Amélie Skoda takes a trip along the Thames Estuary
The swans have seen us and they step onto the jetty, flapping speculatively as they reach land. Beyond the pontoon is the Port of London Authority, and the old pier. The Gravesend to Tilbury ferry launches out, and the distance between the two shores at low tide seems so narrow, like nothing at all. This stretch of the Thames used to be home: for years, my father owned a small oil tanker which was moored just upriver. The ship was built for the Admiralty in 1948, and spent most of its working life transporting oil around the North Sea and the Thames Estuary, but it had already been ‘retired’ for a long time before my father took it on as a restoration project.
I liked living on the river, mostly. It was cold and frightening at times, but it also meant lights on the water at night, ship-spotting, blurry voices on the long-wave radio, and falling asleep to the sound of the tide coming in against the hull. The Thames was and still is a busy working river, and being on board a former industrial vessel, we felt part of that – and a long way from ‘normal’ life on land. Tankers and cargo ships churned past close to the Tilbury refinery; there were always barges, dredgers and tugs chugging up and down stream. Low tide would reveal the pockmarked mud banks, and gulls feasting in the deep rivulets.
Though the ship is long gone, I sometimes miss the solitude and sense of adventure of living on the water. The Estuarian landscape may not be a conventional beauty spot, but it does have a lonely allure of its own. The river dominates the land – you feel the connection with the water and the ships, and there are peaceful, otherworldly places among the industrial sprawl. To the east, between Chalk and Higham, a narrow, shrouded road gives way to openness, the bleak beauty of flatlands claimed back from the river. There are houses, avenues of willow and rush and poplars, and the saline scent of marsh and water.
Cliffe Pools is at the end of Salt Lane, beyond the aggregate works and mounds of sand and grit. A rubble path leads to the nature reserve, and the shouts of gulls, who have claimed an island in the middle of one of the pools. This part of the Estuary is home or a stopping-off point for thousands of resident and migratory birds, including avocets, nightingales, dabbling ducks, lapwings and warblers. The pools were once pits used for clay extraction, but now they’re given over to wildlife and protected by the RSPB. It’s a strange landscape, a jigsaw of lagoons, grassland and salt marsh framed on one side by the Thames shore and on the other by the swan-necks of diggers and distant machinery. Mayflies and bluebottles sway in and out of the brambles, and a man releases his four spaniels into one of the pools.
Further east, the feeling of isolation deepens on the approach to the Isle of Grain: there’s only one road in and out. The land is flat and fertile, with young orchards and polytunnels on either side. In spite of the presence of major infrastructure – the London Thamesport, power stations – it still feels remote and unpeopled. There aren’t any other cars on the road.
St James’s Churchyard, by Grain Fort, contains the graves of World War One soldiers, including a man from a Suffolk regiment. Why did he end up here, on this curious Kentish promontory? The track leads to a silent shingle beach, and the wide Thames with Southend and Shoeburyness on the other side. A cargo ship cruises close to the Essex shore. The beach is buffered against the powerful tide with groynes and sandbags. A set of steps leads down to the water, but the railings have rusted away up to the high tide mark.
On the other side of the promontory, facing Sheerness, a rusting hulk sits marooned in the middle of the water, with Garrison Point Fort behind it, guarding the entry to the River Medway. The sense of the area’s wartime past and its strategic defence position is tangible. A graffitied searchlight shelter looms over the footpath and at low tide the disintegrating masts of the SS Richard Montgomery can be seen off the Sheerness shore. The Montgomery sank in August 1944 after becoming stranded on a sandbank, and the shipwreck is thought to still contain its huge cargo of explosives.
All the way along the concrete sea defences, there are people fishing. We pass a couple who have two rods out and a boombox. The man shows us what he’s just caught: a tiny silver sea bass, quivering and twitching, which he holds out on his palm, gently flexing its fin before letting it go.
The bridge between the mainland and the Isle of Sheppey seems vast. The sky is bright and it feels like a holiday. An empty two-carriage train goes by slowly in the opposite direction. As we pass Queenborough a sign advertising shotblasting services reminds me of the trips my dad and I used to make to breakers’ yards, where we’d pick our way among the half-wrecks of boats and barges shored up to be reclaimed for parts or scrap metal.
The once-grand but now-derelict buildings of Sheerness Dockyard are sectioned off behind security fences. Hundreds of ships were built there in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the Victorian warship HMS Gannet, which survives at Chatham Historic Dockyard and has a second life as a wedding venue. Many ships also ‘finished’ in this part of the Thames, brought to the docks to be broken up and scrapped, including my father’s. I think of the ship’s blistered deck and the heavy, warm smell of oil residue that rose out of its tanks. The workshop where my father showed me how to mend ropes, and the thrilling burr that resonated through the cabins when the engines were turning. Up on the sea wall, the river looks bluer, wider, like the beginning of open water.