Medway and Fort Hoo – industrial swimming

“…to tell the truth, I was really quite nervous about this swim. This was my first big industrial river, running right through the heart of the most densely populated part of Kent.”

As soon as I catch my first glimpse of the Medway, I know I won’t be swimming across it. There’s a sweaty summer heat, school holiday fever buzzing through the riverside park as parents and kids slurp on mid–morning ice creams. But the water mark is distant and receding fast, low tide still some two hours away, the mud of the marshes hardening under a hazy sun.

I came here on a solo reconnaissance mission really, leaving London on the high speed train that cuts a swathe through north Kent and the marshlands I never give a second thought to when I ride the same tracks towards the Channel tunnel and the escape of the continent.

Having pored over maps working out the best way for me to reach Fort Hoo without swimming a mile of this grimiest of rivers, I realise on the way down that the most I can content myself with is a dip in the shallows. And now, even that is looking a highly unlikely prospect.

Like Hell Gill, the Gulf of Corryvreckan and the estuary at Fowey, following Roger’s swim across the Medway is a proper mission. All require exact planning and, most importantly, company. I’m here alone, my trunks and neoprene boots stuffed below a takeaway Mexican pancake and refilled plastic bottle of water. How I thought I’d even manage to take a short dip is beyond me. I’m becoming adept at swerving the biggest challenges on this trip, it seems.

Instead I decide to keep walking west along the ‘Saxon Shore Way’. The endless rumble of cars from the A289, coupled with the incessant metal clang from an industrial estate which rubs right along the Medway’s banks, make this a slightly incongruous place. Looking out to shore, Fort Hoo is crying out to be swum to and explored. Kingsnorth power station looms behind it, its towers soon to be demolished. I badly want to be in the water.

I sit to take it all in and reel off a few pictures, looking for what would be good entry points at high tide. ‘Enjoy the view mate, it won’t be there much longer,’ says a cyclist, cackling as he crunches his bike past me. I assume he means the power station, rather than the marsh, which seems to me more delightful with every distant cloud that burns off over the Isle of Grain.

Walking on, I watch black headed gulls tread lightly over the mud, which sparkles with the sound of the last running water trickling out into the estuary. They leave delicate foot prints in wavy lines, occasionally dipping their heads to munch on treats hidden in the shit brown slickness below.

I make my way around Sharp’s Head Bay and along the wonderfully named Horrid Hill. This little peninsula is alive with birds, insects and people. Grandparents follow children chasing bumble bees and cabbage white butterflies. The RSPB’s Nor Marsh, across the causeway, seems to squawk collectively with the sound of returning birds, here early to over–winter. As I leave, I think I catch a brief look at a swooping Marsh Harrier.

A few hundred yards along, Fort Hoo and Roger’s crossing point well behind me, I find the perfect entry for a short dip. Boats sit tilted on the silt, waiting for the returning tide to refloat them. I check the tide times on my smartphone and see I’ve got another few hours yet until high water. I turn and head for the train station at Rainham, knowing that despite today being a wash out, I’ve been treated to a most unlikely and beautiful corner of Kent.

The fact is though, I am going to have to return and do this properly. I have yet to ‘go big’ on this journey of mine and I’m starting to realise it can no longer be skirted around. I need company and encouragement for these long, difficult swims. They cannot be tackled alone. As my friend Molly said as we swam at Tooting last week, “You need someone to be a dickhead.” Right now, that person isn’t here. But with Fowey looming in my mind and a date finally set with a group for that most daring of trips, I know my time has come.

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