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Bike Tour 2015 - "Romney Marsh; Varied Landscapes and Architecture"

Fiona Mckay

As part of its continuing education programme, the AIA requires all members to complete at least four hours of sustainable design each year. The educational objectives for sustainable design are further parceled into ten broad categories. 

Conveniently, the second sustainable design category makes the enlightened point that “sustainable design values the unique cultural and natural character of a given region” – sentiments that the Bicycle Tour played to its distinct advantage in this year’s visit.  Within our 40 mile tour, Romney Marsh, Dungeness and St Mary’s 

Bay exhibited man’s multiple responses to the natural environment over centuries of habitation.  What better way to experience this particular unique region - in depth and up close - than by bicycle? 

The Tour started in the small town of Rye, which was once one of the medieval Cinque Ports.  However, when its harbour silted up centuries ago, it settled into life as a sleepy enclave and thereby managed to retain its unique mixture of early architecture styles in lieu of progress.

Time spent in Rye also gave the opportunity for a short – very short - sketching session in the churchyard, overlooking the distant, yet to be visited Marsh. Certainly the most finished of the sketches (see below) was 

that of tour guide, architect and architecture historian, Benedict O’Looney, who came prepared as an experienced architectural observer with his set of portable water colours.

Below, Adam Draper (Seth Stein Architects) focused on the window detail as he managed to pencil sketch while standing up. Chris Kimball AIA (SOM) dashed off an ink sketch that captured the spirit of Rye’s church as well as the relaxing cycles in the foreground.  While not exactly prime examples of their craft, their quick sketches give a hint of deeper potential and act as souvenirs of the tour.

After Rye, the real biking started in earnest as we proceeded via the sleepy rural villages of Brookland and Lydd to view the Marsh’s legacy of vernacular architecture and the majestic, medieval churches that were built in those more prosperous times when the famous Romney sheep brought wealth to the area.  Given this settled, quintessentially English landscape, it was a shock to discover that the Marsh is a totally man-made environment, requiring constant vigilance against both sea and military incursions.  Land reclamation in the area has been ongoing since at least the 12th century and continues to this day with newly built modern sea defences along the coastline. Martello Towers, circular fortifications against the potential of a French invasion in Napoleonic time, dot the coast between New Romney and Hythe.  At one point, a remnant of one of the Mulberry harbour wall defences manufactured for D-Day lay abandoned off the shore.

Whatever the reasons they were developed, the flat, sheltered landscapes and the long sweeps of concrete sea walls now make for ideal biking.  Although the day was sunny and dry, the constant, intense wind – fortunately more or less in our favour – seemed to keep the rest of the world away, and the ride in lingering daylight to 

Folkestone along the strangely depopulated corniche was both timeless and surreal.  This was biking at its best.

However, this Bicycle Tour was advertised to include “varied landscapes and architecture” and – accordingly - it was not all undertaken in idyllic English countryside.  Perhaps the highlight of the Tour was the mid-way stopover in Dungeness, the UK’s only official desert.  As expected of a desert, Dungeness is flat, dry and barren – a vast expanse of unremitting, shingle beach - but it is also the setting for a variety of experimental designs. Within a small area were a few well known examples: Simon Condor’s Black Rubber House (2004 AIA Design Award); Nord Architecture’s Shingle House; and Derek Jarman’s Garden.

Although superficially similar in the photos, the black rubber and black shingle houses (in the picture below, architect Rodic Davidson’s house) represent different approaches to material selection.  The black rubber house showed the effects of the harsh environment, with sun and salt collaborating in their hostility, whereas the recent wood house still retained a pristine sharpness.

The highlight of the Tour was the visit to the Experimental Station, winner of the 2013 AIA Design Award, where we were given a special tour by architect Brian Johnson, whose practice, Johnson Naylor, in collaboration with 51% Studios, developed the site through refurbishment of existing utilitarian structures and new builds.

In the middle of Dungeness’s stark, un-English and almost unreal landscape – with its scattered array of fishing net frames; abandoned foghorn testing rigs; derelict fishing boats; kitsch holiday bungalows and caravans; superfluous lighthouses; and the omnipresent, looming (if not threatening) nuclear power station – a group of architects has created a little haven of modern design.   

The Experimental Station is also home to a superb collection of modern furniture and artifacts, a place of quiet contemplation in contrast to the intense wind and sun outdoors.

The Bike Tour participants earned 4 CEU for the day’s efforts. The possibility of a late summer/early fall Bike and Sketching Trip within London is under consideration.

Author: Lorraine King

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