Matt Collins – freelance garden writer, author, and Head Gardener at London’s Garden Museum – looks back on the month just passed.
A year and a half since moving from Central-North to South-East London, I am at last getting to know my new borough and beyond. Though a wonderful undertaking, a book commission can often tether the feet until the work/walk balance becomes lamentably lopsided. As such, up until Christmas I had been making do with dashes to the local park – my nearest, in which one of London’s illusive urban streams, the ‘Quaggy’, passes silently through a run of sycamores. Procrastinatory hours were spent in their dusty shade, waiting impatiently among the fag ends and crisp packets for a glimpse of the local kingfisher so optimistically immortalised on the park entrance noticeboard (it never showed). But January’s return to a healthier workload has allowed for a much anticipated exploration of the larger river beyond, walking its gradual eastward shift from river to estuary to sea.
Twice in a typical week I meet the Thames at close quarters, facing it from the south bank at the Garden Museum, where I garden. Here a subdued tide absorbs alternating shadows of Lambeth Palace and the Houses of Parliament, cast across the water between Vauxhall and Waterloo. This is the popular view from Lambeth Bridge; the Eye, the clock; parliament’s stately plane trees, but with so much financial investment unveiling daily on the opposite side—not least the new American embassy at Nine Elms—looking the other way is often more interesting.
I’m always stuck by how inaccessible London’s great river feels in the city centre, so unlike Rome or Paris whose low river walkways get you down by the water. Wasn’t there a plan to create swimming baths in the Thames at Temple? What happened to that idea? In his biography, Bound Upon a Course, the writer John Stewart Collis describes escapades in which, during his youthful London days in the 1920s, he slipped quietly into the Thames at night, naked (‘for I can accomplish physical feats naked which I could never do clothed’), either to access an obscured view or, when locked out of his bedsit in Rotherhithe, to climb through his riverside window. There is a marked sense of accomplishment in Collis’ recollections; a pride, almost, in disregarding the unwritten law that seemingly separates the river from the city.
From my own flat, the closest point of contact with the river is at Greenwich: more or less a straight line to the Thames Path. This passage takes me through the expansive fields of Blackheath, something of a water-scape itself – the softly undulated grass like the sprawl of a calm sea, complete with circling gulls. An avenue of grand chestnuts leads through Greenwich Park, then it’s past the Royal Observatory, down the steep hill and on past the Cutty Sark. Only in the final few meters is my road to the water suddenly barred, by the bright lights of a Nandos. At the water I watch a cormorant defending his catch from an avian mob, before fleeing downriver to eat undisturbed.
East to the Royal Arsenal 06.01.19
Avoiding tangles with the Blackwall Tunnel and the O2 I skip the peninsular, rejoining the river at the opposite side of Greenwich. A walk through the ecology park, its reed beds and swampy alder carr viewed from a boardwalk like a zoo exhibit. On past Woolwich and to the remnants of the Royal Arsenal, now a dog walker’s paradise with circular mounds and reclaimed rabbit scrub. Of the site’s former glory remains a wooden slipway that had once served the Arsenal’s internal military railway, ferrying nautical munitions from building to building and out as cargo onto the water. A grebe in winter plumage—and a diver of some kind—fishes between the sluggish, indifferent traffic of industrial boats. I walk a line of grey poplars in unison with a tugboat lugging cargo downstream, its engine a soft continuous drone while neither of us advances beyond the other.
The Thames path adopts a hard concrete edge at Erith, coming in at right angles to make way for little inlets and wooden moorings in various stages of disrepair. A flock of black-tailed godwits hunker on a thin slip of sand, and the concrete—graffiti’d and dog-shat—gets me astonishingly close to them – close enough to eavesdrop individual conversations.
Hoo 1: Marshland 17.01.19
The Hoo peninsula: that fat finger of Kentish wilderness pointing to France. A little excited to be walking Dickens’ sprawling flatland at last, I wander a series of potholed tracks at Cliffe Pools in complete isolation. Deep red rose hips and hawthorn berries line the paths of this expansive ‘solitary country’; a kestrel drifts a taught arc over the reeds as though anchored by rope. It is so quiet—ocean quiet—and dreamlike; the light overcast yet strangely luminous, drawing out the colour of distant freight boats gliding beside the marsh. Cattle work nonchalantly over green pockets, surrounded by bog, dykes, dead teasel and the faraway thuds of metal hitting metal, muffled in the reeds. Over their heads a huge number of lapwings gather and swirl. I aim for the river, which seems far away though I know it is close, hidden in the marsh like the sea in a long beach. A little way out I spot my first ever marsh harrier and this bowls me over: a magnificent wingspan gliding in an upright V; the body comparatively compact, much like a spider’s. I watch it hunt for a few minutes until distracted by the white flash of a passing egret; when I turn back the harrier has vanished.
Only a single figure materialises over the marsh during the entire walk, a long way off, pacing the river. When I stumble upon the remains of a camp fire containing charred, uneaten potatoes, I begin imagining that figure living out here in this strangely inviting landscape. When home that evening I pore over the pages of Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary, eager to find my experience mirrored in her account of Hoo’s boggy wilderness.
Hoo 2: The Isle of Grain 18.01.19
Up at 5am and back on the peninsula, driving in darkness towards the silhouettes of industrial buildings low-lit by the arriving dawn. At the very tip—the Isle of Grain—I park and hop the sea wall onto the shoreline. A man in waders appears in front of me, carrying a bucket and spade. He commences a strategical dig for shellfish, marking the muddy sandbank with watery holes at even intervals. Now low tide, an old stone path has emerged from the sea that leads out to the Grain Tower Battery – one of many defensive gun towers erected during WW2. Its decommissioned metal hulk remains as a strangely beautiful relic on the waterline, serenaded by hog-like grunts from a group of wintering brent geese and the lonesome trills of curlews. I walk a little way out along the stone path and back, before setting out for a final time along the estuary, looking across towards Southend-on-Sea. Oystercatchers and turnstones patrol the mud, a dog walker waves; I reach a signposted ‘MOD testing ground’ and circle back, slipping into a low willow and alder copse in which the wind is cut short and replaced with complete silence.
Look back at our review of Matt’s beautiful journal ‘Ivy Cities’ here.
Visit Matt’s website here. His latest book, ‘Forest: Walking among trees’ is published by Pavilion on 7 February.