Having been lucky enough to catch the last day of the Swanscombe Project exhibition at the Blake Gallery in Gravesend earlier this year, I was inspired to then spend a rather dreary Sunday afternoon traipsing the marshes and former landfill site of Swanscombe, Kent. The Swanscombe Project, headed by photographer Peter Luck, is ‘an encounter between a heterogeneous group of photographers and the processes of redevelopment at the urban periphery’. The group aims to provide an alternative rhetoric of this diverse edgeland, to that being pushed by the developers of the site who are working on creating East London’s first theme park: London Paramount.
(Image courtesy of Google)
Swanscombe itself is a north facing peninsula that creeps out into the Thames from the Kentish bankside. The landscape is marginal; the peninsula is bordered by industry to the south, a river to the North and flanked by marshes and landfill on either side. Access to the site is restricted and seems to depend on the mood of the security guard monitoring the traffic barrier. Weathered signage warning of dog patrols and industrial traffic mark the entrance to the site, obviously aimed at deterring visitors. The periphery is cordoned off with mesh fencing, funnelling all entrants in past the security hut. Beyond the barrier lies a long, unmade road that leads toward the buried landfill and into the site proper. As the road begins to skirt former chalk pits it makes a sudden turn north, opening up a route that takes you past derelict brick structures, chimney stacks and landfill hills.
On walking through the landscape here, the eye is drawn to a gigantic steel-latticed obelisk rising from the marshland, half of the 400kV Thames Crossing. The pylon is one of two that make up the Thames Crossing, the other being well within viewing distance on the Dartford banks of the river. The pair are the tallest pylons in Britain, reaching some 190 meters into the clouds, dominating the landscape with a monstrous beauty. And this is perhaps the most accurate way to describe these structures; cold and utilitarian, stark against the soft grasses and grey skies of the surrounding environment, and yet, the intricacy of the gossamer-like weave of the steel is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And the scale. And the power. The vehement buzz of electricity permeates the air, hairs seem to start standing on end within thirty meters of the pylon.
The surrounding land surface is strewn with fissures, ruptures where the ground can no longer contain the discarded shit buried within it. Historic waste seeps through from the landfill below; 1980s coke cans, Marathon bar wrappers and garish Crisps packets spew from beneath the wild grasses in a metastatic creeping of anachronistic refuse. Everything here feels contaminated. And yet nature prevails. The site is bordered by three marshes; Black Duck, Broadness and Botany, each of which is teaming with shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, bird and insect life. This is the type of space situated within what Richard Mabey would describe as the ‘unofficial countryside’; a place that has its own distinct type of peri-urban (re)wilding. Perhaps not a picnicking destination but no means devoid of its own, idiosyncratic beauty.
As a place, Swanscombe is palimpsestic, its surface is inscribed with the scarring of industry, both contemporary and historical, commercial and residential waste, power lines, human occupation (Broadness moorings harbour a number of ramshackle houseboats and huts), prehistoric habitation (Homo erectus and large mammals) and myriad wildlife. Layer upon layer of history is written into the landscape here, previous variations in both the matter and form of the land offering a unique insight into the biography of this place; brickworks, cement factories, marshland, edgeland. Old Father Thames laps at the banks at the pylon’s feet, abandoning a wealth of drift wood, reeds, plastic bottles, children’s toys, food wrappers, carrier bags, dead birds, trolleys, tyres, footballs, and old clothes. Each item playing but a small part in the oscillating narratives of abandonment and memory that envelope this space.
After visiting the area it becomes all too obvious why those individuals involved with the Swanscombe Project care so deeply for this unique piece of land. The looming construction of the UK’s largest ‘entertainment resort’ will, no doubt, eradicate the existing narratives surrounding Swanscombe; the moorings will be displaced, the wildlife irreparably damaged and the character of the landscape changed forever, though perhaps this is the natural state of the edgeland? Margins have a tendency to blur, to become less defined, and in doing so create new borders, new sites for new experiences. It will be interesting to see what new margins are drawn here, and what new spaces are created from the destruction of Swanscombe.