On Chislet Marshes

by MLP

by MLP

As a child I always wanted to be a ‘naturalist.’ I pictured myself heading out for long days in the field with a net over my shoulder to catch all things which swam or flew and a hand lens on a strap around my neck to identify rare plants.

Surveying ditches for the Internal Drainage Board might not sound like such a thrilling occupation to some but it allows me to live my childhood dream. So yes, I get odd looks tramping through the undergrowth in a floppy hat and binoculars. So, yes, I am bored of hearing “Going fishing darling?” from ‘funny man’ dog walkers. Yes, yes, I have days where I spend hours fighting my way through thistle jungles and swaying from heat stroke but I also get to places that few other people are allowed to see, field edges, hidden copses, tangly brooks. I see private glimpses of wildlife, a hovering kingfisher, a cormorant, silver bubbled, slipping underwater in search of fish, sky dancing marsh harriers, wildlife with it’s back turned, not expecting to encounter a person out here where few are ever seen.

This is not a gentle stroll along a footpath, they are, as a friend recently said, ‘hard miles.’ but I love being out all day in the countryside, seeing no one and having a purpose. It is a privilege and I never forget it.

On Wednesday I was out on Chislet Marshes, a vast sea of wheat fields winding their way in from the sea, watched over by the eye of Reculver Towers ever present on the horizon. I had walked many miles along the reed fringed Shuart Dyke, testing the water quality, noting the diversity of plants, searching for water voles.

At lunch time I lay with my head on my bag on a wooden bridge covered with lichens and watched the clouds build and swell . Swallows skimmed inches above the water, almost grazing my chest as they crossed the bridge. I contemplated a skinny dip, fancying the prospect of baking myself dry on the sun warmed timbers beneath me, but the water had high nitrate content (I had tested it) and looked none to inviting. I knew from experience that even the loveliest looking streams could hold nasty surprises, having lowed myself into a brook last year I emerged with a leach stuck to my foot merrily sucking my blood.

Besides, I had already been caught  in a compromising position once that day. I go slightly feral on the marshes in the summer and forget what normal behaviour is. With no one to be seen for miles I had been having a wee quite out in the open when the seaside train to Whitstable had flashed past. I had quite forgotten about the railway line, hidden in a dip. The driver, and passengers got a vision which might scar them for life. Maybe I was becoming more of a naturist than a naturalist.



There was an old man that lived in the woods

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

Andre Van Beest spent 12 years living in a shack in Cobham Woods in Kent until he was evicted by the council in the 1980’s. Andre’s story struck a chord with me when I first read it one rainy afternoon on a microfilm of an old newspaper in Medway Archive Centre. He had bought his land, he had caused no one any harm, he had lived there with his goats and his dog and his geese and then one day he had received a letter from the council telling him he had to go and his house had been bulldozed to the ground.

Twenty years later I faced a similar plight when I was evicted from my caravan on the marshes having fallen foul of some planning law I never knew I had to comply with. I understand how it feels to lose your home in the most graphic fashion, to literally see it vanish before your eyes.

Andre in some ways was lucky. A family living in Iwade, a small village on the Medway, heard of his troubles and offered him and his animals land and a caravan. Later Selwyn and Ernestine Lawrence took Andre under their wing. He worked on their smallholding and together they planned to build a new cabin in the woods near their home.

Andre’s desire to escape to the woods was understandable when you hear his life story. Born to a Dutch man and a women from Belgium who met in the First World War. Andre started life with the misfortune of a cleft palate which, untreated, meant he could barely speak. Left in an British orphanage he spent the Second World War down the mines as a Bevan Boy. After the war he bought the land in the woods from Lord Darnley and retreated from society.

But although Andre’s life was full of bad luck he also met with kindness. The policeman who was forced to evict him, spent the rest of his life helping him and looking out for him. When the Lawrence’s first employed Andre the policeman visited them to make sure ‘they weren’t going to take him for a ride.’ People in Iwade took food to his camp on the pretence it was ‘for the animals.’ and the Lawrence’s, when Andre died in 2001, took his ashes back to Cobham Woods and scattered them on his former home. People were willing to show kindness and care to an outsider to act unselfishly to help another

This weekend I take off on the third leg of my journey for my book Estuary Life. I am walking the marshes between Rainham and Iwade and am meeting the people who helped Andre in the last years of his life. These people, like so many others on my trip, have treated me with the same generosity and kindness they showed to the old man in the woods. They have given up their time to talk to me, they have never met me but they have offered to let me stay in their homes.

We are all so absorbed and busy nowadays but this journey has restored my faith in the goodness of people. Twenty years after Andre was evicted from the woods people will still take the time to help a stranger who crosses their path.

Plum and Mulled Wine Jam

tasty plum jam with cherry beer brewing in the background

tasty plum jam with cherry beer brewing in the background

It’s harvest time and the hedgerows are bursting with so much fruit that I can’t keep up. Kent is blessed with many old orchards, some now abandoned or turned into community orchards where the fruit is available for anyone to pick. I scurried away from Iwade yesterday with a bag of Victoria plums with which to make this great recipe.

You Need

  • 1/8 kg or 41b of plums halved and stoned
  • 375 ml or 13flo oz of red wine
  • mulled wine spices – I used cinnamon, cloves and cardomen
  • orange zest
  • 1.8kg or 4 1b granulated sugar (but play with this it always seems too much to me)

Follow these instructions

Put the plums and wine in a large pan

tie the spices and orange zest into some muslin (or a old pair of tights)

Bring to the boil and simmer for about 15minutes until the plum skins are soft

remove the spice and add the sugar

boil rapidly for 10 minutes ( I gave mine a stir to stop it sticking to the pan)

test for a set (stick a dollop on a cold saucer and see if it wrinkles)

remove any scum from the top

pour the jam into warm sterilised jars and then seal

It can be stored for a year but once open put in the refrigerator and eat within 3-4 weeks