Was The Marshes

04Jun13

UK - Halstow Marshes - Ramblers walk across potential airport landscape

Our band of weekend ramblers left south London early for the beautiful north Kent marshes. During the hour’s car journey east, we imagined a dash to a future airport terminal where a sprawl of concrete ramps and runways would take over the landscape – all yet to be built but ‘on the drawing board,’ as they say.

By late morning we were making good progress on the Saxon Shore Way, passing the exquisitely panelled Kentish rectory (more New England than home counties) at St Mary Hoo; then isolated clapboard farmhouses and the wonderful rusting hulk of an agricultural Nissen or Quonset Hut.

UK - St Mary Hoo - Arched corrugated shed detail

After another 2 downhill miles of estuary panorama towards the river itself, we stopped for a sobering lunch on the sea defence embankment, our backs to the Thames and its keen breeze to speculate on what might be in store for this lovely remote place, only 30 miles from the city.

Around us surely, was the argument against building the £50bn airport, planned to handle 150m passengers a year at nearby Cliffe, bordering an RSPCA bird sanctuary. I does have huge support, if not from the government – from London mayor Boris Johnson. But it would only be viable if Heathrow itself closed and just as with the former Greenham Common air force base – its Neolithic acres ironically returning to common use, its hamlet residents re-established, its own wildlife reverting to pure habitat.

UK - Halstow Marshes - Ramblers resting in potential airport landscape

As we chewed on home-made rolls and sipped imported London tap water, there was little to disturb our peace today. Some of us snoozed in the sun and others looked back across Halstow Marshes where interested young bullocks grazed near the runway-wide irrigation dyke may have been excavated many centuries ago. As we munched, we considered the Blitz, when Göring’s Heinkels lumbered overhead on their missions to bomb the city, the river serving as a Google Map to help find shipping and warehouses. In 10 years, we may return to see a very different place. Instead of oystercatchers there would be Boeings – replaced by a political deal to feed a hunger for runways.

UK - Halstow Marshes - Summer flowers wetlands landscape

There is still no aviation kerosene nor concrete ramps and taxiways here although behind us were the stark reminders of spreading heavy industry – white storage tanks of the Coryton refinery across the river while further upstream is the new Dubai-backed Thames Gateway container port. In the other directions are the chimneys of power stations such as Kingsnorth, the scene of passionate climate camp protests.

But airport land grabs or not, our wetlands are still under threat: In England in Particular (Common Ground, 2006) it says of grazing marshes, “The intensification of coastal developments and agriculture has significantly reduced grazing marshland, now estimated to stand at less than half a million acres. Two-thirds of the Essex marshland and half of the Romney Marsh were lost as grazing marsh between the 1930s and 1980s. What remains is drying out and suffering nutrient overload from fertilisers. Only 12,000 acres of unimproved grassland remain ..”

Just like Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), I’d like to say – although only in the spirit of this post – that I grew up out on the salt flats. But our own east Essex family branch is in fact traced to wizened agricultural labourers on the exposed Foulness Island, itself the site on Maplin Sands of a 70s airport plot though now only offering one firing range and one pub.

UK - Cooling - Childrens' graves featured in Dickens Great Expectations novel

On our way home we left the cars against the stone wall of St James, Cooling, the location of Dickens’ dramatic opening scene. We might have brought the book along but a copy wasn’t to hand. Instead, we had to rely on an app (2013) and one of us stood with their iPhone over the lozenge graves of 13 unknown children in the churchyard – and read aloud:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea .. Beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river.”

.. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle ..”

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One Response to “Was The Marshes”

  1. The discovery of experimental WW1 trenches near the now demolished Chattenden Barracks on the nearby Hoo Peninsular is very interesting.

    Look at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-22019091

    And see Google Earth which gives us intriguing detail at 51°28’46.98″ N 0°28’52.21″ E.

    Thanks to John Beardsworth for pointing this out. Richard.


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