A pot of jam and a cabbage

I returned this week to visit some of the people I interviewed last year as part of my Estuary Life book. It was the first chance each person had to look at what I had written, a scary moment for me as well as them.

I have been very aware throughout the whole project how people have trusted me to let me into their homes and lives and reveal sometimes very private feelings about their situations so it was really important to me that they would like how I had portrayed them.

Along with the manuscript I bought each person a gift. What do you buy for people who have been so generous? In the end I bought them something related to their section of the story.

Angela at the shack in the woods

Angela at the shack in the woods

Angela Welford had opened up the plotland shack that her mother, the author Lena Kennedy, had built along with her husband in the 50’s. Afterwards, over lunch with her family, friends and neighbours, they had reminisced “It’s not like the old days, then people were always popping around with a pot of jam, or a cabbage from the garden.” so Angela’s gift was easy. A pot of my special plum and mulled wine jam and a cabbage, if not from my garden, at least personally selected by me from the supermarket.

12 a parting drink

enjoying Alex’s homebrew on board his boat

Alex, the houseboat owner and former Radio Caroline D.J. wouldn’t let me leave without trying his blueberry brandy. I returned the complement with a bottle of my homemade cherry brandy.

Martin Simpson had let me stay on his houseboat at the end of my first weekend’s walk. I turned up at his luxury home on a damp Bank Holiday, dripping onto the parquet flooring and barely able to string a sentence together, I was so exhausted. He had poured me a hot bath and fed me pie and beer. He looked quite delighted when I returned the compliment and sent me a text later that evening to tell me pie was delicious.

martin looking happy with his pie

martin looking happy with his pie

All three people were thankfully happy with their part in the story. Now it’s time to brave the agents.

Estuary Life – The Journey begins

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Estuary by MLP

After months of planning and research I am finally taking off tomorrow on the first leg of my walk across the North Kent Marshes for my book Estuary Life. First stop is going to be the church of St Mary’s where Charles Dickens daughter got married. This little church on the edge of the marshes is a very important and peaceful spot for me and it feels fitting to set off from here and ask for a safe journey as generations of pilgrims have done before.Higham church

From there I am heading to the former plotlanders settlement of Cliffe Woods to meet the daughter of writer Lena Kennedy at the last remaining plotland shack in the woods. After this I hope to spend some time with two women who have possibly done more to protect and save the marshes than anyone else. Joan and Gill run the campaigning group, Friends of the North Kent Marshes and having successfully defended their homes against the airport threat which plagued the area 10 years ago they are now heading the fight to prevent the destruction of the marshes by Boris Johnson’s island airport.

caravanHaving accosted a farmer on the marshes a few weeks back I then hope to visit my old caravan bought by Keith a local sheep farmer for his daughter. I haven’t stepped foot in my former home since I was evicted from the marshes back in 2007 so going home will be an odd experience. I hope to finish the day camping with my oldest and dearest friend at a secret location on the marshes.

Today in preparation I visited this spot and hid my sleeping bag, camping mat and some porridge oats, well wrapped up in several layers of plastic. I felt like I looked deeply and worryingly suspicious as I headed across country with a heavy bin bag slung over one shoulder, but thankfully I encountered no one.

Hopefully, despite a day of heavy rain, they will still be ok when I get to them tomorrow night. I sent my friend a message with instructions on where to find this bounty. “Go to the old witch tree and then up, where old meets new, there you will find my stash.” I’m keeping my fingers crossed that no nosy hound or badger finds it first and snaffles my porridge oats.

After my nights camping, I am  heading to the Medway and visiting Alex an eighty something houseboat owner and former DJ for Radio Caroline before taking a mammoth walk along the river, passing the location where Sir Francis Drake spent his childhood. By nightfall I hope to make Rochester where my friend Martin has promised me a sailors supper aboard his boat.

Alex and Martin

Alex and Martin

I am so excited to finally be setting out on this adventure and to begin the bigger adventure of writing my book.

 

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