Words Nell Card Photographs Rebecca Douglas
Elmley Nature Reserve is a 3200 acre expanse of marshland on the low-lying Isle of Sheppey, just 40 minutes from Faversham. Tucked away on the edge of the Swale estuary, the reserve attracts over 12,000 visitors a year. The majority arrive with binoculars in hand, keen to observe the huge number of migratory birds and endangered species here, including owls, hares, marsh harriers, redshank, avocets, lapwings and – on rare occasions throughout the year – small gatherings of females practising yoga …
To explain: five years ago, Georgina Fulton moved on to the reserve with her husband, Gareth. Georgina’s father had successfully managed the estate for decades, transforming the landscape from intensive farmland to the internationally-important wetland site it is today. But Georgina wanted the reserve to have wider reach so she set about creating a handful of secluded shepherd huts, giving visitors the opportunity to become fully immersed in the languorous rhythm of the landscape here. This summer, the couple also opened the doors to Kingshill Farmhouse, an 18th century building that had stood derelict on the reserve for 60 years and is now available to rent. The reserve also hosts The Nature Sessions – a thoughtful programme of seasonal retreats curated by Kim Hill that take place on the reserve throughout the year.
To mark the end of summer, Kim hosted a day retreat at Elmley on the eve of the autumn equinox. A party of nine women assembled in the car park at 10am for what was described as a ‘soul-stirring’ day of creative workshops, punctuated by yoga and delicious food. We were told that we would leave feeling restored, calm, reconnected and inspired by the world around you’. All we needed to bring was a notepad, a pencil, and a blanket.
It’s a small, intimate group: one couple, some friends, but mostly like-minded individuals. Blankets over shoulders, we set off on foot through the reserve towards a bird hide – our rudimentary base for the day. As the drizzle and heavy industry on the opposite side of the estuary receded, we stepped in and out of conversations with one another with a natural ease that only comes with walking. Before long, we came across a hamper laden with flasks of hot coffee and a tub of energy balls dusted with the darkest cocoa. We pass them around before continuing on to the hide.
The hide is furnished with a single, fixed wooden bench that faces a narrow row of windows positioned at eye-level, so twitchers can watch the wildlife sheltered and undetected. For our arrival, the Faversham-based stylist and blogger, Hannah Bullivant, has draped sheepskins over the bench. Hannah hosts creative workshops across Kent and London, and after lunch today, she’ll be leading an informal journaling workshop (hence the need for a notepad and pencil), and helping us make foraged autumn wreaths.
First up is an hour of yoga, which is led by Kim (a trained teacher) and takes place on the edge of a pond fringed with phragmites grass that moves with us in the breeze. Deliberately gentle, we’re encouraged to move freely within the poses and keep our eyes closed for the duration: the sole purpose of the practice is to ‘tune back into our bodies in a very, very quiet way’. The sun shines down for our final relaxation: only the grasses and a clumsy pheasant break the silence.
After our practice, our lunch arrives in beautifully wrapped bowls: a nourishing heap of wild rice, roasted vegetables and pomegranate seeds, followed by deliciously dark brownie. The sun is still strong, so we spread out our blankets for what is probably the last picnic of the season.
The premise for Hannah’s workshop is to embrace the change in seasons and – right on cue – as we settle into the hide, the weather turns wild. Hannah introduces herself and explains the ways in which we can make the transition from summer to autumn a ‘point of celebration’. She asks us all to write how we have grown internally and externally over the past year: what are we proud of and what do we need to release. We are also asked to come up with ‘a self-care manifesto’ for autumn and winter – basic ways we’d like to look after ourselves over the coming months. There’s no pressure to read anything aloud: much like the yoga, it’s simply a rare chance to be inside your own head for a while.
For the final part of the afternoon, we have a go at wreath-making. At one end of the hide, Hannah has arranged a display of dried flower heads, grasses and thistles for us to weave into wreaths.She demonstrates how to bind a simple, circular base from foraged willow, birch or virginia creeper. Then, we’re shown how to arrange small posies of flowers and wind them on to the wreath using florists’ wire. To finish, we are each given a length of naturally-dyed silk ribbon (supplied by Faversham-based maker, Ros Humphries) to attach to our autumnal garlands.
Walking back quietly through the reserve we startle a hare who bounds a few feet ahead of us on the path before hunkering down in the grass. A brace of herons fly heavily overhead. A day deep in nature, inside our own (now thoroughly windswept) heads has left everyone deeply relaxed and rejuvenated.
For those entranced by the marshes and wildlife of the area see our post on Graveney Marshes.
Text: Nell Card. Photographs: Rebecca Douglas
The Nature Sessions day retreat at Elmley Nature Reserve cost £100. The next retreat is a weekend one and takes place from 15-17 May 2020. To book your tickets, go to https://www.naturesessions.co.uk/2020retreat