Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Frost, mist and memories

There was a hard frost on the reserve this morning as I arrived and mist was beginning to drift across the marsh. This was the view as I began walking away from the barn.

Footprints in the frost.

And a rather bleak view looking towards the rising sun and the sea wall.

 I had hoped to get closer to these White-fronted Geese but they took flight before that was possible.

An hour later and this was the visibility along the sea wall.......

......and across the marsh, but blue skies and warm sunshine did arrive later on.

Yesterday I was talking to the owner of our local Farm Shop, who is the same age as me and also like me, spent his earlier years working on Sheppey's marshes. We got talking about my time working for the old Kent River Authority and the fact that the old ways of doing things just aren't there anymore. The KRA itself doesn't exist either, it's just a few unskilled men working as part of the Environment Agency now. Below you can see me in 1969, aged 22, somewhere on the Sheppey marshes.

I've posted most of these photos before but they're worth repeating to show how things have changed.
In those days, in early summer, a gang of around six of us, would spend a couple of months walking right round the Sheppey coastline mowing and raking the sea wall grass as we went. Today it's done by one guy on a tractor with an extending arm. Oh to be that young and fit again.

After the mowing had been completed we would then turn our attention to the cleaning of two of the main drainage ditches on Sheppey,  below you can see that I am busy cutting through the club rush alongside one of them. The ditches were all cleaned the hard way, by hand. After cutting the reeds we would then pull out the stuff growing in the ditch with long handled grabs. Despite how hard it was I always found it to be very satisfying looking back at the finished result and it was my favourite job. Today one man with a tractor and an extending arm does it.

The winter would see us either repairing groynes (breakwaters) along the beaches, or repairing eroded sections of sea walls, normally in some remote part of the Sheppey marshes. Once again it was done in about as hard a way as was possible. We used rocks of various sizes to re-fill the erosion and they arrived by barge that was floated as close as possible to the sea wall and we would then un-load the rocks literally by hand and by throwing them over the side into the water. The hold of this barge would of been full to the top and we would un-load around a 90-100 tons in a day. The rocks were placed onto wooden planking hooked on the inside of the hold and then we would climb onto it and throw them overboard. That's me at the front. Archaic and bloody hard work but boy did we have muscles!

At low tide we would then recover the rocks from the mud, chip them to a rough square with hammers and then drive them into the sea wall with wooden "pummers", basically something akin to a wooden log with two handles, as you can see me using here. There was a surprising skill involved here because not only were the rocks shaped in a certain way with the hammer but the section of repair would be left as level and tight as any crazy paving. Today the rocks arrive by lorry, are not shaped and simply tipped onto the eroded part of the sea wall and left.

One last memory from those days was of a farm bailiff on one of the Harty farms, who would still ride round the farm and it's marshes on a horse. In that way he missed very little to do with the farm and it's livestock. Today, it's normally done by a farmer charging about on a quad bike!


  1. From the mists of time, Derek! Much of the sort of labor you describe is still done hand around here in Belize; machetes, scythes, rock, and barges. We have a fantastic blend of manual labor and high tech devices. But, oh to be young and fit again. In my early 20s, I worked my way through university by doing farm labor for agricultural research (my major was plant pathology). We hand-picked cotton, corn, tomatoes and took soil cores for testing in the lab. It was hot sweaty work in Georgia summers, but I loved it. Especially the memory of it!

  2. Wilma, it's lovely to get to an age where we have such lovely memories but so difficult having to struggle to do the things that we used to do.

  3. Some more images from the 'Derek porn files'. Great write up and love the frost shots. You can hear the cracking of footsteps in those shots.

  4. Interesting look back Derek, but I am not sure today's methods are anything like as efficient. When you are doing these jobs by hand I think you see much more exactly what wants doing, rather than rushing past on a quad bike.

  5. I agree entirely Pat, many's the time I've had to ring the reserve's grazier and advise of a cow in a ditch because he simply drives through in a straight line.

  6. Not sure about the "porn" bit Marc, although at the time I'd of probably been "up" for it - rather more "down" these days.

  7. Superb set of photos from the old days on Sheppey, Derek. Just goes to show that it wasn't that long ago when man power was the order of the day. I know what you mean about the satisfaction of looking back on a days hard labour, as for 15 years I worked on the roads laying gas mains. Alright when you`re young, but couldn`t do it now.

  8. Hello Derek, You've taken such atmospheric photos of Sheppey at this time of year. I like the memories as well - of course it's all men in machines around here now, too. I wonder how much they can observe of the countryside around them.

  9. Hello Wendy, what a beautiful blog that you have, just been reading it.
    The answer to your question is, very little, and to be honest I don't think that bothers most of them.