14 Saxon Shore Way signs Conyer
Saxon Shore Way signs, Conyer

Self-isolating on the North Kent Marshes

Julian Stray
By Julian Stray
14 minute read

In strange times, Julian Stray was heeding current advice from Public Health England. The weekend called for a break from the week's working from home and to distance himself from four walls if possible. Where better than to enjoy the wide open spaces of the North Kent Marshes.

18 Binoculars the right tool for the day
Binoculars: the right tool for the day

The online Government advice on 'Social Distancing' included: "You can also go for a walk or exercise outdoors if you stay more than two metres from others". So, looking for wide open spaces with few other visitors expected, I decided a return to a walk that had given me enormous pleasure in the past- the coastal section from Sittingbourne to Faversham on the North Kent Marshes.

"The saltings and the shore, with the slub, was No-man's Land, as far as a man's legs could carry him on a long day's prowl. There were boards fixed on stout poles, here and there, which set forth in complicated legal terms the rights of certain individuals to the flotsam and jetsam of the foreshore, with all privileges thereunto belonging. But these were unheeded; no one stopped to read them. On a warm summer's day the folks would have fallen asleep over so tough a job, and in wintry weather, with a gale from the nor'ard, fowl coming up off the sea, and the salt spindrift making your eyes smart, you would not care to spell the matter out".

My walk mostly follows the raised seawall with short, sheep or rabbit cropped, grass, though the tread through mud from any recent rain can make the going hard. If any mechanical works have been carried out to repair the battered seawalls after winter storms, ruts, stones, chalk, turves and clag can twist your ankle in an instant. However it is normally easy and pleasant going. It was Sunday and I was unable to visit my mum in her care home, closed to visitors by (hopefully) temporary decree. With a fine day forecast, I strode out at dawn to revisit a walk last explored over a decade ago.

It was time to put the concerns of today to the back of my mind and try and think about some future issues that have to be decided upon. Possibly problems solved by walking. A decent leg stretch was called for.

"It was a splendid prospect in the clear crisp air of winter; for, the trees being leafless, you could see all the sequestered homes and farmsteads to which those narrow drift-roads and lanes led, for miles round. Besides these, you saw the snug hop-gardens in the hollows, and the poles stacked up, looking from this distance like rows of tents. Orchards and fruit-gardens too, with the quaint farm-houses to which they belonged, were there; and the buildings where the hops were dried, locally termed "hopoasts," topped by those curious cowls that look like inverted cones with a quarter cut out of them. Then you saw the river Thames and the Medway at their meeting-place with the tide. Those rivers were never called by their proper names in the days when Denzil wandered about over the marshlands. With the natives they went by the names of the London river and the Chatham river. Any one calling them by different titles would have been stared at by the marsh dwellers as a "furriner.".

The North Kent Marshes is the combined area formed by the estuaries and the neighbouring countryside, especially marshes, of the Swale, Medway and Thames. The Swale is the tidal channel separating the Isle of Sheppey from mainland Kent and connects the Medway estuary in the west with the Thames estuary in the east. It was the southern shore of the Swale that formed the day's walk. I would follow the Saxon Shore Way on the seawall between two once thriving North Kent towns. Almost all of the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and it is also designated a Ramsar internationally important wetland. Local and National nature reserves abound. There is something of interest year round but winter is special for the large numbers of over-wintering raptors, vast numbers of waders and wildfowl both over-winter and call in while on migration. The murmur of thousands of brent geese is pure joy. Large roosts of waders occur when the tide pushes them ashore. In spring and summer some rather special birds nest- Quartering marsh harriers and barn owls are a regular sight in the summer and waders feed on the mudflats, flitting between there and nest sites on the cropped grass of the coastal margins. In previous years I have even seen osprey fishing for dabs.

"As a rule, a man's companions were his gun and fishing net. Our longshore shooters had, many of them, to trudge three or four miles night and morning to get to their fishing or shooting grounds. A man living only a mile away was looked on as quite a near neighbour".

Much of the area is grazed by livestock and levels in the many dykes and reedbeds carefully managed. Views are extensive but much of the area could never be called pretty. Industry and the two Swale crossings can be seen from afar. The steadily mouldering evidence of past industry, works and long gone business is often evident. The spines of rotting lighters and barges poke from the mud. Flotsam and jetsam join the stinking seaweed where dunlin, turnstone and even purple sandpipers poke around. Bearded tits have pinged over my head before posing on the reeds. I have seen bittern in the shallow pools and once an otter crossed the Murston pits without seeing me. I visited a flooded scrape on Sheppey once and unexpectedly saw grey phalarope bobbing its way around. The same flooded fields shocked me another year when two white-winged black terns dropped by.

At times, with a careful eye and great luck, a long-eared owl or two will be seen deep in the blackthorn at Conyer. Spend some time on the North Kent Marshes and there is always something unexpected. Today, my first bird song encountered as I reached the marshes proper, was the explosive call of a cetti's warbler. It is a special place.

"From the crest of the Nor'ard hills the water was in some places only two or three miles away, according to the way the land lay; in some places it was much nearer. If you looked seawards, there was the Isle of Sheppy, with the man-of-war ships at anchor, and then the open sea. Inland you had orchard after orchard, great fruit-gardens and fields under the plough. A beautiful sight at any time; but when the fruit-trees were in full blossom in those grand old Kent orchards, the view from the top of the Nor'ard hills was simply glorious".

Outside the towns, the North Kent Marshes are sparsely populated today and few live adjoining the estuaries beyond the odd farm. It wasn't always so. The small communities that used to live on the margins of the Swale suffered especially when cholera first came to Kent in 1832. It came via the ports, roads and newly built railway. The hop-pickers from London and those on the quarantined prison ships, including boys aged 8-15, also suffered terribly. Poor sanitation, lack of running water and a lack of understanding on how the disease was transmitted all played a part.

"Before the week was out news came that one had died suddenly, down in the marsh, before medical aid could reach him. Then the plague was in the town, one here and one there was taken, two or three a week. After that it came in full force...".

There were outbreaks in 1832, 1849, 1853 and 1865. Each outbreak lasted years and from a population far less than it is today, cholera killed some 2684 in Kent alone.

"... at last the cholera left Marshton, as suddenly, it seemed, as it had entered. Business became brisk again; the fishing-boats were afloat once more; and the living had time to visit the large graveyard and count their graves. The brown rough heaps of earth showed conspicuously apart from the green turf. Healthy life began to stir and throb in the place once more... but more than once did Den hear that terrible sound of a man crying out in the agony of grief, ring through the Marshton burying-place.".

15 Sign
Seawall

There isn't a lot of shelter from the stiff cold wind along the seawall, so two hours in to my walk I made use of one of the concrete sluices to hide behind and shuffle my back up to while breakfasting on hot chocolate and Porridge To Go. 'Good morning...' - the greeting whipped away in the wind. I had been so engrossed with watching a common seal leisurely following the rising tide, and a group of restless curlews on the marshes inland that I completely failed to notice the trail runner until he was past me, I called a reply to him but he was already a hundred metres away.

"You may know a marshman - or a man of the "ma'shes," as he is locally termed- wherever you chance to come across him, by the way he grasps his stick. In his native marshes it was rather a pole than a stick that he carried — one about as thick as your wrist and pointed at its stoutest end... with his long ash leaping-pole, having a circular piece fixed at its bottom, he would leap and clear all the dykes that came in his way".

The marshes are now well drained as a result of the dykes dug across their expanses. A century and more ago, locals would carry a leaping pole with them to cross the ditches.

Land that was once impassable by no-one other than skilled marshmen that knew the hidden routes, is now mostly fertile land used for both agriculture and grazing, and has been for a hundred years. There are still hunters in just a few areas where it is permitted. An anachronism in my mind, so close to honeypot reserves. What bird knows which side of a field boundary is safe? Swans have been found carrying shotgun pellets, harriers have been poisoned and years previous I even once witnessed a damn fool take a pot shot at a woodpecker looping across the fields.

"On and about the lagoon, all over the surface, fowl are swimming and paddling. One lot are coots, clicking and clanking. Over them, high up, a marsh-harrier, the duck-hawk of the marshes, is sailing. He comes lower — lower yet — he is near enough and pounces. The coots are as ready for him as he for them, and as he pounces, with a loud clank they flirt the water up, enough to swamp him, before they dive. The marsh folks have always a reason for their local names of the birds; they call him the coot-teaser. The fowl do not, however, always escape him so easily. Green plovers, pewits, are all round about, screaming and squeaking out their mournful pewit".

I followed the seawall, in and out, my high path meaning I could often be seen from miles away and putting many waders to flight but occasional mergansers continued to dive and feed in the muddy channel that was beginning to fill on the incoming tide. They knew I couldn't bother them and those handsome ducks with their fine toothed bills, had prey to concentrate on. Taking breaks, for I was in no hurry for the walk to end, I would walk down from the seawall on occasion, down onto the rough grass and out of the wind. Sitting resting while I drank from my waterbottle, my attention was drawn to a large bird in the field opposite me. A marsh harrier stood amongst the mole hills, occasionally making short forward flights into the stiff wind before dropping back down to the grass. Each time it rose sufficiently high enough that it could be seen from the tideline, the avocets feeding there would set off in a wide arcing flight before returning to the waters edge.

"None but those who have tried it know what dirty and dangerous work it is to get at a good mussel-scalp, or to go after shell-fish of any kind in the old-fashioned days. The finest mussels were as a rule in the most dangerous part of the ooze. As to clams, they were worse to get at than mussels. You had to go into the gullies up to your waist in foul ooze and water, and to dig them out of the banks like potatoes. This is all changed now, and shell-fish are cultivated on scientific principles.".

24 Rest and yacht
Rest and yacht

Conyer Creek was reached far too quickly. The little village was quiet with few people out. A couple of dog walkers attempted to scurry past, everyone seemed afraid today. What else is in the wind? Others kept their gaze away and pulled their little terriers close. Needless to say, the pub was closed. I had stopped there often in the past and and on those days the sudden welcoming conversation and excellent ale was always something of a shock from the solitude of the walk leading to it.

Back to the sea wall where, nestled beside the farmers fields, there are extensive areas of scrub with the rotting or rusting remnants of industry from a hundred years ago poking out from the scrappy hawthorn and wind stunted trees. Mixed-species parties of birds work their way around these and it is here that the odd sparrowhawk will stop off. Not today though and I walked on.

A couple of boatyards are passed. Usually someone would be there - painting, varnishing, brewing cups of tea on boats that seem to hardly ever put out. Not today, not even the sound of an angle grinder or radio beneath a torn and flapping tarpaulin, just the gentle and persistent rattling of halyards slapping on dozens of masts. I walked into the Oare Marshes Nature Reserve. I could see birdwatchers on a small rough road just inland but they all sat in their cars, resting binoculars and 'scopes on half wound windows. No one ventured out to peer over the raised sea wall, into the wind. The path was mine.

All too soon I left the reserve behind me and stopped beside yet another boatyard to eat a late sandwich. I was too far inland here, beside the coast road and I quickly became bored with being stared at by people driving past and returned to my walk. I needed more solitude but soon was approaching Faversham. Here there were people out beside the water, teenagers sat on benches overlooking the creek but they were all busy staring at phones. Not one even noticed me passing. I walked the backstreets into town, past the red brick walls of the brewery. My day's walk over, it was through town without stopping. Not that anything was open beyond a chippy hoping for business.

Just a two minute wait at the station for my twelve minute train journey back to where I had started some seven hours earlier. It had been a grand days walk of around fourteen miles. I had seen perhaps two dozen people on the trail, mostly dog-walkers at the Oare Nature Reserve. Back home, a quick shower and a welcome pint of tea. Though still concerned, my mind was now clearer- Solvitur ambulando.

"Every man in each company of a dozen drainers- some of the shore-shooters even had been obliged to turn to that work as a means of living- carried a gun, or rather had one close at hand, to use as the chance offered. Denzil saw the stock part of some of these peeping outside the rough jackets that had been laid down on the dry flags, the long barrels being concealed inside the drain-pipes. 'Many turns like this would give a fellow the blues' said Larry, as they fired off their loads in the air before being ferried over the creek. 'With all this draining we may just hang up the guns as fireside ornaments.' And so it was; for as the railroads gave facility for placing product in the London markets and elsewhere, cement-works, wharves, and ship-yards appeared along the water-side, as though by magic it seemed to the slow thinking and acting graziers, and old marsh dwellers; and in the spots where at one time the silence had been broken only by the cry of the wild-fowl, rang out the clink and hum of machinery and the clang of hammers, the fowl having flitted for good.".

Quotes above from:

Annals of a Fishing Village. Drawn from the notes of "A Son of the Marshes". Blackwood & Sons, London 1891.

These are the recollections of Denham Jordan. Baptised in Milton Regis, in North Kent, the young teenager spent much of his childhood and adolescence exploring the North Kent Marshes and included many of his observations of life, people, habitat and experience into his ten books. He witnessed the draining of the marshes and the coming of the railway.

This blog first appeared on Three Points of the Compass.

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