// Swanscombe: marginal narrations of a marshland //

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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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