All At Sea

065 Hoo marina

Houseboats on the River Medway

Following the sign to the Marina, I pulled up in the wind blasted car park and emerged to the lost soul howling of wind through rigging. A man emerged from a static caravan and stared at me silently.

“I’m here to meet Martin Simpson,” I said, feeling, however silently, he was demanding to know my status.

“You’re here to meet Martin Simpson,” he repeated, eyeing me in a way which made me feel I was dressed as a dog’s dinner not in jeans and a duffle coat.

He stomped away through the puddles to another porta cabin.

This was not the start to my journey I had imagined when I had decided to set out on a mission to meet people living in alternative homes on the North Kent Marshes.

Thankfully Martin arrived, full of jolly breeziness despite the bleak weather.

“The site manager,” he told me as we made our way through the houseboat marina along an assortment of wet gang planks and metal walkways above the mud, a scene reminiscent of Oliver Twist.

Martin on the gangway

Martin on the Gangway

At the end of the walkway we boarded Martin’s huge tanker, climbing down a steep wooden gangplank. The tanker was painted a sunny yellow and topped with a gravel beach.

“The neighbour’s cat uses it as a litter tray,”said Martin. We looked out from the deck towards the squat fort on Hoo Ness island and away to the right the coastline stretched to the industrial cathedral of Kingsnorth.

“You have the best view on the whole marina,” I said as widgeon paddled beneath us in the shallow and oystercatchers piped along the bay.

Martin looked at it sadly. He knew he did but still he was planning to move.

Down in the beautiful living quarters we settled down with cups of tea on the leather sofa and Martin told me the story.

The site owner had been making life increasingly difficult for Martin.

“He doesn’t like the fact that I have a lot of female friends. They’re just friends,” Martin emphasised “but now he’s stopped me having more than 4 people on here at once.” A rule, it turned out, applied only to Martin.

The previous summer Martin had used his prime position on the estuary to take others out kayaking, wanting to share the beauty of the area but recently friends had turned up in the car park to find a sign telling them that ‘Martin’s event is cancelled.’

“He’s jealous,” I suggested.

Martin shrugged. One of the other boat owners had given it to him straight but without malice. “You’re face doesn’t fit.”

To tell the truth it probably didn’t. Martin had come to living on a houseboat from owning a 5 bedroom house in the ritzy waterfront village of East Farleigh. Here he had owned a waterfront property and kept a boat for pleasure cruising across to the continent. A sticky divorce had left him financially on his uppers.

“Poverty brings a lot of people here,” he said “but they choose to stay.” Martin loved the way that living on the river confronted all your senses, the way the tide rose and fell, the light changed, the noises of water hitting the boat in the storm. “The water gives me energy,” he said. “It affects me, the tide changes and so does my mood.”

Martin had built his life back up, from living on, what had once been his pleasure boat, he had bought and renovated this tanker into a swish bachelor pad, using his skills as a builder and architect. Now he owned a portfolio of properties. He spoke proudly of being a ‘Bargee’, a river gypsy but I could see why maybe he didn’t blend with the other boat owners.

He was moving the boat in a few weeks to Rochester Bridge, to an upmarket marina where, he hoped, his face would fit better. Here he hoped to bring together his experience of property development and on board living to convince the council to take seriously his vision of building a series of houseboats which turned with the tide, offering ever changing views of the river. These boats could provide affordable accommodation for people in a natural setting.

“But you need to change people’s mindsets,” he said. “They see houseboat owners as the rougher end of society, they think we make the river look scruffy, but all I see is new waterfront developments stripping all the character and community from the river and building ugly concrete walls. I want to make people see that they need to support the bargee’s and their way of life.”

Martin was being positive about the move, he needed to change, to maybe sell the boat and create something new but, as he looked out of his windows across the expanse of the estuary and spoke of his love for this every changing landscape, he suddenly said “I’m going to have boats 6 foot away from me on either side in Rochester.”

Martin spoke of the river as one community, a community which ended at the shoreline and, as we walked back down the gangplanks to the car park, other boatowners, emerged, swathed in waterproofs and offered him help with acquiring the tugs he would need to help move the boat. There was community spirit here but it was still a community where one man’s mean spirit and inverted snobbery could drive another away from his home.

Martin on prow of boat

Snowing in the woods

image from talainsphotographyblog

image from talainsphotographyblog

Snowing in the woods.

As a child I had a book of nature with a picture of a mossy forest. The caption beside it read something along the lines of, ‘if we keep very quiet while in the woods creatures will begin to appear’. I sat by the fire for what seemed like hours, staring at that picture, thinking if I only looked long enough then something really would appear, a deer maybe or even a badger, the sort of half mythical creatures which had long ago vanished from our suburban scrub patches which passed as woodland. Ok, so maybe I was a little slow on the uptake, or had sat by that fire too long and my brain wasn’t quite getting the fact that I was looking at a page in a book not really sitting in a woodland but still, even now, that picture casts the same spell.

This photo from Talainsphotographyblog have the same affect. If I look long enough and am quiet enough and want it enough then the twigs in the distance will part and something, just something will step into view.

The Man In The Woods

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

As a child I was always fascinated by the ‘Man that lives in the woods.’ Wherever you lived there always seemed to be one. Know matter how big or small or urban the wood there was always a local legend of a guy (never it seems a girl) who was living there. The camp of the ‘Man in the woods’ was always a source of fascination something to be hunted down and dared to approach. The ‘Man in the woods’ always had an element of danger of the unknown an otherworldly aura to be pitied but also somehow envied.

My childhood books were full of this character in various guises. Enid Blyton’s ‘The Children of Cherry Tree Farm.’ featured Tammylan who befriended wild animals and lived off root soup. Clearly a man ahead of his time he believed in direct action for animal rights abuses and almost ‘shook the head off,’ a local ruffian who injured a bird. BB’s ‘Brendan Chase.’ not only had Smokoe Joe who lived in a woodburners hut but also three boys who ran away from school to set up camp amongst the trees for the summer. These boys would have been men after my own heart if they didn’t pass their time killing badgers and raiding honey buzzard nests. Lucky for them they did not run into Tammylan or their holidays may have been cut short!

Our local ‘Man in the Woods’  stood outside the bakers, dressed in an assortment of clothes given to him by passing shoppers, hoping someone would by him a pasty. Someone always did. He was crazy and unkempt but harmless and something of a local celebrity, our own personal Elm Park hermit who was looked after, in rather a ramshackle way, by the local community. He was rumoured to have a camp in the woods close to my house. I searched for it but rather half heartedly, fearing perhaps that the reality would not live up to my Enid Blyton fuelled fantasy.

Now I am not the hunt once again for stories of the man in the woods as I begin to research people who choose to live in unconventional homes for my book ‘Estuary Life.’

People who live outside of the rules understandably tend to keep a low profile but I hope this year to find them, track down the yurt dwellers, hut dwellers, shack dwellers, boat dwellers, hermits and outsiders and find out what bought them here. In doing so I hope to understand my own, enduring fascination with this way of life and learn if there is still a place in the 21st century for those who chose to step outside of the rules and take to the woods

Estuary Life

my caravan on the marshes

my caravan on the marshes

Despite the dismal weather then my planned walk across the North Kent Marshes with literary agent Joanna Swainson and her partner, writer, TV producer and composer Nick Russel-Pavier went well.

We were there to discuss my idea of a book following a walk across the estuaries of North Kent, entwining my own experience of living in a caravan on the marshes with those of others living in similar unconventional homes.

The rain battered us from all sides and the site was a quagmire but the pair of them were lovely and enthusiastic and declared they loved walking in the rain. I showed them the spot where my caravan used to sit beneath the willow tree, a world which has now vanished.

I took them to the marshes and fed them home made cherry brandy, the sun came out and we were dazzled by flocks of lapwings, hunting marsh harriers and distant, smoke blown gatherings of starlings. They were keen on my idea as are other agents. The world briefly shone.

Now I just have to go away and write the damn thing.