The Only Way is Essex……

Who’d have thought it…..

If you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll know that I’ve been going on a bit about how it’s the Spanish who really know about style. I’ve been drooling over graceful old villas on Pine Walk in Puerto Pollenca, and suffering “I want one of those’ moments at every turn in Mestre Paco, ‘the best interior design shop in the world’ in Pollenca. So imagine my surprise to find that the ultimate in cool, understated, utterly fabulous design is right on my doorstep at home in the UK. In ……. wait for it……. a bird sanctuary. In……. wait for it even more…. Essex.

Last Tuesday morning I went anti-clockwise round the M25, through the Dartford Tunnel, off at Junction 31, and hung a left towards Rainham Marshes. I had a date to meet garden designer and KLC lecturer, Catherine Heatherington, at the RSPB visitor’s centre to help her with some research she’s doing for her PHD. She had asked for volunteers to take a walk round the nature reserve, then meet up with her and talk about the experience and answer some questions for her.

So what am I expecting? Well I’ve driven along the stretch of the M25 that goes through this particular part of the world countless times. And never felt even remotely tempted to stop and explore. Flat uninspiring landscape, industrial sites, business parks, grey smoke, grey river – the last place in the world you’d expect to find anything beautiful.

So it comes as something of a shock when I follow the signs to Rainham Marshes, turn into the sanctuary and park my car in the free car park. Because as soon as I catch sight of the visitor centre I know that I’m somewhere a bit special.

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And once I start to follow the boardwalk pathway through the marshes I know I’m in another place altogether.

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It’s so quiet. The distant hum of traffic on the motorway in the distance, the faint rumble of the Eurostar trains speeding past, serves to emphasise the peacefulness, so that the calls of the birds, whose names I don’t know, sound startlingly clear and sweet. The sculptural nature of so many of the plants here is thrown into sharp relief by the landscape.

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As I walk I feel alone, but not lonely, comfortably contained within this landscape which stretches away from me on all sides.  At every turn there are modern day Constables and Turners for eye feasting. IMG_1135And it’s this aspect that is a theme in the design of so many of the man-made structures within this site. The framing of these stunning views is done for me, inviting me to stop and gaze.

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It’s in these man-made structures, their design, the materials used, and the way that they harmonise and work with the landscape, that I find the style that was the last thing I expected to come across in a bird sanctuary. I said something in one of my last posts about the way things were put together in ‘the best interior design shop in the world’, so that ‘it was as if they just happened to come together without anybody really noticing how it happened’. Well I find that same effortless style here.

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This site combines the supremely modern with remnants of past and there are constant reminders that in one of its previous lives the marshes were used by the military as a firing range.

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It really is the most extraordinary place. There is something here for everyone and I can’t wait to come back. So do yourself a favour and go……..

And if you are thinking of going, and would be willing to take part in Catherine’s research leave a comment here and I’ll put you in touch with her.