Sunday 29 December 2013

Woods and Marshes

I was in Surrey this weekend and as usual this last year when I've been down there, I had a wander round Hawley Woods and heath. I was struck by how open to view that the woods had become, every last leaf had been blown off the trees, and cottages close by, invisible throughout the summer and autumn, had now lost all their privacy.
Of course, none of this comes as a new revelation to people used to woods all the year round but as someone who has spent a lifetime in the wide open spaces of Sheppey's marshes it's all quite fascinating to me. The bracken and other undergrowth had all died away to leave just naked tree trunks and the well trodden paths that I normally followed through the undergrowth had now disappeared against the bare woodland floor where humps and hollows that I didn't know existed had become exposed. All those places where just a few months ago I was trying to identify woodland fungi were now covered in a deep layer of leaf litter, and the ever-present Robin song now echoed through the trees rather than being muffled by the overhead canopy. It was all so reminiscent of that passage in the Wind in the Willows when the Mole made off to the Wild Wood one winter's day -
"the country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and intimately into the inside of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been the mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically............"

It all makes winter sound terribly romantic and yet me, I prefer the memories of high summer in the woods - stepping out from the shade of the pine trees into pools of hot sunshine, the sweet scent of the gorse in flower, the buzz of bees in early heather flowers - long, hot summer days and arthritic bones make perfect bedfellows, not so short, dark and cold winter days.

Back on the reserve on Sheppey the only marked variations that we tend to get throughout the year are the fact that it is either very dry or very wet and at the moment, as the photos below show, we are now entering our very wet phase. I took these at dawn on Boxing Day and since then the water has continued to rise as the water drains out of the higher farmland alongside. Clearly we are going to experience our normal winter flooding and will now see the hoped for upsurge in wildfowl and waders. Signs of this were evident on Boxing Day as a few more Teal, Mallard and even a pair of Pintail sprang up from various flooded areas, unfortunately one of the Pintail was immediately despatched by a waiting wildfowler, which I could of done without. But once large areas of the grassland become flooded it tends to float up the various weed and sedge seeds that are laying around, making them easily available to the ducks to find and eat. This can then have the effect of limiting the attraction of the farmland corn fed shooting ponds for the ducks and therefore reducing the opportunities for them to be shot, hopefully.
These twice yearly weather effects always seem to be so pronounced and typical on the North Kent marshes, this year the reserve was around 40%  flooded until well into the early summer and then we had around three months of fairly hot and rain-free weather which brought about large cracks in the ground. It was almost as if the snow, the rain and the cold Spring had never happened as rain spent months going round Sheppey, rather than actually over it, the sun became more constant, butterflies flourished, and yet now, here we are, back with an excess of water!

 months weather.

Thursday 26 December 2013

Elmley School

It's becoming increasingly sad to see the old Elmley Schoolhouse now pretty much in it's last death throws before it finally falls down, or has to be knocked down for safety's sake. It now looks even worse than this photo, taken a couple of years ago.

 It is some way from it's former glory, as this faded photo taken in the 1920's shows and in those days it still stood alongside the long-gone Elmley church.

But how did it all begin.
Well in 1872, schooling had become compulsory throughout the country and to accommodate this upsurge of children being forced into the classroom, new schools began to spring up in towns and villages everywhere. In 1841 the population on Elmley, Sheppey, was recorded as just 42, being made up of the main Kingshill farm and numerous small labourers' cottages dotted around the marshes. However by 1851 it had shot up to 131, the result of a short-lived brick making factory that started alongside the Swale there. By 1860 the brickworks had ceased to be, being taken over by a cement manufacturing factory on the same site. At it's height the Turkey Cement works had spawned a mini village alongside with a main street, numerous cottages and some houses, a pub-come grocers and a small dock. It meant that by 1891 the total population living on Elmley had risen to 219 people. This growing population, coupled with the farming inhabitants nearby, clearly needed the addition of a proper school out at Elmley. There are various dates given for when Oxford University, the owners of Elmley, built the new Public Elementary School (mixed) at Elmley, with 1885 being the most prominent. Whatever the actual date, the school was built around that time and was built on the high ground above the cement works, alongside the recently re-built Elmley church, midway between the works and Kingshill Farm. The school had a teacher's office, room for around 86 pupils and a small, separate toilet building.
A slight query to the above date concerns the 1881 Census, because recorded as living at Kingshill Farm that year were the family of  Thomas Goodwin, the farm bailiff and a 31 yr. old National schoolmistress Amy Wells from Deal. So either the school was built earlier than suggested or Miss Wells was already teaching from the farm or another building.

Clearly the living arrangements for the new school's mistress weren't appropriate because a budgetry inventory for all the buildings on Elmley through the years had this entry for 1885,  under  the heading -The School House.
1885 - 22 October; estimated cost of necessary repairs and alterations to north portion of farmhouse (Kingshill) in order to convert it into a residence for the schoolmistress - £53.10.0. Estimated cost for sundries, i.e. wicket gates, posts for new footway from farmhouse to church £3.5.0.
I understand that a concrete path was eventually laid from Kingshill farm to the school and church in order to make it easier for the schoolmistress to walk there and small lengths of the edging can still be found along there.
Although they don't appear to have been happy about it, local Rates for the schoolmistress's house had to be paid for by the various tenant farmers at Kingshill until 1913, when the tenant that year declined to do so, and so in the April of that year the Kent Education Committee finally agreed to pay them themselves.

Going back to there being room for 86 pupils, it's doubtful that an attendance figure of that magnitude was ever reached. Despite schooling being compulsory, children were still in the habit of "bunking off" at harvest time in order to earn a few coppers in the fields for their families. Sometimes school start times in September were even delayed in order to facilitate these needs. The highest average attendance that I have seen recorded was 49 in 1891, at the height of Elmley's population figures. Thereafter, with the closing of the cement factory by 1908, the population on Elmley dwindled as people moved away to find other work and by 1907 it was down to 146, 1911 - 50 and 1931 - 19. A school attendance figure for 1907-8 shows between 8 and 14 pupils and so the school was clearly feeling the effects.

Following on from the first schoolmistress, Miss Wells, the schoolmistress by 1891 was a 44 yr old widower by the name of Mrs Jane Beeby, originally from Essex. She had been replaced by 1904 by Mrs Jane Harris, a widower. She was still there in 1911 when the National Census recorded her as aged 60, a Certified Elementary Teacher born in Bloomsbury and living in the Kingshill School House.
From then on it has been difficult to find out the names of future teachers, although the school clearly remained open for many years after, despite the fact that it must of been reduced to educating just the few children of the farm labourers out there. The Gransden family farmed on Elmley for 45 years from the 1930's and the first four of their eventual 14 children were taught in the Elmley school until it's final closure in the early 1950's. After that, schooling for the Elmley children was given at Murston on the mainland side of The Swale and this involved the youngsters trecking across the fields to the Elmley Ferry and enduring the return trip across the tidal Swale in the rowing boat that served as the Ferry. Not an ideal situation, especially in the winter months and many days schooling were lost when adverse weather conditions made the trips impossible.

The Elmley church was pulled down in the 1950's and with the closure of the school around the same time, the school building quickly became little more than a storage building for the farm and even at one time, a chicken shed.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

The Weather, Pikeys and Elmley.

Well, after the delightful clear and frosty morning in my last posting the weather has become damp, damp and even damper. The trouble with mild winters such as we are currently experiencing is that they tend to come with lots of moisture laden south-westerly winds. This last few days have seen several mild and regularly drizzly days and even when it wasn't actually raining the wind itself seemed to be damp. It has meant that the daily visits to the reserve, or indeed any garden work, have become thoroughly mucky affairs involving lots of mud and water and unpleasant conditions.

That aside, I was intrigued this last weekend to see a feature in the Daily Telegraph about an MP who had referred to a post office worker as a "Pikey", which these days is usually a derogatory term used by people to describe travellers and gypsies. What caught my eye was mention of the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of "pikey" to a newspaper in 1838, referring to strangers from the Isle of Sheppey. Later in that century it was defined in the Dictionary of Kentish Dialect as "a turnpike traveller, a vagabond; and so a generally low fellow". Food for thought there!

A visit yesterday to a newly found distant relative on Sheppey, by myself and girlfriend Diane in pursuit of more knowledge of our family histories, came up trumps. We found an 87 year old lady with an amazingly sharp memory who was happy to feed us with both her accurate memories of our ancestors and some pretty exciting photographs, all alledgedly from the 1920's. I have posted a few of many below. PLEASE DO NOT COPY AND RE-USE THESE PHOTOGRAPHS.
The one below is taken outside Seaview Cottage down at the old Elmley cement works (details of Seaview Cottage were mentioned in my blog of 13th January this year). To the left of the photo is The Swale but more exciting, in the background is the old cement works, the first photo that I've seen that shows the actual building.

This one is also at Seaview Cottage during a break in hay-making and this time the cement works buildings in the left background seem to be a tad more derelict. Writing on the back of one these photographs states that the old factory was demolished in the early 1920's and the rubble taken by barge to make the Southend arterial road.

This one is the old Elmley Ferry, showing the larger boat that was used when livestock was needed to be transported across The Swale.

Again the old Elmley Ferry but from the Murston side looking towards Elmley. On the rear of the photograph, not seen to clearly on the photograph, writing states the following. The two posts with white boards on in the water Elmley side indicate that it was low tide. Behind the boat at anchor Elmley side, is a white square. This is the ferry hut and the ferryman was called from the Murston side by leaving the hut's doors open to show the white interior.

Lastly, another view of the old Elmley schoolhouse but this time showing the opposite end to others that have been published. This one shows the end alongside the outside toilets, which are not in view.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Mist and Frost

I arrived at the reserve this morning to receding mist, a hard frost and blue skies and sunshine, all combining to make quite a stunning morning.
This is only a brief post in order to show the geese there this morning, sitting in the frost marsh. These photos were only taken with my bog-standard Fuji so don't expect photographer speak about ISO's and could do better's, although the birds lets me get to almost 100yds of them, these are the best my camera does. I should also add that the birds were still there undisturbed when I moved away.
Below you can see the frosty scene that met me as I arrived.

The geese were all together as one flock and comprised c.130 Greylags and 72 White-fronts. Below are all Greylags.

Here you can see a couple of Greylags and the rest Whitefronts, showing the difference in size.

These two photos are all Whitefronts, they are surprisingly tame for wild birds.

Mixed birds

All Greylags

Monday 9 December 2013

Foxes and fings

As I suggested I would do at the end of my last posting, I arrived at the reserve yesterday morning at dawn, and just as the eastern sky was beginning to turn pink as the sun began to climb below the horizon.
I just love the dawn, no matter what time of year it is, it offers much promise for the ensuing day, it doesn't always turn out to be good but for that brief period in time, hope is always there. This photo looks eastwards along the reserve sea wall and in the distance you can just make out the buildings inside Shellness Hamlet.

Everything about that time of day is so great, birds become active again after a long night, they become vocal and the marsh echos to their calls, the sun gradually creeps higher until it peeps over the distant hills, the last dark corners brighten up and all of a sudden a new day is fully lit. The Greylag Geese below could feel it and they moved into the reserve for a wash and brush up after pre-dawn feeding out on the farmland winter corn fields.
Apart from the opportunity to enjoy such a wonderful time of day, I was also there to see if the local wildfowlers were out and about on the saltings, they've been so quiet this season, but despite the lure of the Greylag and White-fronted Geese there was nobody about, except a lone and early birdwatcher who appeared along the sea wall as the light began to brighten.

Driving home after my visit, I came across this young fox by "Capel Corner" along the Harty Road. It was drinking from a roadside puddle and as far as I could see it was fit and healthy, but it made no attempt to run off as my car approached. I drove past a few yards and stopped in the road, wondering if I might get a photo or two. By the time that I got out of the car the fox was sitting in the middle of the road, about ten yards away and seemingly taking in the view, not the way that nervous and truly wild foxes act.  

 I took a couple of photos and then to my amazement and despite the rabid barking of my two terriers who were looking at the "enemy" through the rear window of the car, the fox began to walk towards me. It got to within five yards and then eventually the barking of the dogs deterred it from getting any closer but I'm sure that without them there that I could of possibly almost stroked it.

Clearly this fox was not acting like any fox that I had come across on the Sheppey marshes, most get one glimpse of you and turn and run for their lives, this one was almost tame. It wasn't there when I went past earlier that morning, I came to suspect that some "do-gooder" had released it, hoping that it would have a happy life after being returned to the countryside, but it doesn't work like that. Elmley NNR has suffered for years from foxes, captured in cities such as London and being illegally released along the track out there.  They can be as unsure and scared of the wild countryside as some humans are and their trusting nature simply makes them vulnerable to being shot, the one above will surely suffer that fate in the near future.
Now I have mixed feelings in respect of foxes, having watched them almost wipe out a breeding colony of Avocets on the reserve, I fully accept and agree with then being controlled in the countryside where vulnerable species become threatened by their increased predation, but after yesterday the "but" gets much bigger. Looking at that young fox sitting on the road looking bewildered, it was almost like looking at one of my dogs and I know I could never be the one that pulled the trigger on it.    

Leaving that confusing and emotional subject behind, lets look at last week's mega North Sea surge. For many years I have complained and written to the Environment Agency about their annual mowing of the sea wall in front of the reserve. So many butterflies, moths and other types of wildlife use the long grass of the sea walls as both their refuge and breeding site that it has always seemed to be environmental vandalism to mow them so short every year. But at a pre-Christmas get-together at Elmley yesterday, all became clear. Apparently, if seawater manages to clear the top of the wall and run down the overgrown inland side of the wall, it will have to run through the tangled and un-mown vegetation and in doing so rips out the vegetation and then the exposed soil it is growing in. This happened to a section of the Elmley sea wall in last week's surge between Elmley Hill and the Elmley Ferry site. The sea wall there is lower than some others on Sheppey and as a result was over-topped and erosion was caused on the inland side, potentially weakening the wall and allowing some sea water to get into the fresh water fleet alongside. Photos taken by the reserve management show this to be case but fortunately they had their own on-site JCB and this quickly repaired the damage.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Grey Skies

It was a grey and gloomy morning as I arrived at the reserve mid-morning today, it was one of those less picturesque winter mornings, sun was forecast but it never arrived while I was there. As I began walking away from the barn I could hear the repeat shots of a game shoot in the distance, somewhere back towards Eastchurch, the weekly Sheppey farmers shoot.
It's a muddy old trek round the reserve's tracks now as the cattle continue to churn up the soft ground and the gateways but it's all part of the winter scene on the marsh, just a matter of accepting it. As I approached and then went round the back of the Flood field, the resident flock of mixed geese began to drop in from the farmland alongside (above). This morning the flock totaled 130 Greylag Geese and 70 White-fronted Geese and what a beautiful sound the Whitefronts make as they fly in and settle, all the time calling with that high-pitched, wild goose sound of theirs. The earth bund around the Flood field has numerous teasel and thistle heads along it's sides and from there a flock of 80 Goldfinch and a dozen Greenfinch got up in front of me as I walked. They've been around a few weeks now and despite visiting the same plants most mornings they never seem to tire of looking for the very last few seeds that might still be about.

Raptors are slowly starting to increase now, unlike the ducks. Marsh Harriers and Kestrels are there every day but there were also two ringtail Hen Harriers and a superb male about yesterday, plus single S.E. Owls, Peregrines and Merlin are also being seen, so gradually things are looking up at last. Certainly that's the case with the Brent Geese, they've taken up daily residence in a field of winter corn close to the track down from Harty Church and every day they provide a spectacular sight as 2-3,000 fly in from out on The Swale (see below). It can't be much longer before they incur the wrath of the farmer and suffer whatever action that he takes in order to protect his livelihood, so many geese acting as lawn mowers as they graze across the crop do not provoke friendly thoughts.

Skylark numbers are also a feature of the reserve at the moment, no doubt swollen by visitors from the Continent, most fields seem to have half a dozen or more birds get up and we have had as many as 40 birds so far this winter and always great to see. And just as their numbers have swollen so those of Coots have slowly decreased to nil, as I have mentioned before, this is a new feature of recent years, they never used to disappear in winter.
It was grey, it was gloomy but slowly brightening, and by the time I got to the top of the sea wall, it was also fairly mild, or so it seemed. I could see several bird watchers making their way out to Shellness beach, it seems to be coming quite popular all of a sudden, although with a very low tide this morning most birds were going to be quite distant. It seems quite amusing at times to see birdwatchers adopting the same tactics as the birds that they watch and flocking together, perhaps I'm the odd one out, preferring to do my bird watching on my own. But back to the sea wall and I was interested to see how far up it was the tide-line after Thursday's record tide surge. Clearly the saltings were well flooded but the sea wall did it's job and although the new tide-line of old plant material was a metre short of the top, it must of still been a scary scenario to have witnessed at the time, especially at Shellness Hamlet where there is no sea wall at the front.

Tomorrow morning I think I'll forsake part of my pre-dawn vigil watching the last couple of hours of the Test Match and be on the reserve at first light, it'll be interesting to see if the wildfowlers have been tempted by the geese numbers. Hard to believe that inland of the seawalls that there is only seven weeks of shooting time left, with it ending at the end of January.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Return Journey

Last Thursday Mick, my friend of nearly 50 years and I, travelled by rail and tube to the Royal Albert Hall to see Bob Dylan and his band. It was something of a return journey as the very first time that we saw Bob Dylan in concert was at the RAH in May 1966 and for Dylan, he has not been back there for the last 47 years. We have seen Dylan numerous times since then and for me, the last couple of concerts that I've seen, he has been pretty poor, this one was Bob Dylan at his very best, three consecutive nights and all sold out. With excellent, near front-row seats in a really magnificent venue, we could almost touch the old curmudgeon and we had a great evening. A hot Cornish pasty at Victoria Station, the train home, and tucked up in a warm bed by midnight, just as it should be for two aging hippies.

So different to that last time in 1966, when Dylan sang the first half to acoustic guitar and then for the second half, brought on The Band and played with loud electric backing and upset many of the audience, me, I recall finding it just as good. Our travel arrangements that time had also been different, we got dropped off at Westminster Bridge from a lorry driven by a friend of my father, had a wander around London and then walked out to the RAH in time for the concert.
After the concert had finished we then walked back into central London and eventually out to the A2 and began trying to hitch-hike home. Although at the time it was our usual method of getting to and fro from London, it was a long and tiring night but with the help of a few short lifts and a lot of walking, we eventually got back home at 8.00 the next morning. I immediately rushed round to the home of my young girlfriend to tell her all about our exciting night, but barely got the words "Bob Dylan was fantastic" out when she said "ah, sorry but things have changed." "Changed, what has changed" said I, "my ex-boyfriend has returned from the Merchant Navy" she said, "I'm going back with him."
Eventually we resumed our courtship twenty-five years later but that's another story. Below you see me in 1966 - playing guitar, myself and Mick to the right in the group of four and doing my best Dylan impression behind bars.