If you hear the word mudflats you may well have been indoctrinated by Charles Dickens to imagine a scene of desolation, of dreary wastelands where convicts and other lost souls wander in perpetual fear and misery.
The Thames estuary epitomises this God-forsaken scenery where it is always winter and a chill wind bodes no good for civilised humanity.
Conan Doyle too, was fond of illustrating the wretchedness of the lower reaches of the Thames, where the meagre lamplight exaggerated dark scenes of murder and bodies pulled from the river onto an unforgiving shore of filth where shadowed characters inhabited a world reminiscent of the Styx.
At the Dartford crossing of the M25 southbound, you might on a bad day be tempted to think that you are in hell as you crawl in your metal coffin at the pace of a snail.
I made such a journey last week from Norfolk back to sunny Sussex. But as I rose slowly, oh so slowly, up into the sky on the bridge I was, as always, on the journey, transformed to a moment of peace and serenity.
There down below the ‘Sweet Thames ran softly’ in the words of Edmund Spenser three centuries ago. Despite the buildings on its shore you can still imagine this river as an artery of the world, a highway for wildlife whether fish or fowl.
There were house martins and swallows, seagulls of three species and a view east into Sheppey and the Kentish shore.
Nothing dreary here. When I got safely home I was soon off to see more lovely mudflats, those on the edges of Chichester city at Fishbourne. Again, the muds inspired.
The first sound I heard in this far-from desolate place were the joyous cries of redshanks and curlews, fresh from their weeks on the moors of Lapland and Scotland.
How could anyone think mudflats dreary? Certainly the ‘Thames is liquid history’ in the words of John Burns, a Liberal MP in the last century.
The history of Romans and Angles, John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys to be sure, but also the history of wild geese darkening the sky, of salmon running to their spawning grounds in the Cotswolds.
These mudflats are the apogee of the flow of life. Here are the richest and most abundant collections of plankton and plants on the planet.
Here you will see some of the largest flocks of birds and shoals of fish. Some of them, like the greenshank here in the picture are also among the most elegant of all life forms.
This too was a bird I saw and heard giving its slow bell-like call last week at Fishbourne. It could have been on that crossing of the Thames, too, if the noisome traffic sounds had only stopped a second. Dickens and Doyle present their cases, I present mine.