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Guest Post by BK
26th May 1732: it is a fine Spring evening in London. William Hogarth and some friends are enjoying a convivial evening in The Bedford Arms, a tavern on the South side of the Covent Garden Piazza. Six weeks earlier Hogarth had achieved his first public triumph with the publication of The Harlot’s Progress and the conversation flowed as the punch bowl rapidly emptied. One topic appears to have been the rubbishing of The Grand Tour whereby young English noblemen could spend months or even years touring Europe to acquaint themselves with Continental, Roman and Greek civilisation and manners. Hogarth, a patriotic Londoner, thoroughly disapproved of such things. As midnight approached the friends decided that it would be great fun for them to hold their own Grand Tour. They rushed to their homes, picked up a spare shirt each and set off on The Five Day’s Peregrinations Around The Isle Of Sheppey Of William Hogarth and His Fellow Pilgrims, Scott, Tothall, Thornhill, and Forrest.
The troupe walked along, singing merrily, to Billingsgate where they hired a boat to take them to Gravesend. When they reached Cuckolds’ Point they set up a chorus of ‘St John-at-Deptford Pishoken’, a reference that has baffled musicologists ever since, and then settled down to eat ‘hung beef and biscuit, and drank right Hollands ( Dutch gin)’.
At Gravesend, they had breakfast of coffee, toast and butter and set out to explore the town where they visited The New Church and The Market. St George’s, the parish church of Gravesend, was consecrated in 1510. Unfortunately a great fire destroyed most of Gravesend including the church and 110 houses in 1727. Funding for a new church was obtained from The Commission For Building Fifty New Churches, a self-explanatory body set up in 1710 to use money from the duties on coal imported into The Port of London. Although The Commission never achieved its aim it did fund a number of churches including St Paul’s Deptford and St Alfege’s Greenwich. St George’s Gravesend was completed in 1731, hence the reference to The New Church. Although the party spent a good deal of time on their journey looking at graves and epitaphs, they make no mention of Pocahontas, presumably that local industry hadn’t started yet.
The lads then set off to walk to Rochester. They admired The Cathedral and The Castle, from where they saw ‘some of the noblest ships in the world’. On the High Street they visited The Six Poor Travellers House, an almshouse set up by a bequest from a local businessman, Richard Webb, to provide a night’s accommodation, entertainment and four pence for up to six poor travellers. The four pence was important because under the Poor Law of 1576 anybody who did not possess that amount could be declared a vagrant, whipped and returned to their home parish. Further along the High Street they passed the Guildhall and Hogarth amused himself by playing hopscotch In the colonnade.
They had lunch at The Crown Inn at the end of the High Street. ‘A dish of soles and flounders with crab sauce, a calf’s heart stuffed and roasted, the liver fried and the other appurtenances minced, a leg of mutton roasted and some green peas, all very good and well dressed, with good beer and excellent port.’ In the afternoon, they walked that off by walking around Chatham, visiting the dockyard and inspecting several naval vessels. They found some space to buy and eat shrimps before returning to The Crown for further refreshment and then bed.
Next day they set out to walk up the Hoo peninsula in order to catch a boat at Grain. They visited the church at Frendsbury and then at Upnor they visited the castle, then still fully manned, and dined on cockles that they bought from a blind couple in a little cock-boat. Pressing on to Hoo they amused themselves by bombarding each other with water, sticks, pebbles and hog’s dung. Throughout the trip the gang indulge in sorts of all bawdy and scatalogical behaviour that would now probably seem hooliganish. Apparently, the more refined figure of Horace Walpole was shocked to learn of their behaviour but Thackeray later defended them saying ‘These are the manners and pleasures of Hogarth, of his time very likely, of men not very refined, but honest and merry. it is a brave London citizen, with John Bull habits, prejudices and pleasures’.
They visited the church at Hoo and then walked on to Stoke where they also saw the church before stopping at the Nags Head where they had had dinner, drank punch and retired to bed, but had a bad night’s sleep, being badly bitten by gnats from the nearby marshland.
In the morning they had milk and toast for breakfast and walked on stopping at The Chequers for salt pork, bread, butter and buns and good malt liquor. At Grain they found a boatman who they hired to carry them over the river to Sheppey.
After a rough crossing they were landed at Sheerness and walked along the beach to Queenborough which is described as ‘but one street, clean and well-paved’ but very little sign of life. They visited the ‘low and ill-built’ church and the Town Hall or Clock House and then went to stay at The Red Lion, aka The Swan. They could find no meat to eat and so had to make do with lobsters, bacon and eggs.
Walking around town in the evening they wre surprised to meet several pretty women who they fell into conversation with, they then went back to The Red Lion where they enjoyed ‘several cans of good flip’ and got into a singing contest with a group of lobster fishermen from Harwich. Apparently the lobstermen’s singing was much better than our boys who could only offer St John at Deptford and Pishoken again.
Next morning they walked up the hill to visit Minster, where again they walked around the church and graveyard to admire the local monuments and inscriptions. Then, after dining at The George (now known as The Prince Of Waterloo, The Prince Of Waterloo is a hereditary title given to all Dukes Of Wellington by the Dutch government) they walked back to Sheerness and hired a boat to take them to Gravesend. It was a rough voyage and they kept their spirits up with yet more singing of St John Pishoken, along the Thames their boat was accompanied by a school of porpoise. At Gravesend they ‘supped and drank good wine’, slept and then set off next morning with ‘a bottle of good wine, pipes, tobacco and a match’.
They disembarked at a landing by Somerset House on The Strand and walked up to the Bedford Arms ‘in the same good humour we left it’.
Guest Post by BK
Clifton’s Roundabout marks the junction of the A20 with The South Circular, the point where any traveller to North-East Kent must make the big decision; M2 or M20. It is often referred to by the name of whichever business is occupying its south-east corner, it’s been the Big Yellow Roundabout, Maplins Roundabout and in the 1990s and early 2000s it was known as the Land Of Leather Roundabout.
The roundabout hosts a key scene in Wide Open, Nicola Barker’s prize-winning 1998 novel of life on The Isle Of Sheppey.
The novel opens on the old bridge linking Sheppey to the mainland. Ronny, a chemical sprayer with a contract on the island becomes intrigued by a man who stands at the middle of the bridge waving to the traffic, one day Ronny stops to talk. The other man is also called Ronny and is carrying a box which he claims contains his soul.
A few days later, Ronny is driving home when he sees Ronny standing in the middle of Clifton’s Roundabout waving a gold watch. Ronny pulls into the car park at Land Of Leather. (Barker has this as World Of Leather; at the time there was Land of Leather, Kingdom Of Leather, World Of Leather and possibly other realms of leather that filled the millenium sitting rooms of Britain with Italian, cream leather sofas). The Two Ronnies talk, the watch belonged to Ronny’s father, who was also called Ronny. Ronny persuades Ronny to drive with him back to Sheppey. Ronny then tells Ronny that he is giving him a new name, Jim.
The rest of the novel takes place on Sheppey. Ronney has an out-of-season rental for a chalet on Shellness beach. His neighbour is Luke, a photographer who makes money from join-the-dots pornography (sorry!) and who has rented a chalet to get away from it all. The farm nearby is run by Sara who rears wild boar and her teenage daughter Lily who worships a deformed boar foetus that she calls The Head. They are joined on Sheppey by Ronny’s estranged brother Nathan who works in London Transport Lost Property at Baker Street and by Connie, an optician from Gravesend who is trying to find out why her father left his estate to Ronny rather than to her.
Barker interweaves the bleakness of the land and seascape; the damaged bodies of the protagonists (one Ronny has alopecia, the other only has four toes, Lily looks perpetually dirty, Luke smells of fish) and their damaged lives.
The title, Wide Open, is ironic. The book is all about secrets and concealment. Ronny’s soul and Lily’s idol are in just two of the boxes that the characters keep. Nathan has an erection when he licks sealing tape ‘How beautiful this closed tight thing was. This sealed thing’. Sara masturbates inside a bird-watching hide. Even the join-the-dots pornography is a means of concealing the forbidden image.
Shellness lies at the far South East tip of Sheppey; drive through Leysdown until the road runs out and turns into a very bumpy track. At the end there is a car park, mainly used by bird-watchers, dog walkers and frequenters of the naturist beach.
‘The sea was brown. It wasn’t even the sea, really. It was the channel. This place is truly the back of beyond, Luke thought smugly. It was grey and bleak and very flat. It was like the moon, in fact…The sky was massive. Flat land, flat sea, and a great big, dirty, mud-puddle of a sky’.
Luke and Ronny’s chalets are among a number lining the beach on the other side of the sea wall from the track. They are in various states of occupation and repair.
At the far end of the track is Shellness Hamlet. The Hamlet is a gated community of more substantial brick-build cottages. It is in single private ownership and surrounded by Keep Out signs.
‘Lily pointed at a cluster of houses; small purpose-built chalets. “That’s where you people go….The Hamlet. It’s fenced off, see? That’s where all the temporary people go. Nobody permanent has anything to do with them. We think they’re weird.” ‘“It’s a private community. They think the locals are all freaks. Anti-social. In-bred. So they put the fence up to distinguish themselves. And we tend to think they’re weird because they come here principally on summer weekends to use the nudist beach.”’
Further around from The Hamlet is The Blockhouse, a concrete fortification that is all that remains of a WWII defensive line to prevent U-Boats sneaking up The Stour to attack Chatham Navel Base from the side.