Caught by the River

Edge Walking #9: Thorpe-le-Soken to Harwich

Tom Bolton | 8th July 2017

A series of posts following Tom Bolton – author of London’s Lost Rivers and London’s Lost Neighbourhoods – as he travels the coastline of the British Isles.

In the three weeks since we had last visited Essex, an election had been called, acknowledging the political doubt hanging in the air since the previous summer’s EU referendum. As though triggering a planned sequence of events, Clacton’s MP Douglas Carswell responded by stepping down and declaring himself “UKIP’s first and last member of Parliament”. His lopsided smile as he announced his mission complete was strangely reminiscent of Geoffrey Boycott, who also happened to share his politics. Shortly afterwards, local elections saw UKIP support vanish beneath the waves, like the lost church at Walton-on-the-Naze. The political tide that had flooded out of Essex seemed to be ebbing, but it had left the landscape changed.

Meanwhile, the death of self-declared Glaswegian prophet Benjamin Creme, some months before, had come to our attention. Known for his regular small ad announcements of the arrival of ‘Maitreya, the World Teacher’, he lectured for decades on his personal version of the Second Coming. Shortly before his death his online magazine had published a letter from Hullbridge, in Essex on the Crouch Estuary, reporting a “ball of light” of “a beautiful cherry red colour” in the night sky. Creme had replied to confirm that it was in fact a spacecraft from Mars.

Back in Thorpe-le-Soken, we stayed in a room above the Bell Inn, with an excellent view of the adjacent graveyard, where Queen Victoria’s physician, Sir William Gull, lay buried. Thorpe was a single main street with a heavy medieval presence. The 16th century pub had once been, amongst other things, a guildhall. It was now affluent and hard to fathom. Cafés housed in ancient buildings played high energy Euro pop over breakfast, while silver four-by-fours staked a claim on the parking bays, and boys in West Ham shirts sat on the railing outside the Co-op.

Behind the high street, the unadopted back streets carried an air of the illicit plotlands development more associated with the collapsing social structures of Jaywick. We struck out to the north, heading for Harwich via Beaumont Quay, at the head of Hamford Water. The quay, visited by the children in Arthur Ransome’s Secret Water exploring in their dinghy, had been served by a short canal called the Beaumont Cut. It had connected the Essex farmlands to the sea, via two Thames barges, the Beaumont Belle and the Gleaner, which would leave loaded with hay and return carrying manure. The canal had lain unused since before World War II, but still sliced a silvery channel through the low grass banks.

We were unable to locate the quay itself, reported to have been built with stone recycled from London Bridge. When the old bridge came down in 1831, the Governors of Guy’s Hospital had received a share of the materials, some of which were used on their Essex estates. The inscription recording this seemed to have disappeared, but the connection was William Gull, brought up in Thorpe and a lecturer at Guy’s. Gull was the pre-eminent doctor of his age, famous for saving the Prince of Wales during a near-fatal attack of typhoid. The nation hung for weeks on the bulletins posted at local police stations with the latest updates on the Prince’s condition. He was also known for his posthumous role in the Jack the Ripper saga, cast as a predator who descended on the East End in a blacked-out coach. He formed part of a conspiracy theory created by Joseph Gorman, who claimed to be Walter Sickert’s illegitimate son, which also involved Freemasons, the Royal Family and a secret Catholic heir to the throne.

The shore beyond Beaumont Quay was inaccessible, occupied by something marked on the map, with calculated vagueness, as ‘Works’. Instead, we climbed inland up above Hamford Water, where cement roads led us across fields. We were unable to identify the elegant black sea birds with white underbellies which banked over the unstable separation of land and sea. A low mist lay over the tidal flats, and the Naze Tower stood both tall and tiny against the horizon. The ground was baked hard and even like the cement, leaving no cracks to probe, Boycott-like, with the keys to an expensive car.

At Great Oakley Church we found a memorial to the children and their teacher killed in a bus accident in the Essex countryside in 1978. A cottage on the main street featured an apple tree and full-sized concrete pill box, presumably built to fight off a Nazi landing force. Great Oakley would have been the first occupied village in England if an army had slipped along Hamford Water under cover of darkness. The day was becoming hotter, and the mist thinning down to a persistent haze. At the Little Oakley pub where we stopped for lunch, the landlady and her mother told us about the various ghosts inhabiting the bar, which was otherwise occupied by pensioners. Their accounts were entirely matter of fact, as though describing an entirely material phenomenon, and they claimed to have brought a ghost with them when they moved from the pub at Great Oakley.

They also shed light on the ‘“Works”, which occupied the entirety of the tidal Bramble Island. Securely fenced from the public, it was in fact an explosives testing site owned by Exchem, a company with a name carefully designed to deflect interest. Its website carried an advert for the forthcoming Security and Counter-Terror Expo at Excel, in London. We regained the sea wall alongside barbed wire and signs warning of prosecutions under the Explosives Acts of 1875 and 1923.

The tide was out, far out, leaving a temporary mosaic of dark brown and acid green. A jetty snaked out over the mud, the beginnings of a Robert Smithson land art spiral. As we approached Harwich, through a waist-high tunnel of rank smelling weeds, the sea defences hardened and the shore became an unforgiving concrete promenade. The leading lights at Dovercourt appeared beside the long beach: a pair of cast iron Victorian lighthouses which once marked the entrance to the navigable shipping channel leading to the ports on the Stour and Orwell Estuaries. Beyond, the breakwater overlooked by the Beacon Hill Battery, topped with a disused World War II radar tower. Further still, the Felixstowe gantry cranes loomed close, just a mile across the estuary by ferry, but many miles by land.

We climbed inland towards our end point – the station at Harwich Town – entering Dovercourt on the southern outskirts of the port. In his novel The Prime Minister, Anthony Trollope had described it as “a not sufficiently well-known marine paradise,” a retreat for Ferdinand Lopez, a financial adventurer doomed to ruin. The town park was the site of Cliff House, built by East India Company merchant John Bagshawe, who had overstretched himself attempting to develop Dovercourt as a spa. His bankruptcy led to the demolition of his mansion, and the library, conservatory, grottos and gardens of the spa were long-vanished.

We detoured between post-war semis to locate the Harwich Redoubt, a fort built to guard against Napoleon, designed like a partially buried doughnut. It was tucked behind gardens full of residents enjoying the hot afternoon to a Lloyd Webber soundtrack. From the fort we could see out across the Medusa Channel, which was named after Nelson’s frigate HMS Medusa. The Admiral had apparently taken his ship out of Harwich in 1801 using a daring short cut, en route to harass the French invasion forces which were gathering at Boulogne.

The first election posters we had seen in Essex appeared, for Labour. The seat had a Labour MP at the height of the New Labour surge, but redrawn boundaries had merged it with the surrounding North Essex countryside. It was now represented by Bernard Jenkin, a veteran 1990s Maastricht rebel who had pursued an EU exit for a generation. We left Harwich on the slow and infrequent local train. We planned to return soon, before the election was over, to complete our Essex project. There was just one day’s walk left before we reached the county boundary at Manningtree, and the end of the Essex coast path.


See previous Edge Walking posts here.

Tom Bolton on Caught by the River/on Twitter

Join Tom on August 23 as he reveals the Westbourne – one of London’s Lost Rivers. More info here.