The ‘Life and Times’ of the Wantsum
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
Jason Mitchell, Canterbury and Lower Stour