Hope and loss have begun to bleed into one another, for me, out right here on the North Kent Marshes. I spent a 12 months strolling this panorama for my e book, On the Marshes, rediscovering its magnificence and studying about its fragility. So now I take individuals out strolling and simply hope they get it.
The marshes are usually not an apparent magnificence: it’s a rough-edged love, stuffed with derelict business, damaged barges, broad bays of mud; icy with blue gentle and shrill with redshanks’ calls within the winter, fields and scrub effervescent over with nightingales within the spring – and also you by no means know if others will perceive its attraction.
On a day which is supposed to be sunny, however seems to be more likely to be something however, I take Peter and Gabrielle from London on one in every of my favorite walks – from St Mary’s Church in Lower Higham, the place Charles Dickens’ daughter married Wilkie Collins’ brother, throughout the marshes to the shore of the Thames and on to Cooling village, a complete of round six miles.
Our route is a mile from the proposed Lower Thames Crossing, a collection of motorways and tunnels throughout the Thames which can minimize proper throughout the internationally protected wetlands by 2025, ought to it go forward. I really feel I have to promote the world, to say: “Look, it’s special, it’s worth something,” as a result of now the concern of loss is all over the place.
St Mary’s Church, Lower Higham – the place Charles Dickens’ daughter was married. Photograph: Alamy
We set off via herds of cows and cross the railway tracks that when transported Queen Victoria to her yacht at Grain. The fields are stuffed with geese, skeins reducing the winter skies above the mudflats. In the spring the lapwings will take over the meadows, swallowing their cries as they tumble via the air with a flourish.
We climb an embankment and scare a redshank on the financial institution of one of many lakes, which have been hollowed out by generations of males who quarried this land for chalk. Now the quarries have been taken over by scrubland, and come spring cuckoos shall be all over the place, loving it up in video games of kiss chase as they bounce after one another over the tops of the blackthorn – the males going “whoo hoo” and the females laughing in return.
Lapwings and varied waders on the Isle of Grain, Hoo peninsula. Photograph: Getty Images
The redshank lifts its skirt and pipes a warning throughout the water. The wind picks up, the rain is available in. We scrabble for waterproofs and make our approach across the huge expanse of Higham Bight, a bay on the Thames which gives a feeding spot for a number of the 300,000 birds that migrate down the river annually. Brent geese patrol the tidal edge: with their charcoal patterns, strolling well, it’s as if they’re carrying dinner jackets, whereas a flock of knot flash a smokescreen throughout the sky.
The rain is horizontal now, peppering the mud on this nook of the river, the place the boats flip and head out to sea. The bay is majestic, a spot the place you may really feel the previous, and perceive the significance of the Thames. Here the riverine panorama is so little modified which you could sense the Romans crossing the marshes, the smugglers’ blackened ships and the jail hulks that impressed Dickens.
Cliffe Pools RSPB nature reserve. Photograph: Alamy
Gabrielle asks the place the once-mooted Cliffe airport would have gone; I clarify that it will have been right here. “No, really, here,” and he or she shakes her head in amazement. The river is a time capsule right here, and a significant necessity for wildlife. Seals and porpoises hunt the tidal race and children play on the shore. They are right here now, the native youth, muddied, cocky boys on bikes.
“What’s wrong with your feet?” they demand of Gabrielle, marvelling at her free-running sneakers. They need to know extra, however the rain is stinging and we nonetheless have a protracted strategy to go.
We circle previous a Napoleonic fort and climb down steps subsequent to the Brennan torpedo rails, an experimental missile system constructed a century in the past. The path disappears, washed away and never repaired. We get down on our bottoms and shimmy down the hole, tiptoe throughout a precipice and regain security. The rising towers of Brett’s gravel works dominate the surroundings and we’re penned right into a slender, fenced space, which is flooded. We wade throughout and Peter discovers his waterproof sneakers leak like sieves. The pair are in good spirits.
The Hans Egede was a 1922-built Danish schooner, intentionally beached in 1957 near Cliffe Fort. Photograph: Getty Images
“We feel like pioneers,” they declare.
The gentle is failing as we skirt Cliffe Creek, the mud folded in on itself like rumpled bedclothes, the ribs of an deserted Thames barge guarding the doorway. We cross the RSPB Cliffe Pools nature reserve at nightfall. It was as soon as a infamous no-go zone, affected by burnt-out automobiles and fly-tipping. But the RSPB noticed the potential, purchased it and turned it right into a nature reserve. It now has one of many highest avocet populations in Britain.
A drainage channel on the Hoo peninsula. Photograph: Alamy
This is the marshes, a world of previous business which nature has reclaimed. The Hoo peninsula has been touched by man earlier than and sucked his plans into the wetlands … however the future? Grand schemes for street bridges and airports are usually not really easy to soak up. The future is a spot that fills me with concern, and I do know that all the pieces we see could be modified, altered and misplaced; and though I’ll lay down in entrance of a digger to stop it, it nonetheless won’t be sufficient.
But in the present day it’s nonetheless right here and because the rooks sail throughout the sky to their roost within 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 nice river is a respite from trendy life that we, individuals and wildlife, sorely want.
• On the Marshes by Carol Donaldson (Little Toller Books, £15) is out now. To order a replica for £12.75, together with UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.com