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.

Crunching across time at Tilbury


A return to Tilbry with Dr Kate Spencer and joined by the London Waterkeeper Theo Thomas, to inspect the bizarre landscape formed by the broken cap of a historic landfill site on the Thames foreshore.


The path ‪from Tilbury Fort hugs the exterior wall of the mothballed Tilbury Powerstation, a ghost site, inert, occupied by slumbering security guards snoozing in front of flickering CCTV monitors. Well that’s the image in my mind with Homer Simpson whizzing round on a skateboard.


Walking over the early 20th Century landfill where it has broken through whatever soil/clay cap was holding it in is a surreal experience – stepping across a carpet of scattered broken crockery, paste jars, poison bottles, ceramic jugs, old lotions and forgotten condiments. The soil is a contaminated cocktail of chemicals and depleted metals washed through by coastal erosion and rains.

This map posted by Guy Shrubsole on Twitter shows that Tilbury is far from unique. Theo says, “There are thousands of pollution time bombs close to our rivers and estuaries, tucked away, but silently threatening their and our health.”

Guy and Kate have found further maps detailing both the landfill site at Tilbury and elsewhere around the country

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Here’s the podcast of my previous trip to Tilbury with Kate Spencer, Nick Papadimitriou, and Andy Ramsay for Ventures and Adventures in Topography.