The spectral aquascape of Rainham Marshes: A photographic essay.

It’s been a while since my last post, predominantly this has been down to time constraints; chapter deadlines, conference organization, a house move, my job etc etc. But it has also been down to not knowing what to say, or rather how to say it. See, the subject of this entry has been with me for a few weeks now but I couldn’t make my mind up as to how it should be presented, In general I am not a huge fan of photographic essays. A number of works in this vein seem to posit, quite weakly, images as a substitute for text. I didn’t want to produce a tepid interpretation of an engagement with a truly beautiful site. But I also didn’t want to give a huge textual regurgitation from my thesis on the hows and whys of the hauntological and these barges. In any case I have decided that the images are strong enough, maybe not in composition but definitely in content, to speak for themselves with minimum introduction.

And so herein begins my first photographic essay, a visual exploration of London’s urban peripheries and an abandoned fleet of concrete barges that rest there. I include a short introduction.

The site is fairly easily accessible (with a car) and if you have the time it is worth waiting for the tidal movements of the Thames to change so that you see the barges both concealed and revealed by the acrid waters of London’s aqua arterial route. The marshes and the the barges are around a 15 mile drive east of London city centre.

Rainham Marshes lay nestled between London’s Dagenham Dock to the east, and Purfleet to the west,  and make up an expansive area of waterside wilderness protected by the RSPB. The barges themselves rest upon a small area of mudflats which is temporarily revealed by the Thames throughout the day. On our arrival, the tide was in and only the tops of a couple or more of the barge hulls could be spotted; grey, brutalist and in keeping with the stark industrial complex of Erith that lay on the opposite embankment of the nature reserve. As the waters shrank away a whole platoon of skeletal concrete remains were revealed, the history of which is equally as ambiguous and spectral as the boats’ strange visual presence. The concrete barges are, according to the local authority’s heritage signage, survivors of the D-Day landing, however there appears to be little evidence of this. Alternative explanations for the boats’ existence have included suppliers of drinking water and or oil to larger sea faring vessels both during and after WWII. The ambiguity surrounding the barges history augments their curious existence and makes for a site of rather bizarre character. It is not merely the cyclical and phantasmagorical revealing and veiling of these objects that makes the place seem so bizarre, but rather a process whereby the occulted history, strange proximity to natural and industrial landscapes and the aesthetic of the very material these barges are constructed from, that leads to a sense that this place is ‘uncanny’, that it is of an almost ghostly quality. Nothing really fits. Nothing makes sense. Why were the barges abandoned here? What was/is their purpose? What happened to the people that built them, sailed them and ultimately abandoned them?The site is strange but it is inviting regardless. The landscape the barges are set upon and within appears unwelcoming, the marshes to the east of the City are perhaps not the most secure or surveilled area of the capital, however they are unquestionably worth a visit. It is a truly hauntological landscape- the solidity of the remains that exist there invite a questioning of the remains that lay absent.

If hauntology can be used to describe the infidelity of the material landscape – it regularly blurs and distorts our sense of history, allows for absences to manifest as presences- then aquascapes like this site might be seen to amplify the process; the movement of water reiterates the rippling of time, moreover it provides us with an smooth and distorted surface. A surface which both reflects the present world and which allows a vision beyond or within it. To perceive the landscape as haunted is to see through the surface, to refuse infatuation with the ‘now’ and to understand the power of a past that can permeate, prevail and preclude a sense of an unshakeable present. Rainham’s concrete barges do this, they do so by existing semi visible and without fixed context. They problematise and question our thinking of the spatial and its temporality. It is perhaps both their hints of a working history in the narrative of war, and of their place within an imagined habitus, that allows the spectral occupants of the marshes to haunt the landscape they dwell upon. It is perhaps the reason that a the barges appear so dislocated, odd considering their anchored nature.  I don’t want to say anymore about the site, other than it has to be experienced first hand. The rest is down to the photographs and the barges themselves.



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