Hey I’m off to Hoo! Hoo, who can that be? Ho ho, it’s a peninsula actually, magic area of land by sea. Marvellous land by Medway! So land between rivers actually! It’s midway between Thames and Medway, engulfed by their estuaries, the Thames big and long, and the Medway one meandering, curling along the shores, with many tiny islands dotted on the map within it. Why Hoo? Because I have long since seen it from the air, from a plane! That’s where I first noticed this unusual coastline, from my then-aerial viewpoint. I’d noticed the many tiny islands several times when on flights to the continent, and that intrigued me as I couldn’t place those islands in my mind. So I looked at a map and there I found them. So off to Hoo on land I am to see them from below on the land, rather than from up in the air!
To get here, take the train to Strood to start with, for Strood is on the edge of Hoo – think of it as the oo-zone – it’s a kind of borderland between just-England, and Hoo-peninsula-England. Unexpectedly perhaps for this somewhat hidden or hardly well-known location, trains from St. Pancras are high speed trains, speeding as if they are on their way to some big and famous destination, like TGVs in France – and if you don’t happen to be in a tunnel, you view flatland from the window, and power stations, industry. Industrial train line this is, rather than peninsula-promise! The tunnels are punctuating your view in frequent intervals, surprisingly frequent for flatland: unexpected underground-train lines we find.
I saw ‘Hoo Junction’ whilst on the train! This is the the first place where railway meets peninsula, with one line going down to Strood, whilst the other line goes straight into Hoo! I wish I could continue my journey here but this Hoo-line is for freight trains only. So it’s a no-go, a no-travel line for passengers – but it’s curious how you can see the side-line here, how it enables you, even entices you to imagine the possibility of going along this line: it’s a choice you might have in theory because the track is already laid out, ready for use. And yes indeed, once upon a time it was a passenger line, it wasn’t even the only one but it had another line beside this line. Hoo was so much more connected then!
Once arrived at Strood station, I take the bus to its destination, Isle of Grain. Yes Isle: there’s an isle at the end of the bus route! It’s because it used to be an island, this peninsula-tip, near-island head, so Grain still retains its Isle-name. In earlier times a tiny river-let, the Yantlet Creek, had cracked the sea open for Grain to be an island. Now, to be precise in elemental, i.e. in land-and-sea terms: the land I am on is a peninsula, and the village I will arrive was an Isle!
The bus-route criss-crosses the coast-lined land: first it’s at the bottom, then in the middle, then at the top: south, middle, north, the journey goes, up and down, coast to coast. And here is the point of the peninsula: once the second coastline on the other side approaches, the ‘peninsulation’ has been completed. It seems too that the energy changes when this happens: at first the land feels more and more like a peninsula – and then the peninsula feels more and more like an island! So the duplication of coast from one to two takes its effect on the psyche, and it’s exciting.
Hoo! Now let’s unveil its meaning: Hoo means ‘spur of Land’; Grain means ‘gravel’. Midway in the bus journey, you find Hoo Village, and it’s doubled up with St. Werburgh: that may sound German but actually St. Werburgh was the daughter of King Wulfere of Mercia, a pre-English kingdom, situated right at the centre of England, geographically: despite its central location then, Mercia means ‘border people’! Was this one of the early moves ‘from margin to centre’, or the other way round? Mercia’s flag reminds one perhaps of a not-quite- border(ing) land: it looks like Scotland in shape and in the blueness of its background – only the cross (of the St. Andrew’s kind) is yellow, not white.
Power-station-land Hoo is too: the presence of the power station is overwhelming, overpowering. From the bus you don’t just see it on one side, but also on the other side, just like the coastline! Power-peninsula this is! It’s intensive, powerful, strange, you can’t miss it, this power-station, this omnipotence, its presence, it’s there in sight for all to see, especially the chimney, and all the other chimneys you discover as you survey the powered skyline, with all that smoke!
The sun sets by the power station, as if the station wants to compete with the energy of the sun! The station is big, maybe even the biggest station in the world! But it’s nothing compared with the sun! There’s no comparison there, yet the sights of power are everywhere, there’s power in the air: dotted around the coast are transformers where you least expect them. Then there’s this permanent sound of being switched on. So here are not just sights but sounds of power production. Every sense is powerfully engaged.
As I said, I have gone here to go island-hunting – searching for this tiny-little-islands-landscape that I remember from the plane: how does this landscape look like from the earth itself, where I usually am?
The peninsula-land (don’t confuse this with la-la-land, say peninsu-land instead if tempted) turns out to be quite tightly surrounded by lights from elsewhere, each time on some ‘other’ side: At the end of the peninsula in the north the other side is Southend – and at that same end but looking towards the south, the other side is Sheerness. And I, on this half-island, am in the middle! – it’s like a sandwich kind of ‘islandy land’! The little tiny Medway Mouth islands, however, which I am looking for, are not in sight from here. They are further to the south of me, not here at this point by the sea.
Not only this (Isle of) Grain (of land) but these islands I am after belonged to the land once too, just like a lot more land belonged to the overall land: there was a connection beneath us all, and this was Doggerland! Once upon a time the sea in the far flung past, this sea that will eventually sink the coastline a little further, had caught so-called ‘Doggerland’. Just like we could catch fish, the sea can catch land, and take it for itself, expand its element at the expense of ours, earth-land.
Doggerland is a very long gone under-water-sunken-land, now ‘underground extension’ -, which properly only existed until the end of the Ice Age. It had at first been so large that it connected England with what’s now continental Europe. Like Robert MacFarlane had been on the edge of Doggerland in Essex, (described in his story “Silt” (2012)), I am on the edge of it here. The fact of land-connectedness then leads us a tiny little inch closer and further back to ‘Pangea’ too, which was our first stable super-continent, when all of us had been joined up on this one (pangea-)land. That is, we would all have been on one common land, a world-land, if we had existed then – but the ‘Age of Pangea’ was long before any of us human beings came on the scene.
When we did start to come on the earth-scene, Doggerland was an ‘integral part of Europe’, if one can say so for such prehistoric times, when more and more of us had migrated here and were settling here, having come originally out of Africa. And now Doggerland is so ancient it’s out of common memory, less mythical than Atlantis, not as spectacular. Not all of Doggerland however, has been lost into oblivion, the name still lives on in the shape of a ‘Doggerbank’, though of note only as a place-name in the Shipping Forecast. There, in the middle of the sea, are the remains of a land, now less than an almost-land, for not even a tiny little island or a single rock reaches above water: everything is a kind of underground, undersea relic. It’s amazing thought though. A land in the offing if we could be lucky… but a drowned sand bank is now all there is. If we were fishes, things would look different of course. We would be able to see things then which we cannot see as earthlings.
Next day I go island-hunting yet again, Medway river mouth island hunting. I walk around the edge of the coast, and on my way – how could it be otherwise – the big imposing power-station greets me again, once again from various angles. Each of the tall towers is like a big lighthouse, but it’s not, it’s a powerhouse. I’m on a power-land, with empowered coast. This is pure power – though animals might see it otherwise, and we might possibly sometimes do well to take after them.
Meanwhile my mobile phone is losing its battery power! Despite the all-embracing power station everywhere in sight, I cannot charge my phone! There’s no plug in the land from which I can access the electricity, the electri-city: a station so big it’s easily like a city, truly. This electri-city also keeps off access to the islands which I am after! No wonder so many people don’t know about these islands because they are hard-to-reach and even hard-to-see. I’ll try my luck again tomorrow from Lower Stoke. Today I’ll go north instead, thus moving from facing Sheerness towards facing Southend.
Last night the tide was all-out but today it’s all-up! With the up-tide I have temporarily lost access to this other dimension that low tide makes possible: the access to more land which is now gone, now covered, now under-water. Now the tide is high and the surplus-land, the liminal land, the constantly transitioning water/land, is covered, camouflaged, kept away from view. Now the outlines of the land that’s left, the always-land, are tighter and less ambiguous.
Sunset interlude, sun’s setting magic: it sets opposite the beach, so I found it behind me in the bushes. There it was, among the bush- and tree-lined sky-line in the dunes-turned-land. Then the evening and the sun setting process further on: the road from this end-village – i.e. village at the end of the island-turned-peninsula -, this road is the ideal vantage-point for the ending of the sunset. The sky is now orange in the rest of England, and it is dark at sea. The sea is where the sun came from this morning, as it does every day at this morning-time – but during the course of the day it moves towards England, so to speak, so to observe. So to see: the power station from here is marked in the form of three tall top-lit towers, like Three Wise Men, letting you know that this is the village at the end of road – last but not least.
The power station too blocks access to the islands I am after! It seems to be a matter of power over islands – and not the other way round! And so I go again, to a different part of land along the Medway river mouth, to try and see the now-almost-lost islands that I had spotted from above, from the plane. So to sea! So to Stoke, first of all, for this is my village for today, in my undertaking. If I walk from Stoke to the sea, I should be able to see these ever more mysterious-sounding mini-isles. But the road to the sea was long, and I ended up enjoying the pretty village and the land as it is. So I shelved my isle-hunt for another time. I will keep on trying, until I will see from the land, what I had already seen from the air, and from where I know them to be there – and what I too, had seen on the map, from where I know these islands are fact. So getting there is possible, it’s just the vicissitudes of power that may be in the way!