These maps show how the South Essex Marshes were once a vast area of saltmarsh dissected by a network of tidal creeks. Medieval reclamation was extremely limited, with most of the marshes being used for grazing sheep. It was only in the 17th century that most areas were embanked, creating the landscape that we see today.
Our Wetland Heritage
Wetlands cover around 6% of the UK landscape and are amongst our most important, yet threatened, environments in terms of their cultural history and nature conservation interest. The exceptional preservation of archaeological remains within wetlands is well known, though it is only relatively recently that the value of the ‘historic landscape’ - the present patterns of fields, roads, settlements, and drainage/flood defence works - has been recognised.
In most coastal marshlands, for example the North Somerset Levels, the present landscape has its origins in the medieval period and while extensive settlement existed by the time of the Domesday survey of 1086, reclamation was an on-going process that continued into the 20th century resulting in these totally hand-crafted landscapes having a remarkable time-depth of over a thousand years.
In some areas, however, medieval communities adopted a different approach towards their wetland areas, choosing simply to exploit their rich natural resources rather than to embank, drain and use them for arable cultivation. One such area was the South Essex Marshes on the north bank of the Thames estuary, east of London. This area falls within the Thames Gateway South Essex Greengrid Strategy area which is focusing on creating high quality green space within and between the extensive urban areas on the north side of the Thames Estuary.
The South Essex Marshes were the subject of a collaborative project funded as an Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Knowledge Transfer Fellowship’ that brought together University-based academic research and the expertise of Essex County Council Historic Environment Service in order to inform the development of an extensive nature reserve being created by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The objective and outcomes of the project were as follows:
1. To inform future management of the RSPB’s South Essex Marshes Reserve, through a better understanding of its historic character. This was achieved through a report outlining the historical development and importance of the whole area - including the proposed c.1,500 ha South Essex Marshes Nature Reserve - and which characterises the present historic landscape in terms of the processes and past patterns of land-use that have led to its creation.
2. To raise awareness of the need for a more integrated approach towards nature conservation and the historic environment through a programme of seminars targeted at planners and countryside managers through which the results of the project will be disseminated, and issues arising from it discussed. This was achieved through a series of seminars organised and hosted by the project partners that included representatives from the Environment Agency, English Heritage, the Land Restoration Trust, Natural England, Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership, Essex County Council (Historic Environment and Parklands services), Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership, Thurrock Unitary Authority, Basildon Borough Council, Castle Point Borough Council, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, Renaissance Southend, Essex Wildlife Trust, and the RSPB.
3. To produce information for the wider public (local communities and visitors to the area) on the cultural importance of these landscapes. This was achieved through travelling exhibition, leaflet, and public lecture (that gave rise to centre-page spreads in three local newspapers).
4. To produce a generic ‘toolkit’ to enable similar work to be carried out elsewhere.
5. To disseminate results to other professionals. This will be achieved through a forthcoming paper.