The Wild Places of Essex Natural World


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The Wild Places of Essex

Wildlife documentary. Multi-award-winning writer Robert Macfarlane sets out on a journey to explore the unexpected landscapes and natural history of Essex.


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I cannot say when I first grew to love the wild,

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but I know that a need for it will always be strong in me.

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I'm Robert Macfarlane, and I've spent much of my life

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seeking out Britain's wild places and writing about them.

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As a child, I imagined a wild place to be somewhere remote,

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somewhere I could look out to a horizon untouched by human hand.

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But I've come to realise that this innocent view

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of the wild just won't hold any longer.

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Because no pure landscape exists in modern Britain.

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There's no inch of land that we've not influenced.

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Take Essex, of all places.

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Essex, so often dismissed as England's most run-down,

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built-up county.

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At first glance, it seems that wildness is extinct here.

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But I think otherwise,

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and want to prove that it can still be found.

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It's for this reason that I'm going to spend a year

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exploring Essex's jumbled landscape...

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..to try and find those places in which beauty,

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strangeness and depth still linger.

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I've read so many obituaries for the wild in England.

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The idea that we've Tarmacked and farmed and developed

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and roaded ourselves out of wildness.

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But these arguments, they seem to me both false and dangerous,

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premature really, like mourning for somebody who isn't yet dead.

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And I've come to Essex,

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this most typical in its way of English counties,

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in the way the human and the natural weave and butt up against each other,

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to see what remains, what wildness is left, how and where it survives.

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When I say I'm looking for the wild places of Essex people have two reactions.

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The first is to laugh,

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and the second is to say, "Get yourself to Basildon

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"about pub closing time on a Friday night then."

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Essex is stereotyped as the county of Flash Harries and fast cars.

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It gets a terrible press.

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Essex is the butt of a hundred jokes.

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It's dismissed as the home of light entertainment

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and heavy industry.

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My journey into the wilds of Essex starts here,

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on the north shore of the upper Thames.

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This is Essex's badland.

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Just the other side of this sea wall is Tilbury coal-fired power station.

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And next to that, there's some sewage works.

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And this whole area of the upper Thames

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that used to be marshes has taken pretty much

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the worst that London can throw at it in terms of industry.

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There's been asbestos here, explosives, the petrochemical

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industry obviously up at Coryton with the oil refineries there.

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This is, in many senses, a toxic place.

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Amazingly, up on the power station,

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there's a peregrine falcon hunting over that area.

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This to me is extraordinary, and it's Essex

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in a microcosm, really.

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The angelic and the toxic close up against one another.

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The falcon and the power station.

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It's not really where you expect to find nature.

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But, of course, nature is here.

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It's there in the cracks and the crannies.

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It's taking advantage, being opportunistic.

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The weeds thrive here, the scavengers, gulls.

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There's another curious thing about this place that's struck me

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as I've walked it, and that's how closely

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the industrial and the natural come to resemble one another.

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And there's these odd exchanges.

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This sea wall has been marked

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and decorated by graffiti artists.

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They've tagged it.

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But nature's tagged it too with lichens.

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Bright orange, spray-can orange lichens.

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The razor wire that defends the power station

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and the sewage works finds its rhyme in the briars

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and the brambles that coil sharply just behind it.

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This is Essex. Mashed up, mixed up, the human and the natural.

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There's nothing easy here. It's hard, it makes you think hard.

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It requires effort of you to become involved in it.

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And that makes it a very interesting, very complicated place to be.

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Find Tilbury on a map of Essex,

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and you'll see that it feeds a sprawling web of roads.

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A web so dense that petrol and tarmac seem to have replaced

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the natural elements of water and stone.

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But if you read between the roads, and look hard enough,

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there are still remnants of the wild to be found.

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I take the footpath that starts at the church of Woodham Walter

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and head east to a place whose name intrigues me.

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The Wilderness.

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Centuries ago, this was the name given to a forest that was far greater in size.

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But "The Wilderness" has shrunk.

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Today, it's a splinter of woodland, surrounded by arable fields.

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Strangled, but still breathing,

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it seems to me an emblem of the Essex landscape...

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..and a natural place to continue my journey.

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In dawn mist, I enter the wood like Alice

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passing through the looking-glass.

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Or down the rabbit-hole.

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Stepping into a wood like this, feels to me most like a border crossing

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into another country.

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You step inside, everything changes.

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Light and sound move differently and space behaves strangely, too.

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Small woods like this, they often seem much greater in extent

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once you are inside them than they appear from the outside.

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To me it feels like ducking into a bungalow

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and finding yourself in a cathedral.

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It's as though you could wander for hours in a wood less than an acre,

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without reaching its edges.

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And it's for all these reasons,

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this sense of space and time warping and shifting in woodlands like this

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that they've played such an important part in our literature.

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They're the stage set for fairytales and dream plays and time travel.

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Unexpected encounters happen in woodlands all the time

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because you can't see very far in them,

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so you never know who could be behind the next tree.

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They are places of surprise.

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Coming to find you, ready or not!

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Woods inspire thoughts and feelings that can be had nowhere else.

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This is why even shards of woodland are vital to us and why,

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when we diminish them, we diminish the realms of our imagination.

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My friend Roger Deakin knew this well.

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He was a wonderful writer and natural historian.

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Roger saw that trees and woods can be crucial in helping us to grow,

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learn and change.

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He once wrote, "A forest is where you travel to find yourself,

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"often, paradoxically, by getting lost."

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It was my friendship with Roger that transformed my understanding

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of wildness and how I see the natural world.

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For most of his life, until his too-early death, Roger lived here.

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Walnut Tree Farm,

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a wood-framed farmhouse set in acres of meadows and hedges.

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For forty years, Roger immersed himself

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in the wildlife of this land.

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He came to know its owls and foxes, its trees and its streams as friends.

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Places always tell a story about a person,

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and being what used to be Roger's place,

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brings him back, brings it all back.

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I'm inside his, what he called his shepherd's hut,

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and this was one of the several satellites that he had

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around his house by which he meant his railway wagons, this shepherd's hut

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that he bought and towed and moved out

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into places on his land and in his meadows.

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And he put beds in them and stoves in them and he'd come

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and sleep here when he wanted to get out of the main house

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and wanted to be further out into nature.

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And there's a sense that he could turn up this evening

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and light the fire and settle down at the desk.

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He, he kind of haunts in a very benevolent way, haunts places

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and he haunts people and his influence still lives on for many people

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and very strongly for me too.

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He wrote in different places

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because he thought differently in different places.

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He loved to come out here in thunderstorms in particular.

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It's got a hooped corrugated iron roof and then these cladded sides.

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And when a big storm was on and he heard the rain

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crashing down on the iron and lashing against the sides,

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he said it was like being in of wrap-around stereophonic thunderstorm.

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He felt part of the storm.

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He was all about that relationship with the world, in a way.

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Roger had a unique way of looking at the world.

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A child, really.

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I put it like that because he saw through the eyes of a child,

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he was perpetually amazed by the world.

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He was astonished by it, by the smallest thing.

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I guess what Roger changed most of all for me

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was my sense of scale and its relationship to nature.

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I'd always had this idea that wildness and the kind of great

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spectacles of nature were vast, mountains and dramatic waterfalls.

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Rog wasn't so interested in that,

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he saw the beauties of it, but he was interested in

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what was close by, under our noses almost, but easy to overlook.

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He explored, I guess, the undiscovered country of the nearby.

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Seen from the sea, Essex feels to me like an undiscovered country.

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Out here, where land peters out into water

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and water into land, I cross a border into an eerily intricate region.

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Liquid and solid melt into one another,

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different worlds meet and overlap.

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I'm out in Bramble Creek,

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in the Walton backwaters in a kayak that was handed down to me by Roger.

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He used it for his own adventures.

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It's decades old, and made from a bubble-thin layer of maple wood.

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It's a stealth craft of a kind, offering a way

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to approach creatures that slip between two worlds,

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two elements.

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A head rises like a periscope.

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Big, liquid eyes lock onto mine,

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watching me with a calm, intransitive attention.

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I see pups, less than a day old,

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swimming on the first high tide of their birth.

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Two males spar with one another in a blubbery battle

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for rule of the foreshore.

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I can understand why seals have long figured in the folklore of our

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coastal fringes as possessing an uncanny double nature,

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in-between creatures, half-human and half-marine.

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The common seals that live here are incredible colours.

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Russets, coppers, burnished browns.

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These colours are the result of the mud on which they haul out.

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It's London clay, naturally rich in iron oxide -

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rust, basically.

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Wild creatures stained the colour of iron and industry.

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Steel skies of autumn fill with migrant birds.

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Visitors from the north, from Siberia and Scandinavia.

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They arrive on the Essex coast in their tens of thousands.

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I've seen starlings flocking in huge numbers,

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but to me the knots flock is something even more extraordinary

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and it has to do I think with the winter colour of knots.

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They're silver and white. And the effect of this is that as

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they flock, when the light hits them on one side,

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they ping brightly like little flecks of snow or ice,

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then they turn as a group and they vanish.

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It's as though they've slipped out of our dimension into another.

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And they turn again and they're back in our world, visible again.

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It's absolutely mesmerising to watch.

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This other-worldliness, this feeling of creatures moving in and out

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of our dimension and our perception

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is part of what fascinates me about Essex.

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These portal moments or border moments

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when you glimpse into another world that isn't quite ours,

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but that runs alongside ours, almost in parallel with it.

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My grandfather was very involved in the development

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of radar during the second world war,

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and he told me once about what the radar scientists called "angels".

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By this they meant flocks of birds big enough to register

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on those early radars, which came in off the coast or up river estuaries.

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The radars detected these palping strange shapes

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and the scientists called them "angels".

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Perhaps the beauty of the knots finds its sharpest relief

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at an industrial site like the north shore of the Thames.

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There you see the birds playing and shimmering

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in the shadow of factories, swooping in front of chimneys

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and the big container ships that chug down the river.

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Their presence seems miraculous, like a kind of natural smoke.

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Wild birds flocking over the Thames,

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deer bellowing within earshot of the M25.

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It's surprising juxtapositions like these which intrigue me,

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and which have brought me to Epping Forest, deep in the heart of Essex.

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Watching Epping's fallow deer leap and buck on the forest edge

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puts me in mind of gazelle or springbok out on the Serengeti.

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Epping was once part of the medieval Forest of Essex,

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a vast royal hunting preserve

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set aside for the sport of kings and queens.

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But today, anyone is free to come here and enjoy its sanctuary.

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It's very early November.

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The weather up until today has been extraordinary,

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a cold snap followed by a big wind and rain last night

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has bashed billions of leaves from the Epping Forest trees,

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and they've fallen to create this extraordinary copper carpet.

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Being in the forest today when the sun is streaming down

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is like being in a light box or a kaleidoscope.

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The leaves act as filters of extraordinary colour.

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There's sulphur-yellow, lime-green and a kind of fox-red,

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and the light falls through them in incredible hues.

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Epping Forest has a curious doubleness to it.

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You can walk for half a day through it without

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leaving its shelter practically, it feels like a wild wood,

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a great wild wood just on the fringes of London,

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and it has been a retreat, a refuge for people.

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During one of the 17th century plague years, people fled here

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hoping, in some way, the greenery would shield them from the pathogens.

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During the Second World War,

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this was where people evacuated during the air raids.

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They've come, and continue to come, in their millions.

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People in search of beauty, calmness, tranquillity,

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and they leave their marks, these people.

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Graffiti. Beech graffiti is one of the ways they leave their marks.

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You can cut messages, names, as lovers, walkers, visitors

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have for many, many years.

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And then as the tree grows, the letters balloon and rise with the trunks.

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There are trees like tattooed circus men round here,

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so thick with lettering.

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People have left their marks in other ways,

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some of them slightly less appealing.

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Litter is one of the ways we humans mark the places we inhabit,

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even those we cherish, and there's litter of all kinds here.

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Dumped mattresses, fly-tipped ply board and paper,

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discarded condoms...

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These are signs of some of the other reasons people come to Epping Forest.

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They come here for escape of different kinds.

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Signs of our impact on the land are visible throughout Essex.

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The most obvious of these, to me, is the sea wall,

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which dominates the county's 350-miles of coastline.

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Sheltering behind the tamped-earth sea wall at Old Hall Marshes

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are some of Essex's most beguiling landscapes,

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Coastal grazing marshes that humans brought into being,

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reclaiming the land from the sea centuries ago.

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Humanly made, these left-alone places

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are now home to hundreds of species of insect and bird.

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Bearded tits come here in winter.

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They're among my very favourite birds.

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And their name, which makes so many schoolchildren

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and grown men giggle, is a misnomer,

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because the males aren't bearded at all.

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They're moustachioed, with the droopy 'tache

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of a Victorian strongman or an Australian cricketer.

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Feeding on seed heads they perform as acrobats,

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using the reeds to ride the buffets and surges of the wind.

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The charm of these birds has cost them, though.

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Over centuries they've been popular with collectors,

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egg-hunters and taxidermists.

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I find it difficult to see why anyone

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would want to cage one of these exquisite, spirited birds.

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They belong out here in this landscape of freedom, movement and flight.

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We think of barn owls as birds of dusk and night -

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haunters of the dark, creatures of the moon.

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So to see them hunting by day,

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out here along the Essex sea wall, startles me.

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In daylight, they resemble apparitions.

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The closest thing to ghosts in the bird world.

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Flying with a supernatural vigilance.

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To me, they set the land over which they move alight with wildness.

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They pass through the air, these birds,

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with the silence of falling snow.

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Even a familiar landscape feels wild in snow.

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Edward Thomas, an English poet whose writing I love, knew this well.

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Thomas lived here in Epping Forest

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during the winter months of 1916 to 1917,

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just before he went off to fight on the Western Front.

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To Thomas, the forest in snow seemed even more ancient and even less inhabited.

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"The untrodden snow made wild of the tame," he wrote,

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"casting out all that was not wild and rustic and old, and we were glad.

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"We had seen nothing fairer than that land."

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Many writers have tried to express

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what it feels like to experience the nearby wild.

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No-one, in my opinion, has managed to do so quite

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like a man called John Baker, who lived his whole life here in Essex.

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He describes, "The low blaze of the polar sun,

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"a day when the sun has no grip of warmth in it."

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I can really feel his words today.

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When you step into the Essex countryside on a bleak day like this

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it's almost as though you've stepped into the pages

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of Baker's own book, The Peregrine.

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Baker was a birdwatcher and a fanatic,

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and for ten years between the mid-'50s and the mid-'60s

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he became obsessed with the Essex landscape,

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and in particular with the peregrines.

0:30:240:30:27

For him, they sprang the Essex landscape into a wildness

0:30:320:30:37

that most people didn't think it possessed.

0:30:370:30:40

But for Baker, the Essex landscape

0:30:400:30:42

was as wild as the Arctic or the Pamiers.

0:30:420:30:45

The document that he produced in memory of these peregrines

0:30:530:30:58

is one of the greatest landscape visions that I've ever encountered.

0:30:580:31:02

It's also an elegy. It's an elegy for the Essex countryside that,

0:31:040:31:08

as Baker saw it, was disappearing.

0:31:080:31:10

It's an elegy for Baker himself -

0:31:130:31:15

he thought he was dying, or at least he was beginning to suffer from

0:31:150:31:19

rheumatoid arthritis that was curling his fingers and his hands into talons.

0:31:190:31:23

So he himself was almost becoming a bird.

0:31:230:31:26

The third thing it was an elegy for were the peregrines, and they really were dying.

0:31:290:31:33

Pesticide use had lead to eggshell thinning among

0:31:370:31:40

the predators at the tops of the food chains

0:31:400:31:42

and the peregrines were no longer able to breed,

0:31:420:31:45

Baker lived in a time when it looked as though the peregrine,

0:31:450:31:48

the migrant peregrine would become an extinct species in the context of Essex.

0:31:480:31:52

He was astonishingly moved and troubled by this,

0:31:550:31:58

and he saw it as the fault of human behaviour,

0:31:580:32:01

human irresponsibility towards the natural world.

0:32:010:32:04

So the book is a document about a man almost embarrassed

0:32:040:32:07

by his own species, who wants to abscond

0:32:070:32:10

into the form of another creature, the falcon.

0:32:100:32:13

This longing to leave humanity behind

0:32:150:32:18

and to begin to see and feel like a peregrine.

0:32:180:32:22

When you read the book something similar happens to you, it's extraordinary.

0:32:230:32:28

Your imagination is pushed aloft,

0:32:280:32:30

and you begin to see and feel and think like a hunter.

0:32:300:32:34

And you see the Essex landscape astonishingly differently.

0:32:340:32:37

As the months pass, my vision of Essex is changing.

0:33:270:33:30

I've seen so much evidence of a continuing human need for the wild.

0:33:300:33:36

But as Baker knew,

0:33:430:33:44

the creatures of a landscape need their wild spaces too.

0:33:440:33:48

Often this can lead to conflict and loss.

0:33:480:33:51

But sometimes it can lead to unexpected collaborations.

0:33:510:33:55

After a careful conservation effort,

0:33:570:34:00

the elusive bittern is back in Essex.

0:34:000:34:04

We caused the bittern's extinction in the late 19th Century,

0:34:040:34:08

but against the odds it found its way back in 1911,

0:34:080:34:12

and now its numbers are increasing, slowly, stealthily.

0:34:120:34:17

A cause for hope.

0:34:170:34:20

And there's hope to be found here, too,

0:34:220:34:24

in this apparently desolate landscape.

0:34:240:34:28

This is a former MoD firing range, ten miles from Central London.

0:34:280:34:33

To its west is a landfill site, to its east a scrap yard,

0:34:340:34:38

and to its north runs a dual carriageway, and the Eurostar.

0:34:380:34:43

On the face of it, it's the last place you'd look for wildlife.

0:34:460:34:49

A decade ago, the RSPB acquired Rainham Marshes.

0:34:550:35:00

It was truly knackered land when they took it over.

0:35:000:35:03

Burnt out car wrecks and dumped fridges, the air ripe

0:35:030:35:08

with sewage-reek, the ground water rancid with chemicals.

0:35:080:35:12

Shells and hand grenades lay buried in the mud

0:35:120:35:16

from when the MoD were blasting the land.

0:35:160:35:19

So, the RSPB cleaned it up.

0:35:190:35:21

The transformation has been incredible.

0:35:230:35:26

At first glance, Rainham might still appear a dead landscape,

0:35:290:35:33

but taking a closer look, I discover it's absolutely bubbling with life.

0:35:330:35:40

Down here in the marsh you're walking through

0:35:480:35:50

an extraordinary spring soundscape.

0:35:500:35:53

You've got sedge warblers and reed warblers chirruping away.

0:35:530:35:56

You've got gossipy neighbours. You've got the coots squabbling,

0:35:560:35:59

and above all you've got these marsh frogs

0:35:590:36:02

that make such a belching chorus in the background.

0:36:020:36:06

When you see them there, they're down in the algae spread out

0:36:060:36:09

like sunbathers, popping big bubble gums out of the sides of their mouths.

0:36:090:36:14

The noise they make, well, it's kind of like laughter,

0:36:140:36:17

they're the best comedy audience you could imagine, continually laughing at your jokes.

0:36:170:36:21

FROGS CROAK

0:36:210:36:24

Everywhere you look here, there's life.

0:36:350:36:38

Out where the marsh is more open, away from the reeds,

0:36:530:36:56

you get the lapwings performing these incredible courtship flight displays.

0:36:560:37:00

Immelman turns, flick-flacks, all the tricks of the Red Baron...

0:37:080:37:12

They're really audacious aeronauts at this time of year.

0:37:120:37:15

It's hard to know whether to find Rainham a depressing or an optimistic place.

0:37:280:37:34

Depressing, because it requires such careful

0:37:340:37:37

and intensive management for it to exist.

0:37:370:37:40

But optimistic, and I think in the end I do find it optimistic,

0:37:400:37:44

because it's here at all, hemmed in by the A13,

0:37:440:37:46

by rubbish tips, by factories, by the river.

0:37:460:37:51

And the fact that it's sprung up so recently, under a decade,

0:37:510:37:54

and all this life, this tumult of nature has settled here and thrived.

0:37:540:37:59

There's no better example of that life returning,

0:38:110:38:16

no better cause for optimism than the fact that the water vole's here.

0:38:160:38:19

One of Britain's rarest mammals is thriving in this place.

0:38:190:38:24

The water vole has recently suffered a massive population decline.

0:38:390:38:43

Its numbers have dropped by around 95% in Britain.

0:38:450:38:49

But here they are, plump-cheeked, bug-eyed and ridiculously cute,

0:38:530:38:59

back in Rainham, in sight of the Eurostar

0:38:590:39:01

and within sniffing distance of the municipal tip.

0:39:010:39:05

To me, the water vole's return is a version of the modern wild

0:39:190:39:23

creeping back where it's least expected.

0:39:230:39:27

Good evening!

0:39:380:39:41

I'm from Essex,

0:39:410:39:43

in case you couldn't tell.

0:39:430:39:46

My given name is Dickin, I come from Billericay and I'm doing...

0:39:460:39:53

# I had a love affair with Nina in the back of my Cortina

0:39:530:40:00

# A seasoned up hyena could not have been more obscener... #

0:40:000:40:05

The cockney genius of Ian Dury's rhyming slang put Billericay on the map.

0:40:050:40:10

But the town is renowned for another reason.

0:40:120:40:15

I've come to Little Norsey Wood, on its eastern edge.

0:40:150:40:18

But it isn't the badgers that have brought me here.

0:40:180:40:21

It's the bluebells.

0:40:260:40:29

Remarkably, Billericay is home to one of the world's

0:40:290:40:33

densest concentrations of bluebells.

0:40:330:40:35

For a few days each year, towards the end of April or the beginning of May,

0:40:460:40:51

between the warming of the soil

0:40:510:40:54

and the closing of the leaf canopy, the bluebells bloom.

0:40:540:40:59

This brevity has something to do with the miracle

0:40:590:41:02

of being in a wood like this at this time of year,

0:41:020:41:05

a feeling that the circus has come to town for a few days only.

0:41:050:41:09

Transience is everywhere at play in a bluebell wood.

0:41:130:41:17

It's there most obviously in the way that light falls

0:41:170:41:19

and changes the colour of the woodland floor.

0:41:190:41:24

When the sun is high at noon you get this sapphire dazzle

0:41:240:41:28

that leaves an imprint on your retina when you look away.

0:41:280:41:32

And the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was fascinated by bluebells

0:41:390:41:43

and was consoled by them even at his darkest moments,

0:41:430:41:46

of which there were many, he wrote wonderfully about this flower.

0:41:460:41:51

He spoke of the "blue-buzzed haze," and he also wrote a line

0:41:510:41:55

that I'd read, but not really understood before I came to this place.

0:41:550:41:59

He wrote of how "woodland banks wash wet like lakes."

0:41:590:42:04

It's brilliant, it's brilliant.

0:42:040:42:06

I understood it as soon as I walked into this wood.

0:42:060:42:09

This sense of a kind of aqueous shimmer,

0:42:090:42:13

a marine wash that you're walking into and through.

0:42:130:42:17

There are millions of bluebells in this wood,

0:42:270:42:30

and that's what gives this sense of hue and wash

0:42:300:42:34

stretching between the trees as far as you can see.

0:42:340:42:37

There's this lovely illusion conjured up that they might extend

0:42:410:42:45

limitlessly outwards, carpeting all of Essex

0:42:450:42:49

and all of England in a deep, deep blue.

0:42:490:42:52

But of course this is only an illusion,

0:42:590:43:01

not least because English bluebell woods, like so many of our

0:43:010:43:04

traditional wild places, are under threat.

0:43:040:43:08

Among the enemies of this wild flower are bulb-poachers,

0:43:100:43:14

who strip woods bare of bulbs and then sell them on illegally to gardeners

0:43:140:43:19

who want a piece of the wild in their back garden.

0:43:190:43:22

Our troubled love affair with wild flowers

0:43:330:43:35

is written into the street names of a low-lying

0:43:350:43:39

and little-known Essex town that gazes out over the North Sea.

0:43:390:43:43

Sea Lavender, Sea Pink, Sea Rosemary.

0:43:450:43:49

When this area was salt marsh, before people arrived,

0:43:510:43:55

these plants flourished here.

0:43:550:43:58

Now, they're gone.

0:43:580:44:01

The street names of Jaywick are memorials to a lost wild,

0:44:040:44:08

and they add to its air of melancholy,

0:44:080:44:11

dilapidation and temporariness.

0:44:110:44:14

Paradoxically, Jaywick was built on the dream of wildness.

0:44:140:44:20

It was founded by East Enders longing to escape

0:44:230:44:26

the smogs of London for the freedom of the sea.

0:44:260:44:29

In the 1930s, they bought up cheap, seaside plots,

0:44:320:44:36

built ramshackle holiday homes and then moved in, permanently.

0:44:360:44:41

The result, 70 years later, is a seaside shanty-town,

0:44:450:44:50

at the mercy of the elements.

0:44:500:44:53

The sea wall is a foreboding presence in Jaywick.

0:45:060:45:10

This wave of concrete was built as protection against the sort of

0:45:120:45:16

tidal surge that devastated this place during the winter of 1953.

0:45:160:45:22

35 people were drowned on that January night

0:45:260:45:29

and hundreds of flimsy houses were flattened.

0:45:290:45:33

Today Jaywick, like so many places on England's North Sea coast,

0:45:390:45:43

faces an uncertain future.

0:45:430:45:45

Threats from climate change and rising sea-levels

0:45:470:45:51

make it hard to imagine Jaywick surviving the coming century.

0:45:510:45:54

Essex has been defending itself from the sea for thousands of years.

0:45:570:46:02

Breakwaters, groynes and weed-slicked sea walls

0:46:020:46:06

run the length of its coastline.

0:46:060:46:08

But in this ongoing battle between the land and the sea,

0:46:100:46:13

the sea usually prevails.

0:46:130:46:16

Look, for instance, at the pillboxes

0:46:190:46:21

that once defended the cliffs from human invaders...

0:46:210:46:25

..now abandoned to the sea.

0:46:260:46:29

As the coast has been eroded,

0:46:290:46:30

these structures have tumbled humpty dumpty-like onto the beaches

0:46:300:46:36

and are now being overwhelmed by the ocean, claimed by the wild.

0:46:360:46:41

I go for a swim over the low-lying muds of Jaywick bay.

0:46:440:46:48

I know that the tides of climate change are steadily rising,

0:46:490:46:53

but in dead calm it's hard to imagine the sea as a murderous force.

0:46:530:46:58

Just in from the coast at Mundon, there are more victims of the sea.

0:47:030:47:07

Where saltwater has seeped inland,

0:47:090:47:12

there's a field of ancient oaks, killed by salt and drought,

0:47:120:47:17

but still standing.

0:47:170:47:19

Grey as elephants, grand as giants,

0:47:270:47:30

like the flower street names of Jaywick,

0:47:300:47:33

the trees are monuments to a vanished wild,

0:47:330:47:36

relics of a time when Essex was thick with ancient woodland.

0:47:360:47:40

Climbing a tree like this,

0:47:450:47:47

you get to see and feel the remarkable quality of its dead skin.

0:47:470:47:52

It's cracked into parched-earth patterns.

0:47:520:47:55

It's bullet-holed by beetles and worms.

0:47:550:47:58

It's gnarly as coral.

0:47:580:48:01

Looking out over this place, it's a kind of,

0:48:050:48:09

in daylight at least, it's a little enchanted wood.

0:48:090:48:13

You step into it, and you are stepping into a fragment of magic

0:48:130:48:16

surrounded on all sides by arable Essex.

0:48:160:48:20

This is also, of course, a graveyard, this place.

0:48:220:48:26

It's filled with the dead and nearly dead bodies

0:48:260:48:31

of probably the greatest organism in the English landscape - the oak.

0:48:310:48:36

And these oaks with their long tap roots

0:48:360:48:38

have quested down for water and haven't found it...

0:48:380:48:40

..leaving these fabulous, contorted corpses.

0:48:440:48:48

And all in all, it's a wonderful place to be

0:48:520:48:54

and I'm looking forward to being here

0:48:540:48:56

when dark falls, when I think its character will change a great deal.

0:48:560:49:01

Night is a form of wildness.

0:49:050:49:07

It frightens us, exposes our limits, exaggerates our fears.

0:49:070:49:13

We think of night as robbing us of sight.

0:49:130:49:17

In fact, it can sharpen our experience of a place.

0:49:170:49:21

By moonlight, we become more optically sensitive.

0:49:270:49:31

The world resolves to subtle greys and silvers.

0:49:310:49:36

Scents, colours and connections swarm out of the darkness.

0:49:360:49:41

But it's becoming harder to find true darkness now.

0:49:500:49:54

Cities stain their skies orange.

0:49:540:49:57

We have come close to blinding the stars and to banishing night.

0:49:570:50:02

We have this super-flux of artificial lighting now that

0:50:060:50:10

interferes with all sorts of natural rhythms, our own included.

0:50:100:50:14

But especially over the past two centuries, we've evolved lots of ways

0:50:140:50:18

of depleting darkness, of shutting out the night.

0:50:180:50:21

So you get this strange artificial daylight cast by our cities

0:50:230:50:28

and many of us live our lives in this permanent sodium light

0:50:280:50:32

once the sun goes down.

0:50:320:50:33

The extent of lighting in our cities and towns is now so significant

0:50:420:50:47

that for many of us, seeing the stars is quite a rare experience.

0:50:470:50:52

Satellite images of the Earth at night

0:50:590:51:01

show England as a sparkling rink of neon,

0:51:010:51:05

with the south-east of the country gleaming the brightest of all.

0:51:050:51:09

We have nearly forgotten, I think, the power of darkness.

0:51:130:51:17

I've decided to spend the night sleeping out on the sea wall,

0:51:200:51:24

here on the edge of the Dengie Peninsula.

0:51:240:51:28

It's the darkest place in Essex.

0:51:280:51:30

Night, to me, brings a special wildness to any landscape,

0:51:320:51:36

like snowfall, mist or fog.

0:51:360:51:38

It confers a great strangeness on a place

0:51:380:51:41

and it's happened here this evening.

0:51:410:51:43

It's been absolutely magical to be out here.

0:51:430:51:46

The sun set nuclear behind the Bradwell Power Station

0:51:460:51:50

and then a gorgeous harvest moon rose-orange over Jaywick sands

0:51:500:51:54

and flung its light down on the mud desert that the tide has shown me.

0:51:540:51:59

I've been walking the foreshore and the sea wall in the darkness

0:52:020:52:06

and listening to the sounds that a landscape like this throws up.

0:52:060:52:09

The penny whistle piping of oyster catchers coming in off the sea.

0:52:140:52:19

And a million sandhoppers snap,

0:52:260:52:28

crackling and popping down on the shoreline.

0:52:280:52:31

And on a clear night like this, with the moon two days after full,

0:52:370:52:40

on the wane, and the stars visible 360 degrees,

0:52:400:52:45

the sky feels like a dome and you look up into it

0:52:450:52:48

and you feel almost as though your feet might latch off

0:52:480:52:52

from the ground and you'll fall upwards.

0:52:520:52:54

It's a kind of inverse vertigo.

0:52:540:52:56

It's a very wonderful and strange feeling.

0:52:560:52:58

Extraordinary, and it reminds me of why, for as long as human culture

0:52:580:53:02

has been recording itself,

0:53:020:53:04

it's directed dreams of reverence up at the moon and at the stars.

0:53:040:53:08

I'm coming to the end of my time in Essex

0:53:310:53:35

and everywhere I've been, everything I've seen,

0:53:350:53:39

is characterised by that same meshing,

0:53:390:53:42

this warp and weave of the human and the wild.

0:53:420:53:46

Now, it's a September dawn, out on the very edge of this edgy county.

0:53:460:53:52

There's miles of salt marsh stretching as far as I can see.

0:53:520:53:56

It's a kind of ocean of grass, really.

0:53:580:54:02

I guess Essex's prairie.

0:54:020:54:05

And even here though,

0:54:070:54:08

even in this remote place at this lonely time of day,

0:54:080:54:13

you can't escape the weave.

0:54:130:54:15

I'm standing here and above me

0:54:150:54:17

I can hear thousands of birds coming inland,

0:54:170:54:20

but above them, higher up I can hear the planes coming into Stansted,

0:54:200:54:25

their roar and their boom.

0:54:250:54:27

I realise that I'm standing in the path of two migrations,

0:54:270:54:31

one of which is avian and the other of which is human.

0:54:310:54:36

There's something close to mythic about migration,

0:54:490:54:53

this strong seasonal compulsion to move that these birds feel.

0:54:530:54:58

They arrive from the north with the Arctic trapped in their feathers,

0:55:020:55:07

bringing the wild to Essex.

0:55:070:55:09

Brent geese start appearing in September to over-winter here.

0:55:120:55:16

Their numbers build and build through the autumn,

0:55:160:55:19

until they are up to many thousands.

0:55:190:55:22

The corridors that birds migrate down are called flyways.

0:55:240:55:28

Britain and Ireland are in the east Atlantic flyway.

0:55:280:55:32

When we think of migration in these terms,

0:55:320:55:35

it becomes a rather more human action.

0:55:350:55:38

For we have our own flyways, along which we move.

0:55:380:55:42

Stansted links Essex outwards to the capitals of Europe, to America,

0:55:420:55:47

but the birds link Essex outwards to Siberia

0:55:470:55:51

and Scandinavia and their remoter landscapes.

0:55:510:55:54

On the one hand, this suggests collaboration.

0:55:540:55:59

We fly, we travel, the birds fly and travel.

0:55:590:56:03

We're all species drawn by similar compulsions,

0:56:030:56:07

but it can also signify conflict, because our journeys are not always

0:56:070:56:11

compatible with the journeys of the creatures.

0:56:110:56:14

My time in Essex has helped me to reassess my sense of the wild.

0:56:200:56:24

On the one hand, this expanse of salt marsh

0:56:240:56:27

is the wildest place I've found here.

0:56:270:56:30

But I've also learnt to see other kinds of wildness,

0:56:300:56:33

the wild that exists in a fragment of woodland,

0:56:330:56:36

a motorway verge or a coastal sky scored with the vapour trails.

0:56:360:56:41

When I started my travels, I hoped to find that wildness would

0:56:480:56:52

still be here in Essex and it is, it's everywhere

0:56:520:56:56

and when I've found it, wherever I've found it, it's astonished me.

0:56:560:57:01

I've needed the wild as long as I can remember.

0:57:090:57:12

It's something to do with feeling of bigness outside yourself

0:57:120:57:15

and you get that here, in space like this,

0:57:150:57:17

it's hard to find space like this in Britain.

0:57:170:57:20

A place where you can see to the horizon, your eye line unbroken.

0:57:200:57:23

Out here is a kind of paraphrase of infinity, really.

0:57:230:57:26

Your eye and your mind are drawn outwards and onwards, endlessly,

0:57:260:57:31

and that's an extraordinary feeling.

0:57:310:57:34

That there's a world that exceeds us,

0:57:340:57:36

that is greater than our capacity and our knowledge.

0:57:360:57:39

Wild places offer reminders of that bigness outside ourselves,

0:57:450:57:51

a reminder that the wild prefaced us, and will also outlive us.

0:57:510:57:56

Landscape was here long before we were even dreamed of.

0:58:040:58:08

It watched us arrive and it will watch us leave.

0:58:110:58:16

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:470:58:49

E-mail subtitling@redbeemedia.com

0:58:490:58:52

Multi-award-winning writer Robert Macfarlane sets out on a journey to explore the unexpected landscapes and natural history of Essex, revealing that there is far more to the county than the stereotypes of white stilettos and boy racers.

Macfarlane spends a year travelling the county's strange and elemental landscapes of heavy industry, desolate beaches and wild woods. He encounters massive knot flocks over the Thames, peregrine falcons at Tilbury Power Station, water voles within sniffing distance of the municipal dump, deer rutting in earshot of the M25, barn owls, badgers and bluebells in Billericay, as well as a large colony of common seals.