Caught by the River

Essex Appeal

Tim Burrows | 29th March 2018

The first of a series of dispatches from Tim Burrows based on journeys into and around the county of Essex, featuring its many voices and many forms. Essex, or at least its caricature, has more front than Southend. This column will attempt to ask: what’s hiding behind it?

With photos by Luke Turner.

Blasts of estuarial wind submit us to a damned landscape. Air shimmers above large pipes pumping out methane gas on the edge of Mucking, a desolate spot of Thurrock in the Essex Thames Estuary that was until recently the largest landfill in Europe. Ahead of us high ground obscures the fringe of a sky that is usually all-conquering around here, an unnatural hillscape formed from decades of the city’s crap.

The walk marks my 34th birthday and with each step it is beginning to feel like an inauspicious start to my mid-thirties. My wife Hayley, who is four months pregnant with our second child and already showing, makes up the rear of our group. My sister carries our firstborn, her niece, Greta, who is not yet 15 months. I’m drawn back to these walks on the edge of the estuary because each one is different. The aggro of the elements used to be the appeal – get through a day’s horizontal wind to justify the pint afterwards. But I’m doubting the decision now. Drizzle to rain to edge of downpour. The boggy, sodden ground causes us to walk gingerly. Some start to lose momentum as the wind and rain has picked up with such a force it’s getting in everywhere. The occasion is threatening to turn into a Herzog-Kinski epic relocated to the Essex marsh (screenplay: Mike Leigh).

We reach the entrance to the new nature reserve, opened by David Attenborough in 2015. Our curiosity is stirred, but not by the wildlife: we have seen a signpost for a visitors’ centre, which we imagine serves hot tea under a solid roof. Yet the walk to the imagined cuppa is long over a steady incline made by a rubbish mound. Greta wakes up and starts to wail. A few of us sing to her, prompted by Hayley, and she is calmed in bursts, before crying again.

The journey started awkwardly: we set off from the train station at East Tilbury around lunchtime but ditched an initial desire to skirt the Thames as much as possible after encountering a heavily-flooded path, instead heading inland, skirting around puddles and pools. Marshlands are awkward by definition. You can make them navigable but you often have to bend to the whims of creeks, inlets and sluices. According to local historian Randall Bingley what we call marshland was not considered land at all in medieval times: prior to the Tudor era, “land” only pertained to grounds higher than the river floodplain. Plenty of people have made lives on reclaimed marshland since then thanks to enterprising Dutch visitors – Canvey Island has a population of 40,000 despite being below sea level – but on days like this you begin to sympathise with the medieval sentiment.

Payoff came in the form of the sight of kestrels hovering high above the land as we approached  Mucking. Marshy pools reflected stark black tree trunks; bright yellow JCB trucks shone like beacons against ruddy browns and greens. Boats once brought all the shit that West London had to throw at them to Mucking, and you can still see the three cranes that once received rubbish from the visitor’s centre. When your highest points are made of the stuff another part of the country didn’t want, what are you supposed to make of your topography, your wildernesses? How do you engage with it?

Theoretically that’s the plan of the nature reserve, which was helped into being by DP World, the Dubai-owned company responsible for the London Gateway port that now dominates this part of the estuary. “Mucking” might be a hideously apt name for a former dump, but it held civilisations for more than a millennia and its name is thought to mean the family or followers of Mucca, or Mucca’s place or stream. Mucca is also Italian for cow, and old Irish for pig; and a pleasing echo in the now-defunct rhyming slang of mucker, often prefixed with “me old” (see also “China”, “fruit”), a lingo that floated downriver to these parts with East End émigrés before, between and after the wars. More pertinently, though, Mucca is thought to have been a local chieftain. Mucca was the boss.

London is Essex’s boss now. It hoovers up City commuters and provides the trades with seemingly endless manual work. But it doesn’t do it for nothing. The Essex marshes have long been seen as a solution to problems of industry and housing for the capital. The unpleasantness of industrial east London – the smell, the grime, the perceived uncouth nature of the people – made the better-heeled fear it, magnifying the isolation of the cockneys who toiled there.

When the slums, and later the war, got too much for them, the railway brought these same East-Enders to plots for sale on the cheap after the agricultural depression, and they purchased land on which to build holiday bungalows. Ad hoc streets and houses were built in a fit of postwar mobility. Later families ended up living in them full time. Eventually this eastward motion created a new person: the Essex man and woman, girl and boy. To establishment men of letters they were indistinguishable from the crap ferried east down the Thames for dumping at Mucking.

Dusk falls as we leave the visitors’ centre and the safety of tea and bread pudding. We make our way out of the reserve and on to roads fringed with plastic detritus, scrubland and empty football pitches. If the Dutch engineers could see this place now, cars skimming over bogland in the distance. From a plane, this landscape looks like an HD brain scan. It is intricately strange, a marshland palimpsest. Earth scarred, remade, scarred again.

I carry Greta, who is calmer after eating all the bread pudding she could tout for at the visitor’s centre. We are serene in the cold gloaming. As we head uphill and away from the river I stroke Greta’s ruddy cheeks as she makes an almost silent coo and sticks her tongue out to taste the breeze. Thurrock comes alive at this time. A distant dirt bike makes maniacal passage across the lanes and fields below, a brief rage before the day is gone and the only thing still visible is infrastructure. The cranes at the port become twinkling spectres as container lorries dart purposefully across the horizon, shooting stars on economic trajectories across a marshy nomansland.