On a journey to the Isle of Grain in 2016, I beat the bounds of Grain Power Station, at the limits of its edges where some of the most interesting material rose up, a latter day parochial official in the form of the stalker. This was in the twilight years of the power station, when it was mothballed and being dismantled.
The site commanded generous quantities of Grain’s marshes accommodating the turbine house and boiler, with additional structures such as the pump house, connecting pylons hemmed in by metres of chain link fencing.
The fences were increasingly straining to keep the boundary in check; holes were regularly punched in them, sections were rolled up like a window blind for slithering bodies to crawl underneath, plants were consuming the mesh at alarming rates and becoming alive with the susurrations of birds. I walked between these perforated boundaries on a redundant service road to the power station that wound behind its main bulk and skirted the old Coastguard Cottages ‘designed to combat smuggling’ (Carpenter). Here an isolated Portacabin with the words ‘Welfare Unit’ on the side of it could be seen inside the boundary marker of the chain link fence.
The cabin was sealed up, and it sat in a rough piece of land, overgrown with brambles, enclosed by fencing with a dangerous pit to the left of it that had been sealed off with scaffold poles. The scene was reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s film, ‘Stalker’ when Stalker, Writer and Scientist move across the railway tracks and through an automatic barrier towards the zone, a restricted area, and come under fire from border guards. Where the lens of Alexander Knyazhinsky’s camera achieves a strange beauty in presenting the landscape in ‘Stalker’ with lush greens of the grass and mosses in the zone, similarly, a wilderness of common plants and weeds have enshrouded the edges of the welfare unit (Le Fanu, 1987: 101-103). The sulphurus landscape is contaminated not only by the power station but by the memories of the welfare unit, an impossible refuge where no one can reach it, it is locked and sealed, keeping distressing memories inside.
I returned to the site of the Welfare Unit this year in August, on a perfect summer’s day with the tide out and the estuary mud, a palette of soft greys and mauves with ships far out on the horizon. It was mid summer holidays but it was deserted and I was alone in this fascinating place. I headed along the seawall, walking on the cockleshell shingle, imbibing the fragrances of salt and mud. I was keen to return to the unit, to see if it continued to emit an atmosphere.
Previously I had experienced the unit at a distance but I now found a large hole in the fence and was able to get in to the site. In 2016, the unit was closed but now it had been opened up and inside, the portacabin had been burnt out and vandalised. The floor was covered in old insulation, soft underfoot and there was the remains of a fixed table and chairs in the centre. Metal openings were now permanently open and plants such as bramble and wild rose were slowly consuming the cabin from outside in.
My question was, whether there was an atmosphere here? In 2016, I sensed an atmosphere from the periphery of the landscape, looking in at the portacabin. Now as I entered into this place, I experienced an atmosphere, both in the area around the portacabin and as I stepped inside it. The land around the cabin was a wasteland, part of the old infrastructure of the power station but long since abandoned. Redundant equipment lay on the ground, where plants were beginning to re-wild the area. In front of the cabin was a rectangular concrete channel encased in scaffolding poles. The water in the channel full of weed, now had a collection of waste objects in it; a grit bin, off cuts of wood and an orange life belt. As I peeked over, a disturbance in the water announced a frog, basking in the warm sun on a plastic platform. The water must have been part of the cooling mechanism that collected water from the estuary and piped it to the power station.
The cabin entrance was choked with brambles but once through the thorny barrier, I reached the interior, blackened and ransacked. I was reminded of the proximity of this landscape to dark histories, of smuggling, prison hulks and remote communities cut off by the water borne marshes. The academic Mary Douglas had described how these marsh areas were historically known as black spots due to the prevalence of diseases including the ague, now known as malaria (Douglas, 2002) Although these diseases had largely disappeared due to regular spraying of the marsh, their mythical status still lingered on. The black spot was still in evidence in Grain, in the form of a charred and burnt out portacabin.
Le Fanu, M. (1987) The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky London: BFI Publishing
Douglas, PM, & Douglas, M 2002, Purity and Danger : An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo [Online] . At: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucreative-ebooks/detail.action?docID=171375
(Accessed on 12.02. 2019)