The edge of Swanscombe Peninsula is a pretty desolate place. Tilbury docks, Grays and Dartford Bridge can be seen across the Thames, however here on the southern side there is little development. We encountered a handful of people walking their dogs, yet in the more isolated parts of marshland the only sounds came from the buzzing of overhead power lines, the rustling of tall grasses and the loud engines of passing cargo ships.
Perhaps the most intriguing spot however is a strange, and seemingly abandoned, boat shanty town. There are numbered plots with each having shacks on the land (one bizarrely had a post office sign on the front) and wooden jetties leading to a collection of battered vessels bobbing about in the water. If this place really was still in proper use, then you would have expected to see at least a couple of people here on a Saturday afternoon. But we didn’t come across a single soul.
Exploring the peninsula further however there are signs that this part of Swanscombe was once considerably busier. Wooden piers, roads that seemed to go nowhere and even a lone street lamp are just some of the clues that there used to be a major development on this abandoned brownfield land.
What is now a vast expanse populated by only birds and other wildlife was until the 1980s home to a sizeable cement works which was once the largest in the world. Chalk was mined from the nearby quarries from the 19th century and the end product was instrumental in the building of modern London. On the way to reaching the peninsula itself we passed the remains of the cement plant’s distribution centre, where all that remains is the shell of a building and rusty machinery.
Theme park plans
When the easily accessible chalk started to run out in the surrounding quarries, cement works were amalgamated and redundant plants were demolished, leaving vacant brownfield land. Nothing really happened to the open 900 acre site until several years ago when plans were announced to build a £3.2bn theme park on the land. The proposed scheme includes 5,000 hotel rooms, as well as a water park and theatre, and would be twice the size of Olympic Park.
Paramount Pictures pulled out of the scheme in June and more recently the developer – London Resort Company Holdings – said it hopes to open in 2023. It was originally envisaged that there would be 50 rides and other attractions linked to the franchises that film studio has rights to, but following the collapse of that deal the line-up of attractions will need to be altered.
While the scheme would bring much needed re-generation to the area, it is considered controversial and a petition to save the marshes has been launched because in the years since the cement works closed, it has become a haven for wildlife, something that opponents say would be badly damaged if the theme park opened. Up until now development around the peninsula has been pretty small-scale. The glitzy apartments on the foreshore occupy the site of the former Empire paper factory, which moved down from the north of England in the 1930s (the surrounding streets of houses were built at the time for managers and workers that moved with it).
The theme park is by no means the only major new development planned for this part of Kent. Ebbsfleet Garden Village received millions of pounds of Government funding in 2014 and there was a promise that 15,000 new homes would be built. The area is already well-connected to both central London and Paris thanks to a nearby station on the high-speed rail line used by Eurostar.
Progress on the Ebbsfleet housing scheme has been slower than was originally expected, although developers have insisted this year that things are moving forward. If plans do indeed continue to advance, more vacant brownfield land (some of it former chalk quarries) will be built on. And there has also been talk of opening up an overgrown man-made valley, where from 1837 a pioneering steam-powered tram carrying mined chalk to Swanscombe station operated. The space will now be used to provide a pedestrian greenway connecting different new developments in the area (including Blue Water shopping centre, which itself is built on the site of a former chalk quarry).
But the history of the Swanscombe area goes back much further than the start of chalk mining in the 19th century. When pits were dug some 100,000 stone axes were unearthed, which pointed to 30,000 years of life at the site, stretching back to a period of some 400,000 years. The discoveries made here at Swanscombe Heritage Park are quite outstanding, yet during our visit there only seemed to be one or two people around walking their dogs.
The site become internationally famous in 1935 however when part of a fossilised skull was found by a dentist, who was an amateur archeologist. Two other pieces of the skull were found in 1936 and 1955, which is believed to have belonged to a woman and represents the second oldest remains found in Britain (the discoveries can now be found on display at the Natural History Museum). Fossil deposits at the Swanscombe site also suggest that the likes of bears, elephants and lions once lived here. If a theme park is to be built here, perhaps these creatures – and the fact that this was once an important area for chalk mining – should provide the inspiration for the rides.
I visited Swanscombe Peninsula as part of a guided walk led by Rob Smith of Footprints of London. The highly recommended three and half hour tour also took in Broadness Lighthouse, Ingress Abbey (which was part built using stone from the medieval London Bridge) and tales of exploration in search of the North West passage. You can find out about all of Rob’s current walks here.