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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Lament for a fallen giant

The Medway Valley in Kent was once known for its many riverside industries: from chalk extraction and cement-making, to breweries and paper-making. One of the most famous names in the paper industry was the great Aylesford Newsprint plant, a Kent industrial powerhouse since the early 1920s and a main supplier of essential raw material to the country’s newspapers – most notably The Times, Mirror and Observer.

Two years ago – and with no real warning (although, perhaps, the writing had been on the wall for some time), the plant closed.

The 200-strong workforce arrived for their shifts as usual, only to be told that the plant was ceasing production with immediate effect. Unable to compete with the vastly cheaper imports of paper products from Canada and Russia (two countries with rather more pine trees than the south-east of England!), Aylesford’s acres of machine-houses and despatch areas fell silent. The plant’s great plume of steam which remained constant day and night, and which was visible for miles around – a reassuring pillar of industry – disappeared; a happening which, for Kent people, seemed the equivalent of those Welsh colliery wheels coming to a halt and never running again.

Today, private equity people and developers have moved in – and the site is heading for a complete redevelopment, with extensive and impressive plans for residential housing and lighter industrial or business units. But at present, the main edifice of the old factory remains: barbed wire and locked gates keep people at bay, but not the weeds, nettles and scrubby bushes which are invading this post-industrial place. A pathway along the side of the site takes the walker through an almost post-apocalyptic world – the wind catching the odd unfastened fitment, and causing metal panels (already coming apart) to bang and clatter. Crows hop along the empty car and lorry park; and a forlorn railway siding which connected Aylesford Newsprint to the double-track Medway Valley line has taken on the appearance of something from Dr Beeching’s time.

Industrial decline
At their presentation, the developers and equity men (and women) gave the public a first-class outline of the site’s potential. Any minor issues concerning traffic access and so forth were diplomatically brushed aside by the velvety PR machine: every eventuality had been considered – and no local resident should ever worry. Yet the fall of that noble giant which we knew as Aylesford Newsprint reflects not only the erosion of manufacturing in Britain: it should emphasise to everyone in our industry the decline in our collective fortunes – as the traditional morning paper is increasingly replaced by the “consumer” deriving his information from a phone, tablet or laptop.

As a piece of industrial archaeology, the Newsprint building may not be very interesting – just another brownfield space, which might be better used for the housing we so desperately need. But those of us who feel something for the passing of an era might even like to pass by the old structure, and take one more look at it before it disappears under the demolition ball. Close your eyes on that Medway path, and imagine the rumbling machines, the immense rolls of paper and the shift-workers coming in and out each day.

Remember this scene – especially when you next log on to your news app.

Stuart Millson