Several years ago I visited the RSPB Rainham Marshes to see if I could include it as a research site for my PhD at Sheffield University. A quick walk round was enough to make me realise that it would be great. I wanted to see how people thought about places that were once derelict and now had new uses as green spaces. Rainham Marshes was perfect and had the added bonus of being both a former military site and surrounded by industry, roads, railways and the river. I have just been awarded my PhD and want to thank Howard, the volunteers and the members of the public who were generous enough to take the time to talk to me about the site. It’s been fascinating to hear what this place means to you and I’d like to just highlight a few of the things I found out.
One surprise was the way in which people make sense of the changes that have taken place here. It’s as if there is a thread of continuity that runs through the history of the site and even includes the time it was derelict. All the layers of history are important as they become part of the stories told about the marshes – dodging bullets to go bird watching on the lagoons, picnicking in the abandoned cordite store, running wild as children across the wasteland, hearing gunshots whilst eating Sunday lunch, even just travelling past on the train when the MOD was here. The site now is truly a collage of the different layers of its history. The best examples of this are the uses that wildlife and nature now makes of the decaying military artefacts – the different habitats in the cordite store and the barn owl roosting in the lookout tower.
The relationships between these different historic layers are also important. The new boardwalk runs parallel to the roads, railway tracks and industrial yards and warehouses, so you are very aware of them and for most people they are part of the atmosphere - part of the story of Rainham Marshes. One person pointed out “if we never saw all of the industrial buildings it may lose part of its glamour. Everything’s about contrast”. In fact more people commented on the industrial history than on the military. But the decaying military structures and remnants gradually being taken over by nature did conjure up memories. People liked having a visual reminder of the past. Some wished there was more evidence of the MOD’s presence - there is always a question of which historical layers to keep and which to allow to disappear.
People also pointed out the small-scale juxtapositions between nature and culture, especially little details like a bird perched on barbed wire or on a galvanised metal handrail. The design of Rainham doesn’t shy away from these relationships but let’s them speak for themselves. Sometimes you notice them and sometimes you just pass by, more interested in a bird sighting. My research showed that for many people this is something they love about the site, it’s another way of understanding its history. As one interviewee said “it’s that kind of past, present and future. All three of those are equally important. If you do away with one of them, then you lose the kind of integrity of the site”.
Catherine Heatherington www.chdesigns.co.uk