On the Marshes

Here is a longer version of my column in the latest issue of the Countryman.

About a dozen years ago, when we were developing our 2026 Vision for the countryside, CPRE considered launching a prize for nature writing. There was not much of it about and that seemed a pity. But nature writing did not need a prize from CPRE. It has flourished, with a new book out every week. And I have to confess, I have developed an allergy to the genre.

Too much of it seems to be about the authors finding themselves, rather than about landscapes and the natural world. “I walked the hillside, intoxicated by nature’s bounty, and reflected that my mother had never understood me.” Bah!

Carol Donaldson’s new book, On the Marshes, mixes personal trauma with reflections on the landscape of north Kent and the people living in it. I could have done with less on her doomed relationship. I hope her hapless ex gets a right of reply. But in spite of a bit too much sharing for my tastes, I loved the book as I love the “rough edged beauty” of the Medway valley and the Thames estuary. It also helps that like all Little Toller books, it is beautifully produced.

Much of On the Marshes is about shack and houseboat dwellers, people opting out of ‘normal’ society for whatever reasons and drawn to the area by its isolation. Donaldson loves these non-conformists and finds class prejudice in CPRE’s early opposition to the “squalid little huts” and “ugly shanty towns” of the interwar plotlanders. But she recognises that “many of the preservationists’ fears were well founded. If unchecked, many of our beauty spots would have turned into a giant suburb.”

This subtlety characterises Donaldson’s views throughout the book. She acknowledges, for instance, that the Hoo Peninsula is wild because it was poor: “Villages remained small and only the most hardy or desperate would choose to stay in the isolated farmhouses dotting the malarial marshes.” Put like that, a “land paved with progress in a bid to make it profitable and sanitised and serve the needs of London” may not seem so bad.

But north Kent, particularly the Hoo Peninsular has a strange, eerie beauty. The marks of industrialisation are never far away, but you can also imagine yourself back with Pip and Magwitch in the opening scene of Great Expectations.

Because of its emptiness, past industrialisation and absence of chocolate box prettiness, it faces huge development pressures. This is an area under threat from housing, roads and “myriad other plans to concrete over the marshes and bay with progress and growth”.

Hoo was proposed as the site of the ‘Boris Island’ Thames Gateway airport, a development that would have obliterated the churchyard of St. James’s Church, Cooling, the scene of Pip’s first encounter with Magwitch: “It was proposed that the graves, visited by Dickens fans from around the world, could be removed and displayed elsewhere. In the airport foyer maybe? I could imagine the politicians and architects in London crowded round the boardroom table discussing the plans: ‘A tasteful exhibit, interactive perhaps, with a backdrop showing a film of how the marshes looked, all situated within Charles Dickens International.’”

Hoo was proposed by Shelter as the site of a new 150,000 population garden city – good scheme; wrong place. More worryingly, Medway Council wants to meet a major part of its housing allocation at Lodge Hill, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the most important site in the country for breeding nightingales.

If this philistine proposal gets the go-ahead from the Government (and I cannot believe it will) we should be very worried indeed. Donaldson quotes “A.J.”, her old boss at the RSPB: “It feels like dangerous times. If Lodge Hill goes, it will be like, ‘now what? All bets are off, nothing is safe.’”[1]

One destructive scheme that has already been approved is the Lower Thames Crossing. Last Sunday I went for a walk, starting as Carol Donaldson does in On the Marshes, from the St Mary’s Church in Lower Higham. We had a lovely walk along part of the Saxon Shore Way towards Shorne and Gravesend. No one will be able to enjoy a similar experience once the new crossing is built.

The email I received from Highways England announcing the route of the crossing (not a surprise!) said relatively little about congestion. The development is justified in terms of economic development, which will add to the number of vehicles. The new crossing will, I was told, “unlock billions of pounds worth of economic benefit and create thousands of jobs. It opens opportunities for investment, for much needed housing and for businesses to grow. This will connect communities and improve access to jobs, housing, leisure and retail facilities either side of the river.”

The proposes Lower Thames Crossing will also destroy the character and tranquility of some beautiful countryside, north and south of the river. Visit the north Kent marshes while you can. And read On the Marshes.

[1] Paragraph 14 of the National Planning Policy Framework states that “Local Plans should meet objectively assessed needs, with sufficient flexibility to react to rapid change, unless:

  • any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole; or
  • specific policies in this Framework indicate developments should be restricted.”

A footnote to the ‘specific policies’ (Footnote 9) states: “For example, those policies relating to sites protected under the Birds and Habitats Directive… and/or designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest; land designated as Green Belt, Local Green Space, and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Heritage Coast or within a National Park (or the Broads Authority); designated heritage assets; and locations at risk of flooding or coastal erosion.” That is a pretty long list of exclusions, and it certainly applies to Lodge Hill as well as to many other places across the country that are being developed or are threatened with development.

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