Along the Thames from Erith to the Dartford Creek

When I get asked which was my favourite walk from This Other London, I’ve learnt that I need to give some sort of answer rather than just say it’s impossible to choose one. The walk for Chapter 3 from Woolwich to the Dartford Creek still stands out as the one that challenged and surprised me most. It presented a vision of London quite unlike anything I’d seen before.

Returning 9 years later to walk that last stretch from Erith, along the pier and out across the marshes to the Dartford Creek it still blew me away, despite all the hundreds of miles I’ve walked around London since.

Here’s a blog post I wrote shortly after the publication of the book in 2013.

The World’s End – walking with Iain Sinclair through Tilbury

‘The Jungle began in London’

The second chapter of Iain Sinclair’s The Gold Machine opens with that line, ‘The jungle began in London’. This reflection comes beside a ‘fast-flowing’ brown river in Peru, following the footsteps of a journey made by his great-grandfather, Arthur Sinclair. ‘This Peruvian expedition had been an unspoken requirement most of my working life’, he writes. And in 2019 he finally made the journey with his daughter Farne and the filmmaker Grant Gee. But why had we come out to Tilbury to pick up the threads for this video?

The answers were littered along the walk we took from Tilbury Town to East Tilbury – from the Docks to Bataville. Stood outside a derelict boarded up guest house as Saturday traffic whizzed past, Iain looked up at the attic windows and explained:
“It’s very easy for me to imagine Joseph Conrad as a merchant mariner coming ashore in Tilbury and lodging there and looking out of this particular dirty pane of glass and dreaming the entire story of everything I’ve written ever since, or whispering in my ear and pushing me to write it, because the beginning the middle and the end of everything I’ve ever written begins in Dock Road Tilbury and it essentially begins with this building the wonderfully named Rourke’s Drift Guest House … those windows upstairs, just the faces are at the window. And I mean that’s it for me, this is where the ghost started to come through and push everything that follows.”

Iain Sinclair Downriver

We had not just gone in search of the origins of a journey to Peru, but the creation myth of Iain’s life of writing the hidden stories of London into existence. Once articulated, you realise Arthur Sinclair’s 19th Century travels as a planter to the tropics, are threaded through Iain Sinclair’s books, the tendrils from the jungle wrapped around the streets of East London and back down the Thames Estuary and out to sea.

John Rogers and Iain Sinclair

We stood on the wharf watching the passenger ferry pull out across the Thames for Gravesend. The sky so wide looking eastwards to the North Kent Marshes, and Iain talked of his great-grandfather’s first departure from this very spot bound of Ceylon. But also of Joseph Conrad’s Thames voyages and his own departure to the jungles of the Congo that became the basis of Heart of Darkness. A journey that also started at Tilbury. There were so many overlapping narratives that washed up along the foreshore as we walked. We wound up looking for the modernist espresso bar designed by architect Bronek Katz as a hub for the Bata Factory workers at East Tilbury, now butchered and blackened and operating as a kebak and burger joint called, Essex Kitchen. We never made it as far as Joseph Conrad’s house at Stanford-le-Hope, the best walks always act as preludes to future schleps. ‘The walk is the walk’, Iain said, whatever it contains is the narrative.

Downriver – Thames walk from Purfleet to Grays

Purfleet, famous as the site of Carfax Abbey in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Standing on that windswept shore beneath the twisted steampunk towers of the Proctor and Gamble factory, I imagined the unfortunate Jonathan Harker battered by the same damp Thames Estuary gales before his ill fated trip to Transylvannia. Carfax Abbey may have been Bram Stoker’s creation but the P&G Factory is equally worthy of a work of dystopian fiction.

QE II Bridge at Purfleet

The weather was bleak. It was perfect. The rusting jetties, ghost wharfs, WW2 pillboxes on Stone Ness where the lighthouse stands all lonesome on the marshy point poking out into the Thames. The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge dominates the stretch out of Purfleet where chemical and oil storage vats replaced the gunpowder magazines. A landscape forever on the verge of being wiped off the map. A chemcial tanker registered in the Bahamas was moored to the jetty at South Stifford, a lone ship anchored to a single staging post awaiting the next cargo – most likely taking it across the North Sea to Holland or Norway. What must the crews make of their time floating off the shore of Grays, Essex?

The Thames at Purfleet



Walking The Thames from Waterloo to Putney

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.

Nine Elms London

Nine Elms

St. Mary's Battersea

St. Mary’s Battersea

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.

River Wandle at Wandsworth

River Wandle at Wandsworth