Swanscombe Marshes – Thames landscape under threat

A walk around Swanscombe Marshes and Botany Marshes on the Thames Estuary in Kent, near Dartford, starting and finishing from Ebbsfleet International Station. There are plans to build a theme park on Swanscombe Marshes so this beautiful landscape may not be there much longer.

Find out more about development plans for Swanscombe Marshes on the Save Swanscombe Marshes blog.

Old map of London’s Lost Rivers

map of London rivers

This hand-drawn map from Wonderful London Volume 2 (published circa 1926) shows the Central London tributaries of the Thames – the Effra, the Neckinger, the Falcon Brook, the Wandle. North of the Thames we have the Counters Creek (here marked Bridge Creek), the Westbourne, the Tyebourne, the Holebourne (River Fleet), and the Walbrook. The contours show the high ground where the springs bubble up to the surface and then helped shaped the city we live in today even though all but one of them has been buried beneath the ground (the Wandle being the exception).

In the essay accompanying these illustrations, Alan Ivimey describes the fate of these Thames tributaries:

“They are right in the very heart, or, more accurately, in the bowels of London. For the fairest of these streams have been obliterated from the face of the earth to become dirty drains beneath its skin, or at least emaciated trickles writhing feebly in what remains of their old beds towards the everlasting Thames.”

Thames basin diagram

This simple sketch simply shows the shape of the Thames basin as a cross-section where many further London rivers and tributaries rise and flow. We see the high grounds of Addington Hills near Croydon to the south and Totteridge, Hendon and Hampstead to the North. Herne Hill and Crystal Palace form the highlands of the inner South of London with Primrose Hill marking the highground of North London just beyond the congested centre.

Ivimey describes how London might have looked when the rivers ran freely through the fields:

“In the lush meadows of Westbourne, near the highway to Harrow, the citizen of London could once see dragonflies and loosestrife, or, lying face down in the buttercups, tickle a brace of trout against the coming Friday.”

We rarely think of London in terms of its topography, flattened out in our minds by tube journeys and bus routes. Cross city cyclists tell a different story, feeling the river valleys in their tightening calves. For the walker the shape of London is unavoidable – ascend one of the peaks in this drawing and you’ll see the city revealed.

Across Rainham Marshes along the Thames to Purfleet

A Friday morning and the need to hit open space, to sniff the edge of the city. A hasty perusal of the maps pointed the way to Rainham Marshes and Purfleet with an easy route via the Overground changing at Barking.

Rainham Marshes

A long ramp leads directly down from Rainham Station onto the edge of the marshland. Birds rattle around in the tall stems of grasses. It feels as if I’m encroaching on wildspace, an intruder. Phalanxes of dried out cowparsley (?) and teasles look resplendent in an unseasonal burst of sunshine. I rest on a bench and peel off layers all the way back to my t-shirt and soak up the last natural heat for months to come.

concrete barges rainham marshes

Arriving on the Thames shore at Rainham, the concrete barges lie marooned by the riverbank. Constructed from reinforced concrete they were towed out into the Thames as part of the Mulberry Harbour that played a vital role in the Normandy D-Day Landings of 1944. Then in 1953 they came to aid of the nation once again when they contributed to the Thames estuary flood defences. Now they’ve been claimed by flocks of birds which perch along the decks and strutt the prow. There’s something noble and proud about the concrete barges even as they slowly sink into the estuarine mud.

Routemaster buses rainham

Past the shipping beacon at Coldharbour Point and a fleet of Routemaster buses I arrive at the old MOD firing range on the edge of the marshes near Purfleet, the broken chainlink fence a reminder of that this was a restricted area until around 2000. Now it has found new life as an RSPB Nature Reserve. The past briefly returned in 2013 when an unexploded bomb was discovered during maintenance work requiring a controlled demolition. Makes you wonder what else is lurking buried in the mud.

RSPB Rainham Marshes visitor centre

The visitor centre at RSPB Rainham Marshes is a stiking building poking above the marsh grasses designed by van Heyningen and Hayward architects. It strikes me as something you might find on Tatooine in a ‘galaxy far, far away’. Aside from a great view across the nature reserve the centre has a decent cafe where I process the walk sat amongst cappucino sipping Twitchers before getting the train home from Purfleet.

 

 

 

 

Walking The Thames from Waterloo to Putney

This was a walk of many wonders, starting on Lower Marsh behind Waterloo Station and linking William Blake at Lambeth with Blake at St. Mary’s Battersea where he married Catherine Boucher in 1782. I saw the same view from the church that Turner studied and believed I saw his chair until someone in the know told me otherwise after watching the video. I walked on the Thames foreshore coating my boots in riverine mud and marvelled at the Buddhas in Battersea Park. The horrors of Nine Elms had a duty to be logged for posterity, added to the early impressions I noted in This Other London. Crossing the Wandle where it makes its sacred confluence with The Thames I vowed to return and walk the Wandle Trail as I had planned to do for This Other London but went to Tooting Common instead (taking in Nine Elms and Battersea). And the ending where I accidentally found myself attending Evensong at The Leveller Church of St. Mary’s Putney.

Nine Elms London

Nine Elms

St. Mary's Battersea

St. Mary’s Battersea

On a personal level though one of the most rewarding echoes came after  I’d packed the camera away and headed for the train home. Stopping for a mooch in the second-hand bookshop near Putney Bridge Tube I find a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here that I instantly buy. I was delighted. Back at St. Mary’s Battersea I recalled walking here with Iain Sinclair during the shooting of London Overground, we schlepped on through Clapham Junction to Lavender Hill where Iain told the story (also in the book) of Andrew Kötting buying a copy of Chatwin’s collection of essays which Iain later annotated and deposited further along the route. I told my son the story and he said that perhaps this was Iain’s copy. It hadn’t occured to me, I checked, but alas no.

River Wandle at Wandsworth

River Wandle at Wandsworth

Exploring Old & New Barking – Abbey Ruins to Barking Riverside

There’s yet another new London taking shape on the edge of Barking at Barking Riverside:

“A brand new neighbourhood is being created alongside two km of Thames river frontage at Barking Riverside, one of the most ambitious and important new developments in the UK. Outline planning permission was granted in 2007 for 10,800 homes on the former power station site.”Barking Riverside website

The excursion out to Barking Riverside began wandering through the footprint of the ruins of Barking Abbey, that great powerhouse of early medieval London. I then followed the banks of the River Roding down to Barking Creek and Creekmouth Open Space, before continuing along River Road to the huge Barking Riverside site, finishing at Dagenham Dock Station.