The Covid-19 ‘lockdown’ guidelines have been eased in the UK, though the majority of people remain wary. Genuine fear of a second spike lingers. With this in mind, I remain cautious about venturing too far from home for my outdoor photography.
One of the consequences of this decision is that, if I want to capture coastal photographs, the nearest major waterside option I have to my home is the North Kent side of the River Thames. In practise, this runs from the Dartford River Crossing along to as far as Gravesend, maybe at a push Rochester.
Between Dartford and Gravesend is the Town Council area of Swanscombe and Greenhithe. Here, thousands of new homes have been built along the shoreline but just beyond the furthest of these dwellings is Swanscombe Marsh (also known as Botany Marsh).
I’ll be honest, the area looks and feels more like an abandoned scrubland than a wildlife, nature lovers and dog-walkers sanctuary, though a small part of it is a ‘Nature Reserve’ overseen by the Kent Wildlife Trust. The views are flat and industrial, especially across the Thames towards the Essex side. And when no ships pass, the river itself is as dull as dishwater. Looking inland for views is, on the face of it, no better. There’s just high reeds and haphazard water pools and channels. Beyond this is an old chalk pit facia and a skyline of the top half of several wind turbines and more local industry.
In this seemingly uninspiring landscape, however, a few treasures can be found. Okay, no grand vistas or beautiful landscape (riverscape) scenes here, not for me anyway. (Some will, of course, disagree, especially if you like industrial outlooks maybe photographed during golden hour). But for the photographer prepared to do some pre-visit research and then arrive willing to look closer, Swanscombe Marsh offers a few surprises. If your particular photographic interest is riverside and marshland birdlife, flora, fauna and fungi, then this place is certainly for you. The habitat supports many local and migrating species. If not, then I’d say it’s still worth visiting, if only to see something you literally can’t miss.
The most obvious non-natural, man-made sight to discover on the marsh is a 190m (623ft) high pylon. It’s twin can be seen across the Thames in West Thurrock and together they provide a cable span of 1372m (4501ft). Okay, pylons may not be the most attractive structures to photograph but these ones are claimed to be the highest electricity pylons in the UK and the second highest in Europe. They’re also popular with BASE Jumpers, though sadly one was killed in 2006 when his chute failed to open.
Sticking with something different and pylons, if you then look closely at the marshland and across the top of the high, swaying reeds, you might find yourself doing a double take. Hiding in the tall vegetation, or perhaps being swallowed up by it, are the upper parts of two rusting towers. They are pylons that formed part of a ropeway that connected part of the Blue Circle Cement Works to its wharf on the Thames. The Swanscombe Works (as known) was the longest operating cement works in Britain, manufacturing Portland cement from 1845 to 1990. The works started to go into decline after the chalk quarries (reference the chalk cliff mentioned earlier) were exhausted in 1982. Rather than dismantle the metalwork and clean up the area, the business simply abandoned them. It makes me wonder what else was left uncleared back then, presumably relying on the environment to absorb the mess. The marshland clearly demonstrates how, if we abandon anything to nature, nature will ultimately claim it for itself.
Full disclosure, as I reflect on my visit to Swanscombe Marsh, I have to say it’s not my kind of place for photography. Yes, it’s outdoors and it’s alongside the Thames. It also has a worthy history and even now is a valuable area for nature, recreation, as well as regional power supply. What’s not to like for a so-called Outdoor Photographer? It’s hard to say. I suppose it’s the fact that it looks and feels like what it currently is, a tatty dumping place. By which I mean an area where a vast amount of building rubble has been dumped and which walkers still have to navigate and tread over with caution. A place where old abandoned roads and factories remain visible. And mostly a landscape where nature, while doing it’s best, has not yet been able to fully mask it and make the place wholly its own. There are, at present, no landscape scenes here which draw me in and challenge me to try and capture its beauty. Perhaps this will change as nature continues its work over the coming decades and maybe also gets help from environmental, wildlife or other greenspace and river protection groups. I hope so. But for now, I’ll seek my type of outdoor photographs elsewhere, leaving Swanscombe Marsh to photographers more understanding and far more talented at capturing such environments than me.