Cold Harty and the Swale

The winding lane to Harty Ferry passes through Capel Fleet where a distant herd of great, brown bulls deter most away from the footpath that runs from the road across a flat landscape towards the distant Swale Estuary. The raised path is a stumble, being water-logged and pot-holed by heavy hooves; it arcs endlessly round a wide expanse of huge, flat fields to one side of the shallow reed-fringed water.

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The Isle of Sheppey; wild swans in the huge field, marsh harrier overhead and distant coastal industries beyond.

One enormous, weedy old maize field is alive with distant greylag geese, mute swans, shelduck, gulls, pigeon, lapwing and finch flocks; the sounds of honking geese, crying gulls and clattering pigeons liven the air but it is a strain to make out what distant speck is what. If the wind was not so needling then the view would be less of a blur through stricken, streaming eyes. Somewhere here there is visiting flock of white-fronted geese. This is a soft day on the Isle of Sheppey.

Inevitably, the approaching and inquisitive bulls make the retreat back along the path essential, then rapid and finally somewhat shambolic; the water-filled dyke between the path and the fields is just too wide to jump. Three fine bulls walk up to the fence and stand as a group on the top of a low grass green ridge facing their defeated foe with an unwavering eye; they then shatter the imperious image by trotting childishly away to a clamp of silage.

Views of Capel Fleet on the narrow road to Harty Ferry.

At Harty, the track from the old farm past the old church of St Thomas is well marked and travels downhill along the edge of a winter wheat field; this holds a large, dense flock of Brent geese and a loose but no less great gathering of rooks. The track reaches a low headland where the arable field gives way to coastal grasslands and the path continues down to the sea wall that divides the great blanket of salt marsh with the steel-grey Swale beyond from the much more varied, ditches, reed beds and water-filled pastures. Low mounds of green ground are, so it says on the information board that advertises the Swale Estuary National Nature Reserve, the middens from a medieval saltern or salt works, one of many that flourished on the North Kent Marshes and other low lying coasts in medieval times.

A decaying post box on a lichen rich brick wall near St Thomas’ Church at Harty.

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Water pump, distant and difficult to discern saltern and wide brackish marshes.

There is a loose flock of curlew, a couple of oystercatchers and a few Brent geese in the flooded pasture al silently grazing. Marsh harriers are as common as crows and idle across the horizon but nothing flies in response except a pair of redshank.  A pair of shelducks head out low to the water’s edge perhaps to dabble in the exposed mudflats for Hydrobia and other molluscs.  From the sea wall, flocks of waders that have made the commute from the roost at Oare Marshes Nature Reserve on the far side of the Swale, swirl and pitch in on the edge of the saltmarsh on a ridge of recently exposed mud and then circle again, twitch and turn as they swarm in the low, bright light that breaks the cloud.

Towards Sheerness there is a lone figure on the edge of salmarsh, a wildfowler dressed as a paramilitary, standing tall and clutching a shotgun near his camouflaged hide with patient spaniel sitting to the side; perhaps both are wondering, now that the tide is now running out, if the cold sport is over and the long walk back beckons. The unsettled wader flocks appear to think otherwise.

Views from the sea wall between Harty and Sheerness.

In the distance at the end of the path that runs the narrow sea wall, Shellness is a spit of cockle shells, where, in winter waders gather to sit out a big tide in tight flocks and in spring a place for breeding little terns.  There is also the hamlet, a string of small houses that squat bravely by the sea defended by low walls of stout concrete.

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The hamlet of Shellness across the empty saltmarshes with part of the London Array of wind turbines in the outer Thames beyond.

The light is fading behind huge daubs of dark cloud and the wind gathers, Sheerness is too far along the slippery path.  This is a walk, one of the great winter wildlife walks, for a cold, clear day.

 

 

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