Gillingham: The Sunrise



After the arrangement to film an artist at her studio in a small village in Gillingham, I decided to take the leap. It's not often that I get to take a break from the hustle and bustle of city life and there could be no better time than to start the journey off.


There's something about taking the train from London in the morning. The longer wait for the 10:04 train to Exeter St. Davids gave me the time to get my mind straight; quiet time to read some Psalms. Time to really consider the road ahead and realign my focus of the next few days. As it so happens one person that I spoke to was Dave, a retired national rail worker taking his stroll around London Waterloo. He explained that from his retirement party he had received a voucher for The Ian Allan Transport Book and Model Shop. A railway and military shop that would soon be shutdown.


The train to Gillingham was different to say the least. With the pandemic restrictions, there was a certain sense of anonymity and restraint. The masks were something that was difficult to adjust to. With sunlight streams through the window and the pages of Luigi Ghirri on the table, I watched as the grey rapidly ran out of sight and slowly replaced by the greenery of the country, fields and trees that were dotted with houses and animals. I distinctly remember a pause before reaching the destination and peering out the window to see a line of sunflowers and a line of lavender. Trails of colour which had begun to be affected by the heat of the sun yet still stood bright among the earthy surroundings. The first thing that greeted me as I stepped of the train was the cooling wind, despite the sunny disposition. Even so, locals would wear shorts, an unexpected part of country life. Although we had previously planned to meet as I arrived, there was signal trouble and a change of plan. I began my trek through the town of Gillingham stopping to purchase some bread, filling, a pack of biscuits and most importantly a litre of water. Altogether coming to about £1.93. The hike to campsite was estimated to be 2 hours and being my first time I was determined to push on with my sights set on the destination. The first impressions whilst passing through Gillingham was the simplicity of the area. The white sandstone blocks and cottage style buildings of the town gave it an altogether homely feel. Even the Chinese takeaways were seen to have this odd western feeling, with the painted sign attached to the quaint building. The next thing that occurred to me was that I needed to learn how to drive. Fast. As you moved out the centre, it became very vehicle focused, with no paving to allow real pedestrian access. For the next 48 hours, I would spend walking along the sides of dappled roads. With twists and turns, I could enjoy the trees and the shrubbery that encased fields around. Often stopping at the odd blackberry bush and making the most of nature's provision. With the concrete overlays come casualties and multiple remains of badgers, cats and birds were just some of the victims of human behaviour. It was also a glaring warning to make sure I wouldn't accidently become roadkill for a careless driver.


Walking through the countryside gave me a lot of sun whilst also seeing the various pieces that are so opposed to the urban landscape. Alternating between roads and fields, there was plenty of time to and recover. Taking the time to rest in the glittering beds of grass, with hay bales up close and seeing the expanses of fields and plains. The walk was alternating between the road and sometimes rocky soil of the fields, with cars and gigantic tractors inches away. After a walk which took more than a couple hours, I arrived at Sunny Hill Campsite. Located on the top of one of the hills, I was greeted by a singular cottage besides a small farm and in the midst of motor homes and semi permanent caravans. After a quick chat with Sandy, the owner of the site I was ready to settle. I had chosen quite a late season to be camping and there was only one other tent on the field. In many ways this was the perfect space to appreciate the expanse of scenic vision of freedom.


Setting up the tent was a task to say the least but soon I had a sizeable tent on the top of a hill overlooking the fields and valleys. Even my neighbours were some sheep grazing by a field close by. I had made it by sunset and watching the set behind me, turning the leaves into a warm orange glow, fit for the autumn season that was approaching. With the occasional visit from friendly dogs at my doorstep, it was very much a moment to take it all in. After a quick walk to explore before total darkness, I prepared for the night. With washing and other facilities in the cottage, I was able to settle in quickly. Andy and Kat were a soon-to-be couple that I met, who had arrived just a day before me and as their last camp for the year warned me of the difficult weather.


I have to say that I was unprepared for the night. And by the early hours the layers did not prevent me from feeling the chills. However waking up at dawn made it all worth it. Setting my tent to face towards the sunrise, I was able to see the sun slowly come up, with rays peeking through the leaves and casting a warm glow onto the hill. With the scent of coffee and a hot mug to meet my hands, I sat amidst a still morning watching as the sun made its arc over the layers of fields. Accompanied by rooster calls and a heavy breeze, life stirred in the campsite.


I took the morning to hike around the surrounding villages and although not my strong suite, I began to try and train my internal compass. I had planned to visit a chapel nearby but turned out to be a town hall in the middle of a village. So here I am, unsure of where to go next when a lady tells me that there's one not too far that's supposed to be for the village. I took another hike to see this incredible castle like church on a hill. However it was closed. I spent the rest of the morning hiking, finding gaps in shrubbery, walking through horse fields and climbing gates. All in the spirit of adventure. I did try my hand at hitchhiking although it was disappointing to say the least.


I was picked up by Judy Clarke in the afternoon. A fine artist who's work can be found in the Tate, she welcomed me to her live-work cottage studio which was every artists' dream. Filled with her various pieces and the wooded scent of a burning stove, I was able to rest comfortably. We covered her favourite records to how she came about into design world of making tables. We talked about all things from life experience to philosophical ideas; she shared her stories of exploring the world, even getting a campervan not too long ago to travel Europe with her partner at the time. Her bacon-pepper-kale pesto noodles was an incredible infusion which greeted my mouth with a variety of flavours and brought her Italian experience to the dinner table. She offered me a place to stay for the night but I'd decided that returning to London would be better.


In the late evening, we sped through the quiet country roads. As we reached the station we said our goodbyes before I waited for the ride home. As I sat in the back of the train returning to what I knew, I felt this sense of realness. I was not just a passenger anymore, I had become a traveller.