Desolation and Delight; Just an Hour from London, Tranquillity Awaits



The Daily Telegraph
January 22, 2011

The south-east of England is one of the most crowded areas of Europe and yet it can still spring surprises. I've been to the north Kent marshes twice recently; once to see a friend who lives near the church at Cooling where Dickens sets the opening of Great Expectations, when Pip is terrified by the escaped convict Magwitch.

The lozenge-shaped tombs of children are still there - 13 of them (Dickens says five: presumably the unlucky number would have sounded too corny), a testament to the "marsh fever" or malaria which used to be endemic in these parts. Dickens grew up a few miles away, at Rochester.

My other visit took me to Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey, the only privately owned national nature reserve in the country, partlet to the RSPB.

Look one way and the view is filled by a Bronx-like scene of industrial plants, their towers seeping smoke; yet you only need to turn your head to discover what must be one of the last wildernesses in Britain.

At dawn, immense flocks of wigeon and teal wheel up from the mudflats at this confluence of the rivers Swale, Medway and Thames. I can't pretend to have got there so early, but could nevertheless enjoy the sight of a curlew, digging out grubs from the mud.

This is a haunting and desolate part of the world. But I can easily believe that people who have an eye for it find it compelling. It is, I am told, a resourceful place, where you can still find workmen who will build or make anything.

There are huge skies and the view may be filled with a gigantic cargo ship making its way to Tilbury. Cottages stand in forlorn locations: I couldn't help feeling that given the volume of water around, their inhabitants would do better with webbed feet.

This isn't the conventional beauty of the Cotswolds, or the towering landscape of the Lake District. But it is a better place to find solitude. Weekenders and tourists don't have it on their satnav. You wouldn't think that central London is only an hour away. What a gloriously varied country Britain is.

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As soon as the snow fell before Christmas, I bought myself a serious pair of boots.

While they are undeniably out of scale when worn with a suit, they've kept me from falling over in icy conditions. Half the battle against cold is won if your feet are warm. These ones are not only warm, but waterproof. I feel that a new chapter of my life has begun.

This was perhaps how the architect-craftsman Ernest Gimson saw the matter in about 1900.

Although the son of a Leicestershire industrialist, he turned his back on a conventional career, preferring to pursue an Arts and Crafts existence from a Gloucestershire hamlet, with his friends Ernest and Sidney Barnsley.

It was a source of pride when, going up to London, some wag in the street accosted him as a farmer, asking how the crops did.

Gimson's boots were of the hobnailed variety, and would have been death to polished London floors.

Mine are softer underfoot, but no less heavy. When wearing them, I am exhausted by tea time: yet another reason not to go to the gym.

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Sylvia Grant-Dalton lived at Brodsworth Hall, outside Doncaster, in the miserable Seventies. The decade that brought us the oil crisis and the three-day week was a particularly dire time for country-house owners.

On top of such national woes, Grant-Dalton suffered from a predicament of her own: the lift that had originally been installed for her husband in 1951, but which she was now reduced to using herself, kept breaking down.

Not being one to waste time, she turned the stoppages to good account by converting the bare concrete wall of the lift shaft (the lift was only enclosed on three sides) into a kind of scrap book.

On to it she would paste family photographs, pictures of children, scenes from charitable events that she had attended and snaps of dogs.

For a house so well-stocked with collections (virtuoso carved marbles in the hall, horse paintings in the billiard room, stuffed birds consigned, probably by Mrs Grant-Dalton, to the glory hole of old tennis racquets and gas masks that is the Lathe Room), the lift mural does not display either artistry or art. But it vividly records the life of an elderly countrywoman, stuck (sometimes literally) in a shivering pile of a house with little company beyond that of the equally long-suffering cook.

I am lucky that English Heritage showed me the remarkable document that the collage represents. It isn't on the usual visitors' route. But disabled visitors, who use the lift, are in for a treat.

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