Kent

Would Dickens recognise Great Expectations landscape?

Image caption Charles Dickens used to take long walks on the marshes with his father as a young boy

If Dickens returned to Thames Marshes would he see the same landscape which inspired Great Expectations?

On a ridge between the village of Cooling and High Halstow on the Hoo Peninsula sits the RSPB's Northward Hill Reserve.

It overlooks Thames Marshes - a harsh, dramatic landscape - the landscape which inspired Charles Dickens to write Great Expectations.

As a young boy Dickens used to take long walks with his father in the area and this continued when he returned as a successful author to live nearby in Higham.

'A true wilderness'

In the opening scene of the book, Dickens describes the marshes as a "dark, flat, wilderness... intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it".

Rolf Williams, from the RSPB in Kent, believes that Dickens' description of the marshes back then is still true for today.

"It would have looked very much the same 200 years ago," he said.

"It's a wild, windy place and it looks as if it's true wilderness. But this is all man-made - this whole environment, even back then, has been created by man's activities in the estuary."

Image caption Rolf Williams believes a proposed airport poses a threat to the landscape

The land between Northward Reserve and the sea wall is crossed by ditches which Dickens describes in the early chapters of Great Expectations, as a young Pip crosses them to get to Magwitch to give him food.

Mr Williams said the ditches had been dug to drain the land of excessive water so sheep and cows could walk across without getting bogged down and possibly diseased.

In the novel, Dickens describes the River Thames as a thin line on the horizon.

Mr Williams said: "It an eerie sort of place and often the only time you realise there is this artery for southern England and the city of London is when the ships sail through the middle of a field of sheep and you realise there must be a fairly big water-body there."

Instead of the great bulk of a container ship, Dickens would have seen a mass of masts and dark red sails moving slowly up and down the river.

Mr Williams said the biggest threat to the landscape that inspired Dickens came from a proposed £50bn airport in the Thames Estuary.

"What you are seeing in front of you would be utterly destroyed, it would be wiped off the map and [concreted] over," he said.

"Part of the tragedy is that you don't only lose the natural habitat, you don't only lose the agricultural land, but you lose this wonderful part of our cultural history.

He said the landscape was "part of what defines Britain - why people come to Kent - to follow the trail, to follow the stories and to see the places that inspired great people like Charles Dickens."

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