Time and Space Residency at METAL in Chalkwell

I am researching a new project, WETlands, about fragile wetland habitats and the potential effects of climate change on them. I have received a Time and Space Residency with UK arts organisation, METAL in Chalkwell (Southend on Sea) for research in the Thames Estuary in May 2018. As part of my activity during the residency, I will explore the 29 mile Thames Estuary Path from Tilbury to Leigh-on-Sea, using drawing, video and photography to document my walks. 

I also have received generous donations of drawing materials from Global Art Supplies and from Great Art, both of whom previously supported my Tide Line Thames project.

I am looking forward to my stay in Chalkwell House, the Grade II listed Georgian building that is home to METAL in Southend. Built in 1830, it sits within Chalkwell Park with views across the Park and beyond to the Thames Estuary to Kent.

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CHALKWELL HOUSE & TWO TREE ISLAND

I arrived at Chalkwell House, METAL's home in Southend on a wet and blustery afternoon. This Georgian building is beautifully situated in the middle of Chalkwell Park. My bedroom, one of two for artists-in-residence, overlooks the park's well-tended gardens and has a stellar view out towards the Estuary. 

I spent the next day on Two Tree Island, an Essex Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve. It's 634 acres includes salt marshes and mudflats. The island was originally reclaimed from the sea in the 18th century. An Old Sewage Works was built and abandoned and the site also had been used as a corporate rubbish tip. The island subsequently reverted to nature. From 1988 - 1991, an improvement scheme raised the seawall and covered exposed areas with topsoil to create additional habitat for wildlife. I since have read Rachel Lichtenstein’s book, Estuary: Out From London to the Sea, and learned that toxic chemicals dumped here (including PCBs) continue to leach into the surrounding wetland.

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True to form, I gravitated towards whatever geometrical structures I could find in the Reserve. I was intrigued with the views from the island's half overgrown bird hides, provisional structures in which I could see the landscape from innumerable angles. 

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Fisherman's Chapel

On a wet Wednesday morning, I stopped in for coffee and a chat at the Fisherman's Chapel in Leigh-on-Sea. I met some lovely members of the congregation, one of whom sailed. He went home to bring me back a nautical chart of the whole Thames Estuary, from Tilbury to North Foreland and Orfordness. What a fantastic gift!

The whole map measures 79 by 112 cm. The sliver below shows my current area of exploration on the North shore from Tilbury to Southend. I am intrigued by the visual notation and nautical language of this chart. I look forward to studying it and perhaps incorporating some of this visual language into drawings made in the studio.   

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From Tilbury to East Tilbury on the Thames Estuary Path

I walked from Tilbury to East Tilbury on the Thames Estuary Path, a distance of 7 miles, carrying my camera, tripod and the day's food and water. My stamina was tested, but I could not otherwise have accessed the fantastic industrial structures on the water side of the seawall. 

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I came upon the Deep Water Drilling Ship SERTAO, docked in front of the partially demolished Tilbury Power Station. Despite my preference for the use of renewable energy sources, I can't help responding to the colour and form of this fossil-fuel behemoth.

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I am drawn to “viewfinders in the landscape” – elements of built structures that I can use to set off, frame, define or interact with the remnants of more natural terrains. But the entire Estuary landscape, even its seemingly "natural" features, has been channeled and shaped by maritime, industrial and military interventions for centuries.   

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Multiple elements comprise the flood defenses in the Thames Estuary. There are engineered Barriers – the massive Thames Barrier in Woolwich and smaller moveable barriers on the River Roding (Barking Barrier), River Darent (Dartford Barrier) and in the tidal creeks around Canvey Island (Fobbing Horse, East Haven and Benfleet Barriers). 

In places, there is a high seawall which blocks the view of the Estuary. If you are on the water side of the seawall you are invisible from the land side. These sections of the seawalls are inviting locations for graffiti.

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Supplementing the cement sea wall, grassy berms and partially paved inclines leading to the water's edge also form part of the Estuary’s flood defenses. In the event of a North Sea storm surge and in the face of rising sea levels, will existent flood defenses be sufficient to protect Estuary communities and remaining wetland habitats?

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This Radar Tower at Coalhouse Point was used to defend the Thames during World War II. It was constructed on the site of a 15-cannon military blockhouse built in the 16th century. The blockhouse is now flooded due to erosion of the river bank. This information is from the handy phone app for the Thames Estuary Path.

Canvey Island Reflections

I took two buses from Chalkwell Park to reach Canvey Island. I then walked down to the Lobster Smack pub at the end of Haven Road and climbed up and over the seawall. On the other side, I walked past the Port of London Authority Holehaven Pier and along Hole Haven Creek. From here you can see the partially demolished Coryton Refinery, which shut down in 2013 after numerous serious safety incidents. 

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The photos and video I took on Canvey Island focused on a jetty that traverses the wetlands and on its reflection in Hole Haven Creek. I was fascinated by the way the incoming tidal current abstracted and dissolved the reflected geometry of the jetty to make striated drawings in the water. 

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In the Estuary, the oil and gas, shipping and waste disposal industries have reshaped the landscape, severely impacting wetlands and the natural world. I find myself in the ambivalent position of being attracted to residual industrial structures for their visual and formal qualities, while recognizing the environmental damage caused by the petrochemical and refining industries. 

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While I was photographing and filming, a pair of Shelducks were noodling around, feeding on the incoming tide.

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Brushwood Groynes

On a return trip to Two Tree Island, I saw rudimentary fence-like structures in the mud flats, odd bits of wood wired to bundles of sticks, lining the small creeks that run through the salt marsh. To me they looked like bits of coppiced fence, strangely situated in the mud. I have since learned that these are brushwood groynes, placed to protect or restore the intertidal zone, defined as the area of the foreshore between the average high and low water levels.

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This intertidal zone plays a significant role in the structure and functioning of estuarine and coastal ecosystems. It is susceptible to natural and manmade stresses, including coastal squeeze of the foreshore in front of sea defences, erosion exacerbated by sea level rise, pollution, dredging and sedimentation. Mitigation is often required to support the natural recovery of the intertidal zone.

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My interest in wetlands and the intertidal zone in the Thames Estuary dovetails with the focus of my recent Tide Line Thames project in London, which looked at the river and its architectural structures – also between the high and low tide lines.

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