Hope you enjoy another episode on my podcast Gone to Earth.
An unexpected break from work allows me the pleasure of a stroll in Dering Woods outside of Smarden in Kent. The autumn leaves are falling and a roe deer bounds across the path. I go fungi hunting and discover other enthusiasts and feel a week stuck on a computer drift away as the magic of the autumnal woods allows me to decompress
Earlier in the year I set off with my friend Mark across the South Downs following the route of the Old Way and staying in some of the beautiful, spiritual places which makes up the Network of Sanctuary organised by the British Pilgrimage Trust. Follow my journey in today’s Guardian
Today my friend called to tell me of his loss. The hedge in front of his house which he had cared for ever since he had moved into his home had been ripped up to provide access for a new development.
Over the years I had heard how he had litter picked this hedge and planted extra plants in to fill the gaps. When the development was announced he had tried his best to save it. Had challenged the report of the consultants who had deemed it of no value. Pointed out that as it had 5 species and had been there for over 30 years it should be re classified as a protected hedge. He had spoken to the builders to try to re-negotiate the access route but the builder had just shrugged and said it was in the plans. Now it was gone. Torn up in a day to be replaced at some point in the future by a new hedge undoubtedly of laurel and other non native plants deemed more attractive and easier to care for.
I commiserated with my friend. “Sorry for you loss,” I said as if he had suffered a death. I knew what it would mean to him. An absence, a loss of colour from his day, a small reduction in his quality of life. I knew how he would feel because I had suffered such a loss. I had lost the scrubby wild lands at the bottom of my road a few years before. I had lost the sound of cuckoos from my morning and nightingales from my dusk. I had lost hedgehogs and little owls and all the scrubby little species of these special places. This loss sat like a sore upon my subconscious. It was felt every day. It had soured my love of my home to the point that I wished to move.
It is a bereavement, this taking away of the known places where the wild things live. Our edgelands have been nibbled away bit by bit and we suffer in increments, trying to carry on as the ugliness of developments engulfs the countryside. I feel saddened and desperate every time I walk past one of these places. I have changed my routes to familiar places to avoid looking at development sites with their ripped up hedges and sea of mud and blocky, ugly properties like lego bricks crawling away.
If you live anywhere near the edge of a town or in a village almost anywhere in the country then you will know what I mean. It is likely that you have suffered this loss too. We are all suffering it. We are a nation in mourning for all the places near our homes that bought us pleasure and now are gone.
Landowner, Alex Bates has been dubbed the ‘hero of the week’ by KMFM after he has started to transform his land on the Hoo Peninsula into a wetland mecca for birds like lapwing and redshank.
When I first met Alex it was obvious his land, alongside the Thames had huge potential for wildlife. The vast open expanses should have been full of plummeting and bickering waders but the land was essentially dry throughout the spring meaning that it’s potential was lost every year.
Alex’s neighbours, the RSPB, were happy to help out and came up with a fabulous design which would allow water to be held on the land throughout the spring effectively turning back time and re-creating the landscape more closely aligned to that which the Romans and Britons would have known when they fought each other across these acres.
Consultants from Ecological Development and Research helped put together documents needed to get consent from Natural England and the Environment Agency for the work to begin.
Finally consent was granted. Alex and his partners could then set about investing in new diggers and dumpers and could finally get to work to restore the marsh.
As a hands on Man Alex is paying for and doing all the work himself with the assistance of homeless man who he met and offered a job to.
He certainly is a bit of a hero and I am looking forward to seeing how the site develops and how the birds react next spring. When I visited a flock of 50 lapwing were already beginning to investigate. It is wonderful to see these iconic birds back prospecting in fields they disappeared from 50 years ago.
In my role running the North Kent Breeding Wader Project I will be offering support and advice to Alex over the coming months and years.
Writing reports is not usually one of my favourite jobs but I confess I have enjoyed spending the last month creating restoration plans for four Kent rivers, managed by the Upper Medway Internal Drainage Board.
I got to live, once again, those hot, sunny days exploring and could dream big plans to restore old meanders to straightened rivers, reconnect wet woodland to the river by lowering banks and stop pollution in its tracks. In my mind’s eye, I saw clean, healthy rivers full of fish and otters.
I know that in reality some of these dreams will be difficult to achieve. Persuading farmers to give up productive land to put back meanders is a hard sell. Persuading farmers that we need to slow flood waters by reconnecting channels to their flood plains is also hard and checking pollution when the Environment Agency is underfunded and under staffed is also a frustrating task but in other areas I do have the power to do some good.
Already I have spent a useful day with the IDB Operations Team removing the invasive plant Parrot’s Feather from the River Sherway near Headcorn. This plant had most likely been dumped from a garden pond into the channel from the Sherway Bridge and had begun to spread downstream. Left unchecked it would grow rapidly and clog the waterway causing potential flooding issues and blocking light from the water causing an eventual collapse of the ecosystem.
However towards the end of the month, Paul, Jordan and I spent an afternoon fastidiously picking every plant from a 200m stretch of the channel and placing it safely on the bank where it can dry out and not get washed back into the channel during high flows. It was a good opportunity to give the ground staff some in-field training which is far more memorable than classroom based courses and hand outs.
Hopefully the next few months will give me the chance to provide more training for the staff to help them identify bat roost features in old heritage trees, undertake pollarding and install woody debris in channels. This should set the team up nicely for undertaking some of the work to restore the rivers over the next few years.
I dropped in this afternoon. Into the sea. For the sheer, salty bliss of the thing.
Nearly November but unseasonably mild and the silty sands of the Swale have opened their pores to release their hidden warmth, as the tide seeped in.
Yes, yes, there were icicles, scooting down inside the skin, thin walls of my costume.
There was gooseflesh and wind chill and thoughts that it was madness, to swim in the sea so late in the year after all the other beach goers had wrapped in layers and leaned into the wind for the time ahead.
To look back at the summer gone and declare, “No, it is now. Still here, today.”
But me and this element have an understanding. Once we were one. Back in the salty eons when I breathed underwater and skippered my feet with webs between my toes.
I breaststroke out, guffawed at by gulls and piped onwards by oystercatchers.
I feel the cold no longer but, instead, the pull of the tide, leaving to a place I dare not follow.
I flip flop out, toasty and tingling and red skinned with exhilaration
I can do this. Swim in the sea with winter close on my tail.
And, if I can do this, then I can face the difficulties ahead.
the sea flotsams me onto the beach, polished bright once more.
Autumn always brings out the urge in me to gather in the harvest. It must be an inbuilt sense passed on through endless generations. A lowering of the light and the turning of the leaves clicks the internal switch to prepare. This year, with rising prices and warnings of a bleak chilly winter, I take delight in the cupboard full of jams and chutneys even though most of these will be forced into the hands of friends and relatives at Christmas whether they want them or not.
Part of me though just enjoys making these recipes for their own sake. It is a way of connecting with nature, making use of the bounty of this time of year and taking part in an age old ritual that we can still sense in our bones. But, what if, you’ve missed out? The plums are over, the pears have been eaten by the starlings and you have no idea where to lay your hands on a crab apple tree? Fear not. This is one autumn recipe that you can rustle up from a garden border that can carry the taste of summer into the darkest time of year.
You will need
4 cups of olive oil
1/2 cup of rosemary and 1/2 cup of lavender flowers (dried)
a bottle without a metal top
a fresh sprig of rosemary
Gently warm the olive oil in a pan but do not let it boil. Crush the rosemary and lavender to release the oil and add to the pan. Heat on a very low heat for 5 minutes and then allow it to cool.
Pour it into a bottle and add a sprig of fresh rosemary or lavender for decoration.
Use this oil to cook meat or potatoes or simple use it as a dipping oil with bread.
This glorious ash tree stopped me in my tracks on a road junction near the Smarden in Kent. It looked as if it had absorbed every moment of sunshine it had been given during the year and was casting it back as a last hurrah before winter.