The hulks at Hoo

Shaped like a horse’s head sniffing the breeze, the Hoo peninsula sticks out into the sea between the estuaries of the Thames and the Medway. For most people it is recognisable as no more than an exit north off the A2 as the road charges past the London orbital and descends into the Garden of England. Once on Hoo, everything changes. The small woods and low hills on the west give way to an expanse of flat land and high skies. Avenues of electricity pylons march across the pastures, orchards and paddocks to the towering power stations at Kingsnorth to the south and Grain to the east. Much of it is marshland and tidal creeks, and these, together with the flooded remains of exhausted chalk and clay quarries, have become bird sanctuaries and wild-fowl shooting galleries. Two military firing ranges flank the northern coast. In winter, travellers bring their ponies to graze on the nature reserves, land now fenced off, which they have long regarded as an open space.

Before the land was drained in the 19th century, Hoo was notorious for “the unwholesome air from the neighbouring marshes”. It was the habitat of Anopheles atroparvus, the mosquito that carries malaria; a case was reported here as recently as the 1950s. Charles Dickens set the opening of Great Expectations in the marshes, and there are more claims to the actual location than there were endings to the novel. Most likely, Pip encountered Abel Magwitch in Cooling Churchyard, where the lozenge-shaped tombstones of Pip’s family are in fact the graves of the 13 children of the Comport family – none survived beyond 17 months. Wading through the bog on Cooling Marshes, Magwitch would be shocked to discover that he was fleeing under the proposed flight path of the third London airport, although Dickens borrowed features from two other villages and the southern shore, the Medway rather than the Thames, for Magwitch’s flight.

Across the water from Hoo Fort is Horrid Hill, the mooring for some of the grimmest prison hulks during the Napoleonic wars. In David Lean’s film, Magwitch’s attempted escape from this “wicked Noah’s ark” was filmed on Hoo’s smallest island, Bishop Ness, barely more than a patch of mud in the river, just past what is now the jetty for Kingsnorth. Westwards from here, the shore curves around a vast mudflat and salt marsh before ending up at West Hoo Creek. At high tide you can see a gaggle of derelict boats partly submerged in the water, but at low tide – some 5m lower – the creek turns into a slithery expanse of gloop, running with veins of draining rivulets, leaving the boats splayed in the mud.

This mud – the Gault or blue clay – is Hoo’s glory. Fired in a kiln with chalk it is used to make cement and 557,000 tonnes of blue clay was dug from West Hoo Creek between 1881 and 1907. The “muddies” dug it by hand, loading the wet clay into a fleet of sailing barges, their boots specially stiffened to protect their calves from slipping against the shafts of their spades or “fly tools”. The muddies on Hoo came from the local villages, each producing its own gang. Well-paid in comparison with farm labourers, the work was closed to outsiders and kept in the family.

The barges would sail down an inlet at high water and moor in a circle. As the tide lowered, a particularly strong and fast muddie called a “hermit” would begin filling the barge’s front hold so that the clay would weigh down the bow, leaving the rudder free to float and rise with the returning tide. If the fully laden barge was sucked down by the marsh, it would cause a costly delay, so a chain was kept underneath the barge that the muddies could pull to break the suction. Their holds full of clay, the barges sailed back up the Medway to the cement works at Frindsbury and beyond. Inevitably, steam cranes were introduced and the demand for muddies declined. The wooden sailing barges’ days were numbered, too. Their infrastructure was built to take the strain of manual loading, not the tonne of wet clay that the cranes would dump by the grabful.

All the sailing barges hulked at Hoo St Werburgh were built at the close of the 19th century. Five were of wood, the sixth of steel. Esther, built in Faversham in 1900, went through three changes of ownership, spending most of the 1950s moored at Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey, where it was used as a tender for tankers at the Isle of Grain. It was hulked at Hoo St Werburgh some 20 years ago. The Remercie of Harwich was operated by the same family until the 1950s, and later served as a tender for Radio Caroline. Their commercial usefulness exhausted, most sailing barges ended up as houseboats.

West of the creek at Hoo St Werburgh there is a marina with a colony of these houseboats; sailing barges, Dutch barges, various motor fishing vessels, a former naval pinnace – all manner of craft and conversions. Eventually, as their condition deteriorates, and there is no scope or will for repair, they are towed clear of the channels and hulked on the salt marsh. On days when the tide is out and the clouds come in, and the small islands on the Medway merge with the horizon, the boats lie clear of the water in their muddy berths, and in this overcast light, you can see inside their shadows.

An exhibition, ‘Pictures from the Hoo Peninsula’, is at the Janet Borden Gallery, New York, from March 31 to May 5,

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