Gravesend has a rather different feel to Dartford with its close links to London. You're closer to the Medway towns of Rochester and Chatham here, with which Gravesend and the Gravesham area has close links - including the one time Thames Medway canal - parts of which survive with further restoration afoot. The Gravesham area bordered by both the Thames estuary north and the Medway south gives the area a particular waterbased heritage, notably in the passenger ferry area. Passenger ferries still operate today from Gravesend to London and across to Tilbury over the Thames estuary. A number of museums and historic sights in Gravesend dig deep into this heritage and the new Towncentric Tourist Information centre.
Gad's Hill Place, famous last home of Charles Dickens sits in Higham east of Gravesend. The Gravesham borough, incorporating the towns of Gravesend and Northfleet, and pushing south to include Higham, Shorne and pretty villages such as historic Cobham and Luddestown came into existence in the mid 1970s, but there's evidence from the Domesday Book and elsewhere that the name of Gravesham has been around and was used much earlier.
Start at the Gravesend Museum situated in the Old Town Hall in Gravesend town centre. The museum occupies the space that once served as the town's Police Station for quite a while from 1836 to 1940. The gaol forms part of the museums' exhibits. Move on to Gravesend's HM Custom & Excise regional museum housed in Gravesend's original coach house. The Grade II listed building sits adjacent. To access the Customs museum you'll need to join the Pocahontas Promenade Guided Riverside tour which takes place on the first Wednesday every month. (see the Gravesend Tourist webguide right for details). Gravesend's position on the Thames estuary has long made it an important shipping town. The Thames narrows at Gravesend, making it the main entrance site to the Port of London, hence its role as Customs town pulling in funds from imported goods which docked here originally, then later serving just as a health check port where all ships had to stop before heading on down the Thames estuary. The current Gravesend Customs House dates from 1815.
For bookings onto the Pocahontas Promenade Riverside Tour, which includes a tour of Gravesend's customs house, head for the Towncentric Tourist Centre on St Georges Square or contact them by email or tel. 01474 33 76 00. The guided tour lasts about two hours. Historic tours in Gravesend move further back to the 14th century at the now Chantry Heritage centre, a museum exploring not just the history of this building which started life as a leper hospital, but also of Gravesend, Northfleet and the surrounding villages. Particular reference in exhibit rooms is given to the river, local industry and the fine 17th century Jacobean staircase within. Due attention is given to the 14th century parts of the building including priests house and the history of chantry - prayer which would have taken place here.
Gravesend has a selection of historic buildings including the famous Clock Tower on Berkley Crescent which dates from Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887. The Gravesend Cemetery was originally a garden, and much of it survives and is Grade II listed. Other delights include the town's passenger pier, several old pubs and the remains of Henry VIII's old Blockhouse. The new Towncentric tourist centre and website have a number of heritage leaflet guides to either download or pick-up from the centre, including an audio heritage tour taking in the many historic buildings within the town. Find details via the Gravesend Tourist webguide right.
Chantry Heritage Centre and New Tavern Fort, Fort Gardens, Milton Place, Gravesend, Kent, DA12 2BT. (Open April to September, check the Chantry's webguide right for details/opening times).
Although the ambitions of Civil Engineer Ralph Dodd never quite came off in the first half of the 19th century as regards the construction of the Thames Medway Canal from Gravesend across the marshes to the Medway, building did reach Higham and work started on the tunnel through the chalk hills. This canal was never profitable, but the tunnel was later used by the railways, and today the Thames Medway Canal stretch is seeing a revival as cycle path, and towpath canal walking.
The canal is giving a great tourist boost to the town, and the annual Gravesend Heritage Festival sees events going on down by the waterside. Several pubs are situated along the canal towpath (see map via the Thames Medway webguide right). Start your canal path cycle or walk from the Towncentric Tourist Information Centre in Gravesend.
The St George's Church you see today dates from the 19th century, but there's been a church on this site as far back as the 1400s. The earlier church was destroyed by fire in 1727 (Gravesend suffered a series of fires during this period). The church has strong links with Virginia in the US as this is the buriel site of Princess Pocahontas. daughter of Powhatan the Native American Chief who ruled over around 40 Algonkian native American villages in the Chesapeake area of Virginia.
Myths around Pocahontas have been considerably embellished in art and film (most recently in the 1995 Disney film). Much of the original facts of Pocahontas' life - her role in saving Jamestown, Captain John Smith and assisting original colonists, many more of whom would have died of starvation without her help, is derived from letters and writing by Smith himself. However even that may be called into question as it was widely known Smith would do pretty much anything to promote his own role and achievement in the Jamestown colony. What is clear is that Pocahontas did assist colonists, and that she came to England with others from her tribe in 1616 . She contracted what was thought to be tuberculosis on her visit to England in 1617, and on the journey back to Virginia she was brought ashore at Gravesend either dead or near it. Records show clearly that she was buried at St George's church.
Within St George's Church there's a memorial tablet for Pocahontas as well as stained glass windows, whilst in the churchyard there's a large bronze statue which bears a strong similarity to the statue of Pocahontas in Jamestown Virginia. The church welcomes visitors coming to view the Pocahontas statue and memorials.
St George's Church, Church Street, Gravesend, Kent DA11 0DJ.
Direct boat trips at a very reasonable price run from Tilbury and Gravesend to London taking you through the Thames Barrier and Greenwich, docking for a few hours giving you opportunity to explore. A boat trip along the historic Thames is one of the best ways to see London, and certainly a fine introduction to the city!
Princess Pocahontas (weblink right for sailing details) run regular boat trips along the Thames into London from both Gravesend and Tilbury, as well as boat trips to Southend. They're dock pick-up point in Gravesend is on West Street. Pre-booking essential, sailings are weather permitting. Day excursion season is May to September, and the London Thames boat trips run on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Princess Pocahontas Boat Trips from Gravesend/Tilbury to London and Southend, Lower Thames & Medway Passenger Boat Co Ltd, 16 Cornwallis Avenue, Tonbridge TN10 4ES. For booking telephone. 01732 353448.
South east of Gravesend the village of Cobham is home to one of Kent's finest manor houses, Cobham Hall. Elizabethan in origin, red brick Cobham Hall dates from 1587 but there's a mish mash of architectural styles here from Jacobean to Carolean and 18th century. The house is now a girls school so entrance is restricted (see Cobham Hall's webguide right for open days - Easter is usually the first time the house opens its doors to the public).
Set in over 150 acres of listed parkland, Cobham Hall has had a selection of notable famed visitors including Elizabeth I and Charles Dickens who passed through frequently on his way to Cobham Village's Leather Bottle pub. The Leather Bottle, featured in Dickens' Pickwick Papers, is still open for business serving fine Kent ales and food and you can stay here - in Room 6 if you like where Dickens is supposed to have stayed!
Cobham Hall stands as a kind of social document for English architecture and really deserves to be more widely acclaimed. The spectacular central Gilt Hall was decorated in 1654 by John Webb, the nephew by marriage and prodigy of the man widely considered as England's first architect, Inigo Jones. Webb worked with Jones on the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall. It was Inigo Jones who first brought Renaissance architecture to Britain after studying architecture in Italy. Other rooms within Cobham were later decorated by another famous name, James Wyatt in the 18th century.
Cobham village has another famous stately home - Owletts run by the National Trust. Owletts is the onetime home of renowned British architect Herbert Baker (1862-1946) who designed numerous buildings in India, South Africa and London. Baker was born here at Owletts and is said to have been considerably influenced by his tours of Kent Anglo Saxon churches and Norman castles as well as Renaissance buildings. The mansion house at Port Lymne (now an animal park) south of Ashford was designed by Baker.
Clock Tower image contributed by Danny Robinson. Shorne Country Park image contributed by Glen Humble. Pocahontas image contributed by John Salmon. All images are copyrighted but licensed for further reuse under the Creative Commons License.