‘Absolutely recommend InspiralLondon – as a trail to do on your own, or to take part in activities around the city – as a great way to explore known and unfamiliar bits of the city.’ (Rachel Gomme)
A map, a set of coordinates, gps markers and a faint grey zone rippling on the surface of the image. Through the whole set of marks and lines, the distinctive meandering blue loop made by the Isle of Dogs outlining the twin bulges of Surrey Quays and North Greenwich – these curves that create the muscling serpentine of the Thames as it spurts its floodhead out into the now submerged Delta of an eastern swampland – up there the North Sea, down the Chanel and swirling below the current, moving banks and rivers of mud and silt where once Doggerland ran all the way to the Continent. Here, the 5 long rivers of North West Europe flowed into one great confluence of energetic spuming and churning life. And it is here on the southern bank of the Delta marsh that we choose to start and finish our metropolitan walk. Gravesend to Kings Cross linked by an umbilical cord of experience, energy and incident.
Night Walking North Kent April 19-22:
“The festival was brilliant – collaborative, informative and thought-provoking and I would definitely recommend inspiral to others.” (Festival Participant)
There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the Local authority to acknowledge the jewel in their crown that was the Rosherville Pleasure Gardens. Enthusiastic researchers, Local Historians, those with regard to a sense of place have become the only real guardians of those submerged Roshervillian memories, now entirely flattened and ready packed for development. Walking along the river front, pass the old tea rooms, the site of grand hotels and villas, by the Rosherville Pier, one gets a fleeting sense of that extraordinary flowering, a place both of popular education and entertainment. The Gardens laid out in all their finery, cloaked with a grand exoticism: lush meadows where couples could play at archery, to turn aside only to watch a bear climbing up a pole or by the pathways decked in dazzling displays of bedding plants, laugh along with chimpanzees. And behind them, on the scarred chalk cliff, cascading, then clinging an array of climbing plants, sprays from the Himalayas, tropical orchids, Anthuriums and Birds of Paradise. All topped by a magnificent shiny conservatory, glinting in the sun and reflecting by night, hundreds of faceted flames, dancing from paper lanterns and tealights. Now all gone, erased first by new industry now by a lack of imagination, both on the part of developers and planners.
“The walk made me look again at some parts of Gravesend I might have otherwise passed by. It was interesting to learn that areas of the town I’d known as industrial estates were once a Victorian holiday resort and this make me look at this landscape in a different way as we explored it.” (Festival Participant)
During the Night Walking North Kent Festival, at Saturday’s talk On the Marshes the audience’s conversation turns to the question of how to protect habitats for biodiversity and resist the monocultures of rapid large-scale development. How the recent constructions and dredging by the Dubai World Ports has already altered the nature of the Estuary; then flows into a lively discussion on how the proposed tunnel crossing will affect the marshes with all the associated exhaust and noise pollution. For a project that seeks to explore, witness, and eventually record the experiences of being in, passing through and enjoying the places and spaces of the wider Metropole, this realisation is sobering. We who love the post-industrial, the abandoned, squatted or repurposed are fearful of these grand plans whatever their ethic or motive. Like all brownfield sites, those places on the edges of the city, spaces used for military training, for temporary storage or where migratory birds rest up and feed, we see how planners’ designation and their interests, influence the value given to specific places. We walker explorers, came attracted by a re-colonisation of a quite different kind; ramshackle, improvised and somewhat temporary. We came to see, share and experience, now made painfully aware that we bring with us our own prejudices and insights, sometimes conflictual and antagonistic to the native. And yet as we know intuitively nothing is fixed for long in zones of concentrated human activity; the mutability of place is even more fluid in these often undervalued edgelands.
“I was hugely impressed. The whole Ghost evening was brilliant. I loved the way Anne Robinson showed her film inside a great big gas container, which you had to view through a sort of hatch.I loved how the film lit up the uneven surface of the canister.”
Carol Donaldson made it clear in her talk that most environmental consultancy work now consisted in the green cleansing of sites before development. Moving newts, digging up plants or trapping animals and birds – uprooting nature living on abandoned industrial sites or undeveloped areas of marsh. She was adamant that this was not why she had become a conservationist. But she is also clear that this is where the money is. It is well-known that these marginal plots of land, largely undisturbed, can become some of the most beautifully diverse nature reserves. Especially in the overcrowded terrain of cities. We have seen this time and again as we spiralled our way on, through and across the roundabouts, railway embankments, and fenced off carparks that pit the trail; nature re-colonising and adapting to spaces and places that are largely left unmanaged. But once such areas have been identified and re-designated – they can be reclaimed as a blank canvas. All those other often intangible values suddenly have no say, no voice.
Yet despite this all too familiar story of development, the Sea continues to remain a largely unpredictable influence on these flatlands, constantly ebbing with tide, weather and long-term climate change. Perhaps there are many other futures, other imaginal landscapes in which this Thames Delta might eventually flow. Unlike most of the Metropoles’s Thames foreshore these areas by Gravesend and on the Hoo are hinterlands that are still part of a working river, host to giant container ships and subject to forces channelled up River.
‘I hadn’t expected the sound to be so present, as well as the changing light. I liked the shifting companionship as people moved forward and back in the group.’ (Associate Artist, Rachel Gomme)
The Night Walking festival was both a chance then, to enjoy and experience this place; to challenge our perceptions of what might exist here now, and in the future. It provoked collaboration between the early evening night, the dead of night and the streets, proposing a series of confrontations with the places, people and spaces encountered in our collective night wandering. It invited conversations in which to think of, then envision new spaces that might retain a deeper sense of place. Urban developments that don’t immediately think they have to appear as wonderful new panacea – solving all our economic and social problems – by simply being rebranded on the back of some hollowed out history. On our 300-mile odyssey, we have passed by too many developers’ hoardings with photoshopped images, surmounted by ridiculous names, to believe any of the straight-faced hyperbole. It is more than ever necessary for us to continue to map on the ground, together.
“My expectations were exceeded… and it has focused my interest in the Estuary, the flow of the river, the people who inhabit and work here.” (Invited Artist)
On the Friday night we began to attempt this task by singing together to the Thames, to the vaporous mists and spirit tongues of the Estuary. Then emerging from Saint Andrew’s Chapel, the dark night enveloping us as we gather together to walk toward Rosherville. As a large group of walkers strung out along Gravesend’s high street and passing the shuttered shopping mall, we create an unusual yet fleeting presence on the street. The unseasonal heat has encouraged a generous consumption of alcohol and the night contains a promise both of lightness and dark eruption. As we glide along the Overcliffe, glimpses of the Thames appear and the Dock lights illuminating Tilbury, glaring over at us, flash in and out of view. Descending to the Thames by Burch Road, the former edge of town, we pass by the remnants of grand villas built to attract wealthy Londoners to this ‘seaside’ town in the 1850’s. Finally, by the riverside we contemplate the old Rosherville Pier site, the only substantial remains of the Pleasure Gardens recognisable to a time-travelling Victorian daytripper, now inaccessible and fenced off behind large railings. This is where the daytrippers would have arrived, expectant, joyful, excited – pausing for refreshments they queued to buy tickets to enter the Gardens but we can just cross the boundary road, wary only of the uneven ground and speeding cars. It’s here by the Thames that artists Nicole Mollett and Frog Morris can pass out their lanterns and instruct the audience in the art of light projection.
“Witnessing magic lantern performances in the site of a Victorian pleasure garden provided extra kind of transportation for the audience. The actual performance becoming important. One could read about Rosherville Gardens or Magic Lantern shows on Wikipedia, but to actually combine the two and join in providing the sound effects and overhearing stories from people who have known the area all their lives is a rich combination.” (Festival respondent)
The audience form an untidy semi-circle looking at the grey marked concrete of the flood wall. A sharp phosphorescent glow, seeps over the wall top and dissipates out into the dark brownfield behind us. Round patches of light illuminate our feet and faces, when suddenly into focus on the flood wall, a play of bright green plants, hunters and trees reappear, refocused on the marked and graffitied wall, bright visions: dappled sunlight on trees, rustling foliage, the sound of long grass, leather boots on gravel footpaths, parasols and breeches. Transported back 150 years, we coo and croak and squawk, a menagerie of exotic birds. Later standing in a long line in Rosherville Way we will see Little Tich and Baron von Nathan projected on the curved wall of the cliff tunnel. Like the roar of the drunken crowd, the lantern show is punctuated by the deafening roar of trucks slicing through the tunnel. For a moment, transported, we begin to think of all these dead performers, the gaiety and otherness that permeated the cliffs, that once made Gravesend famous across London. At Northfleet Cemetery we come face to face with Rosie the Bear – fleetingly freed from the Gardens’ Bear Pit – atop a large rock. She dissolves into the darkness, now Good Night, sweet dancer, Good Night ….
When we finally reach the end of the walk at Ebbsfleet International station, the arrival on foot to this vast rail station is somewhat surreal. The emptied expanse of tarmac carpark stretches before our tired legs. There are barely a handful of passengers in the over lit terminal, equally matched by the number of waiting staff to check their tickets. The contrast with Northfleet, where we have just come from, crossing the caged passageways to the station, up on the clifftops, the former Rosherville site, could not be more pronounced. Yet these spaces all inhabit the same place, the giddy up and down topography of abandoned chalk quarries, the shear in-betweeness of it all.
“I felt very inspired by the idea of making something ephemeral and mobile at night… that other people could participate in… and very proud to be part of this event. I really liked the idea of taking art to the streets, marshes, estates etc. and out of the gallery.” (Birgitta Hosea – commissioned Artist)
On Saturday night another kind of abandonment awaits us on the eastern fringes of Gravesend. Through a jumble and labyrinth of industrial – workshops and yards – passed the Metropolitan Police Specialist Training Centre, and Port of London Authority pontoons with their state of the art dock facilities, we meet the edge of the marshlands. Now partially drained, and protected by sea walls the soundscapes begin to morph; a faint cackle and chatter under the sound of our breathing. We stop to listen. The sound emerges, with the occasional call of birds, across the marsh teeming with the song of frogs. Briefly we listen to Dickens – Pip’s abject fear – mirrors the trauma of the young Charles abandoned in London, fending for himself, being caught red-handed. His terror of the marsh echoed back by the pirate swinging on the gibbet, who now speaks to us. From his brassy mouthpiece comes a brief ‘Shiver me timbers’. Then, orniphilosopher J D Swann recites John Clare’s ‘Early Nightingale’. The sun now long set, and the marshes, exhaling, gives off a slight miasma mingled with the frogs’ croaking displays. If you close your eyes it begins to seep into you that soundscape, somewhat alien in its exuberance and depth. You can see how the author Joseph Conrad deliberately confuses this place with the Congo. But because we are on Higham Marshes – not trekking through a forested delta – you can’t escape the hooting roar of the London train or the sound of distant motor bikes. Nevertheless, for a brief interval it is if you have entered another place, another zone, immersed in the babbling marshes, this nursery of life, Spring bursting through the rich Thames mud.
“The Night Walking festival Gravesend – gave opportunity, and permission to walk in ways that would otherwise not occur…. The intersection of physically walking and the vast range of meanings available as a way of testing and pushing the possibilities of psycho-geography.” (Festival participant)
On Sunday, as we take our fifth and final festival walk, somewhat unexpectedly the artistic events become tangled into the St George’s Day Parade. We make another presence, more woodcraft folk than military scouts, holding hazel poles, as we wind along the route of InspiralLondon. The artist Rachel Gomme ties her street-tree twinning tags with bright green ribbon, gently marking her chosen specimens; a plane tree with another individual near Kings Cross, or twinning a tree privet outside the MacDonalds with another one on Caledonia Street. We skirt the parade in Civic Square, as Blake’s Jerusalem is struck up by the local band. Rachel quietly selects a slender birch tree on the edge of the uniformed crowd. We form a small group around the tree, briefly to watch the tree trembling in the sun, covered in buds and wrapped with electrical wires and lights. Pride in place, pride in beauty. There is always a battle for the soul of the street and for territory of place, but the street trees, whatever their origin remain silent sentinels to civic pride and care. As the sun heats up the concrete and tarmac, we finally reach the end of the street-tree twinning walk, standing together beneath the new leaf of a native lime tree – the small-leafed European variety – enjoying the filtered shade and its cooling beauty. (counterproductions 2018)