The idea was not exactly to indulge too much in the Dickens experience but at least take a chance to see where Pip and his convict met up. All sorts of claims are made for where Dickens placed his characters but it is obvious from the description of Pip’s experience that Cooling Church is the place. Whether the village of Cooling is the place where Pip lived or not matters very little as the description of the land thereabouts is enough to set the rest of the scene.
As it was I combined the trip with a walk on the RSPB reserve at Northward Hill between High Halstow and Cooling. We had been there before – I was dog less and sister less for the day – and wanted to check out if we could actually take the dog there. The answer was yes and we can combine the trip with a walk along the Saxon Shore Way perhaps from Cooling itself.
However, the day itself was a pleasant, sunny morning that by afternoon was a little cloudy but warm. At this time of the year, on the cusp of Autumn the brambles were loaded with blackberries, wild rose bushes with hips and there was evidence of the turn of season with acorns browning and leaves taking on a tinge of yellow and from the high points along the way harvested fields were already ploughed and fruit ripe on the trees.
I saw some wading birds on the pool but the main pleasure after watching them was to gaze out over the river flats seeing the grazing cattle the birds rising and falling in flocks – a lazy sight as if the land was getting ready for sleep. I walked the Heron Trail not seeing any but noting that was a thing to do later and then took a walk up into the woods from where, at the lookout I had a good view over the estuary.
On the way a most peculiar sculpture denoted the position of an old orchard protected by a row of trees which from above blended well into the farmlands stretching out toward the distant Medway Towns. The amazingly tranquil Hoo peninsular on which is dumped a port, (on the Medway side) a power station, a gas storage plant and an oil refinery creates a feeling of peace and remoteness despite the view of industry in the distance on the Essex side of the Thames. The marshes are unique for its peace, its birdlife, and the history attached to the Thames and the Medway estuaries.
But what about Dickens?
Dickens wrote about what he saw and what he felt making social comments on his contemporaries at the risk, possibly, of criticism from those with vested interests in the institutions he attacked. One of his major attributes was his description of places and people which sometimes seems over the top; exaggerated we could say perhaps to emphasise characteristics that the reader might otherwise miss. His description of the gravestones at Cooling Church and the tomb pointing out the tragic infant mortality rife in the 19th century, the contrast between the rich and poor in the story of Great Expectations and the morality of where that wealth comes from.
The question is: Is it better to poor and honest or rich and deceitful?
Close by is Cooling Castle which is not open to the public but is now the setting for wedding receptions – in barns made for the purpose – but for me the day was made good when I approached the castle and soaked up the atmosphere evoked by the ruins. Was this the place where Pip was almost murdered?
A bonus was a cheerful bunch of cyclists off to the pub after visiting the church. Not, I hasten to add, the Lycra clad, be-helmeted, fast pedalling, determined variety but a group of riders on Veteran cycles from the Mt Eden Veteran Cycle Club. They were happy, middle-aged men with bikes that needed a lot of energy to ride at modest speeds. I was told that one bike was from 1933 with the addition from his pal that the rider was from 1928. A cheerful mob.