Medway Renaissance

I’m always suspicious of development plans with the word “renaissance” in the title. This is so often a cover for money wasting on a grand scale, and a lack of creative vision.

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But in the case of the “Medway Renaissance” I look forward to seeing how it works out. The region, which centres on the estuary of the River Medway in Kent, and the conurbation that takes in the towns of Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham, is an area I know reasonably well and have high regard for. This has been so since I first saw the estuary from the air while flying into London from Copenhagen on a beautiful evening at dusk with crystal clear air. What I saw from above made me keen to know what was happening below.

I only recently became aware of the Medway Renaissance brand, and it is unfortunate that this press release has only just landed in my inbox via a news agency that has for the past couple of weeks been suffering major server downtime. The release announces a symposium on the Medway region hosted by the University of Kent in Chatham. I would very much have liked to attend, but the problem is that it’s happening today.

The Medway estuary is an urban, industrial area, and is seen as part of the “Thames Gateway” that is currently under heavy development owing to the need for living space for commuting London workers. But Medway is not a modern London suburb. It is an historic centre for England’s maritime activities, and I would hope that its further development takes a very different form to that promised for the Thames estuary just 15 kilometres or so to the north west.

In the Thames Gateway proper we shall see new towns and villages planted in the middle of nowhere. And the danger is that without proper attention to infrastructure, transport links and cultural foci these will be little more than dormitory complexes.

I’m a great fan of Kent. It has some fascinating geography and cultural life, and its white inhabitants remind me a lot of the Danes. This corner of England is largely white still, but is becoming increasingly racially mixed. In the rural parts of the county it is not unusual to see black and Asian faces in the oldest, most traditional villages. As I say, I like Kent very much.

The Medway is a living river, the essence of which was beautifully captured by Kentish musician, teacher and writer Chris Wood in a 15-minute work of vox pop and music commissioned by the BBC a few years ago for Radio 3’s Late Junction. Since the original broadcast of “Listening to the River” I’ve been badgering Chris to release the piece on disk. One day, perhaps.

I shall finish off with a picture I took last year of a rusting iron hulk moored in the estuary just outside Gillingham. The colours and textures of the real thing are incredible, and the photograph doesn’t do them justice. Click on the preview for a higher resolution image in a new window.

Rusting iron hulk moored in the Medway estuary outside Gilingham (© 2007 Francis Sedgemore)