I have had a deep fascination with Wilden Marsh for many years. A new story seems to present itself with every night visit.
Moonlit evenings provide the best atmosphere. I’m never lonely or afraid when walking through the blackness of a nighttime marsh, with its strange noises, fleeting shadows, and darting will-o-the-wisps. I am sometimes accompanied by lingering ghosts that whisper in my ears of long forgotten secrets and conjure visions from a bygone era with the snap of a spectral finger. Now and again, when the River Stour is in flood, at the confluence of the river and Hoo Brook, close to the site of the sewage pumping station, between the marsh and Falling Sands Nature Area, a thickening miasma lifts from the river like shrouded phantoms escaping the halls of Hades at Halloween; they twist, turn and struggle to break the water’s grip. The mighty roar and sheer force of the turbulent, boiling and tumbling waters hide the wailing screams of tortured souls being smashing against the river’s floating rubbish rafts – legion upon legion rise from the thickening mist to replace those gone before. At this point, a sensible person would make their way off the mash as quickly as possible, but these are only figments of my overactive imagination and nothing to be overly concerned about.
The instant I set foot in the meadows and pastures, the ghosts begin their whispering. In fact, I don’t know of another place so eager to give up its colourful secrets in such vivid detail. No, I am not deluded or suffering from a schizoaffective disorder. I am receptive to the lay of the land and what it can tell me. I also have a vivid imagination, and a strong interest in local history.
Standing close to the Riverside Pasture stock fence, at the point where Hoo Brook rushes into the River Stour, I look across to the stark, sharp-edged, relatively modern buildings of the Hoo Brook Sewage Pumping Station. Sometimes, in the right light, the area melts to a vision, set some 150 years ago, of the dark, satanic, buildings that are the Falling Sands Rolling Mills and Cottages. The industrial buildings are placed at the precise angles necessary for the efficient operation of milling waterwheels. There are four industrial buildings. The site was owned by Lydia Barnett, and the tenant was Samuel Barnett.
I hear grinding and creaking of waterwheels, rushing water, clanking of loose gear wheels, hissing of water quenching red-hot metal passing through steel rolls, and rhythmic ringing of 20 lbs sledge hammers striking iron. My nose tingles at the smell of high sulphur coal used to fuel the mill furnaces. All these noises, sounds and smells are memories of visits to my grandparents house, on the edge of the Abergavenny steam railway junction, way back in the 1950s. We have a steam train railway crossing the marsh on the Falling Sands Viaduct.
A leat allows the river water to bypass the waterwheels that span the full width of the river and provided power for the rolling mills. To stop the waterwheels, a gate lowered into the river cuts the water flow. The river water is diverted into the leat at a point close to Falling Sands Viaduct, and exits 700 metres downstream into Hoo Brook.
The time I imagine is 1840. The Staffordshire and Worcester Canal opened in 1770 and the Severn Valley Railway in 1862.
Urgent shouts of grubby mill workers going about their daily business fill the air, as do the excited screams of dirty little urchins playing around stacks of metal, coal and redundant machinery spread haphazardly around the rolling mill stockyard. The visions of mill workers and their urchin children are but shadows of those who once worked and lived on-site in company cottages.
I don’t know why I am affected so by Wilden Marsh, its history, its fauna and flora, and its geology, but I’m glad I am.