The Thames has always been a river of dreams. In centuries past sailors and explorers, merchants and adventurers, have all journeyed down the river from London to seek their fortunes or their destiny, while others from afar have sailed up the river on a similar quest or enterprise. For all of them the low Essex shore was always their first and last glimpse of England.
Up until the middle of the last century British ships sailing out of the Port of London dominated the trade routes of the world. The Cunard Queens ruled the Atlantic. Royal Mail Lines carried passengers to Brazil and South America, with some of their ships pushing up the Amazon as far as Iquitos. P&O and Orient lines serviced Hong Kong and Japan and Australia. The New Zealand Shipping Line sailed to Australia and New Zealand. The liners of Union Castle circumnavigated Africa. All those once familiar names have disappeared now, and modern container ships and plush cruise ships have replaced almost all of the old passenger-cargo lines that once flew the Red Duster into every ocean of the world.
Times have changed, but there is still an endless variety of shipping using the Thames, and as you begin to pass the Essex shore the river is now overshadowed by the magnificent, Queen Elizabeth 11 Dartford Suspension Bridge, which was opened in 1991. Cars flow continuously overhead on the congested arc of the M 25, and four concrete towers with their spider-web tracery of cables soar into the sky.
However, the rest of the long, flat Essex shoreline, which many a young sailor used to watch with either the slight tang of immediate homesickness, or the buoyant elation of homecoming, is still pretty much unchanged. Most sailors had their minds fixed on the more exotic places at the far end of each voyage, but they were missing something, for there is much to be explored and enjoyed along the Essex side of the great river.
Cruise ships still come up to Tilbury, where the old passenger liners used to pick up and disembark passengers before making the last lap up to KG5 or Victoria docks, but Tilbury has expanded and is now the principal container port for the Port of London. It is also the site of the huge, star-shaped, moated and earth-walled fort that is the best preserved of all the fortifications that were once strung out along both river banks to guard London’s most vulnerable gateway.
There was a blockhouse here at the time of the Spanish Armada, and the present Tilbury Fort was built to replace it in the late 17th Century. It was regularly garrisoned through the Napoleonic wars and through the First World War. There has always been the possible threat of an enemy fleet, our mercantile rivals the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, and finally the Germans.
The big artillery pieces still point out from the east and west gun lines along the embankment and the day I strolled there a Royal Navy destroyer and an old, red-sailed Thames sailing barge were both moving up the river. The Navy ship gleamed grey and sleek in the sunshine, brisk and direct about her business, while the barge tacked slowly and lazily, a nostalgia image of a bygone age.
Follow the river and you will come to Canvey Island, which is connected to the mainland by the bridge at South Benfleet. The island was once a lonely wasteland of mudflats and tidal inlets, until the land was reclaimed and protected by a series of embankments and drainage dykes built by a Dutch Engineer in 1623.
Despite this the island is still vulnerable to exceptional tidal flooding. In 1953 the terrible combination of North Sea storms and Spring tide surge that devastated the whole of the eastern counties coastline swamped Canvey and drowned 58 people. However, that hasn’t stopped it from filling up with summer cottages and camper sites. Small pleasure craft abound, as it is especially popular with the boating fraternity.
Canvey is now also the site of a huge petroleum refining industry, a gigantic conglomeration of massed storage tanks and writhing pipelines, like the silver steel entrails of some distorted industrial monster laid bare.
One of the best views of the whole island is from the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, which overlook the vast sweep of the estuary. Hadleigh Castle was built in the 11th Century to guard the mouth of the Thames and for centuries its great stone towers and walls stood equal to the task. Sadly, today only the south east tower remains almost intact, with a few crumbling walls marking the rest of the site, and the split wall of the north east tower standing like some great shattered tooth.
A few miles further down the river is Old Leigh, once a small fishing community overlooking a small marshy inlet, the village has now been virtually swallowed up by the expansion of sprawling Southend. However, the flavor of Old Leigh is still there, with its cobbled high street and rows of fisherman’s cottages and a handful of fishing boats moored up among the pleasure craft at its old wharves.
There is an old black clapboard sail maker’s loft at Victoria Wharf, which is now a First Aid Post manned by the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, and the scene here seemed to sum up Old Leigh. A small pleasure yacht was moored at the quay and nearby was a small sandy beach where families played and sunbathed.
Not far away was the Essex Yacht Club, where scores of young people were bobbing around in bright-sailed small boats, or wrestling with them up and down the slipways on either side of the Bembridge, an ex-cruising pilot cutter that now serves as the clubhouse. Club racing events are monitored from the old wooden bridge where there are fine sea views over the bows.
During the Georgian period the south end of Prittlewell was becoming a small, fashionable seaside resort for the well to do. It was a place of sedate beach huts where ladies in knee and elbow length bathing suits discreetly emerged to paddle their toes. From there it expanded rapidly.
With the coming of the railway in 1856 Southend was only an hour away from the capital and promptly became the favorite holiday resort for the East End of London. The town is practically divided by the far protruding pier, with on either side the amusement arcades, fast rides and the children’s paradise of Adventure Island. Here and to the left of the pier is the wild, brash and noisy face of Southend, the center of all the bright lights, fish and chip shops and fun. Go to the right and you will find the more genteel aspects, with all the peace and beauty of its many manicured lawns and cliff top flower gardens.
Go up from the promenade and walk along the Royal Terrace, where the Royal Hotel was built in 1791 to commemorate a visit by Princess Caroline, the wife of the then Prince of Wales. Her visit helped to establish even more firmly the fashionable reputation of Southend. The terrace was restored in 1978, and in summer there is usually a massed array of glorious, colored hanging baskets decorating the modern hotel fronts.
Further along the white statue of Queen Victoria, flanked by palm trees, overlooks rich red and yellow rose beds. Beside her there is an elegant Victorian bandstand where waltzing couples glide gracefully on sunny afternoons. Opposite is Prittlewell Square, Southend’s oldest surviving park, with its high splashing central fountain framed in white wrought iron entrance gates. Everywhere there are sumptuous flower beds.
In Priory Park stands the old Prittlewell Priory which was once a Cluniac monastery and is now a museum. Beside it stands the solid grey Crow Stone, which once stood on the beach at Chalkwell to mark the eastern extent of London’s jurisdiction.
Down on the Western Esplanade is where the annual London to Southend Classic Car Rally finishes, usually with three hundred or more vintage vehicles assembled there on the big day. This is just one of the big annual events in this pleasure-geared seaside resort, ranging from the Old Leigh Regatta and the Thames Sailing Barge Match, both held out on the river, to the high-flying Air Show in the skies above.
If you can’t face an hour’s brisk walk a full size train now takes you out to the far end of the pier, which was almost always my last glimpse and first sight of the mouth of the Thames. The pier was built in 1889, and has survived seven boat crashes and three fires. One and a third miles long, it is the longest pier in the world.
Rows of fishermen cast their lines over the rails, hoping to haul a fat bass or mullet up on to the deck boards, and there is a pier head viewing tower with wide-ranging views. From here anything from a cockle boat to an oil tanker may hover into view.
Shoeburyness occupies the last elbow of land before the shoreline turns away to the north. Until the middle of the 18th Century it was a smuggler’s haven of misty marshes and hidden creeks. Then came the Royal Artillery Garrison and School of Gunnery and the village began to grow. Between the wars its safe bathing beaches made it another holiday spot.
Plans have been put forward for another future barrier here to span the full mouth of the Thames. London and the marshlands of Essex have always been vulnerable to flooding, due to the slow increase of river and sea levels over the centuries, and now that rate of increase is accelerating due to Global warming.
The Thames Barrier high up the river at Greenwich which was officially opened in 1984 is no longer considered adequate protection for the nation’s capital. More flood and storm tides of the 1953 variety are predicted as a high probability, and the ongoing battle against the hungry sea will continue. If the proposed barrier is built it will be a massive structure stretching far into the marshes on either side which will change the shore and skyline for ever.
However, for the moment the Thames has reached the cold North Sea without further hindrance. Having started far inland in the Cotswolds, passing through the great heart of London, and caressing the winding Essex shore, the river still flows by in all its many moods, timeless and continuous, on its romantic way to the far, wide world.