Caught by the River

Estuary '16 – Tales from the Riverbank

Ben McCormick | 24th September 2016

When we chanced upon the lineup for this year’s Estuary Festival, we were impressed to say the least. In lieu of our own attendance – due to a preexisting engagement with The Good Life Experience – we sent some trusted CBTR delegates down to the Thames Estuary and eagerly awaited their feedback. Today’s writeup comes from Ben McCormick; expect further reportage from Luke Turner some time in the near future.


Brackish water carrying the silt of several centuries billows around the boat as we stand around gazing into its murky depths and contemplate our own deaths by drowning. We are barely afloat aboard the Avante, a tiny vessel of questionable seaworthiness, tethered to dry land by a flimsy yellow rope tied to an ancient, dilapidated iron structure that juts out into the river. As the current manoeuvres the little boat according to its whim, we stand almost motionless at the stern, headphones cancelling out most of the sound and instead playing us an extremely precise and well-researched description of what would happen to our bodies if we were to drown. It’s eerily fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. The softly spoken voice enthusiastically reads out the stages of watery decay in what sounds for all the world like a cross between a children’s television announcer and a Bond villain going into typically bloodthirsty detail about the spy’s forthcoming demise (from which he’ll obviously escape).

We are not suicidal, neither are we taking part in some bizarre aquatic ritual. We are witnessing French and Mottershead’s immersive (thankfully not too immersive) piece Waterborne that’s taking place at Estuary ‘16 – a three-week long arts and literature festival based on either bank of (and sometimes actually on) the lower reaches of the Thames.

It’s a uniquely unnerving experience but for some reason, as we disembark on the north bank at the Grade II listed Tilbury Cruise Terminal, all those who have been through it appear uplifted. Perhaps thankful they haven’t drowned, but definitely enriched by what is a genuinely remarkable piece.


Throughout the weekend, visitors have been treated to a whole raft of slightly unusual but evidently rewarding performances, talks, tours, films and installations. Much of what this festival is about – perhaps unsurprisingly given the author is its curator – is woven throughout Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary: Out from London to the Sea, which was launched in the cruise terminal main hall on the Saturday. 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. 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.

Some of those voices are present at the festival – not only those included in the book, such as Prince Michael of Sealand, Stephen Turner and Jane Dolby – but also cohorts of past and present dock workers, their families and others who live and work along the banks of this huge waterway.

It’s perhaps something of a programming masterstroke that the festival is scheduled on the same weekend as the Port of Tilbury Open Days. That great piece of timing ensured a vibrant mix of voices – from the urbane, middle class patter of the typical arts festival attendee to the more brusque, estuarine brogue of local people keen to nosey around the port but also happy to lap up the audio-visual treats scattered liberally throughout the terminal building.

These included Mnemosyne – a captivating film installation projected on a huge screen in what must once have been a ticket hall – telling the story of postwar immigrants to the UK (who would have disembarked near here). Classic Greek poetry is unlikely to be what many expected to encounter on this open weekend. The same can be said for Ghost, a kayak designed to ferry people to ‘the island of the dead’, brought to life through a wooden canoe suspended from the ceiling of the same hall and a disorienting video installation inside what seems certain to have once been the ticket office.


But it’s out on the river where the real joy of this festival is to be had. Cruises took boatloads on tours around the Tilbury Docks area, the Duchess ferried festival-goers to Gravesend and back and a former lighthouse boat (LV21) housed art installations that appealed to all comers. Onboard were flag-making workshops with artist Katrin Albrecht, Dan Thompson’s captivating Empire and Arcadia reading room and radio documentary maker Cathy FitzGerald’s What the River Told Me. This installation uses estuary water to receive sound broadcast from Gravesend and features short accounts from a series of everyday people who visit the river’s edge. Truly moving accounts that include a Scottish widower who remembers his deceased wife by the river, an older woman describing the exhilaration of swimming in the sea and a retired man whose dreams of going to sea were never realised, so he lives the mariner’s life by eavesdropping on radio transmissions from the ships and river authorities.


It’s Waterborne that really steals the show. It’s the audio equivalent of communing with the fishes (and other interested feeders) in a canal, river, estuary and out to sea over many years; a forensic journey along the very waterways brought to life in Lichtenstein’s book. And a uneasy yet thoroughly compelling reminder of how interconnected we all are.

Estuary continues until 2 October. *

Ben is currently writing a book about London pubs. Keep tabs via his website.

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