Crossing the Thames
Why did Cliffe become one of the most important settlements in Kent?
The main reason why it attracted the attention of so many was mainly due to the ability to cross the River Thames at this point. Looking at the river today some would find it difficult to imagine a crossing at this point but it has been well documented during the past two millennia.
The original age of the crossing is uncertain but probably extends beyond the Bronze Age and this is evidenced by the number of artefacts found on either side of the Thames showing that trading between Essex and Kentish tribes was a common practice.
One of the first written records of a crossing point is by the Roman, Dion Cassius, describing the progress of Plautius, the Roman General under Emperor Claudius, in the year 43 AD.
“From there the Britons withdrew to the Thames, at a point where it flows into the sea and at high tide forms a lake. This they crossed with ease since they knew precisely where the ground was firm and the way passable. The Romans, however, in pursuing them, got into difficulties here.”
(Cassius, Dio, Roman History, Book 60, Loeb Classical Library, 9 volumes, Greek texts and facing English translation: Harvard University Press, 1914 thru 1927. Translation by Earnest Cary.)
The geology of the area shows clearly that the chalk cliff, after which Cliffe is so named, was an important feature in the landscape. It is downstream from the chalk cliff that the River Thames dramatically widens and so the location of the crossing point can easily be established. Even today it is easy to visualize the ‘lake’ reported by Cassius and, by referring to both the geology and historical and archaeological evidence, where a crossing may have been.
These crossing points (fords) were exploited by the Romans who, in turn, established a causeway and, as ships could not navigate beyond this point, a port and a road system to cater for passage of both port and crossing.
It should be pointed out that during the Roman period the River Thames was at least 9 feet lower than it is today (Devoy, 1980) or upwards of 15 feet lower according to Wheeler (R.E.M. Wheeler, London in Roman Times, London, 1930) , and what we today call the ‘marshes’ was well and truly dry land and may have continued to be so until the surges of the 13th and 15th centuries. It has been suggested that a complete Roman landscape may survive beneath 1-2m of later accretion on the Cliffe marshes. (Monaghan 1987, 28).
“The sum total of the meagre and often indirect information as to the state of the marshes from the seventh to the tenth centuries leaves a strong impression that although the land may not have been as elevated as in the Roman period it was certainly higher than now.
So much so that lands which to-day would be regularly flooded by the Spring tide were it not for the river walls, were then apparently quite free from this threat, since they were regarded as valuable meadowland.
It is difficult to imagine that the Saxons of this age had the resources to build river embankments (supposing that it was necessary to do so) around the great areas described in the Charters, and since works of this kind are never mentioned as convenient land boundaries we may assume that they did not exist. All the inferences point to the conclusion that such defences were not yet necessary.
It has been the sinking of the land with the consequent development of salt marshes which has isolated Hoo Peninsula from the North and left it in the neglected and back-water state that it is in to-day.”
(Evans J, 1953,)
The crossing points and port also gave Cliffe importance during the Saxon period too as it stood at the centre of four great kingdoms: Kent, Mercia, Anglia and Wessex. It was at Cliffe that some historians believe that the great Saxon councils were held between 700 and 800 AD.
As sea levels rose, and the land also lowered, the ford/causeway became unusable and a ferry was established to maintain the link between Kent and Essex. This ferry was, during the 12th century, recorded that maintained and fees collected by the Priory at Higham and in 1293 the prioress was found liable for maintenance of a bridge and causeway leading to the ferry.
Much research has been carried out over the years to establish the exact location of this particular crossing point. In 1880 C. Roach-Smith, together with J. Harris, H. Wickham and M. Spurrell, set about to investigate the statement made by Hasted that:
“The place of this passage is, by many, supposed to have been from East Tilbury, in Essex, across the river to Higham (by Dr. Thorpe, Dr. Plott and otters). Between these places there was a ferry on the river; for many ages after, the usual method of intercourse between the two counties of Kent and Essex, from these parts; and it continued so till the dissolution of the Abbey here; before which time Higham was likewise the place for shipping and unshipping corn and goods, in great quantities, from this part of the country, to and from London and elsewhere. The probability of this having been a frequented ford or passage, in the time of the Romans, is strengthened by the visible remains of a raised causeway or road, near thirty feet wide, leading from the Thames side through the marshes by Higham southward to this Ridgway above-mentioned (Shorne Ridgway), and thence, across the London highroad on Gad's Hill, to Shorne Ridgway, about half-a-mile beyond, which adjoins the Roman Watling-street road near the entrance into Cobham Park. In the Pleas of the Crown in the 21st year of King Edward I, the Prioress of the nunnery of Higham was found liable to maintain a bridge and causeway that led from Higham down to the river Thames, in order to give the better and easier passage to such as would ferry from thence into Essex."
In their research they found a raised causeway of about thirty feet wide and travelling in a straight line towards the Thames, at a point opposite East Tilbury in Essex. They concurred that its height would enable it to be in use all year and, although then out of use, still bore numerous cart and wagon ruts showing its use as a highroad. It continues:
“The notion that the land up to, and beyond. Lower Higham, was subject to submergence in historic times, is refuted by the discovery of Roman burials, in the low ground, opposite the old ferry house. The newly-made graves, in Higham churchyard, continually disclose fragments of Roman pottery and tiles, contributing to shew that the district was well populated in the Roman epoch.
I have, from evidences such as these, ever felt that there has been by no means such changes, in the low sea-marginal lands, during the historic period, as has been imagined by many.”
The last reference to a crossing point still in use is during the middle of the sixteenth century although in 1293 it has been recorded that the causeway at Higham from which the Higham Ferry crossed the river to Essex was totally destroyed in a storm.
The Roman road towards Tilbury attests to the importance of this area in accessing the Thames and the historic crossing point to Cliffe. On the Essex side the road appears to belong to a north-south route which passes through Billericay and Chelmsford, dividing at Little Waltham. Two bronze skillets, if they are of this period, said to have been found near Cliffe and now in the Rochester Museum, may have come from a fort overlooking this crucial crossing point.
As sea levels rose the fords became unusable and ferry/ferries took their place. There was at least one port situated at Cliffe – possibly two with one situated at Cliffe Creek and the other at Cliffe Fleet: both linked by excellent road systems. In March 1301 it is recorded that King Edward I ordered a general levy of ships to be sent into Scottish waters as part of his campaign to subdue this constant thorn in English diplomacy. Amongst the ports mentioned, was that of Cliffe which had to supply one vessel. In the year 1326, Cliffe was mentioned as a port and, again with references to a significant port at Cliffe Creek - it is said to have provided Edward III with two ships in 1346 for his campaign in France (Cracknell 2005). In 1380, when it was recorded as having one 80—ton vessel stationed there. Finally, in 1417, two ships were hired from Cliffe as part of Henry V’s campaign in France.
With the land around Cliffe subjected to the constant danger of flooding, the numerous creeks silting up, the raising of the sea level enabling the Thames to be navigable further upstream, the consequence of the Henry VIII’s moves to reduce the influence of the church and other factors the crossings and ports became obsolete.