The lone and level sands stretch far away.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, from ‘Ozymandias’
Only the evening before, a friend had warned me about the shifting sands of the estuary should I try to get close to the stone, confessing her own driven desire to seek out the totems and talismans of the landscape as we spoke. Off the coast of the Isle of Grain, the London Stone at Yantlet Creek had intrigued me from the moment I first read of it. It was one of the evocative boundary markers on the Thames that had delineated the jurisdiction of the City of London in former times. The stone stands where the river meets the sea, and is exposed on the shining mud flats when the Thames retreats. But being far from a specialist when it comes to the tides that envelop the estuary, and even less of one with regard to the strange alchemy of silt stirred with water, I had no plan to cross the river bed to reach it.
The tide was out as I curved along the seawall of the Hoo Peninsula, revealing a palette of worn browns and rinsed blues where the river had run. In places mud was ridged into the shape of the vanished waves. Seaweed slicked the shore, dark and glistening. The clouds in the wide estuary skies were in spate, streaming out to sea with a violent westerly. Rain slanted like a storm of arrows, cold and stinging as it fell.
The stone obelisk rose into view as I walked, far out and solitary on a midden of crusted rocks. I knew then, seeing it isolated by tides and exposed to the winds and rain that stampede across the estuary, that all my earlier intentions had been suspended. I suddenly wanted to be in its presence; near the barnacled base that has held it steady through nearly two centuries of swirling currents. I wanted to stand in the sway of the empty river.
What is it that forges these connections and correspondences, these strange allegiances that emerge between people and place? I have long been drawn to stones, like moths to flame; they speak to me in the same way as stories. Like the paths that have radiated and been remade across the land for millennia, they express meaning that is native to the places they are found in. Some of the commonest stones have been guides to a territory, set as signs to preserve a sequence of steps across moorland or marsh, marking a way for the traveller or tributaries of trade. Unlike the formal monoliths raised to commemorate empire and victory, the stones discovered along the edges of rivers and fields speak a vernacular tongue. They are ancestral and confiding, bequeathing to us a pattern of past use.
The water in Yantlet Creek was trickling out to sea when I reached it, like sand in an hourglass. I made up my mind when I saw the tide was still running out, but knew it was best to be quick, unsure how swiftly it might race back when it turned. The slick sides of the hollow creek were shiny with mud and my first step nearly sent me spilling down the slope. Finally I found a litter of crushed bricks that led to a narrow waist of water. A few rocks had been tipped into the stream as a makeshift bridge. When I hit the beach on the far side, the clouds were suddenly pulled like a curtain from the sun. In the hot white light, those lone and level sands stretched away, a mire of tidal flats that touched the distant, silver sea.
The sun-fired shore curved away in the shape of a swift’s wings. I crunched over a reef of countless sea creatures, their shells as bright as cleaned bone. Large ships slid into the distance, surrounded by a shimmering haze that made them appear to float through the air. I walked fast along the beach and finally out onto the river bed, stepping slowly across a watery glaze that was pitted with black rocks. A skirling wind spun shadows ahead of me. Nearly at the stone, the sands started to give way, parting with each step so that my boots sank into the sudden, deepening folds. I turned back to shore, eyeing the elusive stone column that stood sentinel off the coast. Working my way around the headland I eventually found a path, a causeway of small rocks and clinker laid down over the years that lead me across the sinking sands.
The London Stone marks a place first measured out by the charter of King Edward I in 1285. Standing 54 kilometres from London Bridge, the stone – linked by an invisible line to the Crowstone at Chalkwell on the north side of the river – once marked the extent of fishing rights on the lower Thames. Although the obelisk itself is Victorian in origin, it’s probable that a marker of some kind has existed at this site for the past seven centuries.
To stand beside it opened the old river to view. The stone markers of a landscape work like memories, reminders of their makers, of the ways of life that governed the age, from the histories of dockers and lightermen criss-crossing the teeming Thames to the bootleggers and fugitives that hid in the marshes alongside it. This lonesome curve of coast has steered generations of men and women out to sea or returned them at journey’s end and this column, caught in the tangle of salt water and fresh, seemed to speak for them all. I reached up and pressed my palms against the weathered stone, where other hands had held it to shape and raise it tall, before I turned and headed for shore. I followed the watery path that my feet had dimpled across the sands, and safely re-crossed the creek. And as the sun paled into grey light I could hear the song of the far river, rising with the tide.