Disused mines and chalk pits present their own problems. Finding a new purpose for giant holes in the ground can be a challenge but not an insurmountable one. The Eden Project in Cornwall was built on an old china clay pit. Nearer to London we have the example of Bluewater, the ultimate out of town shopping mall, assembled in an old chalk quarry. As this has contributed to the demise of High Streets in South East London and Kent not a model that we would want repeated. I recently visited Purfleet which was left with 200 acres of former chalk quarries when the cement industry closed in the 1970s.
The excavation of chalk dates back to the C16th, at which time, it was mainly for agricultural use. In the C19th excavation was increased to match industrial demand and in 1824 Portland Cement was patented. Three huge gorges were created by excavating 25 million tons of chalk. Now, no longer required for industry they have been transformed into Chafford Gorges nature reserve.
The gorges are known as Warren, Lion and Grays. At their base are meadows and lakes. The landscape in parts is strange, for example, there are the the stumps of dead trees rising from the water. In summer it might resemble a Florida swamp. Overlooking Warren Gorge is a visitor centre which I can best describe as perfunctory. Its main purpose is as an early years centre. This isn’t the main limitation of the park. There are no inter-connecting footpaths between the gorges.
Close to the Visitor Centre is Chafford Hundred railway station that has a regular service into London and the journey takes just over half an hour. It’s no surprise, therefore, that there is a new executive housing development. The houses form a fence along the perimeter of the gorges. Trying to get from one part of the park to another you can even stumble across the odd gated community. Peeking through the gates was a very large executive house, like a child’s drawing perfectly symmetrical and with two plaster lions on either side of the door. Regeneration in exurbia – are there any affordable homes along the Thames?