The Hoo Peninsula Landscape – An extract
96 (with 81 illustrations)
Chapter 4 – Reclaiming Tidal Salt Marsh
The Hoo Peninsula’s salt marsh was important for grazing and the exploitation of estuarine resources such as shellfish and salt. After – and possibly even before – the Norman Conquest, landowners on the peninsula began constructing walls and drains to reclaim the salt marsh from the tides, creating enclosures. This had a lasting impact on the landscape. Historic documents record reclamation activity on the Hoo Peninsula from the late 12th century to the early 15th century. However, a doubling of the values of the manors of Cliffe, Cooling and Chalk between 1066 and 1086 is notable and may indicate new landlords and bishops improving their estates via reclamation at this earlier date. A dramatic increase in manor values was not recorded in the Medway parishes in the same period. This could indicate that some land here had already been reclaimed by wealthy pre-conquest landowners, such as the Bishop of Rochester, or that the Medway parishes, with their higher proportion of arable land to marsh, had less to gain from reclamation. It also suggests a long history of differing character between the Medway and Thames marshes.
Reclamation (sometimes known as ‘inning’) was undertaken in order to improve the productivity of the salt marsh. In addition to protecting land from the impact of flooding, inning also created nutrient-rich pasture which could sustain a larger number of animals and provide valuable fodder or higher cereal yields. These benefits increased rents and profits, boosting the value of manors and enabling post-conquest lords to reinvest in their new estates and reinforce their status. Reclamation was an expensive activity dominated by wealthy church establishments, but it was also undertaken by individual landowners, although fewer records of their endeavours survive. The benefits of reclamation are demonstrated by the effort needed by landowners to maintain the long river frontage on the Hoo Peninsula compared to the relatively small area of reclaimed marsh it actually enclosed.
The loss of land to tidal inundation via breaches in the sea walls was common in the medieval period, particularly on the Isle of Grain. The current pattern of walls and ditches probably dates mainly from the early 17th century and originated during a period of rebuilding and re-inning after severe flooding in the 16th century. The complex medieval reclamation process is hard to reconstruct as the subsequent floods may have wiped out many earlier boundaries, making documented medieval marshes difficult to locate in the modern landscape. Although some walls have been fossilised within later areas of reclamation, as on Cooling Marshes, others may have been dismantled to provide earth for new walls, and if re-inning was undertaken in one swathe, then earlier evidence for incremental medieval reclamation and wall-building may have been lost. Reclamation had a greater impact on some parishes than others: the Isle of Grain was completely transformed as nearly all of its field enclosures originate from marshland or salt marsh. Whatever the details of the process, reclamation changed the Hoo Peninsula dramatically: reclaimed marsh and salt marsh now constitutes a third of its area.
The patterns and form of enclosures within the peninsula’s reclaimed land reflect a number of factors and need further detailed study, as does the relationship between pastoral activities and the salt production mounds on the marshes, which undoubtedly changed as reclamation reduced access to the volumes of sea water needed for this form of salt production. The process also changed how people moved around the marshes and perhaps in some places, like Cliffe, cut off routes to the sea. However, large areas of Stoke Saltings were not enclosed, possibly due to the fisheries located there, and this has helped to create the different characters of the Medway and Thames estuaries that we see today. Networks of paths and livestock refuges recorded in the 19th century, which show how the unenclosed salt marsh was used and its historic value for grazing, hint at the impact of inning on these landscapes. Salt marsh in the Thames estuary used for grazing had been eroded by the river by 1800 and by the mid-19th century it had been largely removed by the mud digging for the Portland cement industry on the Medway side of the peninsula as well.
Text and image © Historic England 2015
Published as part of Historic England’s Informed Conservation series, the book aims to raise awareness of the positive contribution that the historic environment makes to Hoo Peninsula, by describing how changing patterns of land use and maritime activity over time, have given this landscape and seascape its distinctive character.
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