“ Marden / Staplehurst / Kent / England „
The weekend before last, the weather forecast was great so my girlfriend and I decided we would like to get out in the sun for a while. Both being avid photography fans, we quite fancied going somewhere which would give us a chance to get some nice photographs.
Whilst sitting on DooYoo reading and rating reviews, I came across the review for Marden Meadows, located in kent between the villages of Marden and Staplehurst and thought it sounded like a nice place to visit.
Despite having lived in Staplehurst for most of my life (having moved away when I was 27), I had never heard of this place before, let alone having paid it a visit. We decided we would go along and see what it was like.
Finding the place could be a little on the tricky side if you've not looked it up as it is not really signposted, and the entrance is little more than a small gateway in a large hedge! However, I had looked it up on google maps and made sure I knew exactly where the entrance was and fortunately found it straight away.
Upon turning into the gateway you enter a small fenced off parking area which would house maybe half a dozen cars or so. We arrived at about 9.00am and were the only car there.
In the carpark there was a small board telling you about the field and how it is left virtually untouched to allow wild flowers and grasses to grow as they desire. There is a small map showing the three meadow fields and four little ponds. Also a notice to stick to the roughly mown paths and that dogs are not allowed!
Looking out across the field it was a lovely view, with various grasses and loads of lovely flowers (most of which I'm afriad I can't name as I really have no idea when it comes to flowers). It really was like a lovely vision of how natural country side should look. We went through the very modern kissing gate and started to wander round the field.
It was only a matter fof feet before both had our cameras out and were taking loads of photos. My girlfriend and I both really like macro photography, capturing the tiny details of things. Our first stop was some lovely dew crop covered cobwebs in the grass. We were fortunate with the weather, it was blazing sunshine and as such it was possible to get some lovely shots. I was very pleased because I have a special macro adapter lense on my camera which only really works well in bright sunlight, and the conditions on that day were perfect, allowing me to get some great shots.
As we very slowly made out way round the edge of the first field we both captured some great shots of the beautiful flowers and grasses and some of the local wildlife: Bees buzzed by, flies skitted about, lady birds meandered over leaves and flowers, tiny crickets (or grasshoppers - I'm not sure which they were) bounced about and butterflies fluttered by; and we managed to get photographs of lots of them. It was a lovely experience.
With the sun beating down upon us, we were starting to get very hot by the time we reached the end of the first meadow; which whilst not huge, had taken us an age to walk round as we stopped every few inches to capture another flower, or texture or insect on film (well memory stick...), and the shade of a large tree was very welcome.
We made out way round the second meadow towards one of the small ponds where we saw Dragonflies, Damsel flies, caterpillers etc. Again it really was just as you would hope the countryside would be.
Having spent nearly two hours slowly wandering around two of the meadows and a pond, we were sweltering and decided to head back to the car to go home for a nice cold drink. We wanted to look at the rest of the meadow but we were just too hot and decided that it would be a good excuse to come back on another nice day!
We both really enjoyed wandering around such a beautiful place and thought it was great that somewhere like this existed. It was great to look across the meadow and see so many flowers and grasses, as I said before a true vision of how the countryside should be. Despite have a country lane along one side and a fast railway line along the other, it was a very peaceful place and all you could really hear was the breeze through the hedges, cuckoos, pigeons and other birds. A couple of trains wnet past while we were there but rather than shattering the peace, they actually just served to make you more aware of how peaceful it was once the train was gone.
We will certainly be visiting the meadows again soon when it is a nice day as we really enjoyed it.
As you drive past it along the minor road between Marden and Staplehurst, Marden Meadow doesn't look anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, drive past it is probably exactly what you will do, unless you happen to know in advance that it is there. No signs by the roadside proclaim its identity; no fingerposts beckon you to turn in through the narrow gap in the hedgerow that forms its entrance.
Once inside, you will find just one explanatory notice-board standing beside the little area of grass that has been cordoned off for parking, with space for perhaps half a dozen cars. More often than not, yours will be the only one there.
* What's to be seen *
Looking around, all seems commonplace. Here in the weald the landscape is flat. If you have come in the spring, the field in which you find yourself is likely to be speckled yellow with buttercups and fringed with white may, colourful enough, but hardly rarities. You are aware from the notice-board that the adjacent fields to either side also form part of the meadow, but the one visible over to the right looks little different from the one in front of you, whilst the one on the left is hidden behind a thick hedgerow of blackthorn and oak. Straight ahead, the central field is sub-divided by another hedge; on the far side beyond it runs the main railway line from London to the coast, and your peace is likely to be disturbed at any moment by a train, filled with passengers who will seldom raise their heads to notice the meadow they are passing, which appears, after all, to be nothing out of the ordinary.
In an ideal world Marden Meadow wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary. Its main claim to fame sounds trivial, even modest to a fault: that it is "unimproved". By this is meant that it has never been ploughed up, artificially fertilised or sprayed with chemicals. As a result, wild flowers that are elsewhere being lost can flourish. Remarkably few such pristine pastures remain in over-developed, intensively-farmed southern England.
In fact, closer scrutiny of the information provided reveals that even this modest-seeming claim is an overstatement. Only about a third of the meadow's 5.6 hectares (14 acres) are verifiably and entirely unimproved. The remaining two-thirds, more recently acquired, had been subjected to some "improvement" in the past, but are now being gradually restored to their original condition by benign neglect and natural seeding from the unimproved area.
This is the area beyond the thick hedgerow to your left, the most westerly part of the meadow. Let's walk that way - a path through the grass has been mown around the perimeter of the field - and take a look at it. Even as you approach, the colours on the ground begin to change, with the yellow of the buttercups becoming interspersed with the purple of wild orchids and the white of ox-eye daisies. And another shade of yellow too, that of rhinanthus minor, known as yellow rattle, a natural parasite that inhibits the growth of grass and thus helps other wild flowers to compete for space.
Once through the gap in the hedge and into the westerly meadow the green-winged orchids predominate, literally in their thousands. They are a wonderful sight. Less obtrusive against the background grass, clover and vetch, but equally arresting once spotted, are the similar numbers of green adder's-tongue ferns. If you'd come later in the summer, you would have seen pepper saxifrage and dyer's greenweed. Entwined in the surrounding blackthorn branches are occasional dog roses.
At this end, the meadow does not just consist of pastureland. There are little clumps of woodland, and three ponds, the largest of them almost concealed behind bushes and bulrushes, making it a natural nesting ground for ducks, moorhen and reed warblers, quite a few of which are normally in residence. Needless to say, butterflies, bees and other insects also thrive here.
After watching and musing awhile in this corner - my favourite bit of Marden Meadow - it is pleasant to continue on round to complete the circuit of the other fields, enjoying the shades and scents of spring, and listening to the song of the lark, before departing. Unless you are a truly avid species-spotter, you won't have spent much more than half or three-quarters of an hour, but it will have been half or three-quarters of an hour well spent, and not just because of its gentle, understated natural beauty.
* Value of a visit *
You could say there's nothing much to Marden Meadow. But in a way, that's the whole point. Increasingly, as our island grows more and more crowded, our cities spread and our agriculture is industrialised, even the most commonplace natural spots are becoming rarities.
In my view the world would be better place if there were no need for Marden Meadow to be designated a nature reserve, if it were just one of a multitude of similar natural pastures. It would not only be a better place by reason of being prettier, though it would certainly be that. It would also be a safer place - safer for the diversity of nature, and safer from our reliance on monoculture, on chemicals and on high energy inputs for our food production. We as a species are taking a gamble that all these things will be sustainable, even in the face of the changing climate that our numbers and activities engender, and it is a gamble that may well be lost. One of the values of places like Marden Meadow is that they remind us we should think about such things.
What's more, there's no charge for entry, which makes it especially good value for money. If you feel you ought to be giving something back for your enjoyment of the place, you can always make a donation to Kent Wildlife Trust, which owns it.
* Who's in charge *
Kent Wildlife Trust is an independent charity dedicated to nature conservation in the county, "with the simple aim of making Kent a better place for our native wildlife". No fewer than fifty-nine sites of particular interest are in its care as nature reserves, of which Marden Meadow is one, and it also has five visitor centres open to the public, including Tyland Barn just outside Maidstone, which is its headquarters.
Apart from maintaining the reserves, the trust runs numerous events and open days to inform people, especially children, about local wildlife and to encourage them to support its conservation.
The Kent Wildlife Trust is one of an association of 47 similar bodies across the country, each one doing similar work in its locality. See www.wildlifetrusts.org if you are interested in finding out which one operates in your area.
In a way, it's a pity that such voluntary organisations are needed to preserve our natural heritage, which should be the concern of everyone, government included. But, given that they are, the least we can do is to support them.
* How to get there *
Marden Meadow is about ten miles due south of Maidstone, about a mile and half off the A229 (the Hastings road). If coming that way, turn right at the traffic lights in the middle of Staplehurst, and keep your eyes peeled for the unobtrusive gap between the hedgerows on your right.
For anyone coming by public transport, the meadow is about equidistant, via a not particularly scenic half-an-hour's walk from either, between Marden and Staplehurst stations, both on the main line from Charing Cross/Waterloo/London Bridge to Ashford. The Ordnance Survey Map reference is 188 TQ 763445.
* Best time to visit *
Definitely in spring, while the wild flowers are at their best. You're just missing the peak time for the orchids, but the moon daisies are coming into bloom. In any case, there is always something to see and other seasons also have their appeal, including the autumn when sheep are grazed there. Perhaps for that reason, it should be noted that dogs are not allowed.
* Recommendation *
Do I recommend burning gallons of fuel to rush across the country to visit Marden Meadow? No, but if you do find yourself in that part of Kent, on your way to Sissinghurst perhaps, it's well worth stopping by to take a look and not hard to find.
It's not a spectacular place, just gently attractive, interesting and very worthwhile. Even if you don't go and see Marden Meadow for yourself, there's every reason to be glad it's there.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2008
Don't forget to bring your camera to this stunning nature reserve.