Walk the North Kent Marshes – while the solitude lasts

From: The Guardian

Hope and loss have begun to bleed into each other, for me, out here on the North Kent Marshes. I spent a year walking this landscape for my book, On the Marshes, rediscovering its beauty and learning about its fragility. So now I take people out walking and just hope they get it.

The marshes are not an obvious beauty: it is a rough-edged love, full of derelict industry, broken barges, wide bays of mud; icy with blue light and shrill with redshanks’ calls in the winter, fields and scrub bubbling over with nightingales in the spring – and you never know if others will understand its appeal.


On a day which is meant to be sunny, but looks likely to be anything but, I take Peter and Gabrielle from London on one of my favourite walks – from St Mary’s Church in Lower Higham, where Charles Dickens’ daughter married Wilkie Collins’ brother, across the marshes to the shore of the Thames and on to Cooling village, a total of around six miles.

Our route is a mile from the proposed Lower Thames Crossing, a series of motorways and tunnels across the Thames which will cut right across the internationally protected wetlands by 2025, should it go ahead. I feel I need to sell the area, to say: “Look, it’s special, it’s worth something,” because now the fear of loss is everywhere.


St Mary’s Church, Lower Higham – where Charles Dickens’ daughter was married. Photograph: Alamy 

We set off through herds of cows and cross the railway tracks that once transported Queen Victoria to her yacht at Grain. The fields are full of geese, skeins cutting the winter skies above the mudflats. In the spring the lapwings will take over the meadows, swallowing their cries as they tumble through the air with a flourish.

We climb an embankment and scare a redshank on the bank of one of the lakes, which were hollowed out by generations of men who quarried this land for chalk. Now the quarries have been taken over by scrubland, and come spring cuckoos will be everywhere, loving it up in games of kiss chase as they bounce after each other over the tops of the blackthorn – the males going “whoo hoo” and the females laughing in return.


Lapwings and various waders on the Isle of Grain, Hoo peninsula. Photograph: Getty Images

The redshank lifts its skirt and pipes a warning across the water. The wind picks up, the rain comes in. We scrabble for waterproofs and make our way around the vast expanse of Higham Bight, a bay on the Thames which provides a feeding spot for some of the 300,000 birds that migrate down the river each year. Brent geese patrol the tidal edge: with their charcoal patterns, strolling smartly, it’s as if they are wearing dinner jackets, while a flock of knot flash a smokescreen across the sky.

The rain is horizontal now, peppering the mud on this corner of the river, where the boats turn and head out to sea. The bay is majestic, a place where you can feel the past, and understand the importance of the Thames. Here the riverine landscape is so little changed that you can sense the Romans crossing the marshes, the smugglers’ blackened ships and the prison hulks that inspired Dickens.


Cliffe Pools RSPB nature reserve. Photograph: Alamy

Gabrielle asks where the once-mooted Cliffe airport would have gone; I explain that it would have been here. “No, really, here,” and she shakes her head in amazement. The river is a time capsule here, and a vital necessity for wildlife. Seals and porpoises hunt the tidal race and kids play on the shore. They are here now, the local youth, muddied, cocky boys on bikes.

“What’s wrong with your feet?” they demand of Gabrielle, marvelling at her free-running shoes. They want to know more, but the rain is stinging and we still have a long way to go. We circle past a Napoleonic fort and climb down steps next to the Brennan torpedo rails, an experimental missile system built a century ago. The path disappears, washed away and not repaired. We get down on our bottoms and shimmy down the gap, tiptoe across a precipice and regain safety. The rising towers of Brett’s gravel works dominate the scenery and we are penned into a narrow, fenced area, which is flooded. We wade across and Peter discovers his waterproof shoes leak like sieves. The pair are in good spirits.


The Hans Egede was a 1922-built Danish schooner, deliberately beached in 1957 close to Cliffe Fort. Photograph: Getty Images

“We feel like pioneers,” they declare.

The light is failing as we skirt Cliffe Creek, the mud folded in on itself like rumpled bedclothes, the ribs of an abandoned Thames barge guarding the entrance. We cross the RSPB Cliffe Pools nature reserve at dusk. It was once a notorious no-go zone, littered with burnt-out cars and fly-tipping. But the RSPB saw the potential, bought it and turned it into a nature reserve. It now has one of the highest avocet populations in Britain.


A drainage channel on the Hoo peninsula. Photograph: Alamy

This is the marshes, a world of old industry which nature has reclaimed. The Hoo peninsula has been touched by man before and sucked his plans into the wetlands … but the future? Grand schemes for road bridges and airports are not so easy to absorb. The future is a place that fills me with fear, and I know that everything we see might be changed, altered and lost; and even  though I will lay down in front of a digger to prevent it, it still might not be enough.

But today it is still here and as the rooks sail across the sky to their roost in the woods, and we head to the Horseshoe & Castle pub at Cooling, I sense that my companions get it … get that this sanctuary by London’s great river is a respite from modern life that we, people and wildlife, sorely need.

On the Marshes by Carol Donaldson (Little Toller Books, £15) is out now. To order a copy for £12.75, including UK p&p, visit guardianbookshop.com

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