This page showcases a selection of my print work written during my Masters degree in Multimedia Journalism at the University of Kent from September 2011 to June 2012.
Remembering the Great Storm of 1987
“It was really, really frightening and when that roaring noise came, I thought: ‘this is it – we’re all going to die’,” said Nicky Freeman, recalling the Great Storm of 1987.
Twenty-four years have passed since that fateful night, but many still remember it as if it were yesterday.
On the night of the 15th October, winds exceeding 100 mph hurtled across Southern England, from East Anglia to Hampshire, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. The worst storm to hit England since 1703 claimed the lives of 18 people and injured hundreds more. Hurricane-force winds uprooted 15 million trees and left the country with a repair bill of around £1 billion.
Kent was particularly badly affected – five people died in the County alone. Entire roofs were ripped from houses and cars and lorries were overturned.
In Gillingham, 55-year-old landlady Linda Thompson remembers “an entire greenhouse flying past my window, and next door’s wall suddenly crumbling like a deck of cards”.
The town of Sevenoaks lost all but one of the famous oak trees that gave the town its name. Jean Peel, a retired charity fundraiser from nearby Halstead, recalls visiting Emmetts Garden, a National Trust property, a few days after the storm: “It was an amazing sight,” she says, “It looked as if a giant had walked across the North Downs – the trees looked as though they’d been trodden on.”
The danger and destruction was not limited to land. A Sea Link ferry was blown aground in Folkestone and lifeboat crews struggled in the brutal winds and choppy seas.
In the early hours of the 16th October, a crew from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution station at Sheerness launched an emergency mission to rescue seamen stranded off the Isle of Grain.
Robin Castle, a mechanic at the station, was awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry for his work that night. He describes the daring mission: “We made our way gingerly out where we experienced very bad weather. We located a small 16ft boat with two guys on board being overcome – the boat was continually swamped. After several attempts we managed to get alongside the boat and get the guys off onto the lifeboat.”
Although thousands of homes were without power for days and the widespread damage was overwhelming, a sense of camaraderie prevailed. Mrs Peel and her gardener husband spent the days following the storm using his tools “to help people clear their drives and get out of their houses”.
At Cobham Hall, a girls’ boarding school in Surrey, ancient oak trees were uprooted and strewn across the grounds, prompting the local community to come together for a huge re-planting scheme. Sally Ferrers, who is still Registrar at the school, says: “The re-plant lasted quite a while and people had trees planted in their name because trees last longer than you do.”
Inflation Woes Hit Medway
The familiar delicious smells of freshly baked bread waft through the open doors. Inside, the fridges are full of mouth-watering treats, iced buns and custard tarts. Homemade loaves line the shelves behind a counter where three women stand, passing time. It’s approaching lunchtime on a Saturday morning but Intown Bakery on Gillingham High Street is empty.
“We should be rushed off our feet,” one sales assistant said. “When I first started working here fifteen years ago, there were six people behind the counter.” But business has been declining for some time – why spend more on fresh, homemade bread when a loaf from the supermarket will last longer and cost less?
The story is much the same along this high street. It’s a bright and mild autumnal day but the town is quiet. Seven stores lie empty, shells of their former selves. Some of the old shop fittings remain, as though the shops have been raided and abandoned during some kind of apocalypse.
A grand total of six pawnbrokers are along this relatively small street, all offering ‘cash for gold’. They seem to be doing a good business, too. Shoppers hustle and bustle about their business, paying little attention to the bargains on offer. Time is money and money is now more precious than ever.
In a period of increasing economic uncertainty, annual inflation surged to 5.2 per cent in September of this year; the highest rate since 1997. Gas and electricity bills soared by 13 per cent and 7 per cent between August and September. Food prices are 6.4 per cent higher than they were last September. In the words of Sir Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England; “This is undoubtedly the biggest financial crisis the world economy has ever faced.”
Sukh Gill runs a market stall in the middle of the high street selling women’s fashion. He is offering three pairs of leggings for £10 and two tops for £13 – remarkable bargains by anyone’s standards. But despite dramatic price cuts, his business is still struggling to stay afloat: “We’re still selling at the same prices we sold at last year, but the price of cloth has actually gone up.” And with fewer consumers on the High Street, his business has had to take the fall: “We don’t really have a profit margin anymore,” he added.
Such frugality is not only limited to ‘luxury goods’ – people have been forced to scrimp on commodities too. Sam McCrum works at Scott’s Quality Greengrocers at the end of the high street. She reiterates Sukh’s grievance of a serious lack of customers, saying that the last week has been particularly hard going: “Things are more expensive, we’ve had to put the prices up. There are less customers, it’s just a vicious circle,” she said.
Market analysts have admitted that the new inflation figures have come as a nasty surprise for economists and the public alike, but predictions are that inflation has reached a peak and should start to fall back soon, which will surely come as a relief to many.
University of Kent Defies National Fall in University Applications
Applications to the University of Kent are down less than the national average, despite being one of 62 universities in England set to charge the maximum £9,000 per year for tuition fees from September.
Applications to universities in England and Wales fell by 7.4 per cent following the increase in tuition fees, UCAS statistics revealed on Monday
But the University of Kent weathered the storm well with applications falling by 6.4 per cent. The university also received a huge increase of 23 per cent in applications from overseas students.
While decreases in applications may not prove too detrimental for some universities, the large hikes in tuition fees have meant that many teenagers may miss out on the chance to go to university.
At Mid-Kent College in Gillingham, the number of students who have applied to start university in September is down 17 per cent from last year. Almost 700 pupils applied for university in 2011, compared with just over 550 who have applied to start higher education this September.
Alan Ashfield, the Director of Quality, who oversees all the UCAS applications for students of Mid-Kent College attributes the large decline in applications to the increase in tuition fees: “I think that in an area of relatively high deprivation such as Medway, fewer students would apply because of the hike in fees,” he said.
In a class of ten Sports Science students at Mid-Kent College, eight have still applied to university, but the large rise in tuition fees is still a daunting prospect.
Paul Luckhurst, 23, from Gillingham, wishes he had applied to university five years ago with his contemporaries: “It was the money that put me off, ironically,” he says. “But now, I know that I need a job, so I’m going to university and I’m just going to get it over and done with and deal with the debts later.”
“I don’t think it will be as bad for some people,” says Roisin Sullivan, 17, of Brompton, who is relying on financial help from the government in order to continue her studies in Sports Science at the University of Kent in September: “I get EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) and things like that, so my fees will be lower than people whose parents earn loads of money. For me it might not be so bad, but I can see why other people might get put off.”
One student in this class who was put off by the hike in tuition fees is Stephen Chapman. The 17-year-old student, also from Gillingham, says he probably would have applied to university if the fees were not so high, but now he is hoping to establish his career in other ways: “I feel if I can get into a job now which I’m working towards, I can get experience over people who have got into so much debt to get into these jobs, and the employers will look onto the experience more than on the education so paying to get into however much debt and then trying to find a job in three or four years will be a lot harder than to just go into one now.”
Can Medway Park Lead to the Olympic Dream?
Even walking down the corridor I can hear the tell-tale thud, thud, thud of balls hitting a hard surface. Swinging open the double doors, the repetitive hubbub amplifies and more sounds join the mix – the shrill squeak of trainers on shining wooden floors and young teenagers calling out to each other, joking and laughing.
I have walked in on a night of basketball training at Medway Park, the region’s £11 million ‘centre for sporting excellence’, inspired by the London Olympic Games. The centre was opened in January 2010 and aims to provide world-class sporting facilities for everyone, whether they are an occasional swimmer or a hard-core running fanatic.
The centre has a 25 metre-long, six-lane swimming pool, multiple badminton and squash courts, an outdoor running track, approved for Olympic and Paralympic training, and a 12-court sports hall, where the Medway Crusaders and several junior basketball teams are training tonight.
The facilities on offer were impressive enough to entice the Medway Crusaders and their youth teams from their former home in Canterbury, where they were known as the Canterbury Crusaders, just over two years ago: “We came and saw the place and we couldn’t believe how good the facilities were. We moved in as soon as we could,” says head coach James Vear.
And the Crusaders are not the only ones who have been attracted by Medway Park. At the beginning of July, Olympic athletes from Senegal and the Congo will be training here in the run up to The Games.
Mr Vear explains to me that the best thing about the courts here are the floors. Most basketball floors are based with cement, which can lead to serious knee, ankle and foot problems for the players. The floors here are the real deal – wooden sprung-loaded basketball floors. And it seems that the teams are already reaping the benefits. The Crusaders have just been promoted to the first division of the National England Basketball League.
“We’re about mid-table at the moment so for our first year in the top division we’re probably doing about as well as I thought we would,” says James. “There’s still a long way in the season to go so we’ll see how things go towards the end.”
And this training session isn’t just an amateur run around – it looks like serous business. Sports Therapy students from the nearby University of Kent have set up several physiotherapy beds at the edges of the courts. From time to time, players of all ages and abilities come over and get a free, deep tissue, sports massage.
But for all its showy facilities, from the outside Medway Park just looks like any other council-run leisure centre. The unimposing building is located on Brompton Road, just outside Gillingham town centre, next to the Royal Engineers Museum. The leisure centre has a large car park and is accessible on numerous bus routes.
While I wait on the side-lines to speak to one of the import players, I watch the U16 team running around one of the courts and notice that most of the youngsters are wearing basketball shorts emblazoned with the Medway Park logo – they may just be part of the kit, but the players certainly seem proud to be playing here.
Even Aidan Fenyn from Newark, New York, is impressed with what Medway Park has to offer: “It’s amazing compared to a lot of the others. I think some of the spots in England; they’re not too accommodating for basketball. They’re more general gymnasiums for other sports and they just happen to have basketball hoops, but I think Medway Park has just a bit of everything.”
Tracey Crouch, the MP for Chatham and Aylesford, is also full of praise for Medway Park and the efforts throughout the towns to step up the provision of sporting facilities in light of London 2012: “Sport is completely levelling,” she said. “These projects are helping youngsters of all backgrounds and all income levels. It’s helping everyone get involved and inspired in sport.”
But it seems there are certain downsides to Medway Park that have the potential to limit local people’s involvement in sport in the area. A peak-time membership to Echoes gym costs nearly £420 a year and individual fitness classes are priced at £5.10. So, is Medway Park really open to everyone?
“I think Medway Park is partially living up to its promises but there is a danger that it might slip into a provision only for those who can afford it,” said Labour Councillor for Chatham Central, Paul Godwin. “Lots of young people can’t afford the travel [to Medway Park] and the admissions prices. Not everyone can have access and that has knock-on effects on tackling things like obesity and lack of fitness,” he added.
Councillor Howard Doe, the Portfolio Holder for Housing and Community Services, says that the high admission prices to Medway Park are down to the basic costs of running the facility: “We cannot meet all the costs out of the public purse,” he said. But Councillor Doe does believe that Medway Park is available to most people: “I think that the majority of people who want to use it can,” he adds. “I believe there are schemes available for people on Job Seeker’s Allowance and things like that so I do think it reaches most people.”
James Vear hopes that Medway Park will remain a premier sporting venue for years to come: “What I hope doesn’t happen is that all these facilities stop being used. Hopefully, they will continue to be used for the sports they were built for and we can become better in all those sports.”
And as for basketball: “It’s a sport that’s struggled to become big. I’m not sure if it’ll be as big as football, rugby or cricket but in years to come hopefully people will start to see what a great sport it is and hopefully it’ll get bigger and bigger,” he said.
As I leave Medway Park, I notice that it’s not just people on the basketball courts making noise this evening – the whole place is a hive of activity; two men squeeze past me into another section of the hall – they’ve come for a leisurely hit around the badminton courts. The gym is almost at capacity and all three squash courts are occupied. The sound of upbeat Latin music draws me to the viewing gallery, where I can see the Medway Park Judo Club practising their kicks and punches, several enthusiastic games of table tennis, and girls from the Medway Roller Dance Club gliding below on roller skates.
And it seems Medway Park has a bright future ahead. Athletes from the Senegalese and Congolese Olympic teams will train at the centre in the first two weeks of July, before moving into the Olympic village near Stratford. But members need not worry about professional athletes taking over all the facilities. Mike Evans of Medway Council’s Sports Development Team promises that the Olympic teams will be booking and paying for facilities and hall space in the same way as any other paying customer. Before long, Medway residents might well be exercising alongside potential Olympic champions.
As a former competitive football player and present coach of Meridian Girls football team, MP Tracey Crouch is hopeful that Medway Park will be as open as possible to non-members so that everyone can go and watch the Olympic athletes in action.
Cllr Howard Doe hopes that the arrival of Olympic athletes to Medway will be inspirational for local people: “We want to make sure that there are athletes there who can set an example and show people what it’s like to achieve,” he said.
Boris Island: A Dream That Will Never Materialise?
It is a beautiful day on the North Kent coast. One of those rare days in early spring when the temperature is unseasonably mild, the skies are clear but for a few wisps of cloud and the hint of summer dances in the air. Along the waterfront at Allhallows-on-sea, the only noises are those clichéd sounds of birdsong and the ripple of a light breeze. Two ships pass silently through the still waters of the Thames Estuary, glistening in gentle sunlight.
But in a few years, this idyllic scene may be a thing of the past. Allhallows, its coastline and the town itself, is under threat from proposals to build an international airport in the Thames Estuary. One plan will see a £20 billion transport hub, designed by Lord Foster, being built in the waters between the Hoo Peninsula and Southend-on-Sea, right in the middle of this peaceful scene.
After lying dormant all winter, Allhallows Leisure Park is slowly coming back to life. The owners will begin to arrive this week, preparing their caravans for weekend guests getting away from the hustle and bustle.
Tony and Pamela Brooker, from Rainham, have owned a chalet here for five years and use it as a place to relax in their retirement: “It’s so quiet and it’s so peaceful. We just love it down here,” said Mrs Brooker.
The couple are evidently opposed to plans for an airport in the estuary and hope their lease will run out before the park is blighted by ‘Boris Island’: “It would spoil everything,” said Mr Brooker. “If you put an airport there then you can say goodbye to all this lot because nobody will stay here. The last thing you’re going to want is to look out your window and see an airport.”
It is likely that much of Allhallows would be demolished to make way for the development. But while that may seem like a daunting prospect for some, there are others who are seeing the brighter side of being forced to move out of the area.
“Personally speaking, I’m for the airport,” said 62-year-old Thomas Addley. “If they compulsory-purchased our house, we’d be quite happy. We’re hoping to go abroad but not everyone is in that position. There are other people who love it here. But from a personal point of view, bring it on.”
Even if the homes in Allhallows are spared, and an airport is build in the middle of the estuary, residents here will still find themselves blighted by the international transport hub.
“People will want to move even if the airport is built on an island but they’ll have problems selling because of the noise. Even though it may be ten miles away, you’ll still hear the roar of the planes taking off,” said Mr Addley.
But the roar of jet engines and the possibility of homes being destroyed is not the only concern. The Thames Estuary is the second most important site in Europe for migratory birds. Every winter, birds fly from Siberia, down the North Sea, across The Channel, Spain and Portugal to West Africa.
“Birds have migrated along this route for millions of years and will continue to do so for another million years,” says George Crozer, a founding member of Friends of the North Kent Marshes. “In England, there are two important sites where the birds stop off at to feed – the Wash and the Thames Estuary.”
As such, the Thames Estuary boasts five Special Protection Areas, guarded by international law, which prohibits any building on these sites except if it is in the national interest. Mr Crozer believes that politicians are using this excuse to push through the building of the airport.
“But these birds aren’t just small swallows or blue tits,” adds Mr Crozer. “They’re large ducks and Canada geese and are extremely dangerous when mixed with airplanes.”
In 2003, the government conducted a study examining the possibility of building airports in estuarine areas and found that it is 12 times more likely to have bird strikes in the Thames Estuary than anywhere else in the country.
“We’re not saying no to a new airport in England,” says Mr Crozer. “We’re just saying that the Thames Estuary is not the place.”
In March, Medway Council announced that it is allocating £50,000 of its annual budget to fighting the airport, but many people in Allhallows are cynical about the true motives behind such a decision.
“Who can get their face on telly about what the people want is the major thing,” said Michael Fritton, who has owned The British Pilot pub on Avery Way for over 20 years. “They’re chasing their votes and nothing else. Half of them don’t even know where Allhallows is.”
Mr Addley shares the same vexations: “These MPs round here have taken it upon themselves to just say no to it – just off the cuff,” he says. “No-one has come round to us; no-one has put anything through the doors here or asked us what we want, and we’re the people who are affected by it.”
But despite questions over the council’s actions, Councillor Chris Irvine, who represents the Peninsula for Medway Council, is adamant that any plans to build an airport in the Thames Estuary must be stopped: “The plain fact of the matter is that residents living on the Hoo Peninsula enjoy a more rural idyll than those living in town and have done so for many, many years,” he says. “They don’t want to live next to an airport or under a flight path. At some point you have to say ‘Stop! This far, no further’. We have now reached that point.”