A Merry Perambulation – Part 3 by Carol Donaldson
Originally commissioned for Kent’s Coastal Week by the MSEP, this is the third of 4 instalments detailing Carol’s journey across the north Kent marshes in the footsteps of the 18th century artist William Hogarth and his friends. The final instalment will be published this April.
Friday, 17 August 2012
Day Three – A lullaby for Grain – Hoo to Grain
The butcher tells me he can get me salt pork, but I will have to wait 10 days.
“For it to salt” he explains.
I decline and buy slices of honey roast ham instead, black bread proves equally tricky, I search for pumpernickel but Tesco’s can only furnish me with Rye still I have another pint of Old Tom tucked away for emergencies, 1700’s food supplies intact we head off back to the peninsula, a couple of weeks on from our last ramble. Debbie and Katie are still in tow and Rachel has joined us again along with M, our solitary man for the expedition.
“A token gay friend,” he suggests, “except I am not gay.”
Despite his heterosexuality we allow him to come along.
I drop the others in Hoo and head along to Grain, the idea is I will leave my car here and catch the bus back to Hoo. As I sit nervously at the bus stop I rest my hand on the emergency Old Tom! The bus is nowhere to be seen. A local confirms that I am waiting in the right spot and another, a dweller of the Hogarth Inn, helpfully tells me the next bus is due on Sunday, it is Friday! I toy with the idea of flagging down one of the frequently passing cop cars and asking for a lift. Three girls with matching mulberry coloured hair and micro shorts pass, crooning to a baby in a carriage. The song they are singing is made up almost exclusively of swear words. Maybe Grain was always this way, but if it was Hogarth failed to mention it, then again, he did seem pretty desperate to get a boat out of here. (Ignoring the warnings that the sea was too rough the friends had gone to Grain beach and called at passing fishing boats until one offered them passage to Sheppey.) Finally the bus arrives and we slowly wind through every surrounding village towards Hoo.
I meet the others and walk to St Werburgh church were a large funeral is taking place. We discreetly search for the grave of Sara the maidservant, mentioned in Forrest’s diary, who commissioned a railing and epitaph for her master but the inscriptions are long weathered away. We spy the doorway upon which William Hogarth once untrussed himself and urinated, only to be roundly whipped with a bunch of nettles. Untrussing ourselves today would be beyond the pale with a funeral in full swing so we wander on, through cornfields and footpaths lost to nettles. Debbie regrets wearing shorts.
Our path winds past Eskle Farm to the much stormed gates of Kingsnorth power station, Thai security guards watch us pass, the heat beats down on the road. Utilitarian warehouses flower from the landscape in yellows and grey, their entrances a delight of wildflowers clinging on beneath plantings of pine and non-edible fruit trees. The workers turn out from their shift, their fluorescent-vested joy is palpable as they head for their cars and a weekend of promised sun, flocks of linnets make merry among the thistledown bordering the path, hard, green rosehips hide their itchy sweetness and super-charged vitamin C content. Eyes watch my note taking from offices, as well they might, the last time I headed towards Kingsnorth, I was part of merry perambulation of protesters and accompanied by a youthful idealist, her face hidden beneath a balaclava.
North Street Farm proves to be deserted but we spot a well in the courtyard, possibly the very one where Hogarth and pals ‘agreed to quarrel and, being near a well of water full to the brim, dealt about that ammunition for some time.’ Today the well is capped offering no opportunity to cool off and we pass on to the river.
I force a stop.
“ I need to write about the light,” I insist.
The light is buttered, there I’ve written about it, really it is an excuse to rest my legs. Katie brings out Peruvian dark chocolate. I love Katie. Gulls are an anting, circling in orgasmic joy at the flying feast of aerial protein that has arisen on this super hot day. They circle above the jetties and piers of long forgotten industry. We chatter about children’s television programmes, the sadness of Sesame Street, the funky songs of Horrible Histories. Clouds of sweaty steam rise from the power station, a yellow crane moves slowly along the river, Katie swats at mossies, I urge her to play ball, our predecessors spent an uncomfortable night in damp beds a mile from here in Stoke and were ‘tormented and swell’d by the biting of gnats.’ Katie has been known to swell to comedy cartoon proportions and it would be good for historical accuracy if she would do so now. I watch the mossies circle.
“Swell, God Damn you, swell,” I urge.
I fear my Peruvian chocolate rations are about to be cut.
We walk, on passing, pylons appearing stately as they tower above the all prevailing flatness of the saltings. They rise like prairie windmills next to old railway cottages, re-invented as desirable holiday homes. I try to imagine what the marshes would have looked like in the 1700’s, it is easy, the industry has been imposed on a landscape which is unchanged and ancient, mud and salt marsh and the wiggle of rivulets winding their way out to the river, but here the industry enhances, it draws the eye. A power station, on it’s own is an ugly thing but here, somehow, it works.
“The cathedral of the estuary,” M calls Kingsnorth.
Many would vehemently disagree, but I get it. I wish for no more development on these marshes, no burgeoning industrial estates, housing conurbations, roads, bridges, airports but would I wish the architecture of the power stations and the docks gone? No.
I have persuaded the others to complete this leg of the walk in the late afternoon, planning to arrive in Grain for the evening. I have driven out to Grain on dark winter nights and marvelled at the spectacle of Disney lights and fairground glitter against the blackness of the marshes. I have parked in lay-by’s and dared myself to walk into the blackness but the sensible ‘oh what if you fall and hurt yourself,’ side has always prevailed. Now I wish to see the glitterball of Grain against a darkening sky.
Still, M has other aims. We stop and I share my salt pork, bread, buns and beer lunch with the others while M fossicks for archaeological remnants washed up onto the beaches. He peers intently at the mud but fails to find anything pre Roman. He dismisses it.
“It’s all too unstratified,” he declares.
We nod wisely and swap blank looks behind his back.
The lights of Grain come on. They do not disappoint, they are too damn beautiful and we stop and whiz our cameras around making arty shots, of blurred water and lights that flip, dance and buzz across the camera screen. Lights reflect in the pools of still water, swans swim through liquid reflections of red and blue, gas storage containers glow the colour of the moon when it is freshly arisen and low on the horizon.
We reach the road, it is dark, M has brought a wind up torch and gallantly takes the lead, shining it in driver’s eyes as we walk along the road, the long, long road towards Grain. We play games.
“If you were to be an animal, what animal would you be?”
Rachel declares she used to be Eeyore, but is now inspiring to better things. M wishes to be a stag. I consider myself a wolverine.
“Not Hugh Jackman,” I clarify “but the slightly feisty creature who likes a good meal.”
We reach the village, it is 10.00pm. The Hogarth Inn is heaving with locals.
“A captive audience,” M declares. “Come on, I want chips.”
We head to the car and leave.
Carol Donaldson is a nature writer and conservationist. Originally from Essex, she now lives in north Kent. She has worked for a number of Britain’s wildlife charities and currently runs her own environmental consultancy. As a writer, she has written for Wanderlust, BBC Wildlife Magazine and The Telegraph. She was BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Travel Writer of the Year in 2011. Her first book On the Marshes, will be published by Little Toller Press in 2017.