Sarah Jane Butler revisits a mythic spot of family legend, a place connecting past and present through a spot of land by the side of the Medway. You can come and hear more about her Slow Medway project at our September symposium – it’s going to be a very special couple of days of conversation about how we see, remember, and interact with place. Come and join us!
I have a complicated relationship with the Medway, that beautiful, polluted, welcoming and forbidden river, but my Dad’s was straightforward. He was the river engineer, and the river ran through every day of his working life.
Dad knew too much about floods for us to live beside the river. But, though I barely saw it as a child, it was a powerful presence.
Dad would go out to Colliers Land when the rain fell hard and steady, hour after hour. He’d walk out into the storm, into the midnight darkness or the punch-heavy slate skies of a winter day, and we’d wait at home in the warm light, playing with our toys as the wild weather threatened the world. We knew our Dad would save everyone.
Where was Colliers Land? I didn’t know. It felt mythical, a place where dangers lurked, a place where floods took a shape humans could finally see. Colliers Land was where the Medway’s silty swirling brown waters would roar up and announce their reclaiming of the land, our reminder that we humans can never restrain the flexed muscle of the river for long.
It had no place on an ordinary map then and still doesn’t. It’s just not marked. But on a January day in 2021 as the rain fell hour after hour, I finally googled it, and there it was: an automated measuring station now, no need to brave the storm. There were the levels, rising fast on my laptop screen.
Sitting warm and dry in my kitchen watching the numbers felt wrong. It wasn’t enough. I’m not the river engineer’s daughter for nothing. So I got in my car to go out to Colliers Land and check the levels myself.
That’s Colliers Land that day in the photo. I’d walked it so many times and I’d had no idea I was treading mythic soil, that this unremarkable flattening of land between rising hills, this small stone bridge I’d driven over so often, was the Colliers Land where Dad would gauge the flow and rise of the waters as the storm raged about him.
Dad’s Colliers Land, my mythical place, the Colliers Land I see now, they are layered in my mind like sedimentary deposits left by departing flood waters, constantly confused by the currents and flow that mix them.
And that’s what my Slow Medway project has been like. I thought I’d be walking from source to sea past places I’ve lived and worked, swum and paddled, walked and almost drowned. But it’s been a stirring of myths, stories and memories – my own and others’ – to make something far richer, messier and unmappable.