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On the Marshes

Carol Donaldson (Lit­tle Toller, £15)

Au­thor sets chal­lenge, makes jour­ney, de­scribes what hap­pens and the peo­ple met. this is the for­mula of many travel books and this one roughly fol­lows it—but On the Marshes dif­fers from the usual run. Carol Donaldson’s hikes around the es­tu­ar­ies of the thames and Med­way are any­thing but con­ven­tional—she isn’t a con­ven­tional per­son and this isn’t a con­ven­tion­ally beau­ti­ful land­scape; far from it.

the book opens with a de­scrip­tion of a derelict house­boat that’s slowly sink­ing into the ooze; Miss Donaldson is thrilled and goes aboard, to the hor­ror of her male com­pan­ion. It con­tin­ues with a de­scrip­tion of the car­a­van in which she lived for six years as one of a team of war­dens at an RSPB re­serve, her life as close to el­e­men­tal as it was pos­si­ble to achieve—un­til the is­sue of plan­ning per­mis­sion came up.

Miss Donaldson is some­one who loves the edges of ex­is­tence, the Na­ture that re­asserts it­self over aban­doned ce­ment works, brick fields and forts, the in­di­vid­u­als who choose, for what­ever rea­son, to live in shacks and chalets or on the wa­ter amid mem­o­rably named places such as hum­ble Bee Creek and Ladies hole Point. Mud­flats can be bleak but Miss Donaldson makes us see their beauty.

haunt­ing the walks is her re­la­tion­ship with Con­nor. She nearly mar­ried him, but it’s as well she didn’t: he wanted the nor­mal­ity of a job, mort­gage and Satur­day af­ter­noon footie, but she re­fused to com­pro­mise in her need for the wild. Exit Con­nor and the au­thor is left as a sin­gle woman, happy with a pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence un­til she’s nearly drowned by the in­com­ing tide on Cop­per­house Marsh.

this puts her on a foot­ing with some of the char­ac­ters who haunt the es­tu­ar­ies, who often find them­selves in the po­si­tion of me­dieval out­laws, liv­ing out­side so­ci­ety, hav­ing lost their for­mer pros­per­ity through di­vorce.

odd things hap­pen on the marshes, as Charles Dick­ens knew. this is an am­bigu­ous ter­ri­tory—wa­tery, de­vel­oped for in­dus­try at dif­fer­ent times, but never ur­banised. It’s al­ways been a home to weirdos (Miss Donaldson pro­vides sev­eral his­tor­i­cal ex­am­ples). Folk in these parts are proud to be known as Swamp­ies. Like an indige­nous tribe, they’ve re­treated from Whit­stable in the face of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, but are safe—un­less Boris’s air­port is ever built— on Shep­pey.

Born in Es­sex, not Kent, the au­thor isn’t a na­tive, but sees them from the in­side. the re­sult is a re­mark­able, eye-open­ing book in the genre of roger Deakin’s Water­log. how will she write another? No idea, but I hope she does. Clive Aslet

Odd things hap­pen on the marshes, as Carol Donaldson dis­cov­ers

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