Lomea- LOMEA: an island, a submerging island, sinking into the English Channel, opposite the east Kent coast.
The water is encroaching. For years, the government promised to fund a sea wall, but the money went to coastal defences in Romney Marsh instead. Every month the land recedes a bit more, swallowed by the sea. We estimate that in the next 10 years we’ll have to move to the mainland. Already our island has become two, divided by a channel that has formed over the past few years, the water surging ever more deeply through the chalk, now impossible to cross without a boat.
The part of the island we live on has two hills at the centre: the highest, adjacent to the chapel, was perhaps an Iron Age burial mound, and this is where our goats and sheep graze, and the geese roam. Once there was enough pasture and woodland on the island to support a whole village, but this is the only meadowland left now, along with the weather-beaten trees scattered here and there. As it became increasingly hard to scrape a living on the island, and the periodic storms had more devastating effect, most of the villagers left. Their homes have slowly become ruins and are disappearing amongst brambles and ditches. Now there are just a scattering of houses left occupied
The Lomea hoard
The Lomea hoard consists of ceramic artefacts of unknown origin. They were found on the north-west coast of the island when digging took place to create a seawall, a site which has since been submerged.
Their form bears a striking resemblance to leaf shaped copper pendants excavated at the Abbey Farm villa site, Minster. This Roman villa would have been built to have a view of the Wantsum Channel and across the sea to Lomea, and these artefacts may have been votives, offered ritually at watery locations as gifts for the earth and an invocation to deities to protect and preserve a shifting landscape.
Glass onion bottle
Sometimes, after storms, we find strange objects on the shore. Last year, glass onion bottles, still corked and containing dark winey liquid, and marked with barnacles, washed up, miraculously intact despite three centuries in the sea. There are pockets of clay on one of the beaches where we find balls of marcasite, and for a while we were selling these to a crystal and rock shop in Broadstairs. And two years ago, we found a concretion of shells, leather and iron, which we carefully prised apart, to find fragments of cannon balls and a cache of silver coins, Mexican silver dollars from the 1700s.
A painting of unknown origin depicting a rose and a bottle of petals, thought to be Lomean. For a brief period in the 1800s roses from Lomea -specifically rosa rugosa- were very sought after in the French scent industry. The plants were first brought to Lomea in the eighteenth century as part of a cargo from China, and immediately flourished in the salty, maritime environment of the island. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a merchant took some of the Lomean plants to Francois Rancé, a French perfumier who used them to create a unique fragrance for the Empress Josephine. It was said to be her favourite of the many rose and musk perfumes she wore throughout her life. In summer, rosa rugosa flower profusely at the beaches. Their scent floats around the dunes, a sweet, delicate fragrance that is intoxicating- I can’t pass a plant without immersing my face in one of the magenta blooms, to glory in the smell. I sometimes wonder if Napoleon walked the gardens of his island exile, seeking out plants with sublime scents, and trying to conjure up the aroma of his time with Josephine
In the middle of the island there is an old well of unknown origins, perhaps Roman, and still, thankfully, a source of fresh water from an ancient aquifer in the clay and chalk strata below us.
We collect water in rain butts and barrels too. For power we have a generator, although we try to ration using it. We rely on our stove for heat, supplementing firewood with sea coal, which washes up plentifully on the beach throughout the year. A lot of time gets taken up doing chores- tending our animals, fishing, working our fruit and vegetable patch, keeping the house as storm and sand-proof as possible.
Sometimes we spend time with our neighbours, inevitably reminiscing about long dead family members and past village characters, buried in the graveyard that surrounds the chapel. There are physical reminders of them: I have a treasured pair of strange patched gloves passed down to me, used for a specific task, long forgotten. My family have lived here for centuries, and the sand and soil feels saturated with their presence. These ancestors have cast invisible threads over Lomea, binding me to the island: if I were to leave, I would be lost.
On the mainland. New Downs Farm, the last farm before Sandwich Bay. A photo of my great, great, grandfather, James Smith, on horseback, herding a flock of sheep in front of the farmhouse. If you go there today you can see that the building is almost unchanged, and even now there is a small flock of sheep in the adjacent field.
James Smith farmed here in the early part of the twentieth century, and he was a renowned horse rider. Family history holds that he used to gallop across the bay each day on the huge horse he is astride in the photo. It is said that he used to ride the beast into the sea and that it would swim: if the current was favourable they would go through the water as far as the river mouth, a considerable distance. James Smith apparently could not swim himself, but had such faith in his horse’s abilities that he would entrust himself to the sea in this way. My grandmother said that the horses at New Downs were of Lomean stock, and given the chance, would swim back there.
Although our life is not easy, we love this watery landscape, the banks and furrows of briny grass land, and the sandflats of samphire where egrets and oyster catchers scour the mud for food. Grey seals have colonised one of the beaches and we can walk amongst them basking at the shore, until they awkwardly lumber into the sea. The increasing rivulets of water threading over the land from the shore gurgle and trickle, and the reeds that spring up alongside them have become a new nesting ground for broody hens. In summer the meadow grass on the island knolls is a cacophony of colours, full of orchids, chicory and poppies: and the sand dunes erupt with asparagus, fennel, and viper’s bugloss. Until the late nineteenth century midsummer was marked on Lomea with bonfires and revelry, and flowers were garlanded around the houses and chapel.
Mary and ouroboros
The original Lomean church was St Mary’s, and dated from Saxon times. It reputedly had a huge dragon carving in the centre of the tympanum which some chroniclers believe represented the Norse sea serpent Midgard. St Mary’s was built close to the cliffs, and a succession of storm surges in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries destroyed much of this eastern side of the island, so that by the fifteenth century St Mary’s had been abandoned, and St Margaret’s chapel built further inland. The last traces of St Mary’s had disappeared by the time Edward Hasted wrote The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent (1778-99), although the font and a curious holy water stoup, shaped like a scaled torso, were taken from St Mary’s and installed in the chapel.
Surveying the aftermath of the latest storm. A torrential drenching and battering has led to the re-configuration of many sand dunes: they are squashed and pummelled, beaten down. Ominously, on the eastern beach, a new gully has appeared, a sly snaking rivulet heading towards the island centre. And the channel separating the southern part of the island has widened further, so that the bank of marshy scrub which used to line it has vanished, submerged.
But elsewhere the island is in defence mode. Huge banks of shingle have been re-organised and stand protectively behind the beaches. A large gaggle of brent geese have appeared, swimming in perfect circles by the foreshore, restless, waiting for duty. Nearby, over forty mute swans have gathered on a flooded field, as though an avian general has started mustering troops. The goats and sheep are camped conspiratorially in a corner of their field, like a medieval tournament. Even the seals seem to be linking together in the sea, as though creating a charm-ed ring around the Lomean shores. And the trees and reeds are blowing defiantly towards the sea, as if all the earth-bound island forces are daring the waves to strike, and standing ready to fight the force of the water.
These Lomean threads and artefacts are believed to be relics from woad dyeing. The island was a small, but critical, early centre of woad dyeing, supplying the Sandwich weaving industry. The woad produced at Lomea was a very particular shade of blue, described by the fifteenth century merchant Thomas Paramour as “the sapphire colour of the bounding tydes”. The woad dyeing industry continued on Lomea until the early seventeenth century, by which time woad was usurped by the import of Indian indigo, and Sandwich had declined with the silting up of the Wantsum channel.
It was said that on Lomea the woad dying season was used as an excuse for raucous drinking, as woad balls, which were mixed with hot water and urine to make the dye, were thought to have enhanced colour if there was alcohol in the urine. The dyed fabric was put out in the sun, where, as it dried, it turned blue. Lomean dyeing took place on the beaches and I can imagine sultry days where the island shimmered, cerulean, enveloped in swathes of fabric, their azure colour veiling the land and marrying the sea and sky.
The Ellis family of Yarmouth have a Lomean mermaid on their coat of arms.
John Ellis was an important fourteenth century merchant, and was returning from a trading trip with Spain when storms in the Channel drove his boat into the shallows of Lomea, where it hit a sandbank. A group of Lomean women, who were dying wool with woad on the shore, saw the sinking ship and began swimming to the assistance of the sailors, whilst Lomean boats were organised to come to the aid of the stricken vessel.
John Ellis and his crew thought that the group of blue (woad-stained) women swimming towards their floundering boat must be mermaids. After being taken ashore, Ellis evidently became enamoured with one of his rescuers: later, he asked the king, Richard II, for permission for his family crest to be a mermaid, in honour of the Lomean lady and the debt of gratitude he owed to her fellow islanders.
Water, mud and sky
Sometimes there is a strange sense of anticipation on Lomea. The beach appears like an empty stage, awaiting the actors to take up their positions, with garlands of seaweed draped on the sands, festoons for a performance.
And the sun becomes a revolving spotlight, illuminating different sections of the sea in turn and colouring them a golden ochre in its gaze, before focussing its attention elsewhere, leaving the water to darken again, grey-green. By the shore, the waves form white horses, galloping wildly towards the island as if rushing to witness a spectacle. Clouds pass rapidly overhead, as though racing the water below: they too light up at intervals, revealing glimpses of pure white and powdery blue, a baroque ceiling arching over the impending drama.
Often, after a downfall, the island wears a sheen of water, so that the fields become mirrored and glittering. They reflect so much sky that it seems a magician has made the land vanish and disappear into a thin line that stitches water and air together, leaving an invisible audience held in suspense, waiting for the earth to reappear.
In the heat of summer, the island glows, clasped tightly in the sun’s embrace. We bask, languid and somnolent; moving in a dream-like haze, all thoughts melted in the warmth of the sun’s rays, our faces tilted skyward to receive its caress. On these days, even the sea is in thrall to the sun; the tide stroking the sand gently, alluringly, before retreating drowsily, glittering in the luminous light.
Delft tile fragments, taken from a fireplace in a flint house on the eastern Lomean coast, which fell into the sea in the I930s. The property was known as the Rose House because it was built with money supposedly made salvaging cargo from the Rooswijk, an eighteenth century Dutch East India ship sunk on sandbanks nearby. My grandmother had a dim recollection of an imposing, but forlorn building, that was emptied, fenced off, and then gradually fell into a crumbled pile of masonry at the foot of the cliffs, before being consumed by water.
It was thought that an early occupant of the Rose House commissioned these tiles especially for the property, asking that they depict the marine life located in the sea around Lomea. I imagine the aquatic bestiary that once surrounded flickering flames in the hearth of a vanished home: from huge whales to the tiniest of shrimps, all described in flourishes of manganese glaze.
The article makes clear that the pieces have no great value, just historical interest. For me, the imagination and creations of a forgotten tile maker represent a ship, a house, the island itself, all taken by the sea: a litany of loss.
Snakes and sharp votives
I am scrutinising an image of Lomean artefacts from a museum pamphlet. The article accompanying the text speculates on the relics as being ritual objects, and connects them with the isle of Thanet, where the soil was believed poisonous to snakes, suggesting they were offered to a Romano-Celtic earth deity, for the protection of Lomean earth.
I spend a long time gazing at the objects in the picture and trying to assign them each a function. The pointed glass, and the presence of fossilised teeth and snakes make me uneasy, as though a subtly menacing message has been sent to me across the centuries. An ancient Lomean legend talked of a sea serpent perpetually curled around the island, periodically consuming the land. It’s as though this creature has reappeared from the depths of the sea and time, voracious, ready to eat more earth.
A restless night. I am like a vessel at sea, pitching, caught in waves of tangled sheets, submerged by half dreams. I wake feeling stranded, anxious. I get up, and even though it is very early, leave the house and walk towards the sea. It is a still, shimmering morning, so perfect it seems the rising sun is fervently determined to dispel my nocturnal uneasiness. When I reach the dunes, the tide is far out, and the beach has been transformed into a vast expanse of mud, which tugs at my tentative steps, and sucks greedily at my boots, encasing them in sticky sludge. The mudflats have been cast with perfect ripples: the mark of the sea, proprietorial and possessive, laying claim to Lomea.
Other Lomean artefacts from the same museum collection. Strange objects that are coloured the green hues of the sea. I wonder if they are marine offerings, amulets to stop the invading water and if their absence from the island is somehow calamitous. I yearn to handle them and to examine them, to imagine the ancestors who fabricated them, and then to return them to the island, to embed them in the Lomean earth, and to use them again as charms to protect my land from the force of the sea
Even in winter, when the winds can be brutal and the cold stabs at every pore, the island still holds you, compelling in its austerity. At night, we are enveloped in darkness, no light except from the moon and stars and the occasional passing ship. We light our oil lamps and read, listening to the ocean. Sometimes I pore over my collection of old maps of the island, tracing its altered shape described in ancient inky lines, reading the island name as that changes through the centuries too.
The Third Island