Book Review: ‘On the Marshes’ by Carol Donaldson

The marshlands of north Kent represent a pocket of isolation within a sea of growing urbanisation and economic ‘progress’. The call of the curlew cuts across the wide open landscape, interspersed with areas of scrub and gatherings of sheep. Redundant barges sink into the mud as pleasure cruisers herald a change in culture at the boatyards. Those looking for a slower existence cling to a lifestyle threatened by London’s advance. This is a place where culture and nature mix in complex ways; where gangs of teenagers smoke alongside waders and tufts of grass vetchling, and graffiti is sprayed on sea walls on top of nature’s own paint of orange lichens.

On the Marshes tells the story of Carol Donaldson’s journey along the north Kent coast, as she walks a landscape she has come to know and meets people who have chosen to live in this beautiful English waterland edge. It’s a recollection of past as well as a reflection on present and future. It’s a tale of people, animals and place on the margins of life, society and landscape; from the plotholders and cabin dwellers in search of an ‘alternative’ lifestyle or forced away from a previous life, to the farmers and wardens who work the land and conserve it for posterity.

Dominating the book’s plot is the break-up of Carol’s long term relationship, both its direct narrative and the consequent feelings of her coming to terms with her new life. She has become a person of the margins herself, mirroring the place in which she lives and works. It is a book of mixed confidence, of vulnerability, of fluidity, of division as well as community and kindness. It is a book that reminds us of the importance of marginal places and of supporting the people, wildlife and habitats in these areas.

For years Donaldson wished to live in the midst of the outdoors, and her caravan became her home. It isn’t difficult to feel angry as she describes the process of it being cruelly taken from her by landed interest, distant management and domineering planning regulations, in other words the hands of the powerful set against a vulnerable individual. On the Marshes has power relations at its heart, for north Kent is a place of competing interests, as Donaldson outlines:

‘…it seemed it was the interests of those with the most might that took precedence. I wanted the north Kent marshes as a place of sanctuary for the wildlife but also for people to come and experience the peace and the dark skies and the sound of lapwings in the spring; to forget for a moment their urban cares and twenty-first-century stress and remember that life wasn’t always like this and didn’t have to be. Who’s to say that people didn’t ‘need’ that far more than they ‘needed’ another airport or Thames Crossing?’

Whilst this is not a traditional nature book, I couldn’t help but be lifted into Donaldson’s wildlife experiences at times. It’s particularly evident in her account of the Elmley marshes on the Isle of Sheppey:

’A hundred oystercatchers circled the crystalline bay, their bodies reflected in the mirror-calm water. Clouded yellow butterflies floated along the sea wall. The glasswort threw up fiery tongues from the saltmarsh. Skeins of geese flew low across the surface. It was a world of reflections and sparkle. It was like a dream, translucent, blurred, too beautiful to exist.’

Donaldson’s familiar, engaging style puts the reader at ease from the outset. Perhaps it is our shared Essex heritage and my bias for marshland landscapes, living and working myself on the margins of the Essex coast that made me warm to her. Perhaps it was the agenda she put forward: that not all of us wish to be swept up in the 9-5, debt ridden society that modern governments encourage us to follow. Perhaps it was simply her story that grabbed me. Whatever the feeling, I felt compelled to stay with her, to support her and the people of whom she writes. There is a fundamental need to protect these fluid, liminal English edgelands and avoid the dominant agenda of development at all costs. Carol Donaldson should be applauded for standing up for wildness on the edge of the metropolis.


This review was originally published in New Nature Magazine (issue 8, p46). On the Marshes is published by Little Toller Books and is available here.

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