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Posts Tagged ‘Thames estuary’

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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“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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The lone and level sands stretch far away.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, from ‘Ozymandias’

Where the River Meets the Sea

Only the evening before, a friend had warned me about the shifting sands of the estuary should I try to get close to the stone, confessing her own driven desire to seek out the totems and talismans of the landscape as we spoke. Off the coast of the Isle of Grain, the London Stone at Yantlet Creek had intrigued me from the moment I first read of it. It was one of the evocative boundary markers on the Thames that had delineated the jurisdiction of the City of London in former times. The stone stands where the river meets the sea, and is exposed on the shining mud flats when the Thames retreats. But being far from a specialist when it comes to the tides that envelop the estuary, and even less of one with regard to the strange alchemy of silt stirred with water, I had no plan to cross the river bed to reach it.

The tide was out as I curved along the seawall of the Hoo Peninsula, revealing a palette of worn browns and rinsed blues where the river had run. In places mud was ridged into the shape of the vanished waves. Seaweed slicked the shore, dark and glistening. The clouds in the wide estuary skies were in spate, streaming out to sea with a violent westerly. Rain slanted like a storm of arrows, cold and stinging as it fell.

Those lone and level sands...

The stone obelisk rose into view as I walked, far out and solitary on a midden of crusted rocks. I knew then, seeing it isolated by tides and exposed to the winds and rain that stampede across the estuary, that all my earlier intentions had been suspended. I suddenly wanted to be in its presence; near the barnacled base that has held it steady through nearly two centuries of swirling currents. I wanted to stand in the sway of the empty river.

What is it that forges these connections and correspondences, these strange allegiances that emerge between people and place? I have long been drawn to stones, like moths to flame; they speak to me in the same way as stories. Like the paths that have radiated and been remade across the land for millennia, they express meaning that is native to the places they are found in. Some of the commonest stones have been guides to a territory, set as signs to preserve a sequence of steps across moorland or marsh, marking a way for the traveller or tributaries of trade. Unlike the formal monoliths raised to commemorate empire and victory, the stones discovered along the edges of rivers and fields speak a vernacular tongue. They are ancestral and confiding, bequeathing to us a pattern of past use.

Yantlet Creek

The water in Yantlet Creek was trickling out to sea when I reached it, like sand in an hourglass. I made up my mind when I saw the tide was still running out, but knew it was best to be quick, unsure how swiftly it might race back when it turned. The slick sides of the hollow creek were shiny with mud and my first step nearly sent me spilling down the slope. Finally I found a litter of crushed bricks that led to a narrow waist of water. A few rocks had been tipped into the stream as a makeshift bridge. When I hit the beach on the far side, the clouds were suddenly pulled like a curtain from the sun. In the hot white light, those lone and level sands stretched away, a mire of tidal flats that touched the distant, silver sea.

Shining sands...

The sun-fired shore curved away in the shape of a swift’s wings. I crunched over a reef of countless sea creatures, their shells as bright as cleaned bone. Large ships slid into the distance, surrounded by a shimmering haze that made them appear to float through the air. I walked fast along the beach and finally out onto the river bed, stepping slowly across a watery glaze that was pitted with black rocks. A skirling wind spun shadows ahead of me. Nearly at the stone, the sands started to give way, parting with each step so that my boots sank into the sudden, deepening folds. I turned back to shore, eyeing the elusive stone column that stood sentinel off the coast. Working my way around the headland I eventually found a path, a causeway of small rocks and clinker laid down over the years that lead me across the sinking sands.

The London Stone

The London Stone marks a place first measured out by the charter of King Edward I in 1285. Standing 54 kilometres from London Bridge, the stone – linked by an invisible line to the Crowstone at Chalkwell on the north side of the river – once marked the extent of fishing rights on the lower Thames. Although the obelisk itself is Victorian in origin, it’s probable that a marker of some kind has existed at this site for the past seven centuries.

To stand beside it opened the old river to view. The stone markers of a landscape work like memories, reminders of their makers, of the ways of life that governed the age, from the histories of dockers and lightermen criss-crossing the teeming Thames to the bootleggers and fugitives that hid in the marshes alongside it. This lonesome curve of coast has steered generations of men and women out to sea or returned them at journey’s end and this column, caught in the tangle of salt water and fresh, seemed to speak for them all. I reached up and pressed my palms against the weathered stone, where other hands had held it to shape and raise it tall, before I turned and headed for shore. I followed the watery path that my feet had dimpled across the sands, and safely re-crossed the creek. And as the sun paled into grey light I could hear the song of the far river, rising with the tide.

The tide returning

The Thames: three colours

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