It’s a warm morning, the sky is cloudless and the marshes of the Hoo Peninsula, 25 miles downriver from London, are thick with daises and red clover. In the churchyard of St Mary’s in the village of Lower Higham there is a scent of cut grass. The whole scene, in other words, is distinctly un-Dickensian.
But it is here, near the Thames estuary, that Charles Dickens’s 1861 novel “Great Expectations” opens: “Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea.”
There’s no novel I love more, and I’ve come to know this peninsula well during the 15 years I’ve lived in London. There was a time, seven or eight years ago, when I would escape to this quiet landscape, weekend after weekend, as if looking for something I’d mislaid.
On this visit, having taken an early morning train to Lower Higham, a journey of no more than 80 minutes, my plan is to spend the day walking from St Mary’s, across the marshes to an isolated inlet named Egypt Bay, before returning via a second church, St James’s, in the village of Cooling.
Both churches have been proposed as the setting for the opening scene of “Great Expectations,” when the young boy Pip, visiting the graves of his parents and his brothers — “five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long” — encounters the convict Magwitch, who has escaped from a nearby prison ship. (“‘Hold your noise!’ cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. ‘Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!’”)
I’m carrying my favorite gazetteer, discovered in a book store in nearby Rochester on a previous foray: Colonel W. Laurence Gadd’s “The Great Expectations Country,” published in 1929 and long out of print. Colonel Gadd is forever “striking out,” in his rather upright way, but there’s a likable modesty to his guidance (“I make no claim to infallibility”) as we follow him from the Hoo Peninsula, via Rochester, to London, where the adult Pip is sent when he receives a fortune from an anonymous benefactor. But the colonel’s starting point, like the novel’s, is the marshes.
The Hoo Peninsula divides the estuary of the Thames from that of the smaller Medway 10 miles to the east. To get a sense of its shape, take a seat on the churchyard bench and rest your right foot on your left knee: the Thames follows the curve of your heel and sole; the Medway the bony top of your foot. Both rivers open to the North Sea beyond your toes. The marshes occupy most of the northwest of the peninsula, which is to say your heel.
A foot is apt for a place that offers such stimulating walking, but the terrain is not without its challenges. If you look at a UK Ordnance Survey map, you can see how wet it is: not only bounded by the two rivers and their mud flats, it’s veined by hundreds of ditches, streams, dikes, fleets and runnels, most of which can only be crossed using infrequent footbridges.
If it is a formative realm for Pip, the peninsula can also be seen as central to Dickens’s own world — a rural counterpoint to London: at once his sanctuary and his inspiration. As a child, Dickens lived in the naval port of Chatham, on the Medway four miles to the southeast, and in later life, as a world-famous author, bought a home near Lower Higham, Gads Hill Place, where “Great Expectations” was written and from where he would take regular walks on the marshes. (Today the building forms part of a private school, though there are plans to open it to the public.)
St Mary’s, two miles north, was his local church, where his daughter Katey was married in 1860. In “The Great Expectations Country,” Colonel Gadd maintains that the church in the novel must be this one, since its architecture matches that described by Pip.
“All the other churches in the peninsula,” he writes, “have square stone towers, but [St Mary’s] has a quaint timber steeple, shingled with tiles. Pip saw this steeple under his feet when the convict tilted him backwards on the gravestone.”
For Pip, the church is where life gives way to death, but also where the peopled world cedes to the marshes — “a dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it.”
“The Great Expectations Country” in hand, I strike out.