Unlocking Landscapes podcast #5: Irreplaceable with Julian Hoffman

Here’s episode two with Julian Hoffman!

This is the second of two episodes with author Julian Hoffman. The first episode was about living with pelicans and bears in northern Greece, where Julian lives. 

Julian has published two books of non-fiction with a strong focus on landscapes, wildlife and heritage. In 2012 Julian’s debut book The Small Heart of Things was published, and in 2019 it was followed by Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places

We pick up right where we left off in episode one, with a question to Julian about his experiences of getting to know local people and telling their stories through his writing.

Swanscombe Marshes in Kent, a threatened ‘brownfield’ home to rare species

We get into some pretty deep topics in this episode including:

  • How the mathematics of life mean you can only connect with a handful of places in a meaningful way
  • The poverty of language around ‘brownfields’
  • Convincing politicians to pretend they’re jumping spiders!
  • Life-altering experiences in the North Kent Marshes
  • Oliver Rackham and the loss of meaning in the landscape
  • The importance of local green spaces in the pandemic and beyond

Massive thank you to Julian for his time and consideration in putting these two episodes together. Please support Julian by purchasing his book and following him on social media. Hope you enjoy!


Julian Hoffman: https://julian-hoffman.com/

Irreplaceable: https://julian-hoffman.com/irreplaceable/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JulianHoffman

Save Swanscombe Marshes: https://www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns/save-swanscombe-marshes/

Unlocking Landscapes Twitter: https://twitter.com/UnlockLand

Homepage: https://www.unlockinglandscapes.com/ 

Daniel’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/djgwild

Intro music by Daniel Greenwood: https://danieljamesgreenwood.bandcamp.com/track/eva

Save Swanscombe Marshes

I was recently asked by the conservation charity Buglife to write a blog for their series about Swanscombe Marshes in Kent, south-east England. I have written about the threatened landscape of Swanscombe in the past.

Swanscombe has been under threat from a theme park development for nearly a decade. The threat has come and gone, but now it’s back and perhaps even more threatening than ever.

Why should Swanscombe Marshes not be built on?

Painted lady at Swanscombe

It’s a place rich in invertebrate life where many rare insects and spiders have made a home in its post-industrial landscape. It is the only known habitat for the distinguished jumping spider Attulus distinguendus. That’s where Buglife come in.

It’s also home to rare breeding birds such as the bearded tit and marsh harrier.

Below is the blog I’ve written, which you can view here along with all the other Swanscombe Stories. Please sign the petition to save this special place and invest in its richness, rather than destroy it.

Swanscombe Stories #3 – Ode to a Pylon

I first visited Swanscombe Marshes in March 2015. Spring was in the offing, a cold wind blew off the Thames. My friend introduced me and a few other conservation-minded people from London to the Marshes. He was brought up in Kent and over the years developed a deep understanding of the North Kent Marshes. I can just imagine the way he sees the landscape in his head. He would talk of marshland either side of the river in a way that suggested he was poring over a detailed map in his mind. He knew where species like marsh harrier and the bearded tit nested. Sure enough, we saw both species on that blustery and grey Saturday in March.

Many other people could tell you in much greater detail how interesting this old industrial landscape is. They could tell you what the huts were used for, what certain imprints in the landscape indicate. I was very much a stranger to the place. But I could see the ecological richness, even in March, its interlacing with the industry of old.

Latticed heath on lucerne

Brownfields are pitifully misunderstood in Britain. Old industrial land which is left to be seeded with wild plants, the spores of fungi, and re-colonised by wild animals, makes up some of the most biodiverse habitat in the UK. Too many people in positions of authority are blind to this fact. The ecological value of brownfield is being ignored in return for a dim policy of building only on brownfield. In reality brownfield beats much of the agricultural green belt of England in species diversity because pesticides are not used, nature is given free reign. Their ecological networks are built by natural processes we are not able to replicate ourselves. No amenity or mitigation planting can ever match what special places like Swanscombe have made without us, or in our wake.

When I visited, my friend expressed his affection for a massive electricity pylon. Like you, I also thought that was a bit odd. He said it was because ravens were using it for nesting, and that pylons of this size were a rare thing nowadays. His interest in these pylons matched Swanscombe’s allure: a ruined landscape of old industry now rich in rare insects, spiders and birds. I was so impressed by one man’s love for a pylon that I wrote this poem:

The concrete and riverside

flip flop driftwood and rope

harrier haunting a level of reeds

some policeman of phragmites

of seedy beards that bend and shiver

to the breathing Thames

and its godlike pylon

with chickweed toenails

and ravens for lice.

It’s an icon of a time

when England created

for an age when

she will but consume.


you will be deleted.

A few months later we visited again in August. It was another grey and windy day but the grasslands of the ridge alongside the Thames were alive with wildflowers. The numbers of moths, butterflies, bees and other insects was astonishing. It was not something I had imagined back from that first visit in March.

Swanscombe Stories

Photography: Walking in the threatened landscape of Swanscombe Marshes

Swanscombe Marshes, August 2015

The Swanscombe marshes are threatened by an impending planning application by London Paramount. They want to build a theme park on this vast wildlife haven. Is that really the best use of wild land when wildlife is in severe decline in Britain? I don’t think it is. I visited Swanscombe in March and have written this poem. There is a petition by a locally-led campaign to save the marshes, please sign it if you like what you see here.


Swanscombe has a number of different habitats: reedbed, brownfield, hedgerow, woodland, farmland and species rich brownfield grassland.

Swanscombe Marshes - 16-8-15 blog pics-2

The grasslands along Black Duck Marsh are covered by wild carrot, birds-foot-trefoil, kidney vetch, red clover and a number of other nectar rich plants. This has attracted a number of interesting insects which have seen flower rich meadows and waysides disappear over the past 50 years. The insect above is an ichneumon wasp, one of over 2000 species in Great Britain.

Swanscombe Marshes - 16-8-15 blog pics-8

It’s unusual to see early bumblebee around in August, but here one was, feeding on hawkweed oxtongue, a weedy plant that provides a great deal of nourishment for invertebrates at this time of year.

Turnip sawfly

Turnip sawflies were seen across many of the flower heads of wild carrot, a common plant at Swanscombe. Sawflies are lesser known pollinators related to bees and wasps.

Painted lady

Sited alongside the Thames, it was not surprising to find a few migrant butterflies. There were a number of clouded yellow (too quick and unsettled for me to photograph) and this painted lady. It was fresh and may well be readying for its amazing journey south through Europe to North Africa where its parents had set off on their journey in the spring. How they can find their way back is not yet known to science.

On the southern slope of the rocky bank that runs through Black Duck Marsh, lucerne grew in large clumps. Even on a grey and breezy day there were a number of butterflies there. This, however, is a day-flying moth, the latticed heath.

Swanscombe Marshes - 16-8-15 blog pics-10

There were patches of kidney vetch growing along the rocks of the Black Duck Marsh bank, and we wondered if small blue, a very rare butterfly in Britain that relies on the plant, could be present. We didn’t see a small blue but I did find this common frog hopper, the insect responsible for what I knew as a child to be ‘cuckoo spit’.

Swanscombe Marshes - 16-8-15 blog pics 23-1

Common blues were flying low in the grass, possibly laying eggs on birds-foot-trefoil.

Swanscombe Marshes - 16-8-15 blog pics-11

The breeze made macro photography very tricky, but I tried to make the most of the grey sky, wild carrot and lacewing feeding on its flowers.

Swanscombe Marshes - 16-8-15 blog pics-15

Sitting on the bank of Black Duck Marsh we were visited by this stunning hornet mimic hoverfly, Volucella inanis. This insect is in the family Volucella, a group of hoverflies which mimic bees and other Hymenoptera (bees and wasps) in order to deter predators and instead fool them into thinking they’re a threat.

Brownfield is a poorly understood habitat, it is also in the firing line as the housing crisis intensifies in the south of England through lack of affordable housing and poor planning in central London (I’m referring to the luxury accommodation, property banking boom), to name but a few symptoms. As for its importance to wildlife, willow tit is a severely declining bird in England but is now seemingly favouring brownfield over ancient or more established, secondary woodland. Brownfields are often so rich because, like Swanscombe, they are free of pesticides and are left to establish of their own accord. Many brownfields are more precious and indeed green than parts of the Green Belt, a measure ordained to protect open space. They’re also pointers to the feeding opportunities that non-native species like the above white melilot can offer to native insects like bees, a group of insects that offer £560million to the UK economy through pollination (Bumblebee Conservation Trust).

The Channel Tunnel could be heard as it raced underneath our feet. The above photo is the largest spread of birds-foot-trefoil I have ever seen, all growing on the spoil from the original development of the tunnel. Again, brownfield habitats can be some of the richest in Britain. This area would be lost to the development.

There were a number of pathways cutting through the marshes, like this buddleia byway.

Swanscombe Marshes - 16-8-15 blog pics-13

My single memory from visiting Swanscombe Marshes in August will be the colour of the grasslands, the yellow of the trefoil, the white of the carrot and purple and blues of the lucerne. Please sign the petition to raise awareness about this unique and diverse wild place. There is time to make a difference and Save Swanscombe.

See more at the campaign page for Save Swanscombe Marshes

Poetry: Swanscombe

Colts foot growing at Swanscombe Marsh

The concrete and riverside
flip flop driftwood and rope
harrier haunting a level of reeds
some policeman of phragmites
of seedy beards that bend and shiver
to the breathing Thames

and its godlike pylon
with chickweed toenails
and ravens for lice.

It’s an icon of a time
when England created
for an age when
she will but consume.

you will be deleted.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2015

Swanscombe Marshes is threatened by an impending planning application from London Paramount to turn the area into a theme park. This could have devastating consequences ecologically. Please have a look at the following links:

Petition to Save Swanscombe
Save Swanscombe Marshes website