Out to the sea. As the long Easter weekend fades behind us mentally today I’ll retread my steps of a month ago as I walked along the Thames Estuary from Benfleet, through Leigh-on-Sea (surely that should be ‘Leigh-on-Estuar’), Chalkwell, Westcliff, Southend and finishing at Thorpe Bay.
This hand-drawn map from Wonderful London Volume 2 (published circa 1926) shows the Central London tributaries of the Thames – the Effra, the Neckinger, the Falcon Brook, the Wandle. North of the Thames we have the Counters Creek (here marked Bridge Creek), the Westbourne, the Tyebourne, the Holebourne (River Fleet), and the Walbrook. The contours show the high ground where the springs bubble up to the surface and then helped shaped the city we live in today even though all but one of them has been buried beneath the ground (the Wandle being the exception).
In the essay accompanying these illustrations, Alan Ivimey describes the fate of these Thames tributaries:
“They are right in the very heart, or, more accurately, in the bowels of London. For the fairest of these streams have been obliterated from the face of the earth to become dirty drains beneath its skin, or at least emaciated trickles writhing feebly in what remains of their old beds towards the everlasting Thames.”
This simple sketch simply shows the shape of the Thames basin as a cross-section where many further London rivers and tributaries rise and flow. We see the high grounds of Addington Hills near Croydon to the south and Totteridge, Hendon and Hampstead to the North. Herne Hill and Crystal Palace form the highlands of the inner South of London with Primrose Hill marking the highground of North London just beyond the congested centre.
Ivimey describes how London might have looked when the rivers ran freely through the fields:
“In the lush meadows of Westbourne, near the highway to Harrow, the citizen of London could once see dragonflies and loosestrife, or, lying face down in the buttercups, tickle a brace of trout against the coming Friday.”
We rarely think of London in terms of its topography, flattened out in our minds by tube journeys and bus routes. Cross city cyclists tell a different story, feeling the river valleys in their tightening calves. For the walker the shape of London is unavoidable – ascend one of the peaks in this drawing and you’ll see the city revealed.
A Friday morning and the need to hit open space, to sniff the edge of the city. A hasty perusal of the maps pointed the way to Rainham Marshes and Purfleet with an easy route via the Overground changing at Barking.
A long ramp leads directly down from Rainham Station onto the edge of the marshland. Birds rattle around in the tall stems of grasses. It feels as if I’m encroaching on wildspace, an intruder. Phalanxes of dried out cowparsley (?) and teasles look resplendent in an unseasonal burst of sunshine. I rest on a bench and peel off layers all the way back to my t-shirt and soak up the last natural heat for months to come.
Arriving on the Thames shore at Rainham, the concrete barges lie marooned by the riverbank. Constructed from reinforced concrete they were towed out into the Thames as part of the Mulberry Harbour that played a vital role in the Normandy D-Day Landings of 1944. Then in 1953 they came to aid of the nation once again when they contributed to the Thames estuary flood defences. Now they’ve been claimed by flocks of birds which perch along the decks and strutt the prow. There’s something noble and proud about the concrete barges even as they slowly sink into the estuarine mud.
Past the shipping beacon at Coldharbour Point and a fleet of Routemaster buses I arrive at the old MOD firing range on the edge of the marshes near Purfleet, the broken chainlink fence a reminder of that this was a restricted area until around 2000. Now it has found new life as an RSPB Nature Reserve. The past briefly returned in 2013 when an unexploded bomb was discovered during maintenance work requiring a controlled demolition. Makes you wonder what else is lurking buried in the mud.
The visitor centre at RSPB Rainham Marshes is a stiking building poking above the marsh grasses designed by van Heyningen and Hayward architects. It strikes me as something you might find on Tatooine in a ‘galaxy far, far away’. Aside from a great view across the nature reserve the centre has a decent cafe where I process the walk sat amongst cappucino sipping Twitchers before getting the train home from Purfleet.
This was a walk of many wonders, starting on Lower Marsh behind Waterloo Station and linking William Blake at Lambeth with Blake at St. Mary’s Battersea where he married Catherine Boucher in 1782. I saw the same view from the church that Turner studied and believed I saw his chair until someone in the know told me otherwise after watching the video. I walked on the Thames foreshore coating my boots in riverine mud and marvelled at the Buddhas in Battersea Park. The horrors of Nine Elms had a duty to be logged for posterity, added to the early impressions I noted in This Other London. Crossing the Wandle where it makes its sacred confluence with The Thames I vowed to return and walk the Wandle Trail as I had planned to do for This Other London but went to Tooting Common instead (taking in Nine Elms and Battersea). And the ending where I accidentally found myself attending Evensong at The Leveller Church of St. Mary’s Putney.
On a personal level though one of the most rewarding echoes came after I’d packed the camera away and headed for the train home. Stopping for a mooch in the second-hand bookshop near Putney Bridge Tube I find a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here that I instantly buy. I was delighted. Back at St. Mary’s Battersea I recalled walking here with Iain Sinclair during the shooting of London Overground, we schlepped on through Clapham Junction to Lavender Hill where Iain told the story (also in the book) of Andrew Kötting buying a copy of Chatwin’s collection of essays which Iain later annotated and deposited further along the route. I told my son the story and he said that perhaps this was Iain’s copy. It hadn’t occured to me, I checked, but alas no.
There’s yet another new London taking shape on the edge of Barking at Barking Riverside:
“A brand new neighbourhood is being created alongside two km of Thames river frontage at Barking Riverside, one of the most ambitious and important new developments in the UK. Outline planning permission was granted in 2007 for 10,800 homes on the former power station site.”Barking Riverside website
The excursion out to Barking Riverside began wandering through the footprint of the ruins of Barking Abbey, that great powerhouse of early medieval London. I then followed the banks of the River Roding down to Barking Creek and Creekmouth Open Space, before continuing along River Road to the huge Barking Riverside site, finishing at Dagenham Dock Station.
As someone who documents London I half feel I should have had more of an awareness of the burning thing they were doing on the Thames yesterday. You see, it’s the next day, I’m sat at a computer and I still don’t know what the event was called (if it had a name) but I’ll go to the trouble of looking up the artist’s name before I post this to my blog (David Best). It was only when we were lined up on the terrace of the National Theatre waiting for whatever it was to happen that a lady who pushed in next to us decided to explain how poignant it was that they would be marking the anniversary of the Great Fire of London with some actual fire – her Dad had been a fireman, it was very poignant she kept saying. I had to agree in the end although I wasn’t exactly sure why it was poignant, London had been burnt to the ground loads of times in the past, what made this one special. However, lined up on the terrace of the National Theatre we were waiting for something we weren’t quite sure what.
The real reason we went to the South Bank wasn’t for the burning thing at all – my youngest son was desperate to go on the Bumper Cars at NAMCO in County Hall the night before he went back to school – as an end of summer holiday blow-out. It was loads of fun. I actually won a race on the motorcycle game as well, which was a massive surprise to us both. My wife had chipped in that afternoon with a comment that were setting fire to something on the river at 8.30 outside Tate Modern and it looked good – so we tagged it on to the NAMCO jaunt.
Sometimes it’s interesting to be at a large event like this just to be part of a large crowd. Sometimes that makes it hell. Being there with your 10-year old son sometimes helps tell the difference. He looked at the dark river in the gap between the trees and wondered whether we’d see much and whether we’d be better off going to get something to eat instead. ‘Come on’, I said, ‘this is a special event’. ‘Yes’, he agree, ‘if we went to the cinema we’d just be watching a film, here we’ll be witnessing history’. Well a recreation of history I thought but I was too moved by his poetic sentiment I to be pedantic.
Nothing happened. 8.25pm. People started to leave.
‘Come on let’s get something to eat’, he said.
So much for witnessing history, I thought, trumped by hunger.
But then an orange glow lit the sky. ‘It’s started’, I announced to my son.
‘Really, I can’t see anything’, he replied unimpressed.
We moved through the crowds lining the South Bank as far as we could go and reached London Studios where my son was able to bag a spot beside a lamp-post on the railing – a prime position just 10 minutes earlier when the crowds were 6 deep, now oddly threadbare.
We waited for it to arrive. Was it a barge alight? We still couldn’t tell.
We waited some more. We saw more flames shooting up in the air from the Thames. It still didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Whatever it was seemed to grind to a halt off the shore of Bernie Spain Gardens. Craning our necks around the lamp-post we could now catch a proper glimpse of the burning thing we’d been waiting for.
‘There it is’, I said to my son.
‘Ah, yes’, he said, ‘what is it?’, he asked
‘It’s a, a bonfire I think’, I said, ‘a bonfire that has mostly burnt out by the looks of it’.
What had clearly been a raging inferno just 10 minutes previously was now a politely burning pile of wood. If only the real Great Fire of London had exhausted its flames so quickly we wouldn’t have had to wait on the river bank for an hour 350 years later.
‘Ah’, he said, ‘shall we go and get a Burger King at the station’, he said. So off we went to Burger King in Waterloo Station before the burning thing on the river ever reached us.
10am – a whole day’s walk ahead, but no idea where to go – none. I start heading west on the Central Line but with the possibility of branching back east at Stratford Overground or at Mile End on the District Line. Where will I end up at sunset? The Estuary appeals but not Essex nor the train journey out there. I need a river to follow to make my mind up for me.
I find myself at 10.30 on the C2C – a spontaneous decision at Stratford – my departure point decided at the moment I boarded without a ticket to take me beyond the Oyster Card zone which ends at Upminster. I relax with the most difficult part of the day over. I’ll be walking east from Upminster towards the Thames Estuary somewhere. Off the map now for me.
Leaving the Station it’s hard not to admire the Wimpy Bar – I need to return some day for a Knickerbocker Glory to relive childhood birthday treats. 11am and Upminster is starting to move. I stop for provisions at Waitrose – pork pie reduced to 55p, water, Cornish pasty and muesli bar. That should set me up for the day.
Passing beneath the M25 is the real point of departure – breaking free of the gravitational field of London into lands beyond. The drivers in Essex seem to want to kill you – there is a noticeable upping of the aggression when you walk out of London and emerge in an Essex country road. So the half-a-mile I walk along St. Mary’s Lane is pure terror. I’ve never been so happy to see a footpath as the one that branched off around the edge of a cornfield from a bend in the road – who cared where it was headed. Today would be a case study in the pros and cons of walking outside the city without an OS map – Apple maps lack public footpaths and contours – they merely give you enough of a hint as to where you are and which way you’re headed.
The footpath led to a level crossing and then continued up a steep climb chest-high with weeds and thistles. The going was tough over rock hard plough in the searing heat. I drank most of my water. The footpath dumped me near an intersection of busy A-Roads – 2 miles in and I was nearly done. I decided to follow the A127 for a few miles – cover some ground with my head down beside the throbbing traffic. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Twice I failed to find my way off the road – tightrope walking the slip road curbstone and rabbit running the roundabouts just to find myself back on the A127 on the other side. 19 miles to Southend – should I submit to an asphalt yomp and collapse into an amusement arcade at night in the ‘End?
Past a van abandoned on the pavement – all doors wide open, interior stripped bare. Past Brentwood Valeting Centre with the high performance cars queued up for some spit and polish. I had to escape the road.
The B-Road into Laindon went on-and-on, featureless, giving nothing away. I’d been walking 4 hours and was close to despair – write it off as a failed venture and get the train home from Basildon.
I was saved by a bridleway – innocuously enough heading away off the road encased in hawthorn. Two young kids chased Pokemon on their phones. I rested on a tree trunk on the high side of Langdon Recreation Ground munching on sweaty pork products and found the will the push on. I wanted to reach water at some point today – a sunset over the estuary would be a bonus.
The paths wending through trees crossed the road and take me into Langdon Hills Country Park. I get a rush of memories – school trip to Swanage during the Falklands War, Scout Camp in Hampshire when Liverpool beat Roma on penalties to win the European Cup, the walk in Rendlesham Forest on New Year’s Eve, hill villages in Thailand (from the smell of hay). I was so happy wandering through Coombe Wood, Great Sutton Wood and Northlands Wood that I was mildly amused when it transpired I’d walked in a giant loop back to where I’d begun. At that point I would have gladly seen out the rest of the day walking in circles in the Langdon Hills.
I did though eventually find my way into a field of tall swaying wheat with a footpath carved across the centre which ran into a wood on the far side but then ended beside the A13 near Stanford-le-Hope. I could bare no more roads so stuck to the edge of the field hoping to find an exit.
At the bottom of the field the perfect babbling brook ran in a deep gulley under the cool shade of the trees. I scooped soothing cold water over my head and neck before jumping across and scrambling up the far bank and across the road into Stanford-le-Hope. I’d been out of water for a while in the hot sun and rehydrated at the first available corner shop – sculling a can of 7-Up by the bins outside like I’d just emerged from a trek across the Sahara.
There was a clear route open now across the marshes to the Estuary – 6pm and heading towards that sunset over the water.
That first view of the Thames lapping over the mud flats at Stanford Wharf was priceless. I drank it in thinking now I’d be able to walk eastwards along the river. A family were putting away a picnic they’d had on a single square of sand on the shore surrounded by heavy clumps of salt marsh grasses. The path to Pitsea headed back inland – the sight of a level crossing induced flashbacks to the dark origins of this quest so I turned away. Another path ran alongside a high concrete wall beside the marshland – reminiscent of a similar path back near Tilbury Power Station I’d walked along a few times in the past, so I carried on assuming it would likewise hug the outside wall of the container port on the riverside.
Ascending a tall set of metal steps at the end I found myself caught in a peculiar pen – on a concrete platform jutting out into the river – the railway line behind me, and ahead the boulders lining the river bank. Refusing to turn back after all I’d been through the only available option was to clamber on over the rocks.
It soon became clear that this wasn’t exactly a legitimate pathway and could land me straight in the river at the end. There was no apparent exit so I clambered through a clump of thick brambles to a high concrete wall and found a point where, with my arms above my head and a bit of leap, I could attempt to pull myself over the wall.
Puffed out and adrenalized I paused lying face down atop the wall, I couldn’t fall down the other side until I’d worked out the extent of the drop and what was down there. Once satisfied it was safe I allowed myself to fall down into the tall weeds. Blood was streaming down my arms where I’d scraped them pulling myself over the wall. I tried to work out where I was. A building site beside the entrance to London’s new container terminal London Gateway owned by the Dubai government corporation DP World.
I waited assuming that security would be on their way and looked forward to being escorted out, it would be the first time today that I’d be sure where I was going – if I was lucky I might even get a lift, somewhere along the way I’d twisted my ankle and with the adrenalin ebbing away it was starting to hurt.
But nobody came – in fact there didn’t seem to be a soul around. And so I wandered the deserted new roads of this unnerving preview of the future. This vast terrain of blank box distribution units – the enormous robot cranes that automatically unload shipping containers once the work of tens of thousands of people. Compare this empty wasteland of sleeping robots with those images of the old crowded London docks. It sends a chill down the spine.
I wandered for an hour around the empty logistics park and didn’t see a single human being. Eventually I ran out of road and found myself at a high locked gate. The barbed wire ran into the horizon in one direction. My only escape was to jump a stream and awkwardly and carefully limbo my way between the barbed wire into a farmer’s field ripping my shirt in the process as the final injury of the day.
I did get my sunset. It wasn’t looking over the Estuary though – it was sitting on a mound in the centre of a roundabout at the main entrance to London Gateway – near where I’d clambered over the wall. I sat there with a supper of Co-Op Sandwich and another can of fizzy drink. I was sunburnt, worn out, scratched arms and ripped shirt. It had been a good walk.