Hidden Places Around Portsmouth: The Mysteries of the Marshes

Local resident and photographer John Callaway, gives us a glimpse into the little known history of Portsmouth and the surrounding area, alongside some of his stunning photography. In this essay, he heads to Farlington Marshes.

Today felt like a day to head south to another location within walking distance of home. With the current restrictions on movement, it’s sometimes just a case of choosing a point on the compass, and heading off towards the ‘familiar’, whilst all of the time trying to look for the subtle differences and changes to the landscape.

Farlington Marshes: its present day landscape was shaped in the 18th Century. There’s an excellently researched history of the Marshes written by Carole Roberts on the Hampshire & Isle Of Wight Wildlife Trust: Solent Reserves Blog, which you can find here.

Suffice to say, the then owner of Farlington Manor:

wanted to create pasture for grazing animals and so between 1769 and 1773 he set about the reclamation of salt marsh, islands and mudflats to create the Farlington Marshes we are familiar with today. Several small islands including Binners Island and inlets were filled in to create the Marsh. They were first surrounded by a wood and clay retaining wall, then the area within was drained presumably through purpose built channels. Traces of earlier sea defences or attempts at reclamation mean he was not the first to attempt this. The sea wall was originally constructed of clay faced on the seaward side by flint and chalk rubble held in place by timber….

So, I’m just going to go on about the light – which was terrific today – start with a muted palette (see featured image, above), and finish with a bit more colour.

A marsh is a whole world within a world, a different world, with a life of its own, with its own permanent denizens, its passing visitors, its voices, its sounds, its own strange mystery.

Guy De Maupassant,La Maison Tellier 

Somehow that ‘strange mystery’ shows itself more readily without the distractions of a perfect blue sky, (of which more later).

Muddy Water… Image by John Callaway 2020

‘Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear.’

Lao Tzu

Kind of works for me.

Rust Never Sleeps… Image by John Callaway 2020

Rust never sleeps indeed, even if it once was the control bunker for a Starfish site during the WWII Starfish were a network of night time decoy sites created during the Blitz to simulate burning British cities. The aim was to divert German night bombers from their intended targets so they would drop their bombs over the countryside. On the night of 17/18 April 1941, over 144 enemy aircraft were lured away from the city of Portsmouth to drop their bombs into Langstone Harbour and Farlington Marshes.

Sign O’ The Times… Image by John Callaway 2020

Sometimes the construction work is a little more prosaic…which leaves the final, un-edited colour photograph from the Marshes looking towards Hayling Island.

Way to blue… Image by John Callaway 2020

I’ve asked many famous photographers to help me edit and they say, ‘Well, this photo goes with this one, and what’s the story by the way?’, and they put them in a different order and then I go home and do what I fucking want!

David Molina GadeaBritish Journal of Photography, Issue 7851: September 2016: p43.

This article was originally published on John Callaway’s website, Ideas & images from Portsmouth and beyond. You can read more of John’s writing on his website and also see his live music photography.

Images by John Callaway.

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