On the Marshes

25 June 2017 // Books

On the Marshes by Carol Donaldson from Little Toller Books on Vimeo.

On the Marshes: A journey into England’s waterlands, by Carol Donaldson
(Little Toller, 200 pages, hardback. Out now and available here.)

Review by George Sawtell

Set in the marshes of north Kent, the author embarks on a series of walks, from near Gravesend east to Whitstable. Although only eighty miles in length, a sense of place dear to the author’s heart is lovingly evoked.

Interspersed with the journey through woodland, chalet parks, remote marshes and hinterland is the story of a broken relationship. This is triggered by Carol’s ejection from her RSBP caravan home and loss of job. A flit to Russia in winter is Carol’s initial response. After settling down, the journey is designed as a pilgrimage, to connect to “those dwellers living on the edge of the modern world; people who has chosen the estuary to create a life which meant something to them.” Carol is fearless, striding out on her own sleeping in orchards, her car, churches and on marshy islands. There are encounters with loners, escapists, woodland hermits, house boat dwellers and weekend hovercraft fanatics.

Hilariously, Carol is scuppered on her first walk by neglecting to consult Southeastern trains’ planned weekend engineering works. There are clouds of daddy long-legs to be confronted and emotional goodbyes to old friends as Carol traverses through such charmingly named places as Bedlam’s Bottom, Lipwell Hill and Humble Bee Creek.

There is an element Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure, a Roger Deakin swim in thick oozing mud and wracks of seaweed, and more than a dash of Thoreau. Some chapters are prefaced by black and white photos of bucolic countryside, Fort Darnet, concrete bridges and dockyards. This reminded me of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Space, documenting the surrealness of 1990s UK countryside. Carol beds down on the edge of estuaries as owls call, and the twinkling lights of industrial complexes wash across the water. One moment the neatness and high prison walls at Elmley then the early 16th century red-brick manor house of Shurland Hall.

I particularly enjoyed the book’s bird descriptions. “Down on the fields, great, black gangs of crows bustled together, waiting for a signal from the light and the season, before making their move into the wood where they roosted in their thousands. Six curlews flew across the sky and the silhouettes of field fares and redwings plummeted into the valley.” So says the prologue. Through the book you can almost hear the piping oyster catchers, the jangling corn buntings, the singing skylarks, and the clacking jackdaws.

Like my favourite travel books, there are leads to research which resonate with the author’s own spirit. Carol tracks down relations of Lena Kennedy (Away to the Woods). The shack-dwellers of Kent came about after many Londoners were bombed out of their homes and escaped to the fringes of the city, and because of the availability of derelict agricultural land in the 1950s. This was a romantic and communal way of life now obliterated by new housing. Dave Wise’s 45 Days on the Isle of Beauty serves as an inspiring visual companion piece to On the Marshes.

So enticing are the walks, I plan to buy a detailed map and follow the route; preferably with the same packet of chocolate and home-made hooch that Carol takes with her. The author’s experience of crossing a marsh in a rising tide at dusk, though – perhaps not.

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And now, an extract from the prologue to On The Marshes (used with permission)

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The place was long forgotten. Whatever claims it had once had to commerce and industry were surrendering beneath a sheath of vegetation. Here and there, the skeleton of a walkway appeared beneath the fleshy leaves of stone crop or a crumbling kiln emerged from ferns, but the site was slowly being consumed by undergrowth. I was glad I was with my friend Will. It was raining and the dark tangle of blackthorn hung with raindrops, catching the light of a wet summer’s day as they fell, disappearing into puddles on the concrete. In the distance we could hear the mosquito whine of mopeds, and pockets of human detritus showed that we were not entirely alone.

This place was not Will’s natural territory. He was from a well to-do village outside Canterbury. He had not been brought up in a world of landfill sites and scrublands as I had – half places, not the countryside, not quite human owned. Will had brought me here to show me the island. The River Medway, carving in a loop around the edge of the site, had left behind an isolated hummock of land.

‘Untouched for hundreds of years,’ Will said excitedly.

Will was a writer of spooky horror stories. He imagined lost civilisations on the island. It was an enticing thought, but what had really sparked my interest was the bit of information that Will had casually mentioned as an afterthought.

‘A woman is living on a houseboat in the creek. I reckon she’s been there for years and no one knows.’

We found the houseboat, but the teenagers had got there first. The person who had lived in this semi-wilderness had suddenly abandoned her home. It was a sorry sight. The contents of the boat had been strewn around the surrounding land, the windows of the wheelhouse were broken, the rain was soaking the jumble of bed linen, and clothes and utensils lay scattered on the floor. It was not a picturesque retreat, rather a scene of squalor.

Will hung back. Around us the knot of vegetation dripped and rain hissed on the grey river, but still I was drawn to it. Still, after all these years when I had thought I had settled down and no longer needed this life. When I thought I had accepted the bricks and mortar and mortgage and had rid myself of the thing which had made me feel trapped by them. Still, I wanted to reach out and touch this place and make contact with the person who had lived here and ask, why? Why did you choose this life? Why shun the twenty-first century and choose to live in a houseboat hidden away on a back creek of the Medway?

‘Hello,’ I called out.

Will stepped back.

Slowly, I approached the boat, picking my way through the scattered belongings, expecting a Doberman to come charging towards us having slipped its chain or, worse, some scraggly-haired woman who had lost the art of greeting visitors. There was a gang plank leading onto the boat; I walked towards it.

‘I wouldn’t,’ Will said.

I stepped on board and looked down into the hull. Oozonous black mud filled the boat. A trip into that world would be a hellish end.

I walked the length of the deck while Will hovered on shore. The dock wall, which would once have been busy with barges delivering raw materials to the workers, bent away, capped by an impenetrable barrier of blackthorn. Opposite the boat, the island that Will had wanted to show me hid the boat from the main river. The light of the open river glowed in the distance. Out there, pleasure boats passed, riverside flats were developed, roads were ever widened and no one knew of this boat tucked away. For a moment I entertained a fantasy of taking it over while its owner was gone: tidying the place up, installing the guard dog to keep the kids away, coming here to write and regain what I had lost when I had finally been evicted from my home on the marshes.

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On The Marshes is on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £15.

George Sawtell on Caught by the River

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