Evocative memories of Romney Marsh

Patricia Wilson Smith is a visual artist and curator who lives and works in the countryside near Canterbury. She  has been a regular visitor to the Kent coast since her childhood and was the curator of the Harbour Arm Gallery in Margate for three years from 2010 to 2012.

Located between a line of gentle hills and the English Channel, Romney Marsh has been part of my life since I was a small child. My mother would take me with her in the back of a farm lorry to the potato fields, where she spent the day following a tractor, filling boxes with potatoes for local markets. She loved this work: out in the open all day, the camaderie of the other women, occasional banter with the tractor driver, and of course, the pay, and the few potatoes she was allowed to bring home to eke out the family income. I was very small, so trips in a bumpy lorry, surrounded by good-humoured women and their children was my introduction to a larger society. And the sensory pleasure! The rich smell of freshly-turned earth, the surprise of the clumps of new Romney Marsh potatoes revealed by the noisy tractor, wide flat fields open to the sky, sheep-dotted meadows, watery rush-filled dykes. The marshes are part of my psyche.

To drive across the marshes now is a blend of old memories and attachments and new realities. I believe the wind farm is beautiful; lovelier than the pylons that straggle across Kent from Dungeness. The roads are wider, smoother, faster. There is a new art gallery at the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre and an annual contemporary visual arts festival that places art in the wonderful, idiosyncratic churches scattered across the marsh.

The marsh is sheltered by Dungeness, the headland on the coast and one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe whilst the remnants of the Denge Sound Mirrors, have inspired many artists. These were the forerunners of radar, acoustic mirrors that were built to provide early warning of incoming enemy aircraft during the second world war) and can be seen on guided tours, surrounded by water in a disused gravel pit.

In essence little has changed, the landscape holds its surreal, emotive ‘charge’ for me: it always feels like coming home, despite that I grew up miles away in Ashford.


Now I embrace new landscapes with enthusiasm and with a sense of purpose shaped by my work. When I visited Wear Bay in Folkestone recently I went in search of a past that has little to do with my personal history, but everything to do with how Kent is today.  The shoreline along this part of the coast is untidy: chalk cliffs fringing a beach of sand, shingle and rocks, and sitting on a bed of Gault Clay.

Fragments of ammonites found at Wear Bay

Fragments of ammonites found at Wear Bay

The beaches are littered with the concrete and rusted metal detritus of wartime sea defences. Here coastal erosion, tide action and landfalls have slowly and persistently revealed the remains of sea creatures that thrived here millions of years ago, when the whole area was a deep warm sea bed. Here I can beachcomb, a child once more, and reach back into a far distant past.

Folkestone Triennial will take place from 30th August – 2nd November. Patricia will be participating in the Fringe Festival and will be returning to Wear Bay again in preparation. 

Patricia also blogs about her artistic response to the horrors of war at ‘Hundred Years of Warfare.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Sign up to our mailing list.

Follow me on Twitter