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