On the Thames estuary

"The estuary doesn’t yield all its secrets on first glance. An hour or so out from the Isle of Sheppey, we arrive at seven bizarre constructions that look as if they belong in War of the Worlds..."

The smell comes first. The sea salts the air, and the mud over which it ebbs and flows adds a rotting, brackish note. Newcomers glance around, wafting their hands suggestively before their noses, keeping it out. To savour a proper lungful of this air is to admit something difficult - that this unarguably ugly landscape, where the grey sea meets the grey sky with barely a smudge of mud in between, is beautiful.

There is more sky here, where the Thames and the Medway meet the North Sea, somehow. The great man-made structures that thrust upwards into it, like the power stations on the Isle of Grain or the cranes at the port of Sheerness, only serve to emphasise how much more there is. What would be an eyesore elsewhere is accepted by the people who sail these waters without comment, as they accept the smell or the mud.

The estuary doesn’t yield all its secrets on first glance. An hour or so out from the Isle of Sheppey, we arrive at seven bizarre constructions that look as if they belong in War of the Worlds - the Maunsell Red Sands forts. Built in 1943, these now-rusty steel boxes-on-legs housed hundreds of men during WWII who used anti-aircraft guns to bring down planes on their way to bomb London. Planting these forts miles out to sea was no mean feat of engineering, and they are a reminder of how desperate, and improbable, some of our war-time defences were. Since being decommissioned in the 1950s, the forts have housed pirate radio stations, trespassers, film crews, scientists and conservationists, but no fixed plan has ever been made for their future. Decades later, the sea is wearing them down - it’s not clear how much longer they can stand and wait for us.

William Raban’s 1987 work Thames Film uses a clever technique of sliding contemporary and historical footage of the estuary together so that different moments in time appear to co-exist. Watching the forts recede over the horizon again, it seems to me as if the whole estuary is made up of such layers. As a child, I spent my weekends and school holidays staring at the horizon from the rolling deck of my parents' boat, curious as to why, if you could sail anywhere, it would be on this smelly, featureless stretch of water. Once a teenager, dragged unwillingly on night-time excursions to the Netherlands, I would sulk on the foredeck, dropping angry tears into the miraculous phosphorescence that bloomed under the boat's bow. Returning now after an absence of years, I want to be able to recapture that grim fury, but it won't come. I can only stare at the sky.

Estuary opens at the Museum of London this evening, 17 May, and runs until 27 October

An image of the Maunsell Red Sands forts from William Raban’s "Thames Film".

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

GETTY
Show Hide image

The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.