A Walk on the Isle of Grain

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The Isle of Grain, the furthest tip of the Thames estuary, operates between a schism of expansive landscape that invites exploration and dead ends that constantly interrupt the flow of navigation. As I drove to Grain in late November with my good friend, poet and filmmaker, Rick Goldsmith I was reminded of this. We passed through the industrial zone that is locked down with security paraphernalia deterring the attentions of eco terrorists and wandering artists with notions of documenting this Tarkovsky like zone (an incident of photographing the strange scenes from the public highway at this very spot, got me into an awkward situation with the police last year). We emerged into the hinterlands of Grain village, the edges of which butt up against the boundaries of the power station and deep sea port. We drove into the car park at Cockleshell Beach, the end point of our road trip from the borders of Wales and England. Here in a kind of pseudo 80’s Bodie and Doyle episode, we lingered amongst the transit vans and dog walkers to meet up with the writer Iain Sinclair and the filmmaker, Andrew Kotting. Iain had kindly agreed to meet and walk with me on this strange outpost of the Thames estuary along with Andrew, one of my Ph.D. supervisors and long term friend and collaborator of Iain’s. Rick a native of Stanford Le Hope, gallantly agreed to come and wander around the place and offer his responses to a place he’d known at distance across the watery divide of the Thames in his childhood.

From a transit van next to us emerged two men dressed for the rough terrain and climate of Grain like two modern day Dickens’ characters, full of colourful language evoked in the guttural estuary inflection, ready to combat vermin and targets with an air rifle. I wondered at the accents of the local populus of Grain in the 19th century. We get a sense of it in the dialect of Dickens’ character, Jo Gargery in Great Expectations – “Pip, old chap! You’ll do yourself a mischief. It’ll stick somewhere. You can’t have chawed it, Pip.”A recent episode of Word of Mouth on R4 discussed the way Shakespeare’s plays would have sounded in the original context and it was fascinating to think about how the sounds of vernacular language have shifted and changed as much as the infrastructure of the landscape. The progression of this auditory nature of the spoken word though has all but been lost and there are limited clues to its form and sound.

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We headed along the beach in the direction of Allhallows where Iain sought out the first of many barriers. This one was a military metal obstruction stopping us from walking further along the beach because the land beyond was restricted. Although no humans could enter it, according to Iain, cattle regularly grazed there and he wondered if these were ever used as targets? We followed the line of the fence up to a strange quarry where he and Andrew were keen on tracking down a tree they had used in Andrew’s film, Swandown. The tree duly obliged and appeared in the distance but it caused some hesitation as Iain and Andrew were sure it was originally standing on an island of land but now had a grand bank of marsh grass to luxuriate in. As the issue of the tree was debated we continued walking up a small hill and emerged into a porous surface of sand with micro hillocks sprouting fresh grass. In the centre loomed a lone air rifle propped up and attending to a target were the two men we had previously seen in the car park. A conversation was struck up, primarily by Andrew who was interested in the ultimate potential of this target practice. The two men postulated upon a few rabbits, with the juicy possibility of clearing some agricultural land locally of vermin and pests. What the extent of the vermin might consist of was never fully explored but it was all discussed in a very pragmatic and jocular manner. A bit of recreational killing outside of the day job.

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We entered a bizarre swamp land with bright green algae and trees submerged, that might have been in Florida. Behind the swamp, were domestic houses reminding us of the close proximity of these interchangeable zones of industry/domestic/wild spaces. Things got decidedly hostile as we entered an overgrown pathway of brambles, reeds and willow that slapped and tore at clothing and our bodies. We emerged, thorns embedded into weatherproof jackets tested in laboratories for endurance, onto the asphalt of a minor road. At this point there was discussion about which way to walk. East was towards the monolithic power station whilst to the west was the elusive London Stone, a marker of the point where the river becomes sea. I requested we go towards the stone and so we walked in the direction past land owned by Marconi for angling activities. Iain recounted a story about some Marconi employees who committed various gruesome suicides under rather depressing circumstances and suddenly the unease of the landscape became more visceral and a reminder of how it swirls and surfaces through the narrative of Conrad, Dickens and films such as The Long Memory.

Walking towards the London Stone we passed various signs that overtly identified land locked down for private or military concerns, deterring interlopers such as ourselves. Ignoring the black silhouette of a man crossed through with a red line, we continued and as we walked, a large tract of water, Yantlett Creek came into view. This was the bisection that created the original Island of Grain and was variously filled in or opened up over the centuries: a watery boundary that was constantly shifting. Yantlett Creek featured in one of the scenes of a film called The Island made by B.P. in 1952 about the construction of an oil refinery on Grain. The engineers were busy filling in fleets and draining sections of land for the storage of Persian oil ready to be refined. Perhaps nothing had ever reached such perfection in Grain since?  In fact, much of this area was recognisable from scenes in the film. Ahead of us we could see large silos, lumps slouching in the landscape and a line of pylons loftily gazing out towards the decommissioned Kingsnorth Power Station, needles holding latent buzzing threads of electrically charged cable. The land stretched out at this point and became a breathable space, a vista typical of the Hoo Peninsula. The dark flat wilderness and low leaden line of the river of Dickens’ prose. As we walked Iain reflected upon his initial visit to explore this space many years ago. He came across ‘..this astonishing landscape, so cut off.” He had come here ‘looking for a place where someone would really hide out, get off the map’ for a book he was writing called Radon Daughters.

Our walk finished back at Cockleshell Beach car park and as Iain and Andrew departed, Rick and I wandered down to the low light of dusk, capturing the dying moments of luminescence of the day as Grain disappeared with every evaporating particle. On the cusp of darkness it suddenly became exquisite and fragile; the place for hiding out, mute and shrouded in a cloak of inky black.

 

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