Deptford began from the Ravensbourne river – a ‘ford’ crossing the water – but its geographical importance at the eastern end of the Thames’ entry into London soon made it a key shipping and trading area. It was a jump-off point for Elizabethan exploration (Sir Francis Drake was knighted on board The Golden Hinde in Deptford Creek) and, of course, drinking – fire-and-brimstone Kit Marlowe met his notoriously embarrassing demise in the environs, apparently stabbed in the eye after a tavern brawl.
As the site of the East India Company’s yard for a time during the seventeenth century, Deptford was also a key point in the business of empire. It was one of the three key stop-offs on slave-merchant John Hawkins’ ground-breaking ‘triangular trade’ model, through which he made a profit at every port. And Royal Navy sailors in the 1860s claimed that Deptford Dockyard was playing host to another grisly flesh-trade – when young Fanny Adams was murdered in Alton, Hampshire, her eyes were removed and thrown into a nearby river. These, and other parts of her, were said to have drifted (impossibly) down to Deptford, where sailors claimed to have found buttons in their tins of chopped meat – suspiciously, the Royal Navy had just retired the salt beef rations and replaced it with an inferior alternative (quickly dubbed, mnemonically, ‘sweet Fanny Adams’).
Deptford Creek, where Drake’s famous ship was moored until it disintegrated, is the tidal branch of the Ravensbourne, hemmed in by sheer wall on all sides. Freshwater, it is an early point of change for water that eastwards, until London, is salty. Today, the nearby Discovery Centre is full of finds from the waters and evidence of modern commercial life (credit cards, golf balls, old mobile phones) and antiquated, unwanted technology – VHS tapes, compilation CDs, primitive laptops. As an urban waterway, the Creek is indeed full of shopping trolleys, old mattresses and other ephemera of city life. But it seems creek-life thrives on such cliches – an attempt to clean it up in the early 2000s resulted in wildlife numbers dropping by nearly a half – as a tidal stretch, the Creek attracts small animals and invertebrates that spend their first year alive incubating quietly here, away from the dangers of larger animals. One reason is the cage-like structure of a trolley, which becomes a haven for animals seeking a hiding place who would otherwise have nothing but wall.
Foreign species, too, abound here, having stowed away in boats from all over the world. Mitten Crabs from the Yangtze populate the Creek in (possibly problematic) abundance, though their most obvious traces are the empty shells they’ve climbed out of. As they grow bigger, they unzip and migrate, leaving what look like crab carcasses strewn along the river bed.
The Creekside Discovery Centre run monthly low-tide walks through the Creek – well worth a visit.
In Book 4 of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-6), as the main character the flowery lady Florimell languishes in a dungeon, the River Thames, old and bearded as he traditionally is, gets married to the lovely young River Medway:
a solemne feast was there
To all the Sea-gods and their fruitfull seede,
In honour of the spousalls, which then were
Betwixt the Medway and the Thames agreed.
Long had the Thames (as we in records reed)
Before that day her wooed to his bed;
But the proud Nymph would for no worldly meed,
Nor no entreatie to his loue be led;
Till now at last relenting, she to him was wed.
When we were looking for the site of the Thames and Medway’s wedding in the modern world, we found the precise location in Kent, along the Thames and Medway canal. A stone obelisk, almost completely illegible, marks the point at which these rivers meet.
The canal is green and stagnant: a stale marriage, its shape determined by the convenience of the railway. No-one really used the canal as a hub of trade or transport, they use the railway instead. The canal was abandoned in 1934, and now padlocked gates, intricate dungeons, partition off May blossoms, old man’s beard, and chintzy purslane from the rest of the world. In the middle, reeds, sets of tall dark poles with dirty cottony beards wrapped round them, stand like totems to the bearded Father Thames that no-one has replaced in a while. Every Tuesday, people walk along the banks, clearing up the coffee cups, bottles, and cigarette packets that are all along the bank. They want it to be as good as new.
Some more photographs of Orford and Orford Ness. When we were wandering through Orford Ness, looking at the splayed wires across the shingle evoked stretched nerves on a giant tortured body, an image that could be interpreted ecologically: many have described the earth as a living body to be cared for, or which is being harmed. Fragments of Jackie Kay’s poem ‘Body o’ Land’ (From her wonderful collection ‘Fiere’), kept appearing in my mind on the Ness: ‘Her eyes are the colour of Loch Ness…I saw her there, lying underwater for an aige…like a seal, like a selkie’.
People see odd things at Orford Ness. Conspiracy theorists speak of outsiders that were once captured and investigated to death, even as migrant birds are now given the utmost care. Some have seen UFOS. Some think Nazis, after a failed invasion that was hushed up, were killed and buried secretly beneath the shingle. And in the twelfth century, records state that a merman was captured there.
Orford Ness is a nature reserve that used to be a military site for testing ballistics. It is littered with bomb cases welded in explosions, eggs that are the hope of fragile Little Terns, deafening pebbles, unexploded ordnance. Inside the Bomb Ballistics building, described as ‘the nerve centre’ of the military operation, a map shows what could either be a bomb or a flicking mermaid tail disappearing into the sea.
In the mid twelfth century local fisherman described catching a merman in their nets. Rather than exhibiting human features from the waist up and a fish tail from the waist down, the Wild Man of Orford was completely human shaped but covered in scales. He was taken to Orford castle, where the inhabitants experimented on him with the strongest materials they had: transubstantiated bread and wine, emetics, purgatives. When they took him out to sea to display his ability to swim he escaped, leaving a frayed rope end trailing after him. In some stories, he was never seen again, though some people say he waits to grab unwary children from Orford quay. In others, he swam right back to the fishermen a few months later and this time their maltreatment killed him.
Now bare, Orford castle was requisitioned by the military at one point; they installed radar equipment on its roof. Imagine a wild man today hooded, the application of flammable liquids, electricity, bombs. Wires splay all over the shingle, like nerves stretched and pulled, ropes frayed and letting free.
Covered in washedup items, the tide line makes half hearted demands on the body. A single broken shoe, a saw handle with no blade, one earpiece from a set of headphones. But in the streams near the beach there are hundreds of frogs, happy on both land and water. Their skins are seamless, no sharp line cuts them in two.
It is said that a mermaid is given legs on the condition that when she walks they will feel like two upturned swords. St Michael’s well in Longstanton in East Anglia is often described as a pagan water shrine later re-consecrated for Christian baptism. Some people say it lies on a ley line, and make much of the fact that it is a site of the uneasy coexistence or happy merging of pagan and Christian belief systems.
Instead of the church’s font, babies were christened in the well, a cross shaped opening in the wall shedding light on the fontanelle. The well is an anklelock of cold water, pure smelling but minerally brown with buntings of cobwebs, and the grass burns after. Supposedly no-one knows where the water comes from, but there is lots of it to feed the primulas, both male and female (or thrum and pin eye) in the church yard.
The knocker of the elegant white door adjoining the churchyard is fashioned into the shape of a giant fish from a slug of brass. Knock and a man hands over the key to the disused church which is stripped and nearly empty. There is a dead starling on the floor. The markings on its plump breast look like those of a doublet, like that worn by Christopher Marlowe in the one painting of him. There are dust and flies on the altar; ‘It Is Finished’ glows in stained glass on the window.
In the visitors’ book, someone has written ‘I was christened in this well 84 years ago! Is this church a dream?’ When I am returning the key a man in a hoody raps on a window with a chisel in the house opposite and he and other men laugh in unison: they have been watching all along. Would St Michael knock on the door with his sword if he wanted to come into the church?
There are no bells at the top of the church but there is a torn bellrope like a snipped nerve. Phantom bells ring under the sea to warn ships or lure them off the right path. Getting lost on the way home, I meet someone who tells me that there is an underground cave near Royston carved inside by the Knights Templar and that there are tunnels under the fens where the monks used to run about. Near here, too, is a church with mermaids carved around the font, St Peter’s.
To start the project off we will be visiting three locations – a shrine, the site of a merman’s capture, and the place where two rivers once got married – and creating poetry and art work based on this. We’ll also be posting about mermaid-related things, as well as showcasing a few modern poetry and other fiction books to do with the sea. If you would like us to review your book please get in touch with us! We hope this inspires you to get started with your own contributions!
Please visit the ‘about‘ page to learn more about the rationale behind the project, and its authors.