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One No, Many Yeses
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Reculver Beach, Kent. 11 May 2006

It’s ten to eight. The sun was just beginning its descent as we walked down the cliff path an hour ago, sacks of sea bass, sea beet, sea purslane, dulse and bladderwrack slung across our shoulders. Behind us the twin towers of the ruined cliff top church of St Mary, which stand sentinel over the remains of the Saxon shore port of Regulbium, were framed by the late evening light.

Now I sit cross-legged beneath the cliffs, piling driftwood onto a stuttering fire. Above me, hundreds of darting, chattering sand martins ride the evening breeze, shooting in and out of slits in the sandy face. Out to sea, framed by the dipping sun, are the rusting steel remains of wartime anti-aircraft tripods. Further out, a new windfarm stalks the horizon like some distant approaching army.

My fingers are encrusted with sea salt and ash. The crimson sun is behind me, the square stone towers up ahead. You can smell this place in the air. The evening silence is broken only by the crackling of the burning wood, the nattering of the martins and, now, the shifting of the gravel beneath Fergus’s feet as he makes his way back up from the shoreline.
‘I gutted the fish,’ he says. ‘How’s the fire going?’

Fergus Drennan is one of England’s few professional foragers. He makes a living – just – by hunting down, seeking out and selling wild food. Take Fergus to a wood, a patch of waste ground, the edge of a railway line or an empty evening beach, and it’s likely he can feed himself, and probably you, and feed you well. He’s been doing it since he was young, and it’s never going to make him rich. He says it makes him free though, as far as that’s ever possible.

Our evening at Reculver brings to a close a day spent together in the Kent countryside, where Fergus has been inducting me. He’s taken me to the woods and showed me how to find morel mushrooms, how to cut nettle tops, when to pick ash keys and how to track down the giant yellow bracket fungus known as ‘chicken of the woods’. He’s shown me how to make nettle soup, what to do with wild garlic, sorrel and hairy bittercress and what type of seaweed to harvest at low tide. Now, below the red cliffs and under the red sun, we’re ending the day with the fruits of our labour: baked sea bass, dulse soup and fried sea beet, offset by strong sloe gin.

‘The thing is’, says Fergus as he unwraps one of the bass from its tinfoil and pokes it experimentally with a stick, ‘that we’re just so cut off now. Very few people understand the land, or even know what grows in their gardens or on the bit of wasteland behind their back fence. But once you do know, you start to understand the place you live in, and feel part of it.

It’s about culture, as much as anything. Remember those St George’s mushrooms we picked earlier? They got the name because they start to appear around St George’s day, the 23rd of April. You hear people all the time moaning about how the traditions of this country are disappearing, we’re not in touch with our heritage, nobody celebrates St George’s day anymore, blah, blah. But most of these old traditions, when they were living, they came from the land and from people’s attachment to it. These days we don’t know where we are, or what happens in our landscape, so we can’t create new ones. Traditions come from places – from the land, from our relationship to it. Once that’s gone, so has that living culture.’

The fish is done. We unwrap one each and poke around in the shingle for our forks.
‘So many of my friends are constantly criticizing this country,’ says Fergus. ‘You know, “I’ve got to get out, it’s all going to the dogs” – all that. But for me, this is what I do. Foraging … it’s not even about food, really – it’s kind of about belonging. I feel such a part of it through this that I could never leave. I suppose it ties me to England. This is my place.’

Bluewater Shopping Centre, Kent. 12 May 2006

I have never seen anything like this.

Or have I?

I’m driving down a slip road from the A2, following the white words painted on the road, and the white arrows painted above them in case there were any doubt at all about where I was headed.


It opens up below me suddenly and to the left. It is stunning; it stuns me to the extent that I swear to myself out loud above the music from the CD-player.

Clawed out of the Earth, a mile, surely, in diameter, is what looks like a giant, abandoned quarry. Its sides are sheer white chalk cliffs, ringed with slip roads, roundabouts, junctions and pylons. The road I am now following sweeps round to the left in an arc, passes between two giant white stone pillars, as if into some ancient amphitheatre, and leads me down.

In the centre of the quarry is a quite remarkable construction. It is a huge, spreading complex of enormous buildings, steel grey, topped with curious angled towers. I’ve seen their shape before, and recently. It puzzles me for a moment, and then I have it: oast houses. For the past hour, driving through Kent, I’ve passed dozens of them; shells mostly, now, their old weatherboarded wooden towers topping house conversions or offices. These giant, steel approximations scream their separateness as they try, simultaneously, to belong.

As I get closer, I can make out more. The vast complex, linked together by covered walkways, is surrounded by a sea of white-lined asphalt. Regiments of trees and black steel lampposts separate lines of parked cars.

I get out of the car and lock it. If the world ended today – if this place were covered in ash for a thousand years and then excavated by some future civilisation – what would it say about who we were?

It seems to be designed to make you crane your neck and gasp. Its scale and its pomposity – the stone pillars, the towers, the lakes … it could be a colosseum, a palace, a cathedral. It is none of those things. It contains not courtiers, relics or kings, but KFC, M&S, Top Man. Just shops – and yet, not just shops. This is the biggest shopping centre in Europe. It attracts 27 million shoppers every year. There is parking space for 13,000 cars. There are 330 shops, 16 restaurants, 14 cafés, 9 fast food outlets and a 13-screen cinema. There is a bar, a car valet, a crèche, several hairdressers, a spa, a putting green, a go-kart track, a boating lake and a climbing wall. There is a multi-faith chapel with fifteen attendant chaplains of different religions.1 This is not just a shopping centre. This is an experience.

As I walk from the car-park towards the sliding glass doors that will grant me entry to the ‘Wintergarden’, I pass two drinks machines, selling cans of Coca-Cola products. They aren’t simply standing there as they would be in any other mall or sports centre or cinema. They are encased in what look like steel sheaths, pointing like cathedral towers to the sky. On the side of each is a logo: a blue horse rising from a foaming sea. BLUEWATER, it insists.
It’s then that it hits me.

I look around me. Everything here is controlled. Everything is part of an overall plan. From the trees to the spires, the pillars to the litter bins, the lakes to the drinks machines. Everything fits.

Inside the Wintergarden, the first thing I see is a statue. Rising perhaps 20 feet high, dominating all around it. It is a statue of a Coke bottle. Affixed to its sides are four telescreens, silver and rounded, beaming out Coke adverts and Sky news. Behind the statue rise six imposing white stone pillars, holding up a high atrium of glass and steel. On top of every pillar is a brace of CCTV cameras. Everything I am doing is being monitored.

From nowhere, now, comes a hidden voice. Female, mellifluous, well-elocuted, it advises me to keep my belongings with me at all times. And now I know what this is. It just seems so obvious, so clear.

This is totalitarian.

And it is, in the original sense of that often abused word. Bluewater is a total experience. Every aspect of it is planned, controlled and monitored by authorities who you never see but who only ever have your welfare at heart. Their authority here is absolute, but unless you abuse their trust, break their rules, you will never see them. You are here to consume, and as long as you do so you will be left alone.

Planned, focus-grouped, monitored, maintained, private. Here I am, in somebody else’s kingdom, disturbed and slightly sickened and yet also somehow excited. The abundance is breathtaking. Thousands of people in caps, shorts and open shirts mill around me with children, trolleys, Burger King cardboard cups. Bring me your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and I will sell them things.

Welcome to everywhere. Welcome to nowhere.

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome.


Two places. Separate, distinct, divided by 50 miles of England and half a world. Two ideas of what a landscape can be. Two visions of the future. Two sets of assumptions about the world and what it is for. Which is more recognisable to most of us? Which is most representative of the country we live in, the world beyond? I would like it to be Reculver. But Bluewater wins every time.

There is a bit of Bluewater in every town in England. And not just in the towns; in the villages too, and even in the fields. On the motorways and the A roads, the coastal towns and the conurbations, the fens and the forests. There is a bit of that manufactured, placeless, corporate landscape almost everywhere you go, and it is getting bigger. Spreading out. Digging in. It is the story of our age. It is the future, if we allow it to be.

The things that make our towns, villages, cities and landscapes different, distinctive or special are being eroded, and replaced by things which would be familiar anywhere. It is happening all over the country – you can probably see at least one example of it from where you’re sitting right now. The same chains in every high street; the same bricks in every new housing estate; the same signs on every road; the same menu in every pub.

The meaning of England is different for everyone who lives in it. Its physical reality – its actual and emotional landscape – resonates at different frequencies for all of us. But whatever tone we hear, it is increasingly drowned out by the louder but flatter sound of landscapes being levelled, colour being drained and character being driven out by money and self-interest and over-development. Whether the real England, for you, is the local newsagent or the local church, the thatched cottage or the city terrace, the hardware store that clings on in your high street, the struggling street corner pub, the patch of overlooked waste ground, the chaotic street market, the hedgerows or the downlands, an old farm or an urban canal: you can be sure that if it is not sufficiently profitable or obedient, then it is not safe from the accelerating forces of homogenisation and control. It, too, will be Bluewatered in time.

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