Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Magwich country

Even though I live in north-east Kent and frequently travel across the marshes riding the train to London, I have never actually spent any time walking there. On sharp autumn mornings they are quite stunning in their stark beauty but, like much that is close at hand, there is a tendency to take it for granted. And to my shame, I've never explored them.

So it felt like fortune was smiling when Sophie at the Independent on Sunday called and said, "I have a treat for you - travel piece about the Kent Marshes. Should be right up your street... quite literally!"

It had threatened to rain all morning but as I parked near Cliffe in north Kent the cloud had thinned just enough to see some detail in the sky and the occasional slip of blue. Armed with a printout of the piece, written by Tom Connolly, a really evocative read, I instantly wished for a few days more to try and get a variety of weather to do it justice.

A camera over each shoulder and two pouches on my belt (one with an extra lens and the other one with cards, batteries and my extension tubes for any close-ups) I strode out over the network of gravel pathways. I decided to work with three prime lenses (35mm 1.4L, 85mm 1.2L and 135mm 2.0L) rather than any of my zooms. Partly because I had the luxury of doing so but mostly because I craved simplicity and discipline.

Photographers always talk about the quality of image you get from fast prime lenses but they also have the benefit of forcing you to move around more to change your shot and in doing so you often see things that could easily be overlooked by just constantly re framing with a zoom.

The landscape is a strange compelling mixture of rural, coastal and industrial, In some ways it feels unchanged since Dickens but then there are the docks, power stations and oil refineries that serve as constant reminder of modernity.

I love this kind of solitary observational photography and I only saw four people during the course of the day. Walking their dogs or carrying binoculars and wildlife books they mostly just gave a slight nod of the head as we passed each other.

One of the things that makes this area so compelling for me is the bleak expanse of grasses, ditches and pools set amongst the crumbling remains of industry. A WW1 munitions factory had been here but long gone now and leveled to the point of near invisibility unless you get close. What little remains by way of bricks and structure is slowly, inexorably being reclaimed by nature, covered by grass or providing a wind break for the horses and cattle. Occasionally a bit of random rusting pipe-work bursts from the brambles, both incongruous and somehow perfectly appropriate here.

Heading east I drove to Chetney Marsh. The shortening days of autumn drawing in by then and the sky had become a misty featureless veil. Through the fading perspective duo-tone of grey and green I could make out the Island of Grain docks and the smallish shipwreck that Tom had described in his copy. In the middle of a field was an old stile. The fence it once brooked had been moved or broken down. Just another of those strange traces of man's history here that had decayed and been left a hostage to the landscape.

Ironically it was the marshland closest to my home that ended-up unphotographed. By the time I returned the weather had made good on it's early threat of rain and a persistent drizzle had reduced visibility too much to continue. The next morning was much the same story so I'll have to make the effort to explore it at a later date.

Tom's wonderful and atmospheric piece is published here please treat yourselves and read it. There is a link on the page to see more of the photographs. It turned out to be exactly what I needed - a break from traffic and rain and overstuffed schedule in a week that was to become all of those things.


James Wm. Dawson said...

It is odd how often we as photographers neglect the locations most easily accessible to us and instead head off to often distant places .... for me most of my landscape photography requires at least a five hour flight only to snatch ten or fifteen minutes while the tour bus stops to give the driver his union required break.

I live in a country with three coastlines measure over 200,000 km and a land surface area of almost 10,000,000 sq km yet I seldom travel beyond the city limits. Go figure.

So it is kind of cool that you got the chance to basically photograph your own backyard.

Justin Sutcliffe said...

You're absolutely right James and it really was a great day. I felt completely refreshed the next day.

When something can be done anytime you end up never getting around to it.

One of my friends lives in Newfoundland and his landscapes are great. Check him out if you get a moment.

He is a bit more disciplined about getting out into the world at his doorstep!


James Wm. Dawson said...

Thanks for the link Justin .. I'm off now to look at Dave's site. Newfoundland is such a great place !