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From the first time I journeyed to the Hoo Peninsula in 2013, spending the day in a swirl of spring snow and stinging winds with local residents campaigning to save the peninsula from becoming the site of Europe’s largest airport, I’ve been trying to unravel the allure of its expansive and enthralling landscape, that absorbing confluence of earth and water slotted between the Thames and the Medway rivers that so entrances me. Since then I’ve journeyed to the Hoo Peninsula in all seasons, hearing frost crackle at the edge of creeks as a weak, mid-winter sun wakes the waters of the marsh, or listening to nightingales in the sun-splashed thickets of late spring, their bright spill of notes broken by an equally shimmering silence, the kind of silence that H.E. Bates once described as the “breathless hushed interval” of their songs. And each time I journey there, to whichever part of the diverse peninsula I turn my attention, from the ridgeline villages down to the coastal sweep of mudflats and saltings, my fascination is further confirmed by unexpected discoveries, some new and surprising encounter with the land’s rich and varied wildlife or an irrepressible bloom of light that is unique to the estuary, a luminous and singular hue borne of seawater, tides and sky.

But there is something else that compels my return to the Hoo Peninsula, something less tangible and definitive in its characteristics, something that sits in the shadows of the landscape as though a figure glimpsed at the corner of our eyes, the tracery of past lives and nearly forgotten livelihoods that are inscribed into the earth. These often unsung echoes of old lend depth to my understanding of the peninsula’s present, teasing out some of the histories that have given shape to the place as it exists today. Along the southern shore of the Hoo Peninsula stretch Stoke Saltings, a riddled span of salt marsh at the edge of the Medway River. Veined with countless creeks and windings, the saltings are revealed as a maze of deep brown hollows and grooves at low tide, until the silvering river rises, re-salted by the sea and racing in like a cavalry to retake its lost lands, encircling the mounds of marsh grass like moats, so that they appear from above as an archipelago of small islands. And it’s from above, with the eyes of an eagle or a cartographer, that the story of their evolution is told.

On an ordnance survey map from 1870, you’ll see considerably more earth than water in the composition of Stoke Saltings. But to spool forward just four decades, to a map from 1909, is to consider a landscape with far less solidity, to glimpse a place that belonged more to the river than the land. These distinctive changes, so significant that in the late 19th century the Royal Navy worried about navigation being affected after such large-scale alterations to the river’s topography, were all wrought by hand. Taking advantage of the riverbed’s rich layers of clay, a substance in huge demand as a primary ingredient of the Medway’s flourishing cement industry, men known as muddies reshaped the saltings with enormous costs to their bodies. The muddies—tough, peninsular men who earned far more at the edge of the river than labouring in the fields—did what their name suggests. They dug mud, excavating the riverbed and saltings at low tide, driving wooden spades known as flies over and over into the exposed earth as barges lay stranded about them, slowly lowered on the ebbing tide and waiting to be filled with this stinking, cloying cargo. Working in gangs of ten or more, the muddies dug in rhythm with one another, hurling the sodden clods of clay into the holds of the boats. At every low tide a gang could fill a barge, sometimes two, each one laden with a hundred tons of clay and then lifted from the riverbed by the returning tide to be sailed upstream to the cement works. At the turn of the 20th century some one hundred muddies worked off the coast of the Hoo Peninsula, constantly reshaping the land until mechanical cranes took over in the 1920s. By then, though, the men had already left their mark on the place, shifting nearly four million tons of mud by hand.

Stoke Saltings is emblematic of more than just the remarkable, daily labour shouldered by the muddies between tides; it’s a reminder, inscribed into the landscape itself, of the many that have left their mark on the peninsula over the centuries, helping to sculpt its contours and collectively layer it with a rich and compelling blend of history, value and meaning, just as its residents do today. From the contemporary orchardists and courgette and strawberry pickers gathering summer harvests from sloping, arable fields in one of the country’s warmest microclimates to the power plant workers on the Isle of Grain tending to the gas lines, storage terminals and electricity substations responsible for a substantial amount of south-east England’s energy production since the mid-20th century, the Hoo Peninsula is a region where the landscape, more so than many found in the United Kingdom, tells a story of such profound variety within a single, distinctive area that it’s impossible to separate the place from its livelihoods. They exist hand in hand, as threaded together as the water and earth on the peninsula’s grazing lands at the edge of the Thames (their names alone freighted with a sense of place and history—Cooling Marshes, Whalebone Marshes, Allhallows Marshes) that have become synonymous with the Hoo Peninsula in my imagination, the spirit of human ingenuity and a palpable sense of struggle in the ancient reworking of the landscape still lingering across their watery green surfaces today.


Reclamation of the peninsula’s salt marshes, a process also known as inning, has been going on since at least the late 12th century according to historical records. The erecting of sea walls as barriers against the tidal rivers enabled those expansive grazing marshes to take form behind them, a sodden but sheltered land where shepherds grazed their cattle in places not dissimilar to wet prairie, the stems of marsh grasses rippling to the horizon, broken only by the needles and pools of water draining slowly away to the estuary. And the estuary itself, along with the two rivers that sleeve the Hoo Peninsula in water, provided provender for peninsular residents; the village of Cliffe was once a significant Medieval fishing port, its exquisite church tower of St. Helen’s, built of interlaced Kentish ragstone and black flint in 1260, rising like a ship’s mast from the settlement’s rocky prominence. Such reliance on the sea, of great importance to other coastal villages including Hoo St. Werburgh, is attested to inside St. James’ Church in Cooling—the same church where Charles Dickens often picnicked on his long rambles from his home in nearby Higham towards the end of his life, overlooking the suite of small stone lozenges of children’s graves that were to make their way into the poignant and atmospheric opening scene of Great Expectations. There, a unique vestry tells an enduring story through the grace of simplicity. Ducking inside a small room to one side of the nave, you see that the entire surface of the four walls is comprehensively covered with embedded cockle shells, both the scalloped symbol of St James the Great, patron saint of the church, and a testament to the importance of the sea to the communities of the peninsula, a fine braiding of belief and belonging, livelihood married to the spiritual aspirations of its people.


In some places on the peninsula the livelihoods of the past have led indirectly to contemporary professions, a revitalisation of specific landscapes once exploited for their resources. At the western edge of the Hoo, beneath the white bluffs of Cliffe village at the edge of the Thames, where a restored charnel house still stands, evoking a time when river drownings were common and bodies were placed on a stone dais inside until they could be identified and buried, are spread a scattered series of saline lagoons resplendent with spring song and the murmur of wings. Now an RSPB site called Cliffe Pools, the water-filled depressions were once quarries that were hollowed out for the clay they held to supply the burgeoning cement industry of the 18th and 19th centuries but which are now the preserve of conservationists and volunteers managing the wetland and its attendant scrub and hedge-rowed margins, for, among other wild creatures, lapwings, shelducks, little egrets, redshanks, and rare nightingales and turtle doves. For me, however, the unrivalled star of the pools is the avocet. Driven to extinction in the 19th century by a combination of hunting, marsh drainage and the use of their eggs for food, the avocet became the logo of the RSPB, first used in membership paraphernalia in 1955 and continuing as its totem to this day, symbolic of the organisation’s aim to protect and preserve endangered avian fauna after the bird eventually made an unexpected return to the country. Regaining a fragile foothold in the marshy margins of East Anglia shortly after the Second World War, avocet numbers have steadily increased since then and Cliffe Pools now supports the largest summer roost of these graceful birds anywhere in the nation. To see them lift in large numbers from a shimmering blue pool where quarrymen once excavated the earth, their snow-white feathers inked with the black curves of an elegant calligraphy, is redemptive in light of their previous extinction.


The open scale of the Hoo Peninsula’s landscape that makes the place so attractive to a variety of wildlife, including the regal marsh harrier as it quarters the wetlands and the increasingly rare water vole which burrows into the banks of rivers and pools, also made the region enviable territory for the military. Owing to its position at the edge of the estuary and its relative isolation, the Hoo Peninsula has long been shaped by the armed forces, seeing in its remote character a place of seclusion and strategic significance, many of the area’s residents having found work in its various industries. Everything from the country’s first anti-aircraft battery, a large-scale cordite factory, a rare Brennan torpedo station and several forts dating from different historical eras have graced the peninsula at one time or another, some of their relics still visible today.


One June afternoon I set out to find one of those relics in the landscape, a trace of the Second World War that had until then eluded me in my wanderings. Crisscrossing the marshes, I followed up any dark weave that might signal the shapes I was seeking, but in the end, having scanned the expanse from the slight rise of an inner seawall and about to give up yet again, I stumbled on them completely by accident, still there more than seventy years after their inscription in the marsh. At the height of the Second World War, Allhallows Marsh was the site of a bombing decoy. It was composed of two large circles, dug from the earth like the work of muddies and then backfilled with a mixture of mortar and small stones until the carved rings were again flush with the marsh. Roughly encompassed by firebreak furrows, at night those circles were flooded with fuel fed through underground pipes and remotely ignited from a nearby control building. The flames would have risen swiftly through the darkness, consuming oil and oxygen in a paroxysm of fierce, dancing light, all the whoosh and wail of singed and scorched oil spreading into the stillness of the night, startling birds into nocturnal flight and pushing billows of unseen smoke coiling across the marshes. And from above, those two perfect circles would have glimmered from afar, mimicking the actual oil terminals that loomed on the Isle of Grain. It was hoped that German aircraft crew would either bomb the marsh or believe their intended targets had already been hit and conserve their ordnance for elsewhere, be led astray by the geometry of false flames. It was only some weeks later, back home again and reading about the decoy while thinking about those who’d dug the circles and manned the control building as bombers crossed the Channel, that I discovered that the nearby pond where I’d stopped to watch dragonflies glitter like filaments of moving light, was in fact the crater left behind by a detonating shell, the lingering print of a pilot who’d been fooled by flames.


What first entranced me about the Hoo Peninsula, a sensation that has only deepened over time, was the remarkable diversity that’s present in the landscape, its people, history and nature brought together in a mosaic of evolving patterns. Unlike many other similarly sized places in the country, it remains a living landscape, its components still in use by local people, even if for reasons that are no longer the same as the original ones, whether it’s wildfowlers punting a path through the marshy islands left behind by the muddies on Stoke saltings or houseboats tethered to the jetties at Hoo St Werburgh where the wrecked wooden hulls of sailing barges from that same era can still be seen slumped in the mud. And each time I return to the Hoo Peninsula, called back by its wildlife and people and myriad mysteries, to walk through snow or sea-light in the sway of the estuary, I’m reminded by its evocative landscape of all the countless lives that have been lived across its span, keeping their own connections alive during their time, through struggles, work and sometimes war, leaving faint traces behind that stand in for their times. So many stories exist solely in the shadows, confined to quiet, unsung lives or landscapes that largely go unnoticed. Fugitive and fleeting though they might seem, it’s these smallest aspects of a landscape that lend place its patina, something as simple as a reshaped saltings or two circles in the grasses, animating its history and bequeathing a cumulative richness to the land. Those partial but potent reminders of how we shape, and are shaped, by place.

This essay was commissioned by the Whitstable Biennale for a fantastic, Heritage Lottery-funded oral history project about the Hoo Peninsula that was directed by the writer Rachel Lichtenstein. The project sought to preserve the stories and memories of local residents about their livelihoods, as well as lending training, support and encouragement to young people who were interested in recording and documenting their place on the peninsula. The website is now officially online and includes a number of beautiful and fascinating podcasts from people across the Hoo Peninsula speaking about their connections to place. The entire project is devoted to our dear friend, Gill Moore, who died suddenly in May. Her passion and perseverance for the protection of the Hoo Peninsula’s natural and cultural values, as well as her warmth and generosity of spirit, was an inspiration to all who met her. She will be greatly missed.

Photo of Gill Moore on the Hoo Peninsula, taken by Jonathan Juniper

 

 

 

 

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Beatrice HarrisonOn May 19th 1924, the BBC made history with its first live broadcast of a wild animal, setting its microphones and sound equipment in the leafy Surrey garden of cellist Beatrice Harrison as she performed a duet with a nightingale. Against all of the expectations of BBC founder Lord Reith at the time, who reluctantly agreed to the idea despite believing the nightingale would be an uncooperative prima donna in its role, the broadcast proved profoundly entrancing, commanding an estimated audience of a million listeners and making Harrison internationally renowned. She was the recipient of 50,000 pieces of fan mail in response to the serenades, some of them addressed simply to The Nightingale Lady. Staying faithful to the precise date and place —even after Harrison eventually moved houses and the nightingales became the sole performers— that day marked the beginning of a yearly broadcast tradition that lasted until 1942 when the Second World War abruptly intervened. On May 19th of that year, as BBC sound engineers were about to go live to an expectant audience with nightingales on the airwaves again, a squadron of RAF planes loomed into the Surrey sky. Comprising 197 Wellington and Lancaster bombers, the squadron was flying east towards Mannheim in Germany on a bombing raid at the height of the war. Realising that a live broadcast of the aircraft could easily compromise the mission if being listened to in Germany, the sound engineers swiftly cut the feed.

Bee orchid

Although that temporary confluence of bombers and nightingales was never aired, an archive recording of the day still exists. On one side of the disc can be heard the drone of the departing aircraft as they pass over the garden, while the other has them returning in the aftermath of the raid, minus the eleven planes that went missing on the mission. Both are woven with singular and soaring song. I know of few more poignant and haunting sounds than those brief minutes when nightingales, singing in search of a mate after their long and arduous journey from Africa, share the spring air with a dense flock of bombers. There is a compressed fragility to it all — a tense, suspended beauty, as if that particular point in time was held momentarily in balance, tilted so easily into oblivion. Above the ecstatic, pulsing songs gathers the murmur of distant aircraft on the horizon. Merely a purr at first, something at the very edge of hearing, the sound rises to an ominous drone until it’s nearly equal to the nightingales in volume, underpinning their songs with a deep and continuous thrum before fading like smoke into the distance. Theirs is a brief and unusual unison, the strange, hypnotic braiding of sentience and machine, a moving threnody to life, struggle and death.

Victorian munitions vaults

That recording, now 74 years old, resonated greatly with me this past June when I joined a group of artists, ecologists, writers, historians and photographers in Kent for a project entitled Reimagining Lost Landscapes. Brought together by a charity called People Need Nature, we’d been asked to explore and reflect upon the former military base of Lodge Hill on the Hoo Peninsula, recording and documenting its cultural and natural aspects while considering its various values, whether historic, environmental or spiritual. Along with eleven other military bases, Lodge Hill is mothballed and being disposed of by the Ministry of Defence as it aligns itself with new strategic realities and financial concerns, shedding some of its extensive portfolio in the process. Currently in the hands of the government’s Homes and Communities Agency and, depending on the outcome of a public inquiry in 2018, potentially slated to be the site of a new town consisting of up to 5,000 houses according to proposals by Medway Council, it’s a large and extraordinary place spread along the ridge of the peninsula and partially nested within a wooded vale. Utilised by the military for a variety of purposes over the decades, Lodge Hill also teems with impressive natural habitats that are inextricably bound up with spaces of human use. So interwoven are they that it’s impossible to untangle them, much like those two strands of sound that coalesce on the recording, a recording that never seemed far away as we explored the base in sharp sunlight and drenching summer rains. As the stronghold of Britain’s dwindling nightingales, Lodge Hill is listed as a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest on their behalf, supporting 1% of the nation’s entire population. And so those few, unrepeatable minutes in a Surrey garden, magnified by time and lent depth by distance, came to embody the place for me, the long-twined histories of nature and war.

Lodge Hill meadowDyer's greenweed

From the moment we began our obligatory safety induction at the gatehouse, the worlds of natural and military history appeared to coincide, like parallel lines running together in the distance. As though a field guide to an unfamiliar country, we were shown through a ring binder of explosive ordnance that could still be potentially encountered on site. We might have been leafing through a book of orchids, waders or wildflowers the way each of the images entranced —the subjects of the photographs as startlingly vivid in their forms and features as their natural history equivalents— but the security guard named a checklist of species that had none of their sensuous appeal: artillery projectile, anti-personnel landmine, area denial sub-munition, air-dropped high explosive. It was a field guide that focussed awareness more than most, revealing the essence of the site’s history right back to its beginning.

Grizzled skipper

Designed as a naval magazine for the storage of munitions in 1870, Lodge Hill brims with the historical signifiers of its times. As an active base for over 130 years, being there is like watching archive film projected onto the landscape, gathered together and sequenced by era. From the grand Victorian vaults of elegant brickwork and arched windows to Britain’s first anti-aircraft battery, built to protect the munitions stores and still standing in ghostly ruins atop a ridge since 1913, the place takes you through successive ages within a matter of steps. There is no forewarning or sign as to what you might discover next. By the time you reach a replica street, screened by dense woodland and scattered with bee orchids and wild bee hives, you’ve arrived in Belfast during the Troubles. By then Lodge Hill had been transferred from the jurisdiction of the Navy to the Army, and this facsimile housing estate, as detailed and convincing as a Hollywood set, was raised to train soldiers in guerrilla tactics, urban warfare and bomb disposal techniques before being stationed in Northern Ireland. The scene is unnervingly authentic down to its smallest touches — the neighbourly back gardens where it’s easy to imagine people chatting across fences over morning tea, the block of public toilets graced with Ladies and Gents signs, and the startling IRA mural of a Republican fighter painted on a wall at one end of the terraced houses. Only a few hundred feet away, or one street over in the scheme of things, the base’s Newry Road, signposted in the same manner as the parallel world that exists outside the base, must have been recast in the 1990s in light of new military priorities and done up with corrugated metal siding and flypostered with fading images of Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Conjuring the mirage of a Middle Eastern city for Gulf War training purposes seemed futile amidst the sheeting English rain, the inescapable absurdity of imitating a region of deserts amidst the lush tangle of brambles and wild roses, yet those posters of bin Laden and the Ayatollah, their eyes scrapped away to the silver metal beneath, chilled all the same. Wherever you go in Lodge Hill, you feel as though you’re somewhere else as well.

Osama bin Laden, Lodge Hill

For obvious strategic reasons, military bases have an essential secretiveness about them, a discreetness that wraps them like bark. It’s what lends an element of the surreal to exploring one, where an ominous and unnerving street from conflict-scarred Belfast can sit alongside more commonplace sectors where wall-building and truck-loading are practiced, the utilitarian, but no less essential, aspects of warfare within a training regime. Though heavily invested in their operations as citizens of the nation they’re meant to protect, we know very little of the minutiae that compose a military site. They exist necessarily beyond the public gaze, publicity-shy places cordoned off behind high metal fences and barbed wire, and kept insulated from the larger tides of livelihood and land use that have swept across the countryside. They’re of our world, and yet different – managed in accordance with rules and requirements not reliant on the chemical needs of intensive agriculture or the economic pressures for growth and development. They’re maintained for combat and conflict in their many guises, and sometimes that essential difference in intent inadvertently produces habitats especially conducive to wildlife.

Northern Irish street

Soon after stepping into a sloping meadow beyond the gatehouse, species which are uncommon, or in serious decline, across Britain began appearing as we walked. In bursts of scattered June sunlight, dyer’s greenweed glowed yellow amidst the grasses, increasingly rare grizzled skipper butterflies skimmed the flowers of creeping buttercup and stitchwort, and a brown-banded carder bee was swept up in a net by entomologist Steven Falk, a species that has vanished from most counties and declined by as much as 70-80% since the 1950s. As well as being rich and important repositories of military history, sites with significant cultural value where important aspects of the nation’s military and political past, and in many cases its future, have been forged over a long period of time, active and former bases often exist as islands of diversity in a sea of increasing biological paucity. They’re places that, in more ways than one, remember the past, frequently acting as home to creatures that are being gradually cast out from the countryside. “Scarcer bumblebees speak a lot about landscape quality,” said Steven, holding the carder bee in a plastic tube for us all to see. “They need large amounts of the right flowers from spring until autumn across vast areas, so bumblebees effectively act as barometers of environmental quality.” Steven removed the lid from the tube. “This is as important as a nightingale,” he said, releasing the bee on the wind.

Brown-banded carder bee

From the flower-spun meadow I’d heard a few snatches of far nightingale song followed by silence, the kind of silence that H.E. Bates described in 1936 as the “breathless hushed interval,” but it wasn’t until we’d dropped down through the rippling grasses that we finally heard one up close. It’s a song that’s irrevocably slipping away, like sand in an hourglass. Having “lost 43% of its former range and declined over 90% since the 1960s,” the British Trust for Ornithology believes the nightingale could be extinct in the UK within the next two to three decades. But despite its staggering national decline, Lodge Hill remains home to a significant number of its kind, hosting around 80 pairs, the most to be found in any one place in Britain, partially as a result of the former military management of the land for bomb disposal training. Clear-cuts were mown in parallel lines through scrub where soldiers practiced the craft of defusing, leaving dense thickets to develop between them, unintentionally producing the ideal habitat for nightingales, a suite of dense scrub and clearings, a world of multiple edges where the bird can easily command territory, nest and feed in safety. While the base has emptied of soldiers, the nightingales, for now, remain.

Bomb-defusing zone

Storage bays

There is no wild song in Europe that’s been more revered down the centuries that the nightingale’s, honoured and praised by such poets and philosophers as Keats, Milton and Pliny, and tuned in to by a million people on their wireless sets in 1924 to hear a single bird duet with a cellist, or listened to down phone lines to the living rooms of relatives by those without radios that day. In his book The South Country, Edward Thomas encapsulates this veneration when he writes that nightingale song reminds us that “earth is something more than a human estate, that there are things not human yet of great honour and power in this world.” And yet while much of the country falls increasingly silent of their irrepressible and celebrated refrain, becoming reliant on poems, recordings and stories of the bird instead, as if solely a museum piece rather than a living, breathing creature, here was a place where it still rings as clear as water from the copses and scrub each spring, that spill of rolling, trance-like notes and staccato trills, the swelling and mesmeric spell cast by such a small and physically inconspicuous thing.

Sedum

Republican mural, Lodge Hill

Though we were meant to be considering loss during our time on site, what might vanish if Lodge Hill is to be developed into a town of 5,000 homes, it was the currency of gain that seemed more appropriate to acknowledge. Behind those high fences and walls that have sealed Lodge Hill from public view for over 130 years is a place of singular and unexpected wealth, a mosaic of deserving historical value, natural profusion and remarkable military interest. It’s a reminder of times long gone, but also a place of refuge and resilience in a contemporary sense, harbouring a richness that has often gone missing from other landscapes as a result of agricultural practices and development. And in the case of a remarkable wild bird it’s a place of strange fortuity, where bombs and nightingales are once again entwined, enabling a species to locally thrive amidst its national diminishment. As we explored Lodge Hill I couldn’t help but think of that day in May of 1942, how together the bombers and birds evoke something other than their individual sounds customarily do, those things of “great honour and power in this world.” Instead it’s a hymn to fragility, to all that is insubstantial and unrecoverable about these lives and environments, reminding us of how tenuous everything is. But as those eleven aircraft fell flaming to earth, and explosions tore open the city of Mannheim from the sky, the nightingales continued to sing loyally into the Surrey air for a mate, a world away, yet unmistakeably belonging to it and necessary as well.

This piece was written for People Need Nature after visits to Lodge Hill in Kent in 2015 and 2016. This non-profit organisation celebrates the connections that exist between humans and the natural world, recognising the myriad benefits of our varied relationships to it, and seeking to renew ties where they’ve come undone, frayed or threatened. The fate of Lodge Hill and its rare nightingales, alongside its protected landscape and valuable mosaic of military and historical features, will be decided by a public inquiry in 2018. In the meantime, if you wish to add your voice to the discussion of the future plans for Lodge Hill, Medway Council in Kent has announced a public consultation regarding their proposals for building homes on the site which will close on March 6, 2017. You can send a message through the RSPB’s Lodge Hill e-action, email directly to the Medway Council at futuremedway@medway.gov.uk or by filling in the online form at Medway Council’s own website.

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The Marble Shore“Whoever raises the great stones sinks.” ~ Giorgos Seferis, “Mycenae”

Like a river on a map, I trace the sinuous line with my finger as it meanders over the stone. The crystallised vein is rust-orange in a shadowy white expanse. The marble is rougher than I’d imagined, more like a sheet of compressed salt, baked solid by sun. A few succulents flower in the fissures, sustained by grains of soil wind-spilled into the cracks – enough to send up a shower of pale yellow stars. I hear the sighs of the sea beside me, whispers of wind through the pines. I’m standing in an abandoned quarry, hemmed in by its high cathedral walls, seawater licking the cove. A flight of herons steers eastwards across the sky. I follow that weaving line in the marble until the mineral seam slips out of reach, rising up the cliffs like a lit fuse, imagining all those hands that have worked this shore.

Marble The shore

It’s hard to reconcile the empty extravagance of the coast with the scenes that preceded it, when hundreds of men laboured here. On the southern tip of the island of Thassos, the marble shore is an ancient workplace, first quarried for its prized deposits in the 6th century BC. For 1,200 years, until the quarries were suddenly deserted in the 6th century AD, marble from this cape travelled the known world. Vast blocks of the valuable stone were loosened by a series of closely-spaced nails and blocks hammered in strict lines, then levered out by a complex system of winches and pulleys, the entire mechanism turned like a mill by men, most probably slaves, running inside enormous wooden wheels, or walking all day in circles around a horizontal turn crank. Freed from the cliffs, the stone tablets were hoisted onto boats lashed to the coast, which set sail for ports throughout Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean. The Thassos marble was then chiselled, shaped and sculpted, transformed from its raw, sea-washed beauty into a suite of artful elegance: statues, columns, arcades, porticoes, walkways and edifices. Wherever it is still found, the marble must carry the light of this island.

Nail holes Shelving stone

There’s a melancholy edge to the day, a warm wind freighted with speckled rain. The storms that lashed the island overnight have been rinsed away, leaving a low grey sky spread across the sea. The marble is mute in this cast of light, solemn and ungiving. But later on, when sunlight returns the last days of summer to us, the marble begins to glow. The stone simmers into a hot glare. The tide pools brim with sudden glitter, reflecting the sun-scorched brilliance to a pure white profundity. I stand on a shore of light, ripples on the sea like fired glass. Absorbing it all, the marble seems to burn. To work this coast must have blinded, as if forever condemned to stare sightless at the sun.

The empty flats Stone cairns

This landscape is an echo, cryptic and obscure. It’s a mysterious resonance of the original, much larger, cape. A submerged marble reef suggests its earlier shape, ringed by an archipelago of lonesome rocks set apart from the island, as if the bed of worked stone sank from the weight it relinquished. I walk southwards, rising and falling between the coves of mined stone. The marble slopes in tilting planes ahead of me, a white world sliding into the sea. I drop down into a bay and find a vast, fluted column, a relic of the ancient works. It’s enthroned in stark beauty, as if the ruin of some obliterating catastrophe. Being in its presence casts a strange mood about the bay. It looks to have toppled straight from a pedestal, as if this was always its intended destination. Abandoned on a midden of broken stone, where sea-round pebbles have been mounded into cairns, the column summons the memory of those enslaved to this shore, who gave their lives to the sun, to this ancient marble light.

Succulents

Stone column

I’m delighted to announce that The Small Heart of Things is now out in paperback, available from independent bookstores and online sellers. On behalf of the book I have a few upcoming events in England. Full details for the readings can be found on the events page or via the links below for anyone in the area, or if you wish to share with friends who might be interested. Many thanks!

November 18th: LRB Bookshop, London, with Philip Marsden and Ken Worpole
November 19th: Caught by the River Social Club, London
November 22nd: Kendal Mountain Festival, Cumbria, with Ian Hill
November 25th: The Book Case, Hebden Bridge

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“We were deeply engaged in this improbable geology.”
– Patrick Leigh Fermor, Roumeli

Meteora

I woke early to beat some of the fevered heat of the plains, the kind of humid blaze that leaves you soaked to the skin by mid-morning. The silhouettes of the Meteora were etched faintly against the night sky when a startling cry cracked the last of the darkness. As light seeped in from the east, other wolves joined the first, a chorus of mysterious howls funnelling upwards like smoke between the towering pinnacles, reflected and echoing off the encircling stone drums until it billowed into the air as if a sail. As the wolves moved off with the arriving light, sheltering from the sun that would soon burn across the sky, the stone pedestals and prominences of the Meteora took shape in the silence of their leaving, as if they’d been called into presence by those wild and plaintive songs.

Kastraki

Ravine

Great Meteoro

The nearest anyone has come to explaining the origins of the remarkable rocks of the Meteora – meaning suspended in air in Greek – is the German geologist Alfred Philippson. In 1897, he suggested that a river once ran into an ancient lake that covered what is now the plain of Thessaly, depositing in the same place where the Meteora have risen its rippling debris of silt, gravel, mud and water-smoothed pebbles and stones. Some 60 million years ago the river’s estuary was an alluvial fan that opened and spread from its point of entry into the lake. Over the course of thousands of years the layers of the fan deepened, eventually being compressed by the immense forces of water and earth into conglomerate – a type of sedimentary rock composed of the pre-existing stones that the river had washed into the lake – that was concreted together by hardened sandstone. When a massive earthquake emptied the Thessalian lake by cleaving open a channel to the Aegean Sea, the deltaic cone at the end of the river was raised from the lake bed into the sky. Loose sandstone was rinsed away by rain and the stone pillars were further worn into their present sinuous forms, riddled and pocked with caves and fault lines, by wind, weather and subsequent movements of the earth.

Rocks from Kastraki

Stones caves

From Roussanou

The stones are beguiling in their shapes – an entrancing skyscape that lifts eyes from the surrounding plain to continually peer upwards into the vaulted air. It must have been this same numinous sensation, pleated together with a longing to be nearer the heavens, which enticed the first hermits to live precariously on the rocks. It’s impossible for me to even imagine how it might have been done, but from as early as the 9th century Orthodox hermits retreated into seclusion in the Meteora, somehow climbing these sheer towering stones to live inside the clefts and fissures of the cliffs. Like the peregrines, Egyptian vultures and black storks that still nest on the virtually inaccessible rock faces, they became sky dwellers, at home in a world of soaring stone.

By the 14th century the hermitic community at Meteora had become so large that monasteries were founded on these high pedestals and plinths. As a measure of how bewildering the ascents – let alone the construction – would have been, St. Athanasios Meteorites, the founder of the first monastery, the Transfiguration of Christ, was said to have reached the top on the back of an eagle. A conservationist I spent time with in the Meteora told me that when rock climbers – using all the modern equipment and technology available to them – finally ascended one of the highest and most demanding pillars in recent years they found tortoises roaming its grassy top. It’s believed they were placed there by monks who had somehow ascended the sheer wall of stone as potential food sources during long seasons of solitude.

Old hermitages

Inset cross

St. George

The monasteries are astonishing. Not only in the rich patina of centuries-old frescoes that adorn the churches’ walls, arches and cupolas, but in the staggering nature of their creation. They cling to the sheer cliffs as if extensions of the stone, the brickwork and masonry fitted seamlessly to the ancient, existing forms. They are a perfect example of affinity with place, built with such extraordinary and imaginative skill. Until the 1920s and 30s, when steps were eventually cut into the stone towers, the only way of gaining entrance to the monasteries was via a ladder that was raised up whenever the monks felt threatened, or to be wound upwards in a rope net by a windlass operated from the ascent tower. When an abbot was once asked how often the rope was changed, he was said to have replied: “Whenever it breaks.”

In his book Roumeli, Patrick Leigh Fermor writes of his journeys in the Meteora in the 1950s. By then he was already describing a vanishing, dying world. The great monasteries – totalling 24 at the height of their magnetic influence amongst the Orthodox – had been in decline since the 1800s, and by the time Leigh Fermor stayed at St. Varlaams, perched high on a lofty eagle’s nest of a plinth, there were only a few monks and nuns that remained cloistered in the Thessalian sky. There was no road winding between the monasteries as there is today, just paths to be walked, climbed or ridden over on horseback and donkey. Describing the incremental decline of the monastic tradition, the abbot of St. Varlaams says to Leigh Fermor that in the old days there was “a hermit in every hole in the rock, like hives full of bees.”

Agios Antonios

St. Varlaams 1

Ascent tower

Since then the fortunes of the monasteries have radically changed, though there can’t be many more monks or nuns living inside them than there were all those decades ago. Instead the Meteora has become one of Greece’s premier tourist attractions. Listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites, they draw visitors from around the world to these rocks. But after reading the chapter about the Meteora in Roumeli, I’d wondered what might still be found of the old monastic tradition. In an out-of-date guide book to the region I’d seen that a solitary monk was, at the time of publication at least, in attendance at a remote and rarely visited monastery on the far side of the soaring dark rocks and so I left the crowds for a path that swung clear across a hill of burnished grasses smouldering golden under the sun. A procession of old and knowing tortoises kept me company on the way. I walked out along piers of dark stone, tracing my fingers over the pebbled surfaces, and looked out across the distant plain shimmering in haze. I passed the ruins of earlier monasteries and hermitages, their long abandoned shells clinging to the edge of canyons. Alpine swifts, peerless in their artful swirl about the high crags, danced at the tapered edge of the sky and ant-lions flared from the grasses like blown glass, their translucent wings lifting and spinning, glittering helicopters of light.

Monaster

High rocks

Agios Pnevma

I dropped down through a bone-dry oak grove into a ravine. At times the path left the earth out of necessity, continuing in a smooth groove over stone. Countless others had walked this line into place, together with its myriad tributaries that branched off like echoes of the original river across the landscape, and yet I met no one on the way, just a few far figures glimpsed high about the hills. All of the tracks were well-worn, cutting cleanly through sunblown grasses or curling tight to the curve of stone with the certainty of sure-footed mountain goats. These were ways kept groomed by regular passage, but who used them? If not now, at the height of the summer tourist season when hundreds of buses and cars spilled their passengers into each monastery, on a day when it was impossible to find anything resembling solitude in the crowded interiors, then when? I would like to think that pilgrims and parishioners make this journey out of season, keeping these paths mostly to themselves. “All the most sacred places,” as Roger Deakin once reminded us, “are secret.”

Agios Anapafsas

Offerings

Lower Meteora

I climbed a long set of steps to reach the monastery wedged like a nest inside a cleft of high cliff only to find its door closed and bolted. I listened for movement or sounds from within, but heard only the constant song of cicadas that rose from the oaks below. On the lip of the door sat an envelope. Crimped and curled by the sun, it felt brittle when I picked it up, even though it had only been there for four days according to the date written on the front. It was addressed simply To the Monastery in English. The envelope had been hand-delivered by its writer, and when I turned it over I saw another message on the back: “You forgot a pen down at the cross, so I bring it back to you. So you can go on writing and studying.”

I weighed down the envelope with a stone, the tip of a black Bic pen poking from a corner. There are still some, it appeared, willing to dwell nearer the sky, at least part of the time. I descended the steps and took a last long look at the monastery, the elegant Byzantine brickwork of the church and living quarters recently restored. It inhabited the rock as if indigenous, as suited to the cliffs as vultures and eagles perched on the rim of their caves and ledges. Stone become home. I turned onto the path as dark clouds eclipsed the sun and threatened rain. It was time to cross this ancient stone estuary again, to be deeply engaged with this improbable geology.

Towards Roussanou

St. Varlaams 2

This improbable geology

 

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The Stone CoastFor centuries men cloistered here, monastic, remote, alone. Men who’d shed some of the world as a way of contemplating its essence, stricter in their spiritual devotion to it. At the edge of this high mountain lake, they lived lives pared down to clear symmetry, in the way a piece of bone is carved slowly into shape, made recognisable by what is no longer there. Made meaningful by the things that are let go.

Pale as the winter moon at its tip, this crescent coast mottles to mineral brown as it bends south. A curve of limestone bluffs, trellised with creepers and fugitive trees, an anchor for the ancient junipers that grow gnarled and woven on its surface. A few weeks ago, when I last stood on the peninsula, the lake was bathed in pewter light, misted and mysterious. Ahead of me, like a moat-ringed citadel, rose the island of Golem Grad, dark and magnetic in the distance. Thousands of great crested grebes floated on the worn glitter of the waves, drawn to this singular place, the deepest part of Great Prespa Lake, to feed on the endemic bleak that dwell there in winter. Each year the fish gather in deep uvalas, the karstic underwater depressions that lay off the tip of Cape Roti, enticing the grebes with their vast, shoaling presence. A siren song from beneath the waves.

Looking south

It’s long been a dwelling place, this stone coast. The stilted cliffs are fissured with caves that house colonies of chambered bats and otters course the shore, denning in dark, coastal hollows. But the relics of human residency can be found here as well, seen in the collapsing monks’ cells and fading frescoes of saints on the cliff faces, the peninsular chapels enclosed by stone. The Hermitage of the Metamorphosis was raised in the 13th century, built into the cliffs at a time when the lake’s water level was almost certainly higher. Encircled by high mountains, and more isolated than the lowland plains when Ottoman rule swept across the Balkans, this peninsula, including two further hermitages built along its shore in the 15th century, became a centre for spiritual solitude, a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

Rock flowers

Hermitage, at distance

They dwelled in stone, these men. While some hermits homed inside caves, others carved beds from the cliffs, little more than hard, ungiving lips suspended above the lake. In the summer crush of light, all the heat of the season is gathered by the suntrap of the cliffs, reflected until it wearies with its sharp intensity, its arid indifference. The sun is no consolation at its height here; it is as relentless as winter. The white stones could be coals underfoot, and sunlight fires the cliffs to a brilliant, blinding glare. The heat is dry and withering, and I wonder if that is what the monks sought here: to live with the light of their desert fathers.

Winter light

The monks’ lives were composed of prayer and contemplation, a persistent devotion to scriptural study, and the constant toil for provisions. They must have sown seeds on the surface of the cliffs, nurturing sparse crops in the thin soil between stones and trees, and journeyed across the water to collect stores from lakeside villages. But mostly they must have fished to survive on this seam of rock. As they rowed away from the hermitages, they would have passed pygmy cormorants standing like dark crosses on the stones, their still, outstretched wings drying in sunlight and wind. They’ll have heard the whirr of wings when pelicans kept close to the coast, as if charting its bends and bays, marking a map held in ancestral memory. A memory that once told of monks.

Hermitage, close up

Across the lake

In winter, the vaulted sky over the peninsula can be a bruise that doesn’t heal, the clouds edged for days in violet and dark blue. The monks would have shivered into a thicker, rougher set of robes with the coming of the cold, facing the wail of snow until the skin around their eyes was raw from it, scraped into red weals as if with the edge of a blade. They would have rowed from the hermitage to the waters off the cape, to the same deep places where thousands of grebes still gather for the same reason, in search of silver glinting fish long after the monks have gone. With fingers gone numb from hauling their iced nets into boats, and no longer able to endure the cold needling ever deeper inside them, the men landed their catch on the coast, dragging their skiffs through deepening snow, tying them down with rope. Some say smugglers bring cigarettes ashore in this place now, and the rings of black, fire-singed stones that I sometimes find could be evidence of those landings. But it’s the older tenants of these cliffs that I think of when I’m there. Somewhere on that peninsula, where it tilts into the blue bowl of the lake or beneath the ancient, woven junipers foresting the flats, some of these monks must be buried. A nest of bones in a dark clot of earth; given to the place that became their world.

Juniper

Hermitage of the Metamorphosis

At night, during winter storms, I sometimes imagine the murmur of their voices from long ago. It’s quiet at first – a shallow rise and fall that could be the sound of water on a summer shore. But gradually it deepens, gathering strength as more monks leave their stone beds to climb the stairs to the chapel. Saints flicker in candlelight, smoke blackening the arched ceiling while snow billows across the peninsula, flailing over the lake and deepening in drifts against the fishing boats. Wind shreds the walls to whistle inside the chapel, guttering the flames. But the voices of the monks, secluded for years on this stone coast, never lessen; together their words are woven, air becoming sound and soaring, angling towards eventual light.

Through the window, the world

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To listen to an audio version of ‘An Uncertain Country’ click the play button

To near the coast in April is to stray into uncertain country. At times a hot sun bathes the orange groves until they glow. Then the lashing rains return, hurled by the wind across the hills like ragged grey sheets. Mist and cloud roll cold over the plain where green seedlings stand shivering to their knees in drowned fields. A burst of sun sheers open the sky, only to be snapped shut by a lid of dark clouds.

The uncertainty stretches to more than just the weather, though; there is a sense of things hanging in the balance when we arrive. Birds make landfall throughout the day, so that at any moment a silent and secluded pool might be riffled with the murmur of wings. Migrating across the Mediterranean, they turn up anywhere on the salt marshes and lagoons that frill the Ionian coast across the strait from Corfu, steering out of the bleak storms or flung hurtling ahead, aiming for these small islands and edges of refuge, the dwindling places of wild necessity.

The Kalamas estuary spreads between the mountains and sea, an in-between world where salt and silt entangle. But however impressive these wetlands can be, they’re only an echo of their original size and substance, like pockets without a coat. Diminished by draining and dumping, and the pollution from fertiliser run-off, they still sparkle with concentrated life. Spoonbills huddled like the first fall of snow. Heads lowered together, they trawled the waters as if they’d been cinched into a pure white circle by rope. Cattle egrets rode the backs of cows like they were droving them home. Marsh sandpipers riddled the mud and herons speared the shallows, all feeding with the eagerness that follows a long journey. In places I could see how the fields claimed for farming were filling with wings as well, the salt water seeping back in, rising along its native course to restore an ancient equilibrium.

The wild world has a way of returning. Scattered across the mountains above the estuary were the silhouettes of empty houses. Whatever small sounds our steps made as we climbed to the ruins of old Sagiada were swallowed by the rain, sealed up by the squalling April weather. A pair of ravens hung as if black commas in the sky and Judas trees blazed like candles from the dark forest. The village had been torched by German forces in 1943, and its inhabitants fled their homes for Corfu, striking out across the narrow blue waters from the harbour far below. Through the grey mist that layered the strait I tried imagining the ragged line of boats escaping through the swells, the flames the passengers would have seen engulfing their homes as they sailed away, the sound of weeping trailing across the sea.

Having left behind their fields of sesame, rice and cotton, along with their animals and belongings, some villagers returned from Corfu at the end of the war to the handful of homes that weren’t completely destroyed. But as if forever condemned they were forced to leave a year later when the Greek Civil War swept brutally across the mountains. From that day the village has stood empty, an isolated home to the church and its fading frescoes. All that remains are the echoes of the ruins, the wild arbour of vines spreading like a fan across the walls and the fig shoots growing from old kitchens with no one to steep the young, budding fruit in syrup to be stored in jars for winter sweets. Stone arches clad in ivy mark a way between rooms, or passages from the houses into lanes that once led to the market square. The earth was furrowed with the habits of forgotten days.

Whatever certainty there might be is rarely ours to know. It eludes us like mist about our fingers. Driving the edge of a coastal lagoon the day before, yellow wagtails had fallen about us like rain. Wearing fresh lemon coats for the new season, they dropped out of the storm in their hundreds, as though a door in the clouds had swung open to release them. Spilling from the marsh tussocks and tamarisks lining either side, they were joined by swallows that swooped and swirled, circling us on our slow journey like chaperones from the skies. The air was woven with wings as we inched along; movement sustaining a stillness, a moment poised around our shared and unexpected laughter, the singular and irrepressible joy of being a part of the world. Our lives come and go with these moments, diving at depth or buoyant the next. And like birds or villagers making landfall after the uncertain crossing of seas we never know what we’ll find until we arrive.

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To listen to an audio version of ‘A Family Affair’ click the play button

“All origins become mysterious if we search far enough into the past. And almost all peoples, when we look at their earliest origins, turn out to have come from somewhere else.” -Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History

A fierce north wind struck the boat, chilling us to the bone. Waves from an oil-tanker slapped the hull; the pilot boats taking it out to sea resembled the small fish that keep company with whales. Towering cranes lined the docks, their metallic arms reaching through air, loading and unloading cargo from around the world. Fishermen cupped cigarettes to their mouths, the thin nets of smoke sheering away in the wind. A grey sky skimmed the world.

A class of Polish university students huddled on the open deck, listening to a lecture about the historic importance of the port, the trade of nations that made its way through the waters, the momentous and violent events that altered the fabric of the city. We picked up fragments of the talk when one of the ship’s crew, a kindly mariner who wore his many decades at sea with a smile, brought us coffee and tried with a few words of English and motions of his hands and arms to explain the essentials. In light of our reason for being there, his considerably better German should in theory have been our common tongue. But between the three of us we couldn’t muster a sentence.

Szczecin, 2010

Szczecin, 2010

It was our last day in Szczecin, in northern Poland, and my parents sat across from me on the deck. Despite the cold, we rarely went down below to the warm comfort of the lounge while journeying around the city’s extensive docklands, shipyards, waterways, repair yards, cargo terminals, channels and lakes. Staying up top afforded us our best view of the city, a peek into its historic heart. But while the skyline and riverbanks drifted past we were searching for something else as well, something more elusive and intangible. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of its past.

Stettin, 1594

The layout of Szczecin’s harbour has changed little in centuries, straddling both sides of the Odra River since the Middle Ages. It’s a seafaring city, and always has been, shaped by the salt waters of the Baltic that mingle in the estuary with the river. These ties to the Baltic, for both better and worse, led to the city’s coronation as the port of Berlin, an ideal arrangement for a landlocked city only a 150 kilometres away by rail and road. Trade brought Szczecin a substantial wealth, but for its strategic importance it paid far more than it gained. By the end of the Second World War, more than eighty percent of the city had been left in ruins by Allied bombers seeking to sever its connection to Berlin.

Stettin, 1929

Szczecin, 2010

In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes that, “when you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one can know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back…” This is true in so many respects, but what of yourself can you find if the place you’re travelling to was known only by an ancestor? What memories and associations might linger over the years? And what meanings can we make from the traces? If the past is another country, can it ever entwine with today?

Szczecin, 2010

Before my great-grandfather jumped ship in South Shields, England sometime around the year 1900 for reasons that will never be known, he worked in the merchant navy out of the port at Szczecin. This was the place he belonged to, where whatever memories and associations he might have seeded from the first part of his life would be stowed. Only the city of his birth was called Stettin back then, and was German rather than Polish, behind a line on a map that moved after the war. Charles Hoffmann (as the family name was spelled at the time) was the son of a police chief, and about 26 when he left the city. So angry were his family at his desertion that they disowned him, and eventually he signed over his rights to inheritance, severing ties to his native land. Whatever his reasons for choosing to stay, the moment my great-grandfather decided against rejoining his ship as it sailed away from England many things were set in motion that he couldn’t possibly foresee. A cutting from the family tree began rooting a long way from its ancestors.

Szczecin, 2010

Stettin, 1936

Journeying around the harbour, my parents remarked upon how eerily familiar it was to the English coastal town they both grew up in, only a few miles down the coast from where my dad’s grandfather had landed. I find myself drawn to these similarities, these “memories and associations” conjured by two distinct places. Years ago, when we began tracing the family history, I was immediately struck by the resemblances, the fact that Charles Hoffmann had lived out the span of his life between two coasts. And yet port cities have long been gateways where sailors, traders and immigrants first landed, where languages and cultures coalesced and collided. To stay in a place that might have reminded my great-grandfather of his old home, and where his skills as a mariner remained useful, seemed obvious after only a short while in Poland.

Szczecin, 2010

Stettin, 1931

But something else sparked my fascination while we trawled the waters of Szczecin harbour. I don’t know whether it was the open sea that the Odra River ran into, or the flags of countless countries rippling above ships, but I became aware of how common an experience my great-grandfather shared in. All across our planet people are moving this very minute, led by wanderlust or economics, out of love or out of fear. People are leaving homes and crafting new ones, slowly, surely, spurred on by optimism or desperation, moving a little or wandering far, searching with determination for a place that seems right.

The reasons for movement are immeasurable; it’s what our species has always done from the moment it spread out from Africa, crossing vast, forbidding seas and inhospitable deserts, pushing on over land bridges and funnelling down through continents, migrating, dispersing, gathering in unexpected ways. And with each movement a line is altered, a lineage like a vine encouraged in a new direction. The world shifts a little each time, is remade by our steps.

Szczecin, 2010

Szczecin, 2010

While the contemporary photographs of Szczecin are mine, the historic images are taken from postcards bought in the city. The original photographers are unfortunately not attributed. The pictured airship is the Graf Zeppelin, famous for its round the world journeys, and from which the overhead image of the Odra River was also taken two years later.

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