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Notes on Rainham

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From Traders to Waders

Rainham was once a thriving port, with a ferry service across the Thames and into London, and busy wharves in the village centre handling stock, goods and passengers. Wool was sent to Calais and during the 16th century ships were built in the village. There were several pubs clustered around the village centre and wharf area catering for travellers. By 1838 there were several coaches leaving Rainham every day, heading into London and out into more easterly villages. A decade later there was a daily omnibus into the capital, and the railway arrived in 1854.

Rainham Clock Tower
Rainham Clock Tower

Until the 19th century the wealth in the village came from farming. Rainham has a good, light soil ideal for growing vegetables, the marshes were good grazing land, and the trade links with London meant that goods could be sold easily. Rainham was particularly famed for is brassicas; the 'Early Rainham' cabbage was advertised in 1876 and there was even a pub called 'The Cauliflower'. However the land did need a lot of manure to sustain intense cultivation. Barges would take produce into the city and return with – well, by 1872 passengers at the train station were complaining about the smell, and a new wharf was built further away. The village centre wharf closed in 1969 and the southerly one had silted up by 1976.

In the 19th century industrial development and tourism came to Rainham. A hamlet with a pub grew up around the ferry, and the area was popular with day-trippers on the paddle steamers that plied up and down the Thames. But at about the same time the marshes bordering Rainham Creek were becoming industrialised and the tourism boom didn't last long; the Tilda Rice factory occupies the land where the pub once stood.

Industrial development in Rainham has taken place along the banks of the creek and Thames. North of the railway the land has been developed for housing, but south of the railway, virtually untouched by time, lie Rainham Marshes.

Rainham Marshes

In medieval times virtually the whole northern bank of the Thames was marshland. The first sea wall was built about 600 years ago out of rubble, which is still visable at low tide. The land was gradually drained and turned into farmland during the 18th century and subsequently built on following the industrial revolution, proteced from flooding by another concrete sea wall built during the reign of Queen Victoria. Rainham Marshes are a rare remnant of this ancient environment. The marshes were used by the Ministry of Defence as a test firing range until fairly recently – gunfire could be heard in the area until at least the early 1980's – and no doubt that is, at least in part, how they have managed to survive.

Because this habitat is so unusual it has become an important area for wildlife, and was acquired in 2000 by the RSPB. Since then it has been developed into a nature reserve and is home to water voles, dragonflies, and birds of prey such as peregrine falcons, kestrels and owls. Many species of local and migratory birds can be seen there throughout the year, and as the pools and scrapes dry out a little in the summer months, waders including snipe, dunlin, whimbrel, ringed plovers and green sandpipers may be spotted paddling around in the muddy margins. Lapwing and redshank, in decline nationally (numbers have dropped by 40 per cent over the last decade), are increasing within in the reserve and there are now over 50 breeding pairs of each species.

South west of the marshes lies the Veolia land fill site which is a great place to watch gulls and other birds as they ransack the site for tit-bits. Although it is occasionally a bit whiffy, think of the smell as an olfactory tribute to history of Rainham.

Abandoned on the Thames mud nearby lie a number of concrete barges. The 'official' story of these barges is that during WWII the MoD needed barges as part of the project to create artificial harbours for the Normandy landings on D-day. Steel was in short supply, and so the barges were constructed out of concrete. These were towed across the channel and formed part of one of the floating Mulberry harbours. They came to the rescue a second time in 1953 when they were used to shore up the flood defences of the estuary which were damaged by a huge storm and surge tide.

Some say this "official" story of the barges is untrue: instead they were used to carry petrol, or even fresh water, to naval ships during and just after the war. Whatever their story, they make an intriguing sight lying beached and slowly sinking into the Thames mud.

Rainham Diver

Near to the stranded barges, a spectral figure stands alone on the mud. Made out of galvanised steel bands on a steel frame, it is 15 feet tall and 6 feet wide and weighs in at 3 tons. Despite its size it has an air of vulnerability and is curiously touching. It is called Diver: Regeneration, by John Kaufman (1941 – 2002). The piece was inspired by Kaufman's grandfather who was a diver in the London Docks around 1900, and stands as a monument to him and to all working men of the area who work in difficult and dangerous conditions. The figure is invisible in a high spring tide but is gradually revealed as the tide ebbs. The statue was installed in 2000.