Great and much needed day out yesterday with my beloved volunteers. Working with a crack crew of Simon Houstoun and Richard Yarwood, I helped build a rather marvellous kindling box from the tatty remains of old apple bins. It had the kind of patina that money just can’t by, complete with bent nails and bits of dry rot. We thought about selling it in Whitstable high street as a reclaimed retro artwork but decided to gift it to the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership instead.
Always love heading to the woods with my volunteer gang. Join me for a day of coppicing at Larkey valley outside of Canterbury.
Patrick Barkham sets out on a journey to some of the small islands of Britain, drawn by the story of the, near forgotten writer, Compton Mackenzie, who owned and lived on a series of small islands from the 1890’s.
Each island conjures up a different story which Barkham tackles with sensitivity. From island as tax haven, to island as religious retreat, to island as hedonist party zone he travels with a light touch and captures something true about each destination.
On the Island of Eigg, where I spent several weeks working last year, he navigates the choppy waters between the idealists who go there drawn by its environmental credentials and the determined drinkers who congregate at the pier and snub drink driving regulations. He understands instinctively, as maybe I didn’t, that small island life requires people to rub along together and forgive a multitude of personality quirks.
The book raises interesting questions as to the benefits island communities bring to the mainlanders who often heavily subsidise them and suggests that islands provide a pointer to the future as they champion sustainability, community and local heritage which provides a healthy counter balance to fast paced cities with their excessive consumption and social isolation.
Less successful, I felt, was the rendering of the story of Compton Mackenzie. Barkham chooses to visit islands which Mackenzie had no relationship with and ultimately doesn’t illuminate the artists draw to island life. The book I felt would have stood up just as well without this thread.
For me, the strength of this book is its excellent travel writing about little known places and its insight into the lives of the quirky British characters who choose to live in remote places. I loved the tale of the sisters guarding the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay and the nun in waders living a hermits life on Bardsey. I immediately added both these to my wish list of places to visit.
Barkham sketches the people of these islands magnificently but touches something deeper when he comes to rest on a strip of saltmarsh off the Essex coast. Here he recounts how the island lingers after he has left, etching into his skin like a tree ring to tell a story of one moment in his life.
Took a walk last Saturday with a friend across the downs. An early spring walk on a day of damp earth and hopeful bursts of sunshine.
We crossed Kearsney Park over a chalk stream full of childhood memory. Not my childhood but his. He showed me St Radigunds Abbey where the white friars had lived. A flint tower coated in ivy, the jackdaws calling. Brides must weep that they cannot be married by such romantic ruins.
Glorious Britain, for all your detractors, you shrug off such marvels as if they were nothing. You are so rich with abbey, castle and ancient church you forget about them and they are uncovered down every rural lane and behind every hedgerow.
We walked on, over the hills and down green lanes where tree creepers crept and early windflowers took flight. He showed me the map. I followed, trusting that he knew the way. The conversation spiralled down into the mossy earth. We talked of.. we talked of everything and stopped for lunch in a church to eat sandwiches with our feet resting on memorials to long dead horsewomen.
We swung through gateways, light stepped through the mud and descended through a woodland dusted with hazel catkins, muted and burnished, their subtlety punctuated with the skeletal branches of bare oaks rising like overlords. Through a valley, along a road, down to a pub for cider and crisps.
Such walks, such friendships are among the great blessings of life, part of the cycle of life, a person you meet through the centuries and walk with and share the tiny moments with. These tiny moments we can blink and miss but sometimes, some days you stop and pause and think, well, really, this is not so bad.
Making the wetlands wetter.
Despite, or more likely because of, a lack of rain over this winter and the beautiful but crazy heatwave at the end of February I am focussing my attention this year on plans to make the wet grassland of North Kent much wetter.
The Southeast struggles for sufficient rainfall and following the super dry summer of 2018 there is even more pressure on our rivers and wetlands as more water is abstracted from the natural environment for food production and the needs of the every increasing number of households.
Therefore we need to be able to preserve as much rainfall as we can on the marshes so they are wet enough in the spring to encourage waders to breed.
With this in mind I have spent the last month creating a series of wetland restoration plans alongside the farmers I work with. Google Earth has proved invaluable giving me a spy in the sky ability to whizz backwards in time across the land and see low lying spots where water naturally sits. By creating new rills and scrapes in these spots we can ensure that the fields stay wetter for longer into the spring and provide the conditions that lapwing and redshank need in order to successfully rear chicks.
Once farmers have approved the plans then the next step will be to get all the legal agreements in place to create a ‘ready to go’ project to present to outside funders.
It is a lot of work but is vital if we are to return waders to our marshes. To help I have taken on a student from Hadlow College. Matthew is in the first year of a Countryside Management degree with hopes of being an ecologist. I am delighted to welcome him to the team and help with his studies.
I am also delighted that the RSPB is looking to extend the work in North Kent for another 6 years and offer advice to even more farms. The Greater Thames Estuary is one of the priority areas in the RSPB’s Futurescapes project. Only by restoring large areas of land can we ensure a future for the UK’s wilWith this in mind I have begun reaching out to new landowners and was delighted to visit Kent Wildfowlers Cooling Marsh Reserve a few weeks ago.
This area is ideal for breeding waders as it lies adjacent to a large bay on the Thames which was created by managed realignment. The site is extremely open and flat but, like many other sites, struggles to hold water.
After walking the land with John Nottage and Ray Lucas from Kent Wildfowlers we sat around a pot bellied stove with dogs at our feet in a little hand built club house by the river and discussed ways we could help retain water on the marshes and improve the land for waders.
Many of the farmers I work with shoot and I don’t find this conflicts with managing the land for wading birds at all. I am very much hoping to get out to visit more Wildfowlers reserves and meet with more landowners next month.