Walking with Graeme Miller on 19 June 2014

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Greenhithe to Swanscombe Peninsula

I am walking with Graeme Miller, who walked into my life some years ago with such a vibrant intelligence that I was determined to keep him in it. Sending a 40 Walks invitation in 2009 and holding him to delivering on it proved to be a successful strategy.

I haven’t seen Graeme for a few years and when he meets me at Bethnal Green, there’s a brightness in his smile and a lightness in his step. It’s a contagiously joyful and enthusiastic energy. Graeme seems to be buzzing with life, alive as the teeming city around us. We drive across the Thames in the heat of the morning sun and on to Greenhithe, Kent, parking the car in a cosset of pendulous purple-haze buddleia. Down at the Thames estuary, the tide is out and mudflats traced by snaking rivulets. Crisped seaweed on the pier remarks the tidal swells. To our distant west, the Dartford Bridge stretches impressively between the river’s banks (139,000+ vehicles per day). To our near east, a newly built housing complex, showing just how extensive the regeneration of this area is. The Thames, as Graeme points out, literally pointing to the few boats going up and down, is still a working river. But only just, only sparsely. Imagine what the river traffic would have been like last century? (Graeme himself, with his long history of making work about land, has more recently become a water man. He is restoring a boat which he will soon put back onto the water, learning new skills of naviation.)  Though there’s not much on the river, Graeme’s attention rests on what might be described as a floating scrap store. “Need a section of steel piping? I know just the place” – though getting it out from under all the other steel pipes might take skill. In contrast to the floating scrap yard, the banks of the housing estate are neatly trimmed, though we appreciate that some wild-grass edgelands have been left to blossom in yellows, pinks and purples.

The low tide affords us rich pickings on the shoreline too – quite a few coconuts, fake (plastic) garden topiary, a shuttlecock, water-weathered timber, tautened thick ropes, gleaming white chalk chips from the land, multi-coloured plastics. The housing development ends suddenly – some of it not yet finished and so unoccupied – and we step into another sort of landscape, a commons with tall grasses, just a strip cut to allow walkers and their dogs. A child’s large pink toy car sits incongruously on the mud flats, looking as if parked there carefully and deliberately, waiting for its owner to return and drive it away again. A pleasure yacht tacks up the river. Wooden groynes, slowly rotting away, look like jagged sharks’ teeth, jutting up viciously from the sand. The Broadness Marshes are pretty dried out, a brown needled Christmas tree stranded when a wash receded. In the distance stands the UK’s tallest electricity pylon (190 metres) – its sister towering on the opposite bank in Essex.

We walk over, around, through what would once have been a large industrial site, concrete foundations and rail tracks still visible in places. Most striking, though, is the re-appropriation of the land by nature – banks of wildflowers seemingly perfectly co-ordinated in their hues like a paint colour-chart of various shades of pink that subtly become purple that in turn become blue. Even the graffiti seems to be colour-matched to its background. The climbing plants have opportunistically turned the industrial leftovers into garden furniture – old ladders an ornate arch for ivy, barbed wire a structure for curlicue foliage. The rusting, industrial ironwork is softened through floral embraces.

Following the edges of the Marshes we wind our way towards the formidable pylon. Its fretwork is, to my eye, beautiful; precisely symmetrical and disorientatingly chaotic all at the same time. Standing at its dead centre, tilting my head back to look up, I feel the thrill of reverse vertigo (the same sort of feeling I had when I experienced Graeme’s installation, Beheld). On the other side of the pylon, an equally stunning though natural feature – a field thick, almost rolling, with waves of purple-blue vetch. The colour and shape of the flowers remind me of bell heather.

At the next curve in the land, we have reached the tip of the Swanscombe Peninsula. On the edge of the river, across the indent of water, a small figure sits fishing, alone, the background hulk of a massive car transporter making him look even more vulnerable. This Peninsula enfolds something of a magical secret – the Broadness Marsh Moorings. These moorings provide a home – literally and figuratively – to the boatmen whose boats are sheltered here. Perched on the edges of the piers, in various states of precariousness, are huts, shacks, shelters. The sturdiest is a caravan, with its own landscaped garden (resting place of much-loved pets too, we think, noticing the wooden crosses in the ground). The most fitting to its context is the modest hut with a chimney flume poking through the roof and well-kept yacht moored at the front door. The humour of this peninsula community is signalled by the Post Office sign attached to the door of another hut. Some of the buildings, if that’s what they can be called, are sinking slowly to a watery grave. It’s a hotchpotch architecture, fascinating, alluring and utterly unexpected.

Graeme tells me that planning permission has been granted to Paramount for the construction of a massive theme park on these Broadness Salt Marshes. What a shame. What a crime. But one thing is certain. When the theme park has itself turned to dust in a post-leisure, bankrupt landscape, the flowers and grasses will return. And maybe, too, moorings such as this one, places hunkering down and nesting unnoticed in the margins of over-consumption. Places where different ways of living are imagined and lived.


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