On Thursday, I walked north-west from Swale railway station across the grazing marshes that fringe the Medway to the west of Sheppey. I endured a wild arctic wind but under the brightest of blue skies. Keeping to the lee of flood banks helped. I hoped to explore Ferry Marshes but had to contain myself to the footpath that ran across to Chetney and then back past neatly discarded Thames barges, now half sunk in the mud at Bedlams Bottom, and thence up to the mainland on Raspberry Hill Lane.
I read that Bedlams Bottom was so-called since this was where escaping prisoners from the hulks on the Thames were left to die, floundering in the ooze; their decaying bodies colouring the mud to this day. Nearby Deadman’s Island was where the bodies of drowned escapers washed up, and Horrid Hill was where recaptured prisoners were hanged as a warning to others. This coast has a grotesque history now captured in place names straight out of Treasure Island. And yet, just inland on the rich brick earth, is a pastoral landscape of orchards and other horticulture. Raspberry Hill to Bedlams Bottom.
The flocks of shelduck, wigeon, pintail and dark-bellied Brent geese on the fleets flew when I was quarter of a mile distant. These were not like the flocks that idle in plain sight on nature reserves but I guessed were shot at by wildfowlers. Wintering wildfowl were a staple food for coastal villages when poverty in England was the norm but now this hunting is just a hobby. I put up a covey of partridge on the edge of a dyke and, as I did so, a peregrine jetted past me just above the water, and swung out after the scattering birds but in vain. He returned to the nearby pylons where the larger female was stationed and according to the gamekeeper, with whom I ‘talked birds’ later in the day, this may prove to be their nest site.
Peregrine and pylon.
The ‘keeper talked proudly of up to 7o pairs of breeding lapwing on the pastures in Spring, and explained with evident frustration, that their eggs and young were plundered by black-headed gulls that nest in their thousands on nearby Burntwick Island. He pointed out a huge flock of golden plover and gave me permission to stalk them with my camera, and to ignore the signs on the gate to ‘Keep Out’. As I did so, a flock of Brents flew in and seemed tame as they fed on the grass not far from me. A pair of Canada Geese flew at first sight and I guessed these may be less welcome.
Dark-bellied Brent geese and golden plover.
Wheeling golden plover.
I walked on to Lower Halstow past Funton Creek, finally a name with no reference to prisoner abuse. Here a large flock of knot danced as one in front of me. Birds in their simple beauty restore the soul in this land steeped in human cruelty.
Knot flock over Funton Creek.