Trip 10 November 2011 – wild nights and mud

Wild camping on the Blackwater Estuary

I was off on a stereotypes trip again, first a couple of days down in Kent on the south coast, then nearly a week in Essex. I was thinking wide boys, white stilettos and motorways. Of course I am a landscape photographer, not a paparazzi, so there was no chance of white stilettos, and I normally try to avoid the wide boys, especially wild camping on their land. I don’t like sawn off shotguns. Honestly, I have been warned about this by locals.

Romney Marshes

I thought the Romney Marshes in Kent would be a bit like other parts of Kent I have visited, gently rolling countryside covered in orchards. A look at the map for Romney Marshes on the south coast is fascinating. Vast areas of totally flat land, with sudden little contoured bumps. Very odd. Off course, the Marshes used to be marshes, with lots of little islands in them. The draining of the marshes resulting in this strange topography. I camped a couple of nights on the sea cliff, which was now about a mile inland! Such landscape scale man made change fascinated me. So it was a pleasure to make panoramas of everything from the wetlands at Rye Harbour and out into the arable land that is now so productive, and sought after for a variety of developments from housing to wind turbines. It’s that denseness of experience that is common in the south east.

Hanningfield

Essex also has that densely used landscape feel. But it is not just dense with motorways as it often feels from the ca. It’s housing, fields, pastures, industrial areas, estuaries, wild spaces (including reserves). Everything packed in, overlapping. It’s the embodiment of condensed Living Landscapes. All parts of the system must work together.

I camped on a campsite near Billericay for the first couple of nights. I could have wild camped, there were definitely places, but a campsite was the easiest path and I could just leave my tent up allowing me to move more in-encumbered and quickly between locations during the short winter days.

The Hanningfield Living Landscape scheme takes in Hanningfield reservoir and surrounding area. The reservoir was very low, so I was was given permission to photograph from the shoreline which would normally be under water. It’s always good to get a different perspective, a ducks eye view in this case. The Essex Wildlife Trust is also working closely with the Royal Horticultural Society at Hyde Hall to create a more wildlife friendly formal garden. It’s very formal, everything so neat, with a label on it. But gardens, both the grand and our own, are an important place for wildlife, as a place to live or to link up with other wildspaces. The Essex Wildlife Trust is also heavily involved with local schools and local communities, and it was great to hear Gayle from the Trust not only list the ideas they were trying in this area, but the successes as well. Thinking back to my visit to The Great Fen when there was a group of smiling happy city kids visiting and enjoying the green natural spaces, it was easy to imagine Essex kids enjoying themselves in a similar way.

Blackwater

A quick train trip up to Colchester, yes I am now that lazy to take the train 30miles and the days are too short, where I met up with Sarah to be shown round the Blackwater Estuary Living Landscape. Normally, I get a short tour then am left to my own devices to make panoramas. Some trusts very generously give up a day to show me round. Sarah however had a two day location packed schedule planned with military precision. A Geordie girl, so we had lots to talk about, and she had lots to say. But it was apparent she was also a good listener which had led to a fantastic success with the Colne oyster men. The Colne is one of only two areas in England to supply oysters. By listening to them, what motivated them, what they wanted then working with them, she has managed to create a management plan that will give their oyster beds legal protection from nomadic foreign oyster boats. They off course have obligations to conservation as part of this plan, although it sounded like they were already very committed to an area that they have worked for generations and know they must look after for future generations. All the same, they have been trying to get this legal protection for 120years! We talked, Sarah wandered whilst I photographed and we travelled round the Blackwater from St. Peters Church round to Mersea Island. It’s a lot of muddy estuary, dominated by inlets, the old decommissioned nuclear power station, salt marsh, boats and people. It’s beautiful, wild, tamed and fascinating. Joe Cornish has talked about a photographers fascination with edges, and the Blackwater is full of edges, edges in every direction and of many concepts.

Of course it is also the edge of the sea, a sea with a large tidal range. Sarah had thoughtfully arranged for me to camp on the sea wall at one of their reserves. A delightful location to wild camp, although a ten minute cycle to the toilet! Stunning salt marsh full of the burbling brent geese and whistling oyster catchers. Perfect. I was intrigued to make a starlit panorama in this area, and a call of nature one night woke me at about midnight. As I woke up the sound was wrong, the bird noises which had been some distance away were now all round my tent. Apprehensively I left my tent. Yep, the tide was in, through the break in the sea wall that the trust have made to flood the salt marsh as it would naturally. And the tide was pretty far up the sea wall. That’s ok, it’s the sea wall for goodness sake. I was near surrounded by silvery flat seawater, which was beautiful. I headed off to the jetty to make my star light pano, but the jetty was underwater. I checked my tide tables to find out when it would be safe to go back onto the jetty and noted the tide would still go up by another meter. Wow. It was then I looked back towards the sea wall and my tent. A sea wall with only a meter sticking out the water! The sea scares me, I’m not above taking risks with tides, but I respect it’s nature. And I was worried then. It would be pretty embarrassing to have to call the coastguard to be rescued. I tidied my gear, ready to break camp quickly and checked, then rechecked the way back out to solid land. Escape planned, it was time for tea and apple pie to keep my spirits up and to stay warm in the sub-zero temperatures. I’ve gone on long enough about this, the tide stopped about 30-40cm from the top of the sea wall, I made my starry pano with so many stars to see despite light pollution, and went back to sleep in my safe little tent. No worries, it’s all in a nights work!

I was up again two hours later to cycle out to West Mersea harbour to photograph the oyster men going out to sea at sunrise. It was a subtle pink dawn with a cold hard frost. Pink like my face as the t-shirt clad oyster me took the mickey out of all my layers of clothing. Such a wimp. I made my pano then found Sarah had come to check I was OK and to chat to the oystermen. Time for a retreat to the Pearl cafe for a bacon roll and steaming mug of tea. Cracking.

Roman River

I spent the next couple of days exploring the Roman River, also in Essex. After four glorious days, I had to make my photographs of this military training and conservation area in moody grey skies. It was a shame, as there is a lot to see around the Roman River area. Like a lot of MOD ground, it is often left to itself with generally less interference by man (apart from lots of soldiers or tanks moving over it, or stuff being blown up) and this often allows nature and wildlife just a little more freedom to get on with it’s life. The tidal mouth of the Roman River is a large area of mud flats, which apparently offends some local residents with it’s mucky mud. However it is a haven for all sorts of plants on the banks and many winter wading birds who were busy digging bits of protein out of the mud. Personally I think the mud is quite pretty, the textures, the light reflected off it, but us photographers are strange when it comes to aesthetics.

Wellingborough

With a long face after such a great time in Essex, I left to head up to Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. Heather from BCN Wildlife Trust showed me around the reserve at Summer Leys with obvious pride in the area and all the winter wading birds that come to over winter. Judging by the number of walkers, bird watchers, dog walkers, cyclists and families who were using the paths through the reserve it was pretty popular with people too. It was quiet after the raucous bird noise of Essex, but I enjoyed the peace and it was fabulous to see a Living Landscape including this reserve being enjoyed by wildlife and so many people.

The wild camping was not so great, lots of wide open sheep fields, so with a slight sense of disgust at myself, but also slight relief I headed to a hotel for my last night. A bar meal, a pint, some wifi then some TV! I am not as hardcore as I make out!

It was a great trip of brilliant conservationists (both WT staff and those who work the land/sea like the oyster men) and fascinating places, some wild, some totally man made. The camping was great and the photography was amazing. When I finished the virtual tours for this trip they looked great, even if I do say so myself. I’m a lucky guy to be living a gig like this working with a fab organisation like The Wildlife Trusts. It continues to give me hope for the future of man and wildlife.

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