A Landscape of Intervisibility (The Isle of Thanet)
The high-speed train from London St Pancras to Margate reduces speed by approximately half on the approach to and within Thanet: a reticent retardation. In this slower section of its route the train traces a long, section cut through the Wantsum, the lost sea channel, a zone of geomorphic drama and immense archaeological speculation.
Fires in the open landscape.
On an initial foray into the landscape of Thanet we walked from Minster along Marsh Farm Road to the river Stour.
The stretch of the river Stour on which we walked flowed directly toward a distant pyre, a landscape burning, somewhere in the vicinity of the decommissioned Richborough power station. We attempted to set our own fire in response, to relay the signal. But nothing burned in the sodden vicinity of the river. We later found on our walk back up Marsh Farm Road a damp pile of white cedar clippings fly-tipped against a hedgerow. Portions of this yielded a dense and aromatic smoke, sufficient to prompt a fire a few kilometres to the north, near to the embankment of the A 253.
That evening the Thanet beacons were lit: relay fires, signal sites; a ring of intervisible beacons linked to inland musters, and discrete, isolated lookouts.
From our lodgings in Broadstairs we set out on a series of forays at three points along the beacon relay on the western border of Thanet: from the ruins of the Reculver priory to the north; to the footpaths around the old port town of Sarre; and to the Roman fort at Richborough to the south. We spotted occasional fires and traces of smoke, but could not verify their intervisibility. Curiously, most seemed to have been set within the shallow valley folds of the Thanet landscape, near sheltered farms and small holdings, not on the higher vantage points. The fort and priory themselves had fallen out of use as beacon sites.
We observed and recorded the horizons of Thanet along the route. At observation point S 80 we spotted a distant smoke plume rising from somewhere within the industrial estates between Broadstairs and Margate. It was being blown horizontal by on shore breezes. It was recorded as NT 224371.
We gathered botanical specimens along the route, the ancient genetic heritage of hedgerow, meadow and river bank: cow parsley, yarrow, ivy root, jointed rush, common orache, old man’s beard, teasel and creeping thistle.
Looking back north from Richborough fort the whole of the Isle of Thanet seemed to stretch out before us, like a flat plateau to the sea. Even the steam rising from a pile of cattle manure in the mid distance had potential as a signal (177 ST 273156 (S 85).
The footpath to the fort continues beyond and down to a rail crossing to join the banks of the Stour and the route of the Saxon Shore Way. The path crosses the garden of a small holding nestled in the valley beneath the fort. Smoke drifted through its complex of out-houses, but we could not locate its source.
We attempted to set small fires in a sheltered knell by the rail crossing. But the exercise was futile. Nothing burned.
In a field beyond the knell we sat and drew the horizon, an exercise which yielded the ‘uncertain’ sightings 84 and 172.
Passing Manston on our return to Broadstairs we spotted a small fire smouldering beneath the wing of an Arab Emirates 747. Doused embers were then found in the ruins of World’s Wonder beyond on the B2050, well within the view-shed of the Manston fire.
Further smoke trails were spotted on the A256, where it dissects a property known as Ozengell Grange. The passage of the road has created two rival small holdings to either side. Two fires were clearly blazing in an intervisible relationship of close overlap. On our rapid transit through the Grange we noted that on one side a small fire had been set in a rusted Saab 900, whilst on the other a group of young men were gathered around a bin fire.
That evening the atmosphere in our Broadstairs lodgings changed and chilled. Its spiral staircase twisted one too many times. There was a depth to the house that we had not previously noticed.
We recalled a night in Malmö during which we had played darts in a sports bar until the early hours. The darts corner was decorated with paintings by a local artist, including a mother and child and a skull. The mother and child was uniquely grotesque, their conjoined forms evolving out of a worm-like whirl of smoke.
The next morning we used the sheltered courtyard of our lodgings to set and record small botanical fires, botanical smokings. The plant specimens from our forays were doused in water before being held over a candle flame in front of a blackboard. The candle was procured from the H.E Harrington General Hardware store in York Street, Broadstairs. Thinking the neighbouring house abandoned, we used its door step as a fire plinth.
That evening a couple arrived at the house, stayed the night, but lit no fire in their hearth.
Note: ‘Intervisibility’ is a term used by archaeologists when describing the network of fire beacons once used in Thanet as a warning system against sea borne invasion. In our use of terminology regarding the beacon system, we are indebted to Stuart Brooks, a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London.
This text is an extract from Photolanguage’s contribution to Maria Hellström Reimer (ed), Land Use Poetics (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Landscape Architecture, 2011)