After two eventful days at the Lambeth County fair I decide my Monday off for recovery cannot be wasted. Especially as I have an old mate in town, one of those who is up for anything. Steve has been living in Australia for 4 years but we grew up together so he’s still the same old Steve to me. When we were drunk I pitched the epic mission of a cycle ride to the mythical mouth of the Thames. He didn’t say ‘Why?’ but I told him anyway. We are going to get samphire, it’s in season and the only place it grows is salt marshes and logically that’s the closest place it will be. I only found samphire once before in Tasmania, Australia on a little spit of land called Maria Island. I went on a Bear Grylls survival type mission for a month, just taking ‘rice and spice’. Found the samphire in a boggy area but no one believed me it was edible because it was salty as hell. I recognised it from working in a fancy restaurant so I managed to persuade my suspicious companions to eat it with some fish as a condiment.
I had a tiny feeling of mission impossible but it soon faded when Steve accepted the mission unfazed. Monday morning happened. I was very hung over with nothing to show for it apart from some whiskey marmalade and notes from the 1/2 hour talk on how to grow chillies. I set about prepping none the less. I made a hunters sandwich by cutting a baguette horizontally plastering it with boursin cheese, ripe avocado and a whole pack of cooked bacon. Fried a head of broccoli in the bacon fat and inserted these with some diced beetroot. A delicate sandwich with components which will marinade well on a hot day. I was on a deadline and wanted to be out the door by 12.30, so quick scrambled eggs and smoked salmon and we were on the road. Steve loves biking so I got him to plan the route, while I packed 4 litres of water, two knives, paper, plastic bags, massive hunters sandwich, bananas, danish pastries and my pocket SAS survival guide. Just in case.
We set off and cycled to the dog end of the Thames close to Deptford. We were there in no time and stopped off at Greenwich. Steve being in Oz for so long gave him a massive appreciation for old architecture because he hadn’t seen it in a couple of years. There wasn’t an hour where he said “ooo look at that building” or look at that old thing. Cooing like a grandma had seen some sheep with her grandson.
We got on to the cycle path which stretches 180 miles from the source of the Thames to the mouth (kind of). We cycled along it till we met the Thames barrier and Steve being an engineer cooed a little more over the shiny construction. We stopped again to look at what seemed to be an abandoned lido with some massive fish in it and a pair of odd looking guys trying to catch them. Green Blackberries lined the path and we stopped have a few that are already turning black. I mentally marked the spot so I can some back in couple of weeks when they are ripe. As we cycled further down the Thames the banks get muddy and huge metal gates pop up. Steve tells me it’s to stop the Scallies driving peds up and down the cycle patch. Sure enough a motorbike goes past with two youts on it with their hoods up, even though it’s incredibly sunny. God knows how they got it through the gates. Steve was impressed.
The shores of the thames gave way to mud, which you can hear. A soft popping sound mixed with running water. The jetties were now broken and dilapidated giving a sign we were coming out of London. Suddenly we were forced on to roads. Steve rides next to me and says relaxed tone that his bike is older than he is. He goes on to explain when he came back form Oz and needed some wheels so he found this old bike and welded it up. Taking the road bike handles off, sawing them down and turned them upside down turning them into bull bars. So Steve, nonchalantly fixing away. After his bike story he said he was tired! Tired hadn’t crossed my mind yet. I was focused on the goal of getting to the samphire hunting ground. Steve shouldn’t be tired! He is my benchmark. He was always the fittest most bikey person I have ever known. The first fear of mission failure crept into my mind. I think its time to stop for lunch. We left at 12.30 and now its 4.30, time is ticking but a well marinated hunters sandwich and copious amounts of water make things better. My worries about Steve are met with grimaced smiles as he says he can’t work out if he is ill or hungover. Emergency planning is necessary so I look at my phone and work out where to get a train from to get us to the right area. The right area being where loads of blue lines are on my google maps, which “possible might be where samphire could grow”. Steve wasn’t particularly confident in my logic.
We turn up at Gravesend and dither about what train to get. We had run out of water and sit in silence on the platform, knackered I contemplate life. What would it be like if we had just sat in the park all day and nursed our hang over? I come to the conclusion as I always do. I wouldn’t be me if I did that. In my silence I am comforted by this thought and with the fact that every great mission has its lowest ebb. It’s not a mission if its not hard, you just need to see it through. We got on the train filled with 30% doubt, 20% I want a beer and 50% there is no fucking way I’m not finding samphire. The train pulls up in the middle of no where, one of those train stations which are surrounded by green and only have a little car park outside. We cycle away into the country side and Steve calls me mad. I silently take that as a compliment, I have faith.
It was a beautiful day still but we were dry and had no water. We go past a farm with a chap outside so we ask for some water. The farmer showed us to a little outhouse and asks us where we had come from. He’s pretty impressed we had made it this far and we tell him we are scouting for samphire. He hasn’t seen any but 200m along is Salt road and it leads to marshes. We could ride round it and there’s a pub in the village, he might be up there later. We were onto something! We cycled down salt road arguing about how a road name must indicate what it was named after. We were looking for salt marshes and salt road was an obvious contender to transport us there. Sure enough we get to a lake with the sun in the background getting warmer in colour. It wasn’t too long until I spot a particularly marshy area on the other side of a little river and what looks like ideal hunting ground. I contemplate jumping in but Steve is berating me about not looking at the lovely sun at the end of the Thames. I found a massive plank of wood and with Steve’s help we push it over the river buts it’s half a metre too short and floats away. We can cycle round to find a way over but we both get flung off our bikes as we encounter a deep patch of sand which is impossible to ride through. I am now a man on a mission and throw my bike to the side and start walking in the direction of the spot across the river. Over a hill I encounter waist high reeds. By this time I had lost Steve but I pushed through thinking I might break my leg at any minute. I finally get through and look down at this plant, pick a bit and taste it. We had struck samphire!!!! Steve was just a silhouette on the hill and I wave and whoop and cheer. It had all been worth it.
After relief had washed over us and the realisation we had actually found it, we had go about harvesting. Trying to get the nice juicy tops we talk about the trip. Steve then says he has found a pretty cool tunnel so after packing the bags with about 5kg of fresh samphire we go and investigate. The tunnel was fun, it echoed when you shouted down it. I always like to bring a french banger on these sort of expeditions so we chucked one down and it made a very satisfying deep boom which reverberating down the tunnel. Check out the video below.
We finally arrive at the pub a sweaty mess. We order two beers and our farmer mate turns up. We show him our samphire like proud parents and we tell him where we got it from. He introduced himself as Jasper and a friend told him that’s the only place it grows round there. We sit down and with no exaggeration the first beer went in three gulps. I worked out we had cycled about 45 miles that day not including getting the train. We reluctantly got back on our bikes and cycled back to the station to a pink sky and a full moon. There’s nothing like a difficult mission with a good friend.