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 Blue Mermaid had just headed up river as we began to carefully stow all our kit into Magwitch, examining every item for the unwelcome brown tailed moth caterpillars encountered in huge numbers on Darnet. My arms, neck and legs were already beginning to show signs of the skin irritation caused by their toxic hairs, as Carol and I vigorously shook our tents and quickly packed them – to prevent any re-infestation near ‘emigration control’ on the narrow strip of shingle where Magwitch was waiting and where we made our leave.
Looking back from just offshore, we could see much of the flora around the fort had been devoured. The white cloud of hawthorn flowers I remember wrapped about the curve of the fort entrance on my last visit in 1998, looks now like a thing of the past. The entire thicket has been eaten to death and blossom replaced by cottony communal caterpillar tents woven about their twigs. Other plants were so densely covered in caterpillars they fell off leaves for lack of room. I saw scores falling into the water surrounding the fort where their long hairs kept them afloat, before drifting to shore and tenaciously climbing back over the mud to start eating again. One or two even tried eating me. There have been other documented outbreaks like this, but their numbers in consequent years decline as nature somehow redresses the balance.
It makes me wonder about our own viral spread across the planet as our 7.5 billion souls are predicted to increase to over 9 billion in the next 30 years unless we learn some self control or a Gaian spirit finds other ways to govern us. Is Covid19 part of nature’s master plan I thought, as I increased the throttle to counter a turning tide in Gillingham Reach and where we caught up with the Blue Mermaid.
She was anchored not far from the rusty John H Amos steam paddle tug boat, which has been awaiting restoration on the waterside for many years. I was put in mind of JMW Turner’s painting ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ of 1838, where a ghostly veteran sailing ship from the Battle of Trafalgar, is being towed to be broken up by a fiery steam tug in an allegory of the modern world replacing the old; but on this bit of the Medway in 2021 sail has outlived steam, wind outlasted coal.
We could have used a sail later, when the engine stopped for want of petrol and we had a frantic paddle to a nearby buoy to refuel. Then suddenly it seemed, No8 Slip was off the port bow and we were almost back. We could have both happily stayed down river for far longer and ‘Escaping with Magwitch 2’ is going into our diaries soon – but in a season with no caterpillars and no nesting birds.
Darnet Fort is on the edge of the deep water channel used by all the boats and ships using the docks, moorings and marinas of the Medway and I enjoy watching them pass, whilst gazing out through a casement window of 10 inch thick steel daubed with a dot, dot, dot, dash and V for victory. The morse code reference probably dates it as a leaving present from the Observation Corps stationed here in WW2 when they left their isolated outpost for a final time after victory in 1945.
It’s easy to imagine Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory passing this spot en-route from the old Royal Dockyard in Chatham (where she was built and repaired) to Cape Trafalgar in 1805 for another famous victory. Meanwhile the opening ‘da – da – da – daaa’ of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which was written at around the same time, has got annoyingly lodged in my mind and won’t go away.
I can remember this same ‘graffiti’ from my visits in 1998 when I stepped outside to photograph a V formation of Canada Geese. After contemplating the meaning of victory, winning, success and achievement, it made me wonder more about exactly what in the world is being lost…
I was awake all night, first following the Moon (see the instagram feed), before transferring allegiance to the sun, which finally showed above the horizon at around 5am and threw its pink glow onto the grey granite interior of the fort. Bird song from the marsh without, had its counterpoint of blackbird and pigeon calls from within, with no breath of wind to interrupt or distort. I have hours ‘in the can’ to play with 🙂
I came close to crushing a clutch of herring gull eggs for the second time in eight years today, while Carol and I were exploring the perimeter of the fort on Darnet Island (The first time was on the Beaulieu River in 2013 when I was planning the live-work with nature project that became the Exbury Egg – www.exburyegg.me). I managed (both times) to step away, but I now can’t stop thinking again about the fragility of both these nesting sites and of nature in general, as we bestride the planet in our great size nines.
As sea levels rise and south east England slowly dips into the sea, the lower more remote parts of this and other nearby marshes frequently go under on high spring tides. It was particularly affecting to watch and hear the cries of over 200 pairs of gulls on Bishops Ness off to the east, as today’s flood tide washed through and over their nests. They settled down as the tide went out, but Carol’s more expert view than mine is that they will now have to start again. Yet there are high tides every month and the climate change we create will drive them higher.
Such is the pressure on these poor creatures that they are now nesting on the higher ground more frequently visited by people. What to do about the eggs we found today? They were still warm. Will the adults return? We kept finding more, ever closer to the fort itself and even upon it (we think the oyster catchers have colonised the roof). Should we even be here at all? We need to find a good and effective answer.
I couldn’t sleep more that a few winks last night as I was in thrall to the full moon once more; from its rising (a little blurry, unfocused and orange) to a shining ‘star’ brightening the heavens and touching the land and river with cool, clear light as it drew the tide in. With tide, the ships came as they always have. I remembered a drawing made on this very spot, of another full moon one cold December in 1997, when a coaster passed by with a festive tree attached to the foremast, full of sparkling coloured lists. Later, in September the following year, I invited a small group of people to join me to celebrate the full moon and was brought the gift of an amazing cake to mark the moment. Happy days… and nights.
“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.
Carol was thrilled to find an almost complete clay pipe as we slowly combed the salt marsh, tuning in to the colours and shapes of the ground below our feet to identify anything out of the ordinary. I got a distinct second prize with a 19th century glass bottle stopper, but contented myself in the end, with a colourful collection of plastic rings – including bottle tops, ring pulls, pipes, washers, a pen and shotgun cartridge. It was good in this small fashion to help de-litter the foreshore and focus my mind on the conceptual circles and cycles of moon and tide which they interfere with and injure. We have now both got our souvenirs of times past and present.
In another 200 years will some future beachcomber pounce with relish on a rare sprite bottle cap in the same way we now love to find the waste and litter of yesteryear? Or will our hunger for petroleum based products so raise global temperatures that there will be no Medway marsh islands left to walk on at all, nor space for the already declining wildfowl to breed or roost.
After leaving the Dockyard from No.8 Slip, a gusting south westerly comfortably drove us along, until the river curled south and east toward Gillingham Reach and we were hit broadside on by three foot waves. The Army could easily cope in their seven metre RIBs and 70hp engines, but a 3.1m Magwitch and a 3.5hp outboard, was at its limit. Laden with fuel, water, food, tents, sleeping bags and toilet bucket it was getting uncomfortable and seeking shelter, I turned the boat about at Hoo Ness to skirt the more sheltered northern shore across the shallows of Hoo Flats. We then ran out of fuel and had to paddle like fury to reach land – as the wind and receding tide tried its best to suck us out to Middle Creek.
Whilst the squalls stood off for a while and circled around our camp, we managed to erect our tiny tents and staved off the cold with welcome flasks of hot tea and coffee and Carols’ pre-prepared tuna and cheese sandwiches. It felt as luxurious as tea at the Ritz.
Sharp shards of glass (not what you need with an inflatable) on the foreshore, did not feel entirely welcoming and we found most everything growing ashore was well provided for with plentiful prickles and thorns, as we walked over the island to visit my old friend from the 1990s – Hoo Fort.
Its defensive ditch was surrounded by a thicket of brambles, hawthorn, nettles, thistles and even spiky new sprouts of primitive teasels that did their best to bar our entry. I’m sure there were other less ‘well armed’ plants there, but my lacerated legs (I’d foolishly worn shorts) definitely coloured initial impressions. After getting through this terrible tangle, knee deep fetid water around the fort entrance (guarded by hundreds of mosquitoes) was about ten unpleasant steps too far. We looked longingly through two huge partly open steel clad doors and reluctantly decided this complete world in little would save for another time.
Instead we went to a broken backed wreck on the eastern shore, where salty winds and briny water were transforming a once staunch steel hull into frail layers of iron oxide, before crunching our way down across a carpet of shells and shingle to Folly Point; its tall steel beacon a blanket of mussels below the waterline and the mussels themselves encrusted with barnacles and all wrapped around with fronds of murky brown bladderwrack. Life was clinging on.