The latest in 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.
The weekend before the General Election, politics were becoming more interesting, but few doubted the result to come. The Prime Minister seemed ill at ease and her party tactically inept. Voters were taking notice, but change was not in the air and there was little expectation of anything other than a large Conservative majority. The final leg of our Essex coast walk was a trip back inland, following the Stour estuary all the way.
The journey out east was slow and halting, and the weather unpredictable. A flash flood on the edges of London stopped every train, and a restless crowd filled Liverpool Street Station. At Manningtree we missed the hourly connection on the branch line to Harwich, and a group of stranded, grumbling passengers looked on as the sky darkened and a storm of epic proportions inched towards us. The station bar was closed but three locals had set up a lock-in, gesturing apologetically through the window from behind their pints.
Three and a half hours later we reached Dovercourt, at the edge of Harwich. We stayed in a friendly bed and breakfast, unexpectedly located above the Dovercourt Job Centre. The next morning, the storm had passed. Dovercourt was down-at-heel with neglected terraces, collapsing buildings, and large houses chopped into tiny flats. A towering pile of bin bags swarmed with sparrows, and a car abandoned in a drive lay half buried in poppies.
We circled the deserted streets of Harwich, where Tudor sea captains might just have stepped around the corner, out of sight. The prospect across Harwich Harbour revealed the Shotley peninsular and the container cranes at Felixstowe, apparently within touching distance across the narrow strait that channelled the Stour into the North Sea. The previous week, a forty-foot minke whale had washed up dead on Felixstowe beach. It echoed the strange happenings of Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent, a book which was everywhere that Spring, fulfilling a general desire for disquieting visions of the past.
Not only was Harwich empty, but it seemed to have no expectation of crowds. The single shop we found was reluctantly open. It was the final weekend of election campaigning, but the UKIP office, decked with union jacks and attack posters, was closed up. A vast Stena Line ferry, the size of a cruise ship, slid silently across a seventeenth-century Harwich street, en route to the Hook of Holland. It passed the Navyard where men-of-war were once built and Samuel Pepys, as Secretary to the Navy, worried about Dutch ships harrying the east coast.
The Navyard occupied a site of strategic importance for more than a thousand years, commanding the mouth of a wide natural harbour with a defensible narrow entrance. In 885 the River Stour marked the boundary of the Danelaw and Wessex. At the Battle of Stourmouth, a fleet sent up the Essex coast by King Alfred was defeated by ‘pirates’, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the Danes. Bloody Point, opposite Harwich, may or may not commemorate the battle.
Leaving Harwich behind we passed the east coast depot of Trinity House, where the buoys that floated in the North Sea were stored. On land the sizes seemed wrong. Rolling hills of chain sprawled on the concrete, while wreck buoys topped with crosses were Las Vegas wedding chapels. Samuel Pepys was here too, not only Master of Trinity House but, eventually, MP for Harwich at the culmination of his civil service career.
On the fringe of Harwich we saw a single election canvasser, knocking on doors in Dovercourt in a red tie and getting no replies. He was highly conspicuous, the only man in town wearing a suit. Beyond the houses, the coast path was a greenway among industry and recent housing, lodged awkwardly between the railway and the Stour. Elderflower was in full bloom, and the Dovercourt sparrows ranged out among the bushes. Parkeston, at the approach to the ferry terminal, was marked by the deserted St. Paul’s, which had the character of a mission church. A cross of Easter flowers tied to the railings outside was dried to dust, and the church had apparently been abandoned after its roof lead was stolen, compromising the structure.
The Harwich ferry terminal was more closely linked to the Netherlands than anywhere else in Britain. Mail boats began a service across the North Sea to Holland in 1661, taking passengers along with the post. The route fell into decline after the captains proved reluctant to switch from sail to steam, and the mail service moved to Dover, taking the shorter route to Calais instead. Later, the port refused to expand to accommodate larger steamers, and its heyday was over. The ferry service, however, maintained a Dutch link that had proved crucial to Essex, building the sea walls that kept much of its flat countryside above water.
Beyond the ferries, a fenced path led past a compound occupied by oil storage tanks, passing a notice warning of explosions. This was the Halterman Carless refinery – ‘Fuelling the pace of today’s world’ – and the smell of crude was strong, sweet and heavy. Then, suddenly, we were in the Essex countryside and a man equipped with a stick and a strong East Anglian accent was offering directions. He pointed us up the hill for views of the Stour, and of the ‘Mickey Mouse House’.
We did as he suggested and climbed a ridge to look out over green wheat and a wide sweep of water to a spectacular building on the opposite bank of the Stour, long wings balanced with an equally tall, central clock tower. This was the Royal Hospital School which, while still a school, no longer trained boys for the Navy. However, it was home to the figurehead from HMS Ganges, a training ship which became a shore-based naval school nearby at Shotley. In Arthur Ransome’s Secret Water their father, Commander Walker’s, last minute call to HMS Ganges leaves the Swallows to camp on their own at Hamford Water. Although never explicitly stated, the events of the books seem to take place in 1939, and Commander Walker would have been in demand. The childhood summers of the Essex coast disguised a world on the brink of disaster. HMS Ganges closed in 1976, but the outsized teak figure of Indian boy, in white robe, crown and ropes of pearls, carved for its figurehead in the Bombay Dockyard, remained an imposing reminder.
Exoticism of a different kind was close by. Grayson Perry’s house at Wrabness, completed in 2015, was a holiday cottage like no other. It was an attempt to create a new Essex vernacular with a shrine to a fictional, pregnant woman called Julie – an extraordinary architecture designed to mark the ordinary. It looked like a gingerbread Russian Orthodox church, and had attracted comment and visitors from far and wide. Indeed, at the end of our walk we met someone we knew waiting at Manningtree Station, part of a group of cyclists who had ridden all the way from London to see it.
Wrabness itself had another structure, older but almost as strange: a wooden cage in the churchyard containing a large bell, built after the church tower collapsed in the seventeenth century. We passed from village to woods, then we were back on an empty shore path, larks climbing, passing the hidden beaches of Jacques Bay. For the first time in many miles there was sand at low tide, and no wall to separate land from sea.
The next settlement was Mistley, a village with a prosperous air. It boasted a quay and a malt extract works – both, surprisingly, still in operation. There was local conflict with the port owners over access and a ‘Free the Quay’ campaign, but the river traffic and alluringly green tidal flats of the Stour Estuary provided a fine backdrop, a combination of working and natural landscape increasingly hard to find.
On the edge of Mistley, two 18th century towers stood side by side, baroque, their purpose concealed, carrying almost occult overtones. They were the Mistley Towers, the remains of the demolished St. Mary the Virgin church. Designed by Robert Adam, the church was grand and strange, commissioned in a failed attempt to reinvent Mistley as a spa town. Now they haunted the village approach, presiding over the graveyard where the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, was said to have been buried.
We were now within reach of the Essex county boundary at Manningtree. Larger than Mistley, the town seemed equally well-to-do. Bernard Jenkin, his face on posters in the window of his constituency office, was the long-serving local MP. In 1993 he had been one of a group of MPs described by John Major as ‘bastards’ after failing to vote with the Government on the Maastricht Treaty. The Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party had been dominated by east of England MPs, and an Essex hardcore of Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford), Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster), Teresa Gorman (Billericay), Teddy Taylor (Southend-on-Sea), John Whittingdale (Colchester South and Maldon) and Jenkin. Nearly a generation had passed since their moment of fame and they had become largely forgotten, but the process they started had led directly to the Brexit vote.
The centre of Manningtree was exceptionally pretty, but we walked through the industrial fringe hugging the river. The county boundary was marked on a road bridge halfway across the Stour, where signs displayed the Suffolk coat of arms, a rising sun over water representing the county that sees the rising sun first. The last in a line of pill boxes marking out the full 350 miles of Essex coastline was strategically positioned where the county came to an end. Beyond the bridge sheds and coming to an abrupt stop and Dedham Vale lay beyond, a carefully preserved pastoral setting described, insistently, as Constable Country.
We returned to London on the train from Manningtree. In the weeks that followed, a quick succession of era-defining events occurred. A bomb in Manchester brought the grim scenes feared and expected for more than a decade. Shortly afterwards, the election brought a result no-one had predicted. The Brexit mandate sought by the Prime Minister failed to arrive, and instead a version of the future began to unfurl that had seemed impossible days earlier. UKIP vanished from the map like the Essex mudflats under a flood tide. Then two men, faces covered, randomly attacked strangers on London Bridge and in Borough Market. And finally, worst of all, a tower block fire in Latimer Road became a catastrophe of a kind not seen for years.
Our Essex journey was over. We had planned a guided walk along the notorious Broomway, the tidal footpath that provided the only public access to the military island at Foulness but, following the London attacks, the Army had announced a summer-long exercise and the path was closed. We still felt we needed to return and began to make plans to return to the Thames Estuary and places we had visited some years ago, before we conceived our walk as a single project. We hoped there was more still to learn out in the shifting coastal landscapes.
Join Tom on August 23 as he reveals the Westbourne – one of London’s Lost Rivers. More info here.