In search of Ebbsfleet

The Thames near Ebbsfleet
The Thames near Ebbsfleet

I suppose I first became aware of the place during the train journey to the Channel tunnel, which passes through the brand spanking new Ebbsfleet International railway station. As well as the station there is Ebbsfleet United, a football team, placed 22nd in the Blue Square Conference Premier Division. Then there’s the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, and if a place has a bishop there must be a cathedral, right?

Wrong. The Bishop of Ebbsfleet has an office in Oxford. He is a travelling bishop whose job it is to minister to the needs of those who do not believe in the ordination of women. One has to wonder why the Church named him after a place that doesn’t exist……

It was certainly feasible for me to include a visit to Ebbsfleet in my forthcoming trip to London, but first I would have to find it. My OS map of the area dated back to the seventies, and there was no hint of Ebbsfleet on it. For a seasoned map reader, it really was a rather strange experience. I discussed the problem of Ebbsfleet with some friends and said that for some unknown reason I felt compelled to go there. We wondered if, unbeknown to me, other people were also making the same preparations. In the classic Spielberg movie “Close Encounters of The Third Kind” complete strangers were drawn to  an alien landing site without knowing why. Fiction, of course – but it was fun to speculate.

The day of the visit arrived; for some reason I had not been able to persuade anyone else to come with me.  The weather was a pleasant for mid-December and it was good to get some fresh air after some serious gallery bashing the previous day. I had located the site of Ebbsfleet somewhere near Swanscombe in north Kent. A walk from the village railway station in a northerly direction would take me to the Thames. It looked like a promising start. I just had with me my Panasonic GX1, a couple of lenses and a couple of filters. I was travelling light!

It turned out to be a really interesting afternoon. The area is semi-industrial, partly brown-field, and rich in wildlife. I heard a Cetti’s warbler and a water rail in overgrown ditches. It was once the site of a cement works but lies in the Thames floodplain, and would therefore be difficult to re-develop . A couple I met told me that ideas for a theme park had been floated for the area but they did not know what the theme might be. I found a rather ramshackle and quite fascinating community of wooden jetties, salvaged and recycled material of all descriptions, old cars, sheds, and boats of many types including a couple of houseboats. All very Fay Godwin, but unfortunately the very low, strongly directional light made it very difficult to photograph well.

On the other side of the river lay the Essex coast, Tilbury Docks and more heavy industry. Upstream I could see a convoy after convoy of heavy traffic crossing the Dartford Bridge. The tide was high and water gently lapped the shore in a light breeze. Wild duck took flight as I approached. It was the sort of country I love to explore, with all sorts of contrasts and conjunctions between human activities and nature, and on a very much larger scale than anything I had ever seen in Wales. I found a massive concentration of flotsam and jetsam in a sheltered bay which I photographed with the bridge in the background. Not beautiful in the traditional sense (or any sense, come to that) but it needs to be seen. The photographer bears witness to such things.

Dusk comes very early at this time of year and the sun quickly disappeared behind a spreading shower cloud to the south. I had no tripod with me so that put paid to the day’s activities. I would need far more than a couple of hours if I were to do justice to the enigma that is Ebbsfleet.

As a footnote , the GX1 is capable of very good results. At lower ISO’s it seems to exhibit very little noise, almost the equal to my Canon 5d Mk2, but without the delicate colour rendition of the latter. I wouldn’t like to do without the optional electronic viewfinder, though, and it took me a while to set it up so that most of the dozens of modes and other options are disabled. In normal use it is still quite easy to change settings with a careless press of a button, however – with a finger, the heel of the thumb, or the tip of the nose – which is a real nuisance. It’s certainly a decent option as a travel camera but I wouldn’t replace my DSLR with one.

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A Waxwing Day

I’ve often found twitching to be  frustrating in a particularly painful way. Even birding itself, while often enjoyable, can sometimes seem pretty frivolous. But to visit a location which – you have heard – was recently the temporary resting place for an avian waif is just asking for disappointment. So it was a mixture of expectations that I set out for Machynlleth last Thursday.

“Up to fourty birds” they had said, “feeding on berries outside the library”, then later “further up Maengwyn Street”. To have so many birds present, so early in the winter, so far west in Wales, it must be a “Waxwing Year”.  From the van I saw a woman with binoculars outside the library, but no birds. I parked up and began the search. The woman outside the library had just seen one, and a minute later it re-appeared briefly before flying off again. Half an hour of fruitless searching nearby followed. Hmmmm……time to try “further up Maengwyn Street”. From the van I spotted another little group of ornamental rowans and “yesssss!” – there were waxwings!  

Waxwing, Machynlleth
Waxwing, Machynlleth

I could see that the birds (about 25 of them) were using the tops of nearby tall trees as a refuge, with small groups making occasional sorties down to feed. I  parked near the rowans and had just set the van up as a hide when another local photographer parked next door and got out, long lens at the ready. The birds seemed to keep their distance. “Janet”, I called out of the window, “if you get back in they will come down to feed!” ….and then again a few minutes later, but slightly louder. The birds DID seem nervous. But eventually they got used to our presence, and I began to get some potentially decent results from inside – and then outside – the van.  On reflection, over coffee and a late lunch,  the morning had turned out really well.

More activity during the afternoon when the number of waxwings had increased, eventually reaching about sixty. But the sun was falling and it became more and more difficult to photograph them without deep shadows falling across their bodies. Sometimes it seemed as if they could feed on a bunch of brightly lit berries while themselves remaining in total shade. And boy, could they move quickly! Eventually I concentrated on trying to photograph the birds  silhouetted against a bright evening sky.

At dusk they all congregated in the top-most twigs of a tall poplar, before flying off as a group towards the town centre, looking like a small flock of starlings.  It seemed thay had gone to roost somewhere. They were soon back, though, fluttering and calling over the rowans in a tight flock, just a few feet away,  before dropping down to grab the few remaining berries. After that magical moment they were gone, to the north this time, and I called it a day too.

It was apparent that local people had noticed the birds as well. They didn’t need birders with their long lenses and  telescopes to point out these special visitors to the town. It seemed like it may have been the first big local event after the disappearance of April Jones two months earlier, and the consequent police and media invasion. And a much more pleasant one at that.

There was plenty of processing to be done, and plenty of deletions!. I’m a relatively newcomer to the world of bird photography, and today’s high speed motor drives are definitely a boon. The silhouettes were disappointing.  But I whittled the images down to about fifty and some favourites began to stand out, like the one above. It’s cropped slightly, and it could take a lot more cropping. But I’ve left the bird within its surroundings; at heart I’m still a landscape photographer, I think.  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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