Darnet became our island home during our trip. I look at it now, from across the water in the Medway towns and I miss it.
The island has worked its magic, as islands often do. I stand at the gun emplacement window looking across the saltmarsh. I have been here how long? Half hour? Maybe more. Thinking of….nothing, just watching the sailing boats head out to sea and the terns fold their wings and dive for fish before emerging with a splash. The tide drifts in and, somewhere in the distance I can hear a cuckoo calling the hour away on Hoo Ness.
Outside, on the mainland I know it’s Friday. I can see real life carrying on. Lorries rush along the road to Grain, the never ending grind of sound from the building sites around Hoo St Werburgh can be heard across the water. In the Medway towns, people shop in face masks, drink lunchtime beer in pub gardens, race through office work so as to finish early for the weekend. It’s all out there and I know I must return but, just for now, I can stand at the window of my island fortress, doing nothing, peaced up to the nines.
We are leaving the island, only for a few hours but we fear invaders will colonise during our absence. Not the hoards of invasive brown tailed moth caterpillars that swarm over every item we leave on the ground. No, those invaders were here first. We fear human Invaders. The island has become home.
“I’m going upstairs to fetch the water,” Steve says, referring to our fortress kitchen reached by crossing the moat on a scaffold plank that bounces and squeeks when you cross. On day one we edged across gingerly, now we are as sure footed as mountain goats. We have become Kings of a castle we both want to buy, secretly plotting to out bid each other for our 11 room villa with 360 degree river views at a mythical property auction we will one day attend with mythical savings we do not yet have.
I am queen bee of this hive, regally waving at passing sailing boats from my eerie as I keep watch on the channel.
We are reluctant to leave but keen to explore so we pack the things we least want stolen, binoculars, water and cooking equipment and heave Magwitch into the water, paddling slowly away before starting the motor.
We round the island, passing the silent cranes of Kingsnorth. It is not yet high water, I hang over the front of the boat checking depth with an oar as Steve guides us under one jetty and towards the broken struts of Jetty B.
The old wooden and metal pier has been hammer punched by wind. Twisted sections of wood and iron are strung out across the channel like a broken chain of French knitting
The oystercatchers are patrolling. These are the real Lords of the Estuary. On land I rarely see chicks but here a pair patrol every high mark and mud hummock. They pipe, pipe day and night, strutting in courtly dances, head down, back flattened. They march along the roof of the fort calling from beaks the colour of blood oranges.
We duck beneath the jetty, a broken sea creature, twisted in its death throws, beyond is the rusting remains of a German U-boat, spoils of war. destined to be cut up for scrap but somehow spared this ignominious fate. Now it rests in a slowly sinking mud coffin. A tourist destination that even Google maps recognises.
The tide is leaving us, the wind is picking up, water breaks across the bow. Jet skies churn past us at alarming speed, their riders lost in their own adrenalin rush. Magwitch is tossed around on a fair ground ride.
“There’s home,” Steve calls. The waves calm, terms skim low into the wind. The oystercatchers rush out.
“It’s our river, our island,” they call.
It seems we are the ones who are invading.
We are not wanted, that much is clear.
They haven’t got the memo, the sea pies, geese and gulls.
failed to get up to speed with the growing consensus that People Need Nature.
or maybe it is us that has failed to read the memo. Nature doesn’t need us. Doesn’t want us.
“Clear off, get lost,” the oystercatchers and greylags shout. “Get off our patch,” the herring gull cry.
“Be gone,” the caterpillars signal in shadow play, even as they attempt to crawl into our tents.
If i could understand the clap of a butterfly wing or the chemical message released into the wind by the sea purslane crushed beneath my boots I’m sure I would hear the same.
What are we to do, us, the great invaders, colonisers of islands?
Do we attempt negotiations? Draw up a peace treaty? Give ground? Withdraw to our cities and leave the wilds to the wildlife?
Do we attempt to bring it with us? Make space for it around our concrete fortresses? Create that feeling we get from nature in our own backyard?
What is this future deal we must sign? Because sign a pact we must.
We Need Nature but if we can’t meet its terms then all sides will lose.
The birds rose at high tide, fluttering above the island as their nests disappeared under water. There was a panic emanating from the gull colony on Bishop’s Ness which carried across the water and reached us as we stood helplessly on the island fort watching it’s demise.
I felt the panic touch me too as it would if I was watching a human tragedy unfold. I could feel the birds distress, the weeks of courting and competing for nest sites, the laying and chasing of predators. The energy expended on producing those eggs, now lost.
Later, as the tide recedes, the island reappears as if the flood had never been. Out on the saltmarsh, the ground is dandruff speckled once more. The gulls are back. The season is short, they are trying again.
“it doesn’t take long,” I say to Steve, “before you go entirely feral.”
I am sitting on the causeway of Horrid Hill with a chunk of (vegan warning) Spam on the point of my knife, holding the rope tethering our boat Magwitch to the shore. I am windswept, salt worn, fingernails black from wood fired. The people walking past gog at me.
A women passing wearing vibrant lipstick calls, “I love boating, what a great life.”
You wouldn’t look so glamorous if you were boating, I think but she is right, I love this life too.
After days of hauling anchors and dragging boats across shingle I feel fitter and more energetic than I have in months. Wood and water are precious resources on the island and I enjoy the discipline of living within my means. I am hushed to sleep by the sound of the tide and awoken by oystercatchers. I feel I am back where I belong, maybe where, tucked inside us, we all belong, working to the rhythms of nature.
I may never have looked worse sitting there on the causeway, hair windswept, face scrubbed clean but I have rarely cared less what other people think. I am not selfy ready but I take one anyway to record this moment in which true contentment lays.
We cast off and head out on the river in the brief gap between showers. Steve looks a little nervous as the heavily laden inflatable boat, christened Magwitch, is buffeted by the winds and I realize I forgot to pack the sea sickness tablets.
The river is busy with Monday morning activity. Orange and white dredgers churn up river with the tide and the army are out, giddying in circles as they practice manoeuvres. Cool men in Ray bans and camouflage ignore my cheery wave. As we tack across the channel towards Hoo Ness Island waves break across the bow drenching me in buckets of salt water, my hat flies off and as I go to retrieve it, I’m ingulfed in diesel fumes. But still, I’m excited. After the boredom of winter lockdown and a wet, cold Spring, we’re are venturing forth into the light once again.
we make landfall using oar power and set off to explore, ploughing through nose high Alexander’s which release their oily sweetness as we pass. Showers fly across the sky, we are drenched, we are hot and blackbirds sing again after the rain.
Steve was last here in 1995 when he spent weeks camping in Hoo Fort. He is keen to show me the graffiti that he carefully documented. We find a path through the blackberry thickets but, at the entrance door to the fort we find a flooded moat. All we can see is a tantalising glimpse through the open door of a fern dripping staircase leading to the upper floors. The fort is marooned, with the oystercatcher sentinels and battalions of mosquitoes circling in the stagnant water.
“I’m tempted to wade across,” Steve says.
So am I but I point out the bleeding bramble scratches on his legs and those mossie clouds.
“No point getting legionnaires disease, on day one,”I say pragmatically.
Beginning at the window left of the gang plank.
Tide arching in. Deep water channel. V for victory. Dot, dot,dot dash.
Normarsh. Two Brent geese flying past. Wren singing crystal bright from deep in the bramble.
Towards the saltings . Gulls rising, geese crying, Steve drawing.
A tangle of bramble. A slice of blue sky, cranes silenced, dipped in reverence towards the winds.
Kingsnorth, or what’s left of it. Scene of climate crusade. Gordon’s chimney now just a memory.
A tangle of bramble, a slice of blue sky, enough to make a pair of sailors trousers.
African women heading to market along our Medway shores.
Free the weed, shimmering mudflats, the winding channel heading to Hoo.
Hoo Fort, orange dredgers and urban sprawl.
The ladder to the roof. A field of valerian. Steve evicting caterpillars from his tent.
A notepad left behind. Pigeons singing Gregorian chants,a Capella style while oystercatchers cry protest into the winds.