Discover the Hoo Peninsula

The Hoo landscape of wetlands and salt marsh would be familiar still to Dickens, who depicted a land

The Hoo landscape of wetlands and salt marsh would be familiar still to Dickens, who depicted a landscape charged with atmosphere, a dark flat wilderness, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates - Credit: Archant

The Hoo Peninsula wears many faces, from the sinister backdrop in Great Expectations to a place of nature conservation importance and even the site for a new UK airport.

The popular image of the Hoo Peninsula fits the template laid out by Charles Dickens in one of his greatest novels, Great Expectations.

The terrain around the villages of Cliffe and Cooling provided the sinister backdrop for the eerie opening scene in which the novel’s young hero Pip encountered the escaped criminal Magwitch in a churchyard.

Dickens depicted a landscape charged with atmosphere, a “dark flat wilderness, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates,” grazed by cattle and backed by the “low leaden line” of the river and, beyond that, “the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing” of the sea.

The passage arose from first-hand observation. The author had grown familiar with the forlorn marshes of this sliver of land between the Thames and the Medway rivers on walks with his father in his Rochester boyhood.

He’d then resumed his exploratory forays of the Peninsula in later life when he lived nearby at Gad’s Hill.

Dickens’s words sealed the impression of Hoo as a wild and rather gloomy place, and as the authors of a new book published by Historic England, The Hoo Peninsula Landscape, explain, it has persisted into the present day.

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Peter Kendall, one of the joint authors of the book, and Historic England’s Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Kent, says modern writers like Peter Ackroyd still echo Dickens’s words.

“They’ve very much directed their attention to the large, open and often empty spaces, and references to current and past industries have perpetuated an impression in which activities not enacted elsewhere can take place.”

As he explains, the Medway prison hulks in the 18th century headed for Hoo because the convicts were thought less likely to escape from these ships onto the seemingly endless marshes.

And the idea of the place as an unvisited spot meant it was considered suitable to quarantine inbound passengers from Europe off its shores during outbreaks of plague.

Yet the place is not without its charms. The continued remoteness of some of the villages from modern transport links means they have retained something of the atmosphere that so intrigued Dickens.

Cooling is still a tiny village of no more than a few hundred residents, and seems set in a kind of marshland timelessness. Here in the graveyard of its13th-century Church of St James, now redundant but in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust and open to visitors, you can see the 13 lozenge-shaped tombstones which mark the graves of the young malaria victims who supposedly included in their number Pip’s deceased brothers in Great Expectations.

Not far away at Cliffe Pools, which you can cross via the Saxon Shore Way, birdwatchers delight in one of the most important wetland areas in the south east, populated by everything from avocets, little egrets and lapwings to teal and wigeon. The many designations for nature conservation importance that Peter points out are of relatively recent origin in the main, but the idea of Hoo as a place to visit for peace, reflection and relaxation is not entirely new.

Back in the 1930s, posters promoting the village of Allhallows-on-Sea as a coastal resort talked of “over two miles of firm golden sands” and “healthy homes for Londoners only 37 miles from the city.” So windswept desolation is only part of the Hoo story.

Peter explains that it has a rich farming past. “Long before there was major industry here, it was an agriculturally productive place, as shown by the quality of some of its historic farmhouses, and the money spent on churches.”

The large church of St Helens at Cliffe, as well as that at Cooling, are good examples. “The spine of high ground along the centre of the peninsula was farmed in unison with salt marsh for the grazing of cattle and sheep,” Peter adds.

“Salt marsh was largely created by the intervention of landowners who built seawalls and drained the marshes, and if you add fishing and oyster production, along with wildfowling, you can see how a good living could be had by some from the land, sea and the debatable ground of the marshes in between the two.”

Cliffe, in fact, was a fishing port, with its own quay, in the 15th century. Its main street with fine old weather-boarded houses, along with the Six Bells pub, could be said to resemble those to be found in the more celebrated Kentish Weald

The Hoo Peninsula’s situation close to London and Chatham dockyards meant it was destined to play a key role as Britain’s navy grew in strength from the 16th century onwards.

Yet its oldest military installations include some which date back to the Hundred Years War between England and France. One of these is Cooling Castle, whose gateway with its striking circular towers can be seen from the road to the west of the village church. Built by John de Cobham in 1381, it was later owned by Sir John Oldcastle, Lord of Cooling. Oldcastle was subsequently executed for plotting against Henry V and Shakespeare used him as the model for the character of Falstaff.

The house beyond the gateway is now a part-time residence of musician Jools Holland, who has written the foreword to The Hoo Peninsula Landscape. On the opposite side of the peninsula, another notable fortification, Upnor Castle, was built between 1559 and1567 to protect naval vessels travelling along the Medway.

Sadly, the castle failed to stop a raid by Dutch ships in 1667, which broke through to destroy the English fleet anchored at Chatham. Upnor was abandoned after a review of the Medway defences, but today this rare example of an Elizabethan artillery fort is managed by English Heritage and open to the public in spring and summer.

Subsequent fortifications on the peninsula related to fears of an attack from France in the 18th and 19th centuries, and other installations to the First and Second World wars. Many of these survive, in the form of small forts, anti-aircraft gun batteries and coastal tank traps.

But Hoo has also has a long association with industry, from the cordite explosives factory at Cliffe, to Kingsnorth Power Station and the oil refinery on the Isle of Grain. Some of these have helped create a perception of the peninsula as a place of low heritage value, ripe for exploration.

For a while Hoo was mooted as the site for a new UK airport, but as Peter says: “It looks like Heathrow and Gatwick will fight it out for the right to be the nation’s hub airport and that Hoo will be spared the imposition of such a major change.” However, while he says that would have totally altered the character of the place: “The peninsula is not immune to future change, nor should it be.” A new town has been proposed at Lodge Hill, and a garden city for Stoke. “Major change will happen at Hoo and that process has already started,” says Peter. “We carried out our research and wrote our book as a response.

“To make sound decisions for the future we first need to understand how the present character of the place has come about, and what within it is worth preserving for the future, so that the Hoo Peninsula can remain a special place.”

Find out more

The Hoo Peninsula Landscape, by Sarah Newsome, Edward Carpenter and Peter Kendall, is published by Historic England w