Estuary: Out from London to the Sea (Hamish Hamilton September 2016).
‘This fascinating book, awash with poignant, life-affirming tales, intricate detail and striking imagery, documents the history, geography, nature and people that have shaped the ever-changing landscape here [of the Thames Estuary]. And it does this most brilliantly through the eyes of those whose stories bring depth and character to what is often a bleak and desolate place.’ (Ben McCormick, Caught by the River)
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The Thames Estuary is one of the world's great deltas, providing passage in and out of London for millennia. It is silted up with the memories and artefacts of past voyages. It is the habitat for an astonishing range of wildlife. And for the people who live and work on the estuary, it is a way of life unlike any other - one most would not trade for anything, despites its many dangers.
Rachel Lichtenstein has travelled its length and breadth many times. Here she gathers these experiences in an extraordinary chorus of voices: mudlarkers and fishermen, radio pirates and champion racers, the men who risk their lives out on the water and the women who wait on the shore. Estuary is a thoughtful and intimate portrait of this profoundly British place, both the community and the environment, examining how each has shaped and continues to shape the other.
As the light slowly faded on the longest day of the year I sat on deck with the rest of the crew drinking bottled beers, sharing stories and watching the cityscape transform. By dusk a low mist had begun to obscure most of the buildings. The iconic dome of St Paul’s temporarily disappeared before re-emerging, floodlit, against the London skyline. Red-flashing beacons began to appear sporadically through the fog, marking the tops of tall cranes and skyscrapers. The skeletal frame of the Shard came suddenly into focus as every floor of the tall skyscraper lit up simultaneously. At the same time the beautiful gothic structure of Tower Bridge behind us was illuminated from above and below, throwing a sparkling reflection into the black waters of the Lower Pool of London - a place where so many of the world’s most important ships must have anchored at different points in time. As night fell the lights inside all the flats, hotels and offices along the riverside came on. We floated in the dark void of the river between time.
On the water the sounds of the city seemed altered. I could hear the distant hum of traffic on the bridge, the clatter of trains rumbling past, the constant backdrop of sirens going off but it was as if they were coming from another place altogether, not the great throbbing metropolis above. I sat and watched the vast twin bascules of Tower Bridge being slowly raised. A Thames Barge sailed silently past and drifted beneath the bridge before quickly disappearing into the shadows on the other side. On the remains of a wooden jetty nearby, I could just make out the shape of a large black cormorant standing perfectly still with its great wings outstretched.
Mudlarkers, cocklers, and artists: discover the Thames Estuary with Rachel Lichtenstein
Estuary: Out from London to the Sea takes the reader on a journey through a space that can be lethal – or beautifully free.
It is not for nothing that Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's bleak tale of colonial violence and reach, begins in the Thames Estuary. Even now, "the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the Earth" remains a prime artery of capital, a place of lucrative transactions and liquid transformations. Passing between the city and the sea, industrial and wild, densely trafficked and absolutely abandoned, the river holds the silted wreckage of the past, occasionally disgorging enigmatic fragments. As such, it is a dream location for a psychogeographic survey, a mode of exploration that fetishises locations where the human and natural worlds uneasily coexist.
Rachel Lichtenstein begins and ends her estuarine adventure by sail, but hers is not a nostalgic journey. Unlike many place writers, she is keen on people, particularly those engaged in labour. Her previous books include histories of densely populated urban areas such as Brick Lane and Hatton Garden, sites of closed communities and specialist industries. This time, armed with a tape recorder and seasickness tablets, she sets out to find the men and women who make their living from the outer Thames: the cocklers and tugboat captains, the ferrymen, divers, mudlarkers and artists.
There is an infectious freedom to littoral regions, where land is periodically inundated with water and lives must be flexible and enterprising, if not piratical. The burly Prince Michael of Sealand rules over what is perhaps the world's smallest micronation, founded by his father on the naval sea fort Roughs Tower. Making the six-mile crossing to Sealand is the easy part; it is far harder to defend it from the gun-wielding mercenaries who periodically descend by helicopter, attracted by the possibilities of a barricaded haven in international waters.
The estuary is a lethally unsteady place, where the weather can turn on a sixpence and even the most experienced sailors can lose their way amid the perpetually shifting sandbanks, as Lichtenstein discovers when the yacht on which she is sailing runs aground on a sandbar, coming terrifyingly close to a steely forest of wind turbines.
The Thames's capacity for causing and storing up trouble is neatly encapsulated in the ruined form of the American Liberty ship SS Richard Montgomery, which sank off the Isle of Sheppey in 1944, laden with 1,400 tonnes of explosives. Three masts protruding from the water betray the location of this barnacled time bomb, which, if it ever explodes, could bring fireballs and tidal waves on London.
Yet it is Southend Pier that Lichtenstein finds most haunting. Below sea level at the pier's end is a curious room, like "an abandoned Egyptian temple", full of rusting machinery and flooded twice daily by the tide. Climbing through on a stormy night to reach her boat, she uses her phone as a torch, lighting up "huge clusters of oysters, mussels, sea anemones, crabs and all sorts of other creatures, covered in wet dripping seaweed, clinging to the pillars". She hears the sound of hundreds of people sobbing and screaming; later, she discovers that it was a mooring for prison ships in the First World War and imagines the trapped men cowering during bombing raids.
It's just the sort of location that W G Sebald would have been drawn to: an abandoned place through which the great tides of history have passed. But although Lichtenstein writes emphatically of her kinship to Sebald, her writing slips far too often into language more like a grant proposal than his melancholy, disenchanting cadences.
It's not impossible to flash the underpinnings of what Lichtenstein persistently calls a "book project", or to muse on the fact of its making. Geoff Dyer makes a witty business of it in Out of Sheer Rage, his not-quite-biography of D H Lawrence, and in Threads Julia Blackburn frets continually over her inability to compose a biography of the artist John Craske, her small, painful statements of disclosure tangling together to form a profound meditation on composition and discomposure. But Lichtenstein is continually drawing attention to the fact of her writing a book, for no purpose.
A curator and artist, she records the fertile art that the estuary has inspired. For the Graveyard of Lost Species project, a wrecked boat was dug from a sandbar off Leigh-on-Sea and the hull inscribed with local legends and memories, before being resubmerged – a fragile "anti-monument" to estuarine erosions. In 2005, the artist Stephen Turner spent six weeks alone at a former military fort on Shivering Sands, eight miles from shore. Slowly he gathered up relics abandoned by the soldiers who were once billeted there: curling postwar pin-ups, fragments of pottery, even toenail clippings.
The estuary by its nature is an ephemeral landscape, but in recent years change has come at a faster pace. To construct the London Gateway mega-port, the owners have deep-dredged the river to make it navigable for vast container ships. Many fear that this has altered the nature of the Thames, tilting the balance from wild to industrial. A guard at the nearby Tilbury Fort complains of the mega-port's constantly throbbing engines, its automated labour and floodlit glare. Iain Sinclair titled his 1997 account of his London peregrinations Lights Out for the Territory – but these days the territory is in private ownership, the gates are padlocked, and the lights are forever blazing.
The eerie power of the Thames Estuary
Sinclair McKay on Estuary, by Rachel Lichtenstein, and London In Fragments, by Ted Sandling
You find it in the vistas of skeletal metal gangways, the abandoned 18th-century forts, the squat oil holders and rusted pipelines, the pale reeds of the marshes, the barbed wire, the peeling housing estates, the lonely river paths. You hear it in the thick silence by the water, broken only by the wide river slurping and slopping against the embankment. There is something in the landscape of the Thames estuary that is curiously and powerfully uncanny.
But how can that be in the otherwise earthy county of Essex? This is one of the subterranean themes of Rachel Lichtenstein's electrifying exploration of the estuary. What ought to be a grey stretch of post-industrial England is in fact rich in eerie poetry. During the middle of one howlingly stormy night, as the author huddles in her bunk in a pitching boat tied to the lower decking of Southend pier, the banging of hull against wood is accompanied by more frightening, hallucinatory noises — ‘the clamour of a great crowd of people crying out in fear. I could distinguish a woman's scream, the dreadful noise of children sobbing.' And Lichtenstein is not alone; her cabin-mate can hear the voices too. They are forced to take their sleeping bags into the boat's hold to escape the ghosts. Southend pier is apparently infested with them.
This is also a working river with the most extraordinary depth of history; from the Romans sailing in and laying the foundations for the Londinium property boom, to the ships that later sailed out into the world to create the British empire. Here is the sunken SS Richard Montgomery just off the Isle of Sheppey: it's an American second world war boat, still laden with a massive quantity of explosives altogether too tricky and delicate to retrieve, and which could still blow up at any minute, resulting in a Southend-engulfing tsunami.
There are still cockle-fishers here at Leigh-on-Sea, as there have been for generations; Lichtenstein movingly chronicles just how precarious and indeed dangerous their working lives are. Her own voyages out into the estuarine sea-waters are surprisingly harrowing; running aground on shallow sandbanks in a sailing boat in a shrieking gale is an assault on all senses.
But there is something about these edge-lands that also encourages charismatic radicalism; from the Hadleigh Farm Colony set up in the 1890s by William Booth to provide rural work and fresh air for desperately poor city dwellers, to Canvey Island's much-loved band Dr Feelgood. Canvey has a haunted history — still remembered for the sea-flood in the winter of 1953 that killed 58 people in one biblically terrifying night. But now it is becoming a welcome home to an increasing number of Orthodox Jews who are swapping north London's Stamford Hill for a life amid glittering rivulets and wildlife-teeming marshlands.
And the ambiguities and mysteries of this region have long attracted writers. Joseph Conrad lived for a while in the nearby village of Stanford-le-Hope; of course, it was his Marlow in Heart of Darkness who, while gazing out on an estuary sunset, proclaimed that centuries back, this had been ‘one of the dark places of the earth'.
Meanwhile, just across the water in Kent, on the Hoo peninsula, in a freezing winter twilight, Dickens's Pip was terrorised by the convict Magwitch. In the graveyard that inspired this encounter, in the village of Cooling, you can still see the five tiny gravestones of infants who died of marsh fever. The estuary is all about mortality, with that sense of looking out to the grey ocean and an unknowable world beyond.
But there are fears that are more concrete. A maritime version of agoraphobia is evoked when Lichtenstein visits Sealand, the wartime sea fort standing on huge stumpy legs some miles out from land, owned by Michael Bates and his family. This is the world's smallest principality. But any suggestion of Ealing comedy about the place is dispelled by the fearsome reality: the 50-foot winch needed to get aboard, the hostility of the winter elements, and the knowledge that on this and other sea forts during the war, some young men were driven to insanity by the isolation and committed suicide.
The odd thing is that just as we become nostalgic for views of industry that once would have made us shudder, the estuary is roaring back to new life. The freshly constructed Thames Gateway seaport — near Conrad's old place — is bringing vast quantities of produce upriver via supertankers. It is a leitmotif throughout the book; the local suspicion that the dredging of the estuary to make depth for these vast vessels is disturbing its ecology and its ghosts. But the estuary's story is surely one of continual physical and spiritual disturbance.
That sense of the past coexisting with the present is also at the core of Ted Sandling's hypnotic — yet infectiously jolly — account of his time exploring the Thames shore in London for unexpected treasure. In Victoria's reign, mudlarks were children and the elderly desperately scavenging through sewage for anything of value. Sandling, who works for Christie's, has rather a sharper eye and aesthetic appreciation for the fragments of objects that now surface in the gravel and mud. The detailed photos of his finds are gripping.
Here, astonishingly, is the flint from a fishing spear circa 6000 bc; there, a fragment of a manganese apothecary jar from the mid-17th century. There are pieces of exquisite pottery, luminously green and crimson 18th-century glassware, all found by the author in locations from Tate Modern to Limehouse, and all carrying with them the shock of last being handled hundreds of years ago. ‘The Thames can do that,' he writes, ‘throw up confluences of time.' Among the billionaire property speculation apartment blocks, this is the opposite of uncanny: the sense of continuity instead makes you a little tearful.