Tom Bolton’s Low Country: Brexit on the Essex Coast started life as a Caught by the River column called Edge Walking. Now expanded into a book, it’s published by Penned in the Margins, and available here. Clare Wadd reviews.
In spring 2016, Tom Bolton and his partner Jo set out to walk the Essex coast. In a series of weekends over a couple of years, they met at Liverpool Street on Friday evenings, using a muddle of local trains, buses and sometimes taxis and holing up in rooms above pubs to reach remote villages and remoter coastline. Rainham Marshes, where London slips into Essex, is the walk’s start, and sets the tone – it’s a former firing range, once considered the potential location of a Universal Studios theme park, but now an RSPB reserve in an industrial landscape. Essex, they find, is unknown, overlooked, and unfashionable.
Low Country, the story of their walk, is written against the backdrop of the Brexit vote, in a county that is both wealthy and neglected, isolated and London commuter territory. Whilst we might associate UKIP more with Thanet now, it was of course Clacton that elected the UK’s only UKIP MP (probably ever), and every single district in Essex voted leave.
At 350 miles, Essex claims to have the longest coastline of any English county – but high and low tide can be more than a mile apart here and, with a series of estuaries and a lot of mudflats, it’s hard to define, let alone measure it. The marshlands have been reclaimed and walled in, and have been home to munitions factories and used by the MOD, meaning the coast is not just difficult, but impossible to access in places. The latest update from Natural England on the England Coast Path shows an astonishing number of wiggles and large areas of “proposals published but not yet determined”; the area north and east of Maldon is “not yet available for public use – work to establish the route is currently taking place” – some of the walk isn’t actually walkable yet.
Essex turns out to have a surprising number of islands – 19 inhabited apparently (though I find myself wondering if this can be true), and one with red squirrels. I’ve walked around Canvey several times as a brilliant varied day-trip from London – empty mudflats, a pub mentioned in Great Expectations, pleasure beach, graffitied seawall, the only building designed solo by Ove Arup, and then harbour, eighties estates, a golf course and back to the bridge. But I’ll likely never visit Foulness, which can only be reached at low-tide by the dangerous but little-known Broomway path, “the deadliest path in Britain”, not to be attempted without a guide – a kind of Morecambe Bay walk for the south-east, but with an island destination as its reward. Low Country has me scanning the calendar and reaching for the OS Explorers, the Blackwater Estuary one still pristine, inspired to walk more of this mysterious place myself.
The power of the sea courses through the book – in the form of seawalls, reclamation and more recent decisions to let some land return to salt-marsh, either because defences have collapsed or by deliberately breaching them. The need for the offshore windfarm seen from Clacton, due to climate change and rising sea-levels, isn’t explicitly made, but is there nonetheless – the Essex coast has long been changed by human activity, and it’s always been in battle with the sea, but now we’re changing the sea as well as changing the land.
Low Country is a wide-raging and fascinating book taking in people, political and newsworthy events, and the changing industry, landscape and use of the coastal region. It includes history – the Peasants’ Revolt and Roman Colchester, Britain’s oldest recorded town – and literature – The Essex Serpent, of course, but that some of Heart of Darkness was written here is a surprise. In the music world we learn that Ian Dury caught his polio in the open-air swimming pool at Southend; Wilko Johnson and Dr Feelgood are, of course, synonymous with Canvey, and pirate radio wars were fought on the Principality of Sealand, visible from the route. Essex, it seems, has always been a county of contrasts, attracting those seeking the alternative lifestyles made possible by its isolation, at the same time as being a metaphor for ordinariness and conservativism, in both senses – think Essex Man in 1980’s Basildon. And then there’s Doggerland which, thousands of years ago, connected Essex to its sister country of The Netherlands, joining us to the Europe from which we – or at least the people of Essex – have now chosen to separate.
Low Country: Brexit on the Essex Coast is out now and available here, priced £12.oo.