Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea... the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
Chapter One, Great Expectations
The bleakly romantic landscape of the Hoo Peninsula was very familiar to Charles Dickens. As a young boy, he lived in Chatham until his family moved to London when he was aged 11. With his later writing success, he bought a fine country house at Gad' Hill Place in nearby Higham. The story is that he would often admire Gad's Hill when he was out walking with his father as a boy. He father said that if he worked hard in life, he might one day be able to own it. And Charles Dickens did just that.
Dickens loved walking: he walked most days, whenever he could, usually 12 miles a day at a fast pace, in all weathers. He once walked from London to Gad's Hill overnight; he was often seen striding through the Kent countryside or the streets of London and he wrote a book about his night walks in the city. On holidays, he would sometimes take his family of ten children on picnics to Cooling and the marshes. They would have known St James' Church with its 13 forlorn gravestones. The little lozenge shaped graves of the young children of two 18th century families was the inspiration for the setting of the opening scene of Great Expectations, where Pip comes face to face with the convict Magwitch.
The little church is on the edge of the marshes, the edge of nowhere. The landscape is Magwitch's spiritual haunt. The fierce convict would have escaped from one of the great hulk prison ships, moored along the Thames, just off the Kent marshes. To ease overcrowding in London's prisons, Parliament decreed in 1776 that old merchant ships and Navy vessels should be turned into floating prisons. The first hulks were moored off the deserted marshes at Woolwich, and before long hulk after hulk lined the river, the ships hanging with rotten rigging. Prisoners were put to work dredging the river and digging canals. Conditions were horrendous. Convicts were chained at the waist and ankles and were often flogged or thrown into a 'black hole' as punishment. Many of them were awaiting news of their fate: to be sent to the colonies in Australia or the Americas. Magwitch was one such convict. Pip's encounter with him in the graveyard is one of the most terrifying dramatic moments in literature:
“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!”
Once you've visited the church, set off for a walk across the marshes. There are many footpaths in the Hoo Penninsula. One of best places to walk is at Cliffe Pools for birdwatching on the mud flats; or the Northward Hill Nature Reserve, just a short way from the Pip's graveyard, with long views across to Essex and London. The bleakness of the landscape with its rolling mists from the Thames is strangely moving. But it is not all grey and grim. When the sun shines, the flat, open land creates big skies and strong light. The Saxon Shore Way cuts through the marshland from Cliffe to Cooling and onwards east.