Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership

Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership

Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership

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  The ‘Life and Times’ of the Wantsum Channel

Since the Roman invasion, some two thousand years ago, the coastline of Britain has changed dramatically. This could not be truer than on the north-east coast of Kent. I make reference to the Isle of Thanet, and the once significant Wantsum Channel.

During the Roman period the Wantsum Channel was a ‘strait’ which averaged two miles across! At sometime in prehistory, a shingle spit, Stonar Neach, developed across the eastern extent of the channel giving protection to an island just to the west. Rutupiae, now Richborough, was linked to the mainland via a causeway and developed as an important Roman port from around 40 AD. The Roman Emperor Julius Caesar was said to have landed on Richborough.

Today the Roman forts at Reculver (Regulbium) and Richborough seem rather misplaced, but in the Roman age they were strategically placed at either end of the Wantsum Channel giving protection against Saxon raids.

Long after the Romans had left Britain the Vikings also made great use of the Wantsum and in 839 sailed into the channel and up the River Stour to raid Canterbury, stealing gold and precious ornaments. The people of Durovernum, as Canterbury was then known, were to fear for more than just their valuables as the Vikings also took prisoners later to be sold as slaves.

Over time, the continued deposition of shingle at Stonar Neach caused the start of the gradual silting up of the channel. By the Ninth Century it was no longer possible to reach Canterbury and at this time Fordwich developed as the outport of the City.

Much later, and following the brutal murder of Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170, droves of pilgrims from all over Europe passed through Fordwich on their journey to see the holy relics at Canterbury Cathedral and to seek miraculous cures (and there apparently were some).

However, in terms of the modern day appearance of the now dry Wantsum Channel, probably the most significant historic event was that of the landing of St. Augustine at Ebbsfleet in 597. Important, not for the fact that Pope Gregory sent. St. Augustine to re-evangelise England, but for the fact that in the twelfth and thirteenth century Augustinian monks tirelessly constructed intricate systems of drainage, walls and counter-walls to claim land from the sea.

Many of these structures are still visible features of the landscape today. You need only take a look at a map of the Ash Levels, Chislet and Minster Marshes to recall those who helped create this landscape – Abbot’s Wall, Monkton and Monk’s Wall are but a few.

In the 1950's and 60's the area that was formerly the Wantsum Channel was further improved for agriculture with government grants to drain areas of marsh and wet grassland. Today, the wildlife value of the area is largely restricted to the very important coastal areas; the fantastic Stodmarsh National Nature Reserve; the ditches and dykes of inland areas; and the few areas of wet grassland that have remained or have been returned through new environmental incentives to farmers, with the help of KSCP and other organisations. Species such as lapwing, that can be seen in thousands over the winter, do not breed in the numbers that they did in the 1950's because of the decline in habitat.

So, what of the future? Will the flora and fauna that rely on the Wantsum Channel shrink further as the mighty river did? Or, will its’ champions leave room for the vole, bird and other beasts? Will the new agri-environment schemes support those who wish to manage their land sensitively? Let us hope that this treasured stretch of land so rich in history can look forward to balancing the needs of agriculture and wildlife.

Jason Mitchell, Canterbury and Lower Stour Countryside Officer


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Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership
4, Javelin Way, Henwood, Ashford, Kent TN24 8DH
0300 333 6490
kentishstour@kent.gov.uk

Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership
4, Javelin Way, Henwood, Ashford, Kent TN24 8DH
0300 333 6490
kentishstour@kent.gov.uk

Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership
4, Javelin Way, Henwood, Ashford, Kent TN24 8DH
0300 333 6490
kentishstour@kent.gov.uk