Bombs, Bullets, and Butterflies

Columns | R S Hughes | April 2011

Rainham Marshes is not a typical nature reserve. Every few minutes a train hurtles by on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, giant electricity pylons hiss and cackle, and fork lift trucks on nearby industrial compounds beep and shunt.

I am in the U.K. this month, and though this flat, wide marshland offers the chance to spot peregrine falcons, avocets, water voles and many other bird and animal species, all I’m really after is a bit of breathing space after a frenetic few days in London.

So I board the 11:05 from London Fenchurch Street and, after clattering past office blocks, council flats, allotments and water towers, under motorway flyovers and over old brick bridges, I arrive in nearby Purfleet within half an hour. Leaving the station, I drop down onto a footpath that runs along the lower reaches of the River Thames before it empties into the North Sea and walk west for 15 minutes.

Despite Rainham Marshes’ proximity to industry and infrastructure, there is still a truly wild feel here. The sky is big and the vistas are wide. After following the reserve’s loop for half an hour, past bird hides, bulrushes and small flocks of goldfinches and sparrows, I sit on a log on the northernmost boardwalk with my back to the train tracks and pylons. After a moment, a wren – one of Britain’s smallest birds – flits into a reed bed in front of me. Here it stays for a good few minutes before being frightened off by a grey heron just behind it. There are large numbers of ducks, gulls and waders out on the water and I keep scanning the skies for peregrines, but to no avail.

Rainham Marshes was once better known for bullets and bombs than birds and butterflies. The site was closed to the public for over 100 years and used as a military firing range. During World War II, it was a decoy bombing zone; huge fires were lit in an attempt to trick the Luftwaffe into dropping their bombs just a little too soon. Since 2000 though, it’s been owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and has been transformed into an important wildlife refuge, involving the clearing of a century of accumulated rubbish and unexploded ordnance, according to the East London Birders Forum.

All too soon, I have to leave. I exit the reserve past the visitor centre, a striking structure that has been built, wherever possible, from locally-sourced materials. Rain water is harvested, there are photovoltaic cells on the roof and sheep wool is used for insulation. As well as being environmentally friendly, its design also had to fulfill another modern-world brief; to provide extreme protection against vandalism. The building is only reached via drawbridges that can be hoisted up at night, cutting off access from the surrounding footpaths. Windows can be covered by timber-clad shutters.

I drop back onto the footpath along the Thames. It’s near here that Joseph Conrad’s epic Heart of Darkness begins: "The air was dark above Gravesend and further back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth."

Today it’s overcast; grey and drizzling. A tugboat lumbers by on the brown water and dog walkers mooch past, wrapped up warm. Rainham Marshes has provided some much-needed respite from the city. But now it’s back to London; I’m not sure if it’s the greatest town on earth, but there’s no doubting it’s one of the biggest. And the busiest.

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