Friday, 24 April 2015

National Marsh?

Can a marsh and a military canal be a national park? asks Sam Taylor

Written by Sam Taylor
‘All my thoughts are directed towards England. I want only for a favourable wind to plant the Imperial Eagle on the Tower of London,’ Napoleon proclaimed in 1802. And, as far as the British army was concerned, he would be making his way over Romney Marsh.

The marsh – a vast area of outstanding natural beauty that has inspired writers and artists for centuries – covers about 100 square miles of Kent and East Sussex, most of it below sea level, bordered by the towns of Rye and Hythe.

Within its boundaries are the unique wooden shacks that sit on the shingle at Dungeness and made famous by the film-maker Derek Jarman. Along with the less charming nuclear power station. Its humming is an audible feature of the landscape and in high winds it can sound really rather alarming – we used to have one of the shacks and I have no wish to go back. But the marsh itself is captivating, with centuries of stories full of smuggling and sheep rearing, of floods and famine, and rare plants and even rarer wildlife.


Recently, there has been a call to make the area into a national park, our 16th. Although as calls for the South Downs to be given this status were first made in 1947, and not granted until 2009, I doubt it will happen any time soon.

The military canal that crosses the marsh was originally conceived in 1804 as a line of defence against the determined Frenchman and his army (although as they frequently crossed the Danube, it is unclear how this small strip would have been able to stop them).  The canal was finally finished in 1809 and Napoleon defeated six years later, so its military use was short-lived.

The canal was finally finished in 1809 and Napolean defeated six years later, so its military use was shortlived.

Still, it is a remarkable feat of engineering, designed by John Rennie, who also gave us London and Waterloo Bridges. It stretches from the River Rother to Cliff End, East Sussex, 28 miles in length. Filled with water from the sea and the River Rother, it measures 62ft at its widest point, 44ft at the bottom and 10ft deep.

At full strength, there were over 1,500 men a day digging out its deep curve, using only picks and shovels, with the soil being removed by wheelbarrows. In the end, it cost a staggering £234,310, all of which was paid for by the state.

For a while, it was used as a means of moving goods, but as soon as the Ashford to Hastings railway opened in 1851, that ended. Now, its tree-lined banks off er natural drainage and a fluid spine across this flat landscape, unique in every way and certainly worthy of the term national park. If only to see off the wind turbines.

Next week: Solar heating

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