Caught by the River


Tim Burrows | 8th June 2021

Published by Dunlin Press, Lucia Dove’s ‘VLOED’ explores the shared cultural memory and landscape between Essex and the Netherlands in relation to the North Sea Flood of 1953. Tim Burrows reviews.

Can you call it forgetting if you never actually knew it in the first place? There is a striking moment in Vloed, Lucia Dove’s intriguingly fragmented prose-archipelago of a book, when she admits that, despite growing up in south Essex, she did not learn about the floods of 1953 until she was an adult. The North Sea flood killed 307 in England, 120 of them in Essex. Her move in recent years to the Netherlands, where more than a thousand people perished, alerted her to this disparity. The memory of the flood left more of a scar in her adopted home, whereas in her native Essex it feels like something that is only remembered on a need-to-know basis. 

In Vloed, a Dutch word that means rising tide, Dove sifts through the memories of her newly entwined coastal landscapes, performing a fragile marriage of landmasses once connected by the now submerged area of Doggerland. She grew up in Southend-on-Sea, ‘a gaudy seaside town with its crooked houses, cacophony of seagull cries piercing the drone of cars, jackpot prizes and “We’ve Got A Winner!” arcade jingles carrying in the wind.’ 

I grew up there too, and also did not learn about the North Sea flood at school. People used to joke that it should be renamed Southend-on-Mud, such was the length of time when the absent tide would reveal miles of grey-brown flats. Deep down, Southenders are proud of the mud, and for good reason. ‘Two thousand years of history can be told through Essex tidal mud,’ writes Dove, referencing the epic non-fiction account of the 1953 flood, The Great Tide by Hilda Grieve, who worked for the Essex Record Office. Published in 1959, The Great Tide is such an intricately detailed and masterfully told account of the days surrounding the disaster, it has a good shout (admittedly facing scant competition) to be regarded as the Great Essex Novel, despite its factual basis. Dove engages with the book to help reveal Essex’s hidden histories and unexplored depths. Periods of advancement and retreat by the sea are marked by layers of silt and peat. Fire hearths almost 2,000 years old have been uncovered from Canvey Island’s marshland.  The Essex hamlet of Milton was lost to the sea in 1327. ‘A small settlement on the foreshore,’ writes Dove, ‘without a church, without God.’

A hallmark of Essex art and literature, from Grieve’s masterpiece of documentation to J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine or Constable’s cloud studies, is the act of recording. Unlike London, where the rapid pace of change is only too visible, Essex’s shifts and transitions are often less perceptible but no less total to the people affected by them. Dove is indefatigable in evidencing the estuary’s evolutional attributes, quoting at one point from the Journal of the Institute of Navigation, which states that ‘the whole of the sands in the Thames Estuary may be considered unconsolidated and that they are continually moving’. And, like Grieve, she finds a poetics of Essex in the words of its people, such as from her correspondence with residents of Foulness, another island inundated by the North Sea flood:

‘There comes a time
when we move to the far-end
of somewhere. We either edge
away or closer to low lying land.’ 

Dove’s move across the sea becomes a homecoming as she searches for connections between the two places. The land reclamation technology that made swathes of south Essex habitable and arable originated, she finds out, in the Wadden Sea area and other parts of the Netherlands. The rise of the sublime in art led to a Wadden Sea tourism boom and the same can be said for Essex. In the past decade, the Thames Estuary has been home to pilgrimages of the curious from London and around the UK, absorbing sites such as degraded barges rusting away in dispassionate marsh vistas. Art organisations have moved in to cater for these tastes while promoting areas that have often experienced long-term economic or cultural decline, the latest being the Estuary festival that is currently being held in sites around south Essex and north Kent. 

But don’t get too comfortable. On an estuary buffeted by storms and bothered by bigger and bigger container ships, permanence can feel phony. Dove criticises the heritage plague of our times in a section about HMS Beagle, Darwin’s research vessel which spent its latter years holed up in the Essex backwaters in Paglesham to aid the capture of smugglers. Dove interrogates the plans for a prospective monument for the ship. Why not leave its memory to rot into the ooze in the great tradition of wrecks? Why do we have to constantly ‘celebrate’ monoliths that commemorate the past?

Dove quotes an old saying: ‘God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.’ The Dutch helped create some of Essex too, the country’s drainage technology making islands such as Canvey habitable, leading to a boom in the population: In 1866, Canvey was home to just 111 inhabitants; today it’s pushing 40,000. ‘As the money poured in so the water drained out,’ writes Dove. This development led ‘to a permeable relationship with East London’, one that led to the city haemorrhaging wantaway residents to the streak of housing built on south Essex ‘land’ that was seen as only fit for sheep two centuries ago. 

Received wisdom on Essex stems from the surprising 20th-century fate of its long disabused and once malarial marshes. The paranoiacally high sea wall built, part of a huge sea defence project after the deathly 1953 flood, has meant there has been no repeat of the disaster on the island since. As a result it has become a checkerboard of different housing styles. Sturdy gaffs with faux doric columns, Beverly Hills-style bonanzas replete with swimming pools, stolidly underwhelming bungalows, the odd 17th century Dutch survival. Dove meets Canvey’s most famous export Dr Feelgood’s former manager, Chris Fenwick, ‘the son of a housebuilder, he can tell you just by looking at a house the company that designed and built it.’ That this area has fostered some of the highest levels of property ownership in the UK despite the rising tides is one of countless ironies of this coastal landscape, and one of many threads pulled at by this enchanting book.


VLOED is out now and available here (£9.99).