When starting my research I was looking into the inhabitants of Foulness Island, which is just off the coast of Essex at the mouth of the Thames. At one time the only access was by boat or walking across the mud at low tide, this led to a very isolated community with very few home comforts, no utilities or indoor plumbing. The main occupation was farm work or fishing for the men, and domestic work for the women, and it was how this very hard and basic existence affected the lives of the women who lived there that was going to be the focus of my research.
The MOD purchased the Island during the First World War for ‘research purposes’, and life changed for the islanders in the 1930s when the MOD build the first bridge connecting the Island to the mainland (Bridging the gap) this freed the women from their very modest and isolated lives. Women could now look for work off the island, which wasn’t possible before due to tide times changing daily and blocking access to the mainland, the old footpath across the mudflats called the ‘Broomway’ was now mostly redundant.
I became really interested in the old path (The Broomway) onto the island and it’s history, it led out across the mudflats running parallel to the shore and was very dangerous. The way was marked with twig brooms or besom some accounts saying up to 400 where used to keep traveler’s safe and on track. The besom are traditionally made from birch twigs and during my research I found out that birch trees or branches have been used as markers for paths, way markers or boundary markers for centuries. The myths and folk lore around birch covers nearly every country and I became more interested the more I looked into it.
Anna Lexington is a ethnobotanist, writer, researcher and blogger as well as appearing on TV and radio, she specialises in the importance of plants to people. She is also a voice for environmental injustices that are taking place today. Her book ‘Plants for People’ is noted as being the inspiration for the Eden Project by Sir Tim Smit. Her book ‘Birch’ was a font of knowledge to all things relating to the birch tree, and I found it invaluable for my research.
My research started with a group of strong women who would have been very much in touch with their environment through their daily lives, it has now taken me to be inspired by a modern day environmentalist, another strong woman.