pelham Road area, together with the Manor Farm. But as people moved closer to the river, they felt they needed a church in that area, it was too far for the old and infirm and pregnant women to walk so people began leaving money in their wills to a fund to build a new church and eventually in 1480 permission was granted for a new church to be built. There were obviously a number of people who were making a very good living from the river if they could afford to leave monies in their wills for the building a new church. A Chapel of Ease was built, but when the old parish church lost it's roof, and then following repairs was badly damaged in a fire, the parish status was removed to St. Georges. In 1727 during the great fire of Gravesend, the church was destroyed along with many homes. The current church was rebuilt between 1731 -1733 by the architect Charles Sloane, a well known architect who also worked on Rochester Cathedral. There is an engraved stone tablet near the entrance which has an unfortunate spelling mistake - instead of 'Here no envy dwells' it reads 'Here no envy swells'. In 1952 the church lost it's parish status to St. James and was closed. However, one of the church wardens moved in and built a flat in the north aisle to protect the building from falling into disrepair and to save it from vandals. In 1958 the church was re-opened as the Pocohontas Memorial Chapel and Gardens and then in 1962 was fully re-opened as a church when Holy Trinity church was demolished and then St. James was also demolished and so St. George's regained it's parish status.
As we stood in front of the statue to her we now heard more about Pocahontas. She was born in 1595, in what is now Gloucester, Virginia, the daughter of a chief - her birth name was Matoaka but her father gave her the nickname of Pocahontas which means 'dancing little princess'. At that time numerous explorers, leaving from Gravesend were searching for the infamous 'North West Passage'. One of these expeditions included Captain John Smith. He was captured by indians and Chief Powhatan ordered his execution - it was as he was about to be killed that a young girl ran out and placed her heard over his telling her father he must talk and make peace with the explorers or he must kill her too. That young girl was Pocahontas. John Smith was later gravely injured and returned to England - Pocahontas believed him to be dead. As relations between the two sides worsened Pocahontas was captured and used as a pawn. Whilst in captivity the Reverend Whittaker, converted her to Christianity, and she took the name of Rebecca. She met John Rolfe, fell in love with him and married him and gave birth to a son, Thomas. Pocahontas then travelled to London with her husband and son on what was effectively a publicity tour, to encourage new colonists. She became famous, and was presented at court. She also met John Smith again, at first refusing to speak to him, because he had never tried to contact her, and she had believed him dead, She did eventually become friends with him again. Just as she and her family were preparing to travel back to America, she became ill. She was brought ashore at Gravesend where she sadly died in 1617, aged just 22. She was afforded the honour of being buried beneath the chancel in St. George's Church, something only usually given to people of rank or note. In the burial register it notes Mrs. Rebecca Rolfe, a Virginia lady born lies buried here. Her husband was persuaded to leave his son Thomas behind in England to be raised by his family in Norfolk and to return to America. His father having died in about 1722. in his late teens or early twenties Thomas travelled to America and became a defender of the fort built by the first settlers at Jamestown, and ended up fighting against his own uncle and cousins. His uncle, Powhatan's brother, had never agreed there should be peace with the settlers, and when Powhatan died, he led his people in battle against them. Thomas Rolfe married twice and there a large number of people, including such famous names as Mrs Woodrow Wilson and Lady Mountbatten who claim descent, through Thomas, from Pocahontas.
Inside the church there are two Pocahontas windows - one is called the Rebecca window (where she wears a red dress) the cartouche in this window is a copy of a picture in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. of her baptism. There is a plaque noting that she is buried here. Unfortunately no one now knows the exact spot, as the church she was buried in was destroyed in the fire of 1727. The replacement church has an extended chancel and is larger than the original church. There was also a small exhibition of Pocahontas memorabilia.
St. Georges also has a memorial tablet for General Gordon who has many links with Gravesend, of which more later.
High Street and West Street. In the 1300s, there were many alleyways linking these streets. As we look from outside the church we can see Hole in the Wall Alley. Chapel Lane led down from the Church gate to the river, and it here was that the first Post Office stood.
We walked past the New Falcon pub - on it's side window is a sign etched into the glass for the Russells Brewery, one of the local Gravesend breweries of which there were a number at one time. We went down to the ferry crossing point, where you can still catch a ferry across the river.
We then walked back down past the pub and along the road towards the pier to where the ferry originally crossed in medieval times. Essex had the side rights for their side of the river, which went to Tilbury Fort, which was originally one of the five blockhouses built on this stretch of the river. The governor of the fort built a public house for the use of his men, and travellers and you can still see the white painted pub called The Worlds End today.
Gravesend had the side rights for this side of the river, but they also had another very important ferry - the long ferry - which took passengers between Gravesend and London. All ships would stop here and it could take ten days to get into London because of the tides and the amount of traffic. However, you could get off at Gravesend and catch the long ferry which could take you into London on the same day. This was a very lucrative means of income for the ferrymen of Gravesend. The ship would lay anchor, the passengers would come ashore , eat at the inn and then catch the long ferry into London. Even Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey made this journey albeit in their own boats. It is said Cardinal Wolsey's retinue consisted of 30 barges to bring him to Gravesend.
For centuries the men of Gravesend made a very good living from the river but then in the 1800s the introduction of steamboats and pleasure boats slowly killed off the long ferry - why pay to be rowed to and from London when a steam boat would be much faster. The steamer owners bought out the river rights from the men of Gravesend so bringing to an end hundreds of years of profitable employment. An example of how profitable can be seen from a case dating back to the 1200s. Some ferry men were accused of overcharging passengers (one penny rather than a halfpenny) and were found guilty. They were fined the then huge sum of forty shillings which they were able to pay immediately!
As we walked towards the pier we stopped to look up the High Street. At one time the boundary between Gravesend and Milton next Gravesend ran right down the centre of the High Street, continuing up along Windmill Street and into Singlewell Road. The two parishes were brought together into one Borough by Elizabeth I.
The Christopher, where no less a personage than Sebastian Cabot stayed there albeit in his 80s. On the opposite side is the Riverside Inn built in 1490, and also called the Three Daws (originally Choughs) The shops were demolished in the 1800s and a gate was installed and then it was decided that a pier should be built. As you can imagine this did not go down very well with the riverboat men who charged to bring passengers and goods to and from the shops moored in the Thames - now ships would be able to stop at the pier for passengers to disembark. In the 1830s a million visitors a year were coming to Gravesend. An Act of Parliament was required to get permission to build a pier and although this was initially refused a temporary pier was built. The local watermen attacked the pier in 1832 and soldiers were called over from Tilbury Fort to read the Riot Act. To keep the pier in good order a charge was made for those landing and boarding. The charge was 4d per head, a proportion of which was paid into a fund to compensate the watermen for loss of earnings.
Permission was finally given for a proper pier and this opened in 1834. It is now the oldest cast iron pier in the world. A day of festivities was organised to celebrate the opening led by Lord Darnley, with a huge banquet for 300 people and a fireworks display.
In 1835 another temporary pier. also originally of case iron, was built by some entrepreneurs and former councillors from Gravesend. They had bought up the land cheaply from the War Department, and as it was outside the area included in the Act of Parliament the corporation were unable to charge passengers and ships. The legally rivalry that ensued actually bankrupted the corporation. The mayor was actually chased by men with writs, hiding in the Old Falcon pub, and the mayoral finery and the Town Hall were taken and had to be leased back for civic events. The problems were not properly sorted out until 1875. The pier and the ferry were bought by the local railway company and became a railway station, with the ferry now running from the pier.
We now walked along to St. Andrew's Arts Centre which was originally the St. Andrew's Mission Church. Many people emigrating to Australia and New Zealand would often have to wait up to three weeks while a full complement of passengers were aboard. The Reverend Robinson decided to open a Seaman's Mission to prevent the sailors, whilst waiting to ship out, from spending all their money on drink and other pursuits. It was also helpful to the waiting passengers and many were baptised on board ship before leaving on their voyages. Revd Robinson later took over the Spread Eagle pub and General Gordon taught classes there. The widow of Rear Admiral Beaufort (the Beaufort Wind Scale) agreed to fund the building of the St Andrews Church if the town would fund the foundations. The roof resembles an upturned boat.
We were unable to go in as a meeting of the local embroiderers guild was being held, but hopefully I will get a chance to look inside at another time.
Gravesend played an important role in the defence of London at the time of Henry VIII. We now walked along to one of the blockhouses that was built as part of the defences. There were five altogether, two in Gravesend, one at Tilbury Fort, one at Higham and one at East Tilbury.
Here outside the old Royal Clarendon Hotel, now empty but currently the subject of possible redevelopment and restoration to a top class hotel, we can see studs in the road which outline the actual extent of the blockhouse, underground. The entrance is still visible and troops and guns would be stationed there to protect the approach to London.
The Royal Clarendon Hotel was originally built as a banqueting house which was then sold off to a gentleman from Rochester who turned it into a pub and hotel. It was enlarged and even had a ballroom at one time and was a popular venue many years ago, but in recent years had become run down. It closed a few years ago and now waits to be brought back to life.
We now moved on to the Royal Terrace Pier, which is a working pier run by the Port of London Authority who also have a large office building here. It was just across from here that the Terrace Gardens once stood. These pleasure gardens were very popular and a road was built especially for Queen Victoria's carriage to drive through them. You could walk up through the gardens and continue up to the attractions of Windmill Hill, where you could find fairs, silhouette makers, fortune tellers and other pleasures. Now all that remains of the gardens are two small pieces of a stone bridge.
If you look towards the Customs House you can see an octagonal building which once housed lookouts - it is the only place you can now see this building from other than the river.
We then walked along The Terrace and came past Cox House which was built for the Customs and Excise officers. The Excise officers then moved across the road and built what is now the Customs House in 1817 - and were later joined the by the Customs officers. The house is listed and boasts a wonderful Adams staircase. Unfortunately it is not open to visitors.
We now reach our final destination, the oldest building in Gravesend, Milton Chantry. The Chantry (a place where prayers are said for the souls of the departed) was founded by Aylmer de Valence, the Earl of Pembroke. He employed the services of two chaplains to say prayers on behalf of himself and his family as they believed they could avoid ending up in purgatory. It was built on the site of an even earlier hospital (not the modern kind of hospital but a place for travellers to stay). On entering the door immediately to your right is a fine Jacobean staircase . As you continue into the reception area you enter what was the priest's house and this room dates from the 16th century. Passing through a small door way you enter into the old chantry where you can see the original chalk block foundations laid in 1320.
The Civic Room references the two most famous residents, Pocahontas and General Charles Gordon. General Gordon was stationed here for six years, between 1865 and 1871 and left his mark on the town during his time here. He was a soldier of outstanding ability and it was his job to upgrade the fortifications of the New Tavern Fort. The military works and magazines will hopefully be opened to the public again in the near future. Gordon lived at Fort House, in Fort Gardens, but the house was badly damaged by a bomb in 1944 and had to be demolished. Even after he left the town he continued to pay pensions to people in the town from his own pocket.
The Roman Room is devoted to the excavations at Springhead (Vagniacae) which were carried out between 1950 to the mid 1980s. A huge number of coins and pottery were discovered over the years together with other small objects and some of these are exhibited here. A number of pagan temples and other buildings and shrines were discovered at this Roman posting station, which is recorded in the Antonine Itinerary as being nine miles from Rochester.
There is also a 'Then and Now' Gallery with photographs of various areas in the town and surrounding area show how much has changed.
The building continued as a Chantry until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. The grounds of the Chantry were in Essex on the other side of the river and there was a causeway on the river, where boats could land with the crops. After dissolution the building was allowed to fall into disrepair and then in 1524 was let to a farmer, William Wilde of Milton. In 1697 it became an alehouse later renamed as the New Tavern. Bowls was played on the green. In 1778-1780 the War Department built earthworks and a fort here against a possible invasion by the French and the Chantry was encased in bricks becoming barracks. During building works in 1800 a number of bodies were uncovered which assumed to be monks. Soldiers were stationed here in the New Tavern Barracks for many years. In 1932 the area was opened as pubic gardens. The Chantry is open to the public and entrance is free - it is well worth a visit.
Well I hope you found it interesting - there was a great deal to take in on the walk and I thoroughly enjoyed learning so much about the town of Gravesend.
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