Our Wetland Heritage: An Integrated Approach Towards Managing Coastal Landscapes
This report summarises the first phase of work on the Arts and Humanities Research Council Knowledge Transfer Fellowship scheme grant Our Wetland Heritage: An Integrated Approach Towards Managing Coastal Landscapes (AHRC ID No.: AH/G016895/1). This is a partnership between the University of Exeter, the RSPB and the Historic Environment Service of Essex County Council, in the proposed nature reserves of the South Essex Marshes, on the north banks of the river Thames east of London. The report describes the sources and methods used to understand the development of the historic landscape – the present pattern of fields, roads, flood defences etc – and provides an outline of the major phases of activity. The overall character of the historic landscape across the study area was remarkably uniform and indicative of a landscape that has been used primarily for pastoral use (albeit with some relatively recent ploughing in a few areas): none of the distinctive evidence for intensive farming in the medieval or early modern periods, that is so common on most other British coastal wetlands, was found although the possibility that late medieval flooding has destroyed or buried this evidence cannot be ruled out. A wide range of sources has enabled the pre-reclamation natural drainage pattern to be reconstructed, leading to the conclusion that until the 17th century the South Essex Marshes were an archipelago of many small islands. The first phase of embankment evident in the historic landscape appears to have been small, localised reclamations that probably date to the medieval period (perhaps the 12th to 14th centuries): originally few in number, and with many having been destroyed by later development, the surviving remains of these early embankments are of very great importance. The second phase of embankment can be associated with the well documented Dutch activity, which in addition to Canvey Island appears to have embraced almost all of the South Essex Marshes. Later phases enclosed remaining areas of marsh, some of which could have accumulated after the Dutch walls were constructed, but also relate to areas where flood defences had to be set back due to coastal erosion.