Plenty of clues to Hambrook Marshes’ history can be seen today. The centuries of cattle grazing, the introduction of clean water supplies to Canterbury, the advent of local railways in the nineteenth century, and the years as a quarry in the later twentieth century are all visible in the landscape.
In earliest times the site probably witnessed the invading army of Julius Caesar (54 BC). For hundreds of years the area was marshy land dotted with shallow ponds and crossed by water channels draining into the River Stour, which supported grazing cattle and reed harvesting (used for thatching roofs). The paintings of Thomas Sydney Cooper and his family give some idea how it looked until the ninetheeth century.
Hambrook Marshes takes its name from the Hambrook family of dairy farmers who owned the land. Until 1950, they grazed their cattle here every day, walking them across a ford in the Great Stour and up Cow Lane (where else?) to their dairy in Wincheap. Some of the grassland is now used for low-intensity grazing again now, with cattle on site from April to October. During this period the landscape scene probably looks much as it did in past centuries.
The railway age
The Elham Valley Railway carried passengers between Canterbury and Folkestone, joining the Ashford – Ramsgate line at Harbledown Junction. The line was particularly popular with those using Canterbury South station to attend Cricket Week. Built in the 1880s, the railway only had a 60 year lifespan and was closed in 1947. But the railway route can still be seen on Hambrook Marshes and now serves as a wildlife habitat: the scrub around the embankment is a good place for birds to nest, and reptiles and birds enjoy bask on its sun-warmed slopes.
A new water pumping house was built in Wincheap in 1869. The new source proved a vast improvement on the old – it was clean, odourless, constant 51°F, and under mains pressure. Water was pumped through a main pipe to a 350,000 gallon holding tank on the top of St Thomas’ Hill, near what is now Kent College. The entire storage system was taken out of use in 1993, but the main pipe can still be seen crossing the Stour and Hambrook and the water tower is still a distinctive landmark.
In 1950 the marshes were sold to the Brett Group, a local aggregates company, and in 1979 the diggers moved in. The fields bordering the river became a 40 foot deep quarry, to supply gravel and sand for road building. The site was quarried until 1985, when the pits were filled with chalky stone taken from the building of the A2. The grassland and landscape were restored to close to their previous state, although the process altered the lay of the land and its soil, which in turn affects the plants and wildlife that the land can support.
In 2004 Brett Group sold the marshes to the Kent Enterprise Trust. As a charity, they began a community engagement programme to improve the land through conservation work, and practical projects to protect and enhance the marshes’ habitats. Love Hambrook Marshes was formed by local residents in 2014 to acquire the site, and ensure the future of the marshes as a space for people and wildlife alike, preventing any threat of closure to the public or redevelopment.