As well as being Mayor of London, Boris Johnson is also self-appointed overlord of three North Kent villages. They have the misfortune to exist where he'd like to build a 3200 hectareinternational airport, and he wants to wipe them from the map. It's a bold and eye-catching scheme, but also expensive and impractical, hence today the Davies Commission is pulling the plug. But what's the threatened area, located in one of the remotest parts of southeast England, actually like? I visited the Isle of Grain at the weekend to try to find out. [map]
The Hoo Peninsula juts out from the top of Kent into the Thames estuary, with the Medway flowing in along the southern side. It consists of a ridge of high land surrounded on either side by marshes, which have been increasingly drained and reclaimed over the years. A small number of villages are scattered across ten or so miles, adding up to a tiny number of residents to blight with noise pollution had an airport been built. One main road heads up the central spine, officially the A228, historically the Ratcliffe Highway. It's a ridiculously good dual carriageway for much of its length, with average speed cameras positioned to limit progress to a steady 40mph. Eventually the road slims, passing between golden harvested fields and meadowy marsh, with panoramic views to either side across to Rochester and Southend. Beyond Lower Stoke a humpy bridge rises from the flatness to carry the main road over the single track freight railway. And straight ahead, across the horizon, an expanse of chimneys and pylons and silos.
You can't drive into the Isle of Grain, at the tip of the peninsula, without passing through an extensive industrial area. Various land-hungry facilities have been sited here, well out of the way of anywhere, with the neighbours more likely to work here than complain. First up is one of the newest clusters, a Liquefied Natural Gasimport facility, and not something you'd want to accidentally crash an aeroplane into. There follows an archaic level crossing, complete with rickety manual signal box, by the entrance to what used to be a postwar oil refinery. That's since been replaced by Thamesport, one of the largest container ports in Britain with giant cranes lined up along the water's edge. And still the main road ploughs on, fenced off to shield former fuel and storage capability beyond, to pass the mighty chimney of Grain Power Station. It's currently 150ft taller than Kingsnorth down the Medway, and thus hard to miss, at least until it's dismantled following recent decommissioning.
It may surprise you to hear that the whole of this energy and import zone was destined to survive the coming of Boris Airport, whose boundary would have passed narrowly to the north. No such luxury was afforded to the village of Grain, which would have been summarily erased to provide space for off-runway facilities. The settlement's historic, but don't get the idea it's all picturesque and would have been keenly lost. The church is 12th century and Grade I listed, the pub 16th century and Grade II, but most of the houses in Grain are more modern. They're clustered a short distance back from the shoreline, forming a none-too upmarket community that doesn't mind living at the very end of the line. I smiled on spotting a corner shop called the Grain Store, but most of the provisions hereabouts are purchased at a double-fronted Co-Op on the High Street. Here too are a school, a library and a community centre, although I assume the fire station survives for the benefit of facilities nextdoor, because it's not strictly necessary for a population of only 1600.
Just past the church is a seasonal cafe that's lightyears away from Hub Terminal Pre-Flight Catering. The Beach Hut looks more like the parking area round the back of someone's house, but a trailer is set up to cook and serve, and the selection of drinks and nosh is most appealing (Full English at weekends for a fiver, Earl Grey less than a quid). Keep walking and you'll come out at Grain Fort, a coastal defence built in the 1860s. Now only its ramparts survive, plus a few underground tunnels, and the demolished centre has become a wooded wilderness that's home to orchids and dragonflies. And below is Grain's brief beach of piled-up shells leading down to mud, not that the concrete ambience would ever win any tourist awards, but the onshore coastal park is pleasant enough.
Across the Thames, that's Southend, and across the Medway, Sheerness. And poking out above the mudflats, or the sea if it's high tide, is the peculiar sight of Grain Tower Battery. This is another Victorian defence, a Martello Tower approximately circular in cross-section, located quarter of a mile out from the shoreline. It was put up for sale recently, you may remember, although substantial improvement work would be required and the building's only temporarily accessible. "You know when the tide is?" asked a well-meaning couple on the foreshore as I wandered down towards the causeway. I knew low water had only just passed, but I still didn't fancy risking the walk out along a muddy dilapidated path, some of which was broken brick and much of which was mud. An opportunity missed, but whoever buys this atmospheric fort will get the chance to trudge (or float) out to their own privaterefuge as and when.
And all of Grain would have been destroyed, even the offshore fort, to make way for a four-runwayHeathrow replacement. Boris Airport would have been constructed seven metres up on an elevated platform, both to reduce the risk of flooding and to make way for high speed railways entering below. Plans suggest the Grade I listed church would have been lost beneath one end of Runway 26L, while the village proper would have disappeared beneath supporting facilities. Today's shortlist refusal means the area survives, although before you cheer it probably means Harmondsworth gets bulldozed instead to satisfy our increasing need to fly, which simply shifts the losing community elsewhere. And it also means that instead of hundreds of millions of people visiting the Isle of Grain annually, you'll probably never come. I think the local residents will much prefer it that way.
(I assume you'd like to see 18 photos of the Isle of Grain, as a visual counterpoint to today's big news story)
(and tomorrow I'll tell you about the other two villages reprieved today - that's Allhallows and Allhallows on Sea)