Margate Stench


In the debate about plastic waste, episode seven of Blue Planet II has been the news reporter’s touchstone. The ruination of global waters seen in the documentary has repeatedly been cited as a populist turning point, showing us in juicy 4K UHD the results of human littering on marine life, shaming us into action.

So, what about Lovelace? When Happy Feet’s rockhopper penguin was throttled by a six-pack holder twelve years ago, didn’t we all vow to reduce our plastics quota? I guess not - but having witnessed the fury of supermarket customers having to pay for plastic bags on that cold October day in 2015 when new regulations came in, it’s clear that neither carrot nor stick guarantees change. Not in the heart of the citizen, anyway.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about winning people over. People I don’t know. People who live nearby and who suffer the same choking, nauseating experience of The Margate Stench. On a daily basis, this is better or worse according to wind direction, temperature and tide but is caused mainly by rotting seaweed and effluent caught alongside the Harbour Arm. Eating lunch on or near the beach looks like fun but takes guts of steel. On a warm afternoon further inland, just making it to the shops can be grim.

Concerns about stinking silt were prevalent even before Turner painted Margate - notably, at high tides. A small section of the three-metre high sluice tunnelled through the Arm in 1826 to help flush out the harbour is still visible at low tide, but the rest of it is (rather predictably) buried. Blocked up in 1838, the sluice was replaced by dredging which also proved ineffectual: 170 years then passed in which fishermen and residents continued to suffer and complain. Perhaps the municipal authorities regularly reviewed the situation, but it wasn’t until Thanet Council went digital that local government decisions on the harbour could be more easily scrutinised.

As a result, I came across a 2014 public petition to re-open the sluice gate, spurned by the council since “study work” did not adequately support it as a solution. I’m hoping this was a thorough scientific study - albeit one that I’ve not been able to source online - as opposed to a couple of civil servants forced to sniff the four o’clock bouquet each day and tick an Excel column. Instead of opening the sluice, the council plumped for beach skimming: the collection of seaweed on the sheltered side of the Arm followed by disposal on the seaward side. And then we could all enjoy the prom again without blaming any astonishing methane levels on our walking companions.

Except that we can’t, because the smell is actually worse than ever and I certainly don’t remember a summer since 2014 when I woke up to the pure, bracing smack of salt in the air. People keep asking - how can the council ignore this? Wouldn’t a lovely little marina be better all round than a scummy harbour with just twenty mucky boats brave enough to bob in its malodorous waters? Can even the best Scandi coffee taste good when its aroma is mingled with that of sewage?

Time for new research, renewed action. Social media seems the obvious platform to gather all our wrinkled noses together. But rousing people, firing them up, maintaining their long-term outrage is strangely more difficult than in pre-social days. So many issues now demand our support, the clamour can be deafening. It took the clout of David Attenborough, a crack film crew and a score by Hans Zimmer - plus a world-renowned media brand - to escalate the plastics debate using the emotive power of television. I’m just wondering how I might do the same for our pongy pier.