Not everyone is entranced by the Thames’s estuarine landscapes. Writer John Fowles, who grew up in Leigh-on-Sea wrote about ‘a raw, dull day with a wind and all-pervading greyness. The tide full in and the sea faintly grey, green, ugly.’ Only begrudgingly did he admit that a ‘bleak sort of affection’ could be possible.
Here, where the Thames meets the sea, there are no soaring mountains or rolling downs; no magnificent towering trees or even crashing waves. Instead, as the walk’s designer, Ken Worpole, an author and senior professor at London Metropolitan University, says, ‘This is a land of horizontals.’
Worpole grew up in the area – his family first moved to Canvey Island from London when he was six, then on to Hadleigh, then Southend-on-Sea, where he stayed until he was married and returned to London. He proposed this eight-kilometre walk because he has become frustrated by the disparaging comments that people make about the Essex countryside.
He has spent years studying the social history of the landscapes around this area and, together with photographer Jason Orton, has produced a book entitled 350 Miles: An Essex Journey. It celebrates the eerie beauty of this area, with its ‘huge godless skies’ (Fowles again) and left-behind human presences dotted around on the marshes.
‘It’s not an area for those who subscribe to conventional landscape aesthetics,’ Worpole explains. Instead, its allure can take time to reveal itself. It could, perhaps, be seen as a test of sorts, sifting the Wordsworthians from those who are happy to forgo the easy thrill of high-altitude views and dramatics in favour of a subtler tale of soggy fringes and inbetween lands.
“While the landward side of the embankment appears to be full of activity, the seaward side seems almost deserted”
Worpole’s trail takes walkers from a small ex-fishing town (Benfleet) to a larger one (Leigh-on-Sea) via a wilder stretch of agrarian fields and the saltmarshes that accompany Benfleet Creek as it makes its short journey to the nearby Thames estuary. There’s a sense of being alone on the flats while also sharing them, not just with the families out cycling and the crying seabirds, but with the far-off creature-like cranes that nod away over at Tilbury docks.
We move from a railway station and roadside to our first glimpse of the sleeping creek and follow it past boats in various states of disrepair, bearing names such as Beryl and Ocean Pearl and Success; past a T-shirted father and son batting, ‘No, you’re the doofus,’ back and forth between each other; and out onto the Benfleet Creek embankment, with its wild fennel and skylarks and lion-headed clovers. In the lush fields, pebble-coloured cows watch over wobbly calves and the whole pastoral scene is criss-crossed by the easyJet flights curving in and out of Southend’s nearby airport.
While the landward side of the embankment appears to be full of activity, the seaward side seems almost deserted. But Dr Helene Burningham, a coastal geomorphologist in the Department of Geography at University College London, says that it’s actually bursting with life. She explains how the sediment flowing from up to 350 kilometres inland, where the Thames begins in Gloucestershire, brings with it nutrients that provide food for sea creatures that, in turn, support a rich array of bird life. And the shifting tides mean that there are actually numerous different habitats (low tide for waders; high tide for fish and terns) within one fixed space. So although it might look like a slim sort of landscape, it’s actually multi-layered, thick with ecosystems.
Its position between the open coast and inland water makes it attractive to all sorts of organisms. ‘Estuaries are interfaces between the open coast and catchments, gradienting between the two so that you end up with this lovely range of environments,’ Burningham says. Humans and other creatures journey out to sea for various reasons but the estuary provides a respite when conditions turn inhospitable. ‘They are havens, safe harbours’ – for sailors, most obviously, but also for other animals such as fish; the small creeks act as nursery grounds for fry, ‘providing them with protected areas to grow up in before they progress out into more open water’.
“The Dutch influence can still be seen in the local architecture and street names”
The ready source of food within the estuarine environment here has supported humans, too – a fishing industry still exists in Leigh-on-Sea – and the land’s potential attracted enterprising agronomists. They viewed the salt marshes as agricultural land in waiting and as early as the 17th century, Dutch engineers and workers were employed to construct a sea wall around nearby Canvey Island, part of nearly 500 kilometres of sea wall that lines parts of Essex today.
The Dutch influence can still be seen in the local architecture and street names. Worpole also writes about the residents of the island of Foulness, who were so isolated that they wore Dutch national dress right up until the First World War.
Tourists started to make their way to the Essex coast during the Victorian era. They viewed this land of fresh air and salty waters as a healthy retreat, a place in which to escape the unsanitary and stressful conditions of nearby East London. Worpole’s family arrived from London during the early 1950s and he recalls their home on Canvey Island as ‘Jerry-built – on stilts with a South American shanty feel to it, wooden with stairs up to it, a veranda, and just four rooms inside’.
The radical politics of urban émigrés, perceived recuperative properties of the seaside and cheap land prices led to numerous social experiments being set up in the area. These included land colonies where juvenile delinquents or men broken by drink were removed from urban temptations and taught to live and work on the land in the hope of being rehabilitated. ‘Drink was a big problem in the East End of London,’ says Worpole. ‘This was prior to the existence of the welfare state, which meant that if a father spent all his money on alcohol, his whole family could starve.’
Worpole sees these experiments as part of a larger tendency that Essex has for non-conformist living and experimentation. ‘I often say that in a way, Essex has been a laboratory for Englishness in the 20th century,’ he says.
“The water breached Canvey Island’s sea wall just after midnight and quickly swamped the island. Many residents drowned in their beds”
However, the benefits and pleasures of coastal living also come with risks – most notably flooding. In 1953, a storm surge swept down the east coast of England from Scotland, spilling over the coasts of Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, and moving farther south. The people in the low-lying district of Canvey Island had no idea what was coming and, because the water had knocked out their telegraph and telephone poles, those already affected farther up the coast had no way of telling them.
The water breached Canvey Island’s sea wall just after midnight and quickly swamped the island. Many residents drowned in their beds; others made it onto their roofs, only to die of exposure while waiting to be rescued in the freezing January night. More than 300 people in England are thought to have died that night due to the flooding, and more than 220 others drowned out at sea; in the Netherlands, more than 1,800 lost their lives. It was one of the worst peace-time disasters that the UK had ever experienced. ‘It was horrendous,’ says Worpole. ‘We were very lucky to have moved out a year and a half earlier.’ Afterwards, the Thames Barrier project was begun, a new sea wall was built and a warning service was set up that still exists today.
It might be needed in the future, as Essex’s sea-walled, or embanked, areas are becoming relatively lower. ‘When a sea wall is built, it removes that land from the coastal system,’ explains Burningham. ‘It becomes disconnected.’ If it had remained part of the environment, it would have received sediment and increased in height over the years, but because it hasn’t, the farming land has become substantially lower than sea level. ‘You can really see the difference at Benfleet’s embankment. It means that these areas of land are becoming increasingly vulnerable.’
Managed realignment is one sustainable management option, but Burningham says that it’s controversial as some people feel fiercely protective of these reclaimed environments. ‘These grazing marsh areas, with their many drainage ditches, are now a unique habitat in their own right,’ says Burningham. ‘They are home to a lot of wildlife that many people feel is worth protecting.’
I’m enjoying walking along the top of the embankment between the two worlds, with the coots and cows on one side and the oystercatchers and motorboats on the other. It feels as though I’m finally coming to appreciate the subtleties of the landscape by the time the Benfleet Creek joins the Thames and the far bank disappears a couple of kilometres away across
the water. The sound of the creek is like a small, mournful melody filling out into a big, fat chord, and this meeting of the waters is the highlight of the walk for me. It feels surprising and triumphant, like the gathering of brackish forces in preparation for the six-and-a-half-kilometre-wide assault on the North Sea at nearby Southend.
“The smells of the sea give way to those of shampoo and aftershave as people stream into town for fish and chips”
We wander on into the outskirts of Leigh-on-Sea, past a traveller site, more boats, the cockle sheds, a fancy new fish restaurant under a concrete flyover and some quaint clapper-board cottages. Saturday night is kicking off, and the smells of the sea give way to those of shampoo and aftershave as people stream in from the railway station and on into town for fish and chips, portions of cockles and pints.
Many will leave the estuary-side before midnight, but those who live year round in close proximity to the water have developed a particular relationship with the sea, Worpole believes. ‘This area is a barometer,’ he says. ‘The people here will be the first to feel the effects of sea-level rise and climate change.’
There’s something humbling about this, he feels, particularly in places such as nearby Mersea Island, where the tide still cuts off the population twice a day. People who live very close to the estuary are perhaps as conscious of the dangers as the pleasures of living there. ‘They keep an eye on the tide and haven’t forgotten the natural world,’ Worpole says. In estuarine-saturated landscapes, ‘the sea doesn’t work its life around you, you have to work your life around the sea’.
This was published in the August 2014 edition of Geographical magazine.