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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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“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea.”

~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861

“Large terminals, operational buildings, offices, roads and car parks will interrupt the broad open scale of the marsh landscape… The network of ditches and creeks running through the marshes will be severely affected or destroyed…Existing open views out over the Estuary will be lost and replaced by terminal buildings, aircraft hangers and extensive areas of paving…The low hills of the Hoo Peninsula rising out of the surrounding marshland will be lost entirely.”

                                                                        ~ Foster + Partners, Thames Hub Airport Proposal to the Airports Commission, 2013

The Marsh Country

The Greek mountain sun fades to a mellow glow in September, casting a burnished crown of light over the valleys and lakes. The sloping meadows have been turned wheaten by long months of heat and the land looks spent, worn down to a layer of pale dust. The sky thins of birds until it’s nearly silent, but I still hear the chatter of a few departing swallows and the bubbling notes of bee-eaters sounding their summer leave, sun-glints of cinnamon, lemon and teal as they streak south across the seasons. I watch them skim over the house and garden, emptying the air behind them, but as I stand there in the warm dazzle of sun I find myself thinking of somewhere else, a place where the sky will soon be awhirl with wings.

The Hoo Peninsula is a rich weave of water and land at the edge of the Thames Estuary. Only 30 miles from central London, the peninsula takes its name from a word meaning ‘spur’ in Old English, jutting, as it does, into the widening waters like the prow of a boat. It’s bordered by two rivers, the Thames and the Medway, and has been preserved from the tides that sweep up both waterways by a seawall that protects its lowest and most vulnerable edges. The peninsula is a mosaic of landscapes, a mingle of intertidal mudflats, grazing marsh, 13th century flint churches, pockets of woodland where nightingales still thrive, centuries-old villages, shingle beaches, dikes, creeks and lagoons. It’s a place where a set of complex habitats, both human and wild, are woven into one.

Water

But wherever you go, water is at the heart of the Hoo. It lifts boats from the river bed with the rising tide, seeps up creeks like a slowly moving cloud and fills deceptively deep hollows with quickening mud, as if the whole place were still under the jurisdiction of the sea, just like it’s always been. The poignant charnel house that overlooks the marshes from the churchyard of St. Helen’s in the village of Cliffe is a reminder of that long, maritime history, and the intrinsic relationship that lends this place its unique character. Victims of drowning were often caught up in a particular set of currents in the Thames that beached them on the rim of the peninsula; once pulled from the river, their bodies were carried across the marshes and temporarily laid to rest inside the ventilated stone building until they could be identified and buried. This watery world has long been noted for its wild edges.

Cliffe charnel house

Sunlit marsh

It’s these wild edges that have made the peninsula home to such a spectacular array of birds. Over 300,000 of them winter around the estuary, arriving in autumn from their summer grounds far to the north to feed from the extensive mudflats and salt marshes that are restocked daily by the tides. In recognition of this richness, and its significant populations of breeding species like avocets, lapwings, shelducks and oystercatchers, the area has been designated a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance, carrying the same status as the Prespa Lakes where I live in Greece. While it’s the rare pelicans and pygmy cormorants that make Prespa so significant, the estuary is renowned for its spectacular skeins of wildfowl and waders, the aerial rafts of grey plover, knot and dunlin that twist and turn over the water like a spool of ribbon being unravelled by the wind. The estuary also hosts a number of scarce plants and invertebrates, Britain’s largest heronry and the RSPB’s oldest nature reserve, as well as a species that has recently been discovered to have declined by a fifth in the UK since 2011, the water vole. A map of the estuary reveals an expanse almost entirely covered by large swathes of colour, each one related to a different protective measure intended to preserve it, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Areas (SPA) and RSPB nature reserves.

Wild edges

Taken together, the Hoo Peninsula has been accorded the highest level of protection shy of being designated a National Park. Despite this, and the unique rural character of its historic countryside and communities, the place finds itself under considerable threat. “If someone came along and said, ‘We’re going to build an airport on the New Forest’, people would be absolutely outraged.” I stood amidst slanting snow, peering out through a mire of weather as Joan Darwell did her best to speak above the whistling wind. “But they can, because this area is so little known for its importance.” We looked out over the marshes, faint in the mist. The unspoken question that hung heavy in the air was this: how meaningful are any of these protective measures anymore? As was witnessed in 2008, when Donald Trump convinced the Scottish government to ignore the SSSI designation of a rare strand of shifting sand dunes on the Aberdeenshire coast, the fifth largest sand dune system in all of Britain, so that he could build a luxury golf course in an area recognised for its unique ecological and scenic importance, protection means little without the intention to honour it, the desire to value a place for what it already is.

Cows

Water channel

I’d chosen Easter to travel back to England, mistakenly expecting those April days to have blossomed into spring. Instead I was welcomed by a deep winter clasp, when temperatures stayed locked beneath zero for much of my stay. I was researching some ideas for a book, and much of my time was taken up by walking a range of landscapes in and around London while at the same time meeting and talking with people who felt a strong sense of connection and attachment to the areas where they lived. Little did I know, as I journeyed by train through a veil of snow that morning towards the Hoo Peninsula, how profound and lasting an impact the place I was heading to would end up having on me as well.

Joan Darwell, Gill Moore and George Crozer are parish councillors for the Hoo Peninsula, and loyal to a place they call home. As campaigners for Friends of the North Kent Marshes, this isn’t the first time they’ve been trying to raise awareness of this remarkable and unsung part of southern England.  In 2002, a proposal was put forward to build an airport at Cliffe marshes where a set of large saline pools managed by the RSPB host a variety of wildlife, including the organisation’s symbol, the avocet, a species driven to extinction in Britain in the 19th century which only returned again after World War II. Although the airport plan was quashed on largely economic grounds by the Labour government in 2003, the idea of an estuary airport hasn’t gone away.

Hedge path

In the year that the Airports Commission is looking at aviation options in the south-east of England, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has suggested building a floating airport in the heart of the estuary. Now he’s also backing Sir Norman Foster’s proposal to build Europe’s largest airport on the Hoo Peninsula, a four-runway hub with enough capacity for 110 million passengers per year, with the possibility of that figure rising to 150 million over time. The airport platform, which would be partially built over the intertidal mudflats and water of the Thames itself and capable of hosting 140 flight movements per hour, would be 5.2 km long and 4.5 km wide, connected to London by a six-lane motorway which would carve open the rural landscape, a high-speed rail link and a Cross Rail extension, together with the vast acres of asphalt required for cargo facilities, car parking, aircraft and maintenance hangers and the inevitable infrastructure that springs up in their vicinity – an Airport City as it’s referred to in the plan – including housing, shops, offices and hotels. In order for a hub airport to be viable, Heathrow, already Europe’s busiest airport in terms of passenger numbers and its third busiest for flight numbers, would be closed and redeveloped. According to the Foster + Partners’ proposal, Heathrow would be turned into a mixed housing and commercial zone to “rival London Docklands,” making the communities already dependent on Heathrow redundant in the process; in essence, then, the plan would be to shut down an operational airport near London in order to build another airport on some of the last open green space anywhere near the city.

Summer marsh

Winter marsh

“You’ve got this kind of magical place that’s the North Kent Marshes and nobody knows about it. Nobody’s celebrating it. And we should be. We should be putting this in the hearts and minds of people.” George had picked me up from a nearby railway station and we immediately fell into conversation. As we drove through a billow of Easter snow onto the peninsula to meet Joan and Gill, I asked him if he’d always been interested in wildlife and nature. “Not at all. All the years I’ve lived here and I never even went to the RSPB reserve down the road from me.” I asked him if there was a particular experience that had changed that. “It was the first year that two egrets came back and I went to the pools and saw this mating dance of theirs. And for me it was like being in Africa on the Serengeti. Just this kind of seminal moment. There are over 300,000 birds here in the winter; it’s an amazing thing.”

Like nearly everywhere in modern Britain, the Hoo Peninsula is far from untouched; it’s a region with a long history of human use. The lagoons arose out of Victorian quarrying; power stations and gas terminals anchor one end of the spur; the ruins of a 19th century defensive fort and World War II munitions testing zone are still visible. Yet each of these exists within the scale of the peninsula; the place absorbs them into its whole. Walking out from the villages is to enter an emerald land of grazing marshes used by farmers for cattle and sheep; along the spine of the peninsula stand the stone clock towers of rural churches.

Grassland stone

Gill was keen to show me the church at Cooling that morning, and in particular a set of small gravestones in the churchyard. “We want to preserve the Dickens landscape as well,” she said as we walked through the churchyard. The Hoo Peninsula is at the heart of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the setting for many of its scenes. It’s the landscape that the author himself often walked, living, as he did, in nearby Gad’s Hill towards the end of his life. And from the churchyard where I looked at a bundle of poignantly small grave markers, Dickens took his inspiration for the “little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long” which marked the graves of the orphan Pip’s “five little brothers,” nestled together beside those of his mother and father. And it was the very landscape, the flat expanse of marshland veined with creeks and dikes at the edge of the Thames, where Pip would encounter Abel Magwitch, who’d escaped from one of the prison hulks that were anchored in Victorian times at Egypt Bay where the marshes join the river, a meeting which radically alters the course of the young boy’s life, one of the most celebrated characters in British fiction. Other literary landscapes in Britain, like the area of Haworth where the Bronte sisters lived, wrote and took inspiration from, are seen as nearly sacred, but it seems that this one, for the most part, has been largely forgotten.

Cooling church graves

Peninsula blue

Walking away from the church, Gill said, “What kind of world are we going to leave to our children and grandchildren in the future? We can’t destroy absolutely everything.” Quotes can never quite conjure the passion of a person’s voice, but as I braced myself against a lancing wind that morning while looking across the misted expanse with Gill, Joan and George, their commitment to this place, this home of theirs and habitat for immeasurable wild creatures, was both immediate and inspiring. There was a warmth in their voices that was absent from the day.

It’s exhilarating out on the marshes, within earshot of the rising river. A few months later I watched summer breeders circle and sheer across the meadows, flushing from sandy scrapes or lifting like wind-shivered flags from deep in the grasses. Avocets, redshanks and lapwings marked their nesting territories with a chorus of pulsing songs. The wild estuary light continually shifted, filtered through salt air and sea-funnelled clouds, so that the mood of any moment could twist and turn, sinuous as the river itself. The wind poured in from the north or rode up the Thames on the tide, like the centuries-worth of ships that have followed its promised course. On other days, when the sun burned like a hot coin in the saddle of the sky, the marsh grasses danced with a hazy shimmer, rolling towards the river, an English prairie slanting to the sea. These wide open spaces lend the peninsula its particular and unique appeal – the way the sky over the estuary seems uncommonly deep, the way the drawl of a tugboat’s horn or the call of curlews as they arch overhead are gathered up by the air and held there for longer than usual, so that the sound sifts down as slow as snow. Brought together, these expanses encourage a corresponding openness within; they leave space for weather and light, all the tangible atmospheres of our living, breathing world. To be out there on the peninsula, at the edge of the spangled sea, can be as liberating as it gets in a landscape.

Dark sky marshes

Estuary boats

But what value do these qualities of place carry in this age? What credence is given to open skies, to the ability to experience a place that hasn’t been turned entirely to our own use? In a statement to support the submission of their proposal to the Airports Commission, Sir Norman Foster said that “we have reached a point where we must act, in the tradition of those Victorian forebears and create afresh – to invest now and safeguard future generations. Why should be fall behind when we could secure a competitive edge?”

Their proposal would have us believe that the plan is brave and courageous, radical in its scope. Yet little has changed since the Victorian age they evoke; our approach to economic growth has long been premised on extraction and building, to level and reshape on a vast scale in order to spur and stimulate economic activity. Whether skyscrapers, motorways or airports, large-scale building is the status quo, and has been since the dawn of the industrial age. Foster + Partners’ plan merely follows a well-trodden route, breaking ground with old ideas.

Foster + Partners insist their plan is a way to “safeguard future generations,” but the obvious question in reply is what will be safeguarded for them? Given the increasing ease with which global firms feel they have the right to propose the development of unique and protected landscapes, what of the world will be left for those future generations to cherish other than a “competitive edge?” Those Victorian forebears of ours that Foster + Partners extol were equally well known for their enthusiasm for empire, and perhaps that is a more accurate comparison: a sense of rightful dominion over local communities, landscapes and wildlife. In a week that the IPCC, the UN’s climate panel, released its most comprehensive findings to date, stating that “unequivocal” global warming “threatens our planet, our only home,” a proposal to build Europe’s largest airport seems less about safeguarding future generations than it does economic opportunity.

Summer grasses

“They can talk about community, but the government thinks it can pick us up, bricks and mortar, and move us somewhere else. But it’s not like that because a place is inside you. A place is in here.” Gill tapped at her chest as she spoke. Drinking tea at George’s house, out of the cold and snow, I was able to sit in on a more intimate conversation. We still discussed the airport proposal – the serious risk of bird strikes in the estuary, the prevalence of fog – but we moved on to more personal things as well. George talked a little about his love of motorcycle touring with his wife while Gill spoke about her volunteer work at the church in Cliffe, and Joan told me how she’d once been very much a “classic Essex girl,” showing up years ago for her first trip to the marshes wearing high-heels and fancy trousers totally unsuited for the wet terrain. Each of them, in their own way, had come to make a connection with the wider landscape of home where they lived. “I walked up to the viewpoint one day and just looked at the landscape,” said Joan. “It was stunning; it was so beautiful, all the wildlife, the birds. It actually brought a tear to me. And I just thought, it cannot be destroyed. It just can’t.”

St. Helen's

London Stone

I had only ever planned on spending a single day on the peninsula, but sometimes a place finds its way unexpectedly inside you, holding fast to some ineffable interior so that it leads you back again and again. Like a magnet, a compass. Two days after shivering amidst snow at the edge of the marshes I returned to the peninsula in the company of a friend and her son. We walked our way into spring that day, the first of my stay when sunlight eclipsed the clouds, bringing a hesitant warmth to the land that summoned the first movements and murmurs of insects.

We followed the seawall from the lagoons at Cliffe towards the river, the marshes to the right of us, speckled with cows, sheep and lambs. A corn bunting trilled from the tangled tip of blackberry canes and a marsh harrier courted the sudden warmth, wavering over a slim pocket of reeds, tipping its wings from side to side like a seesaw being ridden slowly by kids. Skylarks rose up to rain song from the deep blue, a shower of bright notes. Birds such as the skylark and corn bunting are in steep decline across much of the UK these days and yet there, only 30 miles from central London, on a peninsula that could fill with mechanical flight, the sky was dense with songs once common throughout the country.

Sea wall

Emerald marshes

Those songs stayed with me until I returned again in early summer, unable to stay away. This time I spent a few days in the marsh country, and I encountered richness wherever I went, each step bringing some new quality of the peninsula into focus. But with it came a simultaneous disquiet, the knowledge of its fragility. Shifting estuary light spilled across the grazing marshes where the terminal buildings would loom. Little egrets swept across a shingle shore like a sudden squall of snow in the place aircraft would descend. And the London Stone stood sentinel and mysterious at the edge of the sea, marking a spot first measured out by the charter of King Edward I in 1285, a place that would become memorial, buried by runways built out into the river.

All that I walked across would be gone, either physically destroyed or irreversibly lessened to such a degree by the constant noise of a 24-hour airport and its attendant industries and infrastructure that it would amount to the same thing: the complete obliteration of a place and its communities. As I walked through rain and wind those days, through spectral sea-light splashed across the emerald grasses, I remembered the words of Gill from the morning I first met her, “We are custodians of the world, that’s all.” And then I remembered something else: the way that she said a place is in here as she tapped at her heart. From where I stood at the edge of the river, looking back to the villages that have lived beside the marshes for centuries, I struggled to fathom the sheer scale of it all. Not of the airport, but of the blindness, vanity and loss.

Cliffe pools

For more information about Friends of the North Kent Marshes, or to get involved with their campaign to stop an estuary airport, you can visit their website, or find them on Facebook and Twitter. Although the Davies Airport Commission, which will select a shortlist from the various airport proposals in late 2013, has just closed to comments from the general public, I understand that messages posted through this RSPB online email petition will still be sent.

I will be talking about the Hoo Peninsula on November 10th at this year’s Shorelines: Literature of the Sea Festival in Leigh-on-Sea, near Southend in Essex. There’s a terrific line-up of writers and artists looking at aspects of the sea over the weekend and I’ll be speaking in a session devoted to the Thames Estuary together with Rachel Lichtenstein, Robert Macfarlane, Ken Worpole and Jules Pretty. Directly across the river from the Hoo Peninsula, Leigh-on-Sea is a wonderfully atmospheric place to hear these writers (and I’m looking forward as much to being in the audience as to speaking!) so do come along if you’re around. For further information please see the festival programme

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