(continued from previous)
… crossing from the nature park into the enormous portion of Mucking Marsh being worked by Cory Environmental. Large cranes are operating at a jetty: we go past a jettisoned and wrecked Kia saloon, sitting gatekeeper at the boundary of the site, through the broken fence, and are beneath the cranes, which are unloading large quantities of chalk from a boat and transferring them into large lorries. The surrounding area is a man-made whitescape of chalk heaps and tracks, punctuated by strips of scrubby grass, with the trucks driving up cloudsful of dust into the blue sky. There is no right of way here, but we are on the safe side of a sign instructing ‘hard hats beyond this point’, and heading confidently across the site to the opposite boundary at which, our maps clearly show, there is a footpath along the sea wall leading to Coalhouse Fort.
A man is waving to us from the cabin of one of the cranes. I point him out to Ebb Tide; “I think he wants us to get off the road”.
The man shouts; “You’re not supposed to be here. This is private land.”
I indicate optimistically to where the footpath should start, about twenty yards away.
“It’s dangerous. We’ve got 6,000 ton trucks going through here. Wait there, I’ll be down in five minutes.”
While we’re waiting, I go through an overgrown hole in the fence in an attempt to establish the line of the footpath.
“Don’t go in there!” from the crane.
The man comes over in a Landrover, with a colleague. He gets out. He is wearing a jacket with a Cory Environmental logo. His tone is friendly but firm. I show him the map and point out the right of way and he looks and listens politely before asserting, with a smile,
“Your map’s wrong”. Hmmm.
“we’ve had others do the same.” Hmmm, again.
We are ushered into the back of the Landrover. “We’re heading for Coalhouse Fort”, I say hopefully (it’s very hot). “I’ll take you to the site boundary, I’m afraid we’re not a taxi service.” We drive a couple of kilometers over the bumpy chalk road. The two guys are friendly, and interested in our walk, they explain what’s going on at the landfill, that part of the site has been handed over to Essex Wildlife, the rest, a huge area, no longer receiving rubbish, is being capped, how the waste is compressed and continuously rolled once it’s been dumped to prevent pockets of gas forming. At the gate of the site, there is a weighbridge and a truck passing through a machine that washes the chalk off its wheels. We are dropped off near the site entrance (which we had walked past an hour or so previously) and it is here that the danger really begins, for our enforced alternative route, the road to Linford, is narrow, with minimal, raised verges that are ominously scarred with the tyre tracks of heavy lorries; it has blind bends, it is busy with fast-moving traffic, including heavy trucks, it is nearly a mile long, and there is more fear to be had here than in all the dust clouds of the landfill.
There is clearly a right of way issue here, and had we been younger and stroppier, we might have stood by our rights and ploughed on regardless to the sea wall, but we know from recent experience that uncharted sea wall can have its difficulties, and it would be undignified to have to turn around and walk back through the site. One of our escorts said there had been no right of way since the landfill was started over 100 years ago. I would have thought, were that the case, that an alternative would have to be established, as happens for example, when the sea wall is breached and footpaths are realigned accordingly. I need to look into this, but in the meantime, if anyone has knowledge in this area, I’d be delighted to hear. When we get to East Tilbury village, there is a footpath sign clearly pointing along the sea wall in the direction from which we have come, with a warning to ‘beware heavy plant crossing’, and a local man who stops to talk to us thinks that it is possible to walk all the way to Stanford-le-Hope, although he’s vague about the route, but he knows that a neighbour of his does so regularly ‘across the fields’.
(The footpath in question appears on my map, OS Landranger 177, at 801696, running south from the jetty to Coalhouse Fort. The difficult stretch of road is unnumbered, but runs from Bluehouse Farm to Linford).
We arrive safely at Linford and pavements, having been cheered along the way by the sign advertising ‘The Walton Hall Museum of Memorabilia and Village Bakery’. I am also cheered by the sign for Muckingford Road. Interestingly, there are no entries for either Linford or Muckingford in Wikipedia, and a google search reveals nothing but house prices, but having just read the first chapter of Jules Pretty’s This Luminous Coast (in which he covers pretty much the same ground as we are today, but walking in the opposite direction), I learn that Linford used to be called Muckingford, and that nineteenth century entrepreneurs, unfortunately, changed the name in an attempt to upgrade the area for development, rather like present day estate agents.
“Bauhaus” says Master F., and Ebb Tide points out the 1930s design and the transition from concrete to steel framed buildings. We are passing through East Tilbury and contemplating the delights of the Bata shoe factory complex. I had thought it opened in 1953, and am in the process of being corrected by the other two, (it opened in 1932 and finally closed down in 2005). Bata shoe shops were once as ubiquitous as Woolworths in the high streets of the land, and millions of pairs a year came out of this factory. Some of the buildings are in a state of dereliction, with broken windows and fading, peeling paint, whilst those that have been restored look great. Enthusiasts have called the factory and its surrounding village (‘Bataville’) the finest example of modernist architecture in the country. The tradition of paternalistic employers building ‘model towns’ for their workers (Bourneville, Saltaire, Austin, Port Sunlight etc) stands in stark contrast to the contemporary approach to housing policy, which seems to consist of leaving tracts of land and derelict buildings to await the oofle dust of the free market, in the hope of conjuring dwellings into being without the inconvenient and unnecessary complication of housing need entering the picture.
Pity the unfortunate entrepreneurs who designed Coalhouse Fort (well, maybe not, one of them was General Gordon), for it was, according to the information board in the car park, obsolete almost as soon as it was completed. It is a now pretty park on the banks of the Thames, with empty gun emplacements, plenty of families picnicking, and small children skipping happily amongst the pillboxes. Master F. and I sit down for a cheese sandwich whilst Ebb Tide, still rankling over our enforced diversion, goes off to investigate another footpath sign pointing towards Mucking.
From Coalhouse Fort to Tilbury Fort, along the glass beach and the sea wall beneath the power station. The quote from the Elizabeth I Tilbury speech (“Body of a woman…” etc), is reproduced in neat, painted handwriting on the wall, making an interesting contrast with the more characteristic examples of the graffiti genre. “Fuck Off NUM” marks a contribution from a more recent period of Tilbury’s history. The day has been getting steadily hotter, 29 degrees has been forecast, and walking along the ledge below the concrete wall, which is radiating heat and sheltered from the breeze, I find myself thinking longingly of the World’s End pub not far ahead. Before then, on the sea wall outside the fort, there are a couple of fishermen and, as I approach, one of them seems to have a catch; his line is taught, and he is reeling in fast. I catch a glint of something shiny coming to the surface and whip out my camera for an action shot of a sea bass being landed, but it is seaweed. “No paparazzi!” the fisherman calls to me. I promise that pictures of his catch will be all over the internet the following day. They are indeed fishing for sea bass, but the crabs keep eating the bait and they haven’t caught a thing all day.
Looking towards Tilbury from the sea wall outside the ‘World’s End’, I have a surge of nostalgic disappointment on seeing that Tilbury Riverside station has gone pretty much completely (one of the disadvantages of not doing research before you walk; it was pulled down seven years ago.). It used to be a magnificent spectacle of disuse; the size of a small London terminus, say, Charing Cross, built to serve the fashionable cruise liners leaving Tilbury pier in the 19th and early 20th centuries. By the late 1980s most of the platforms were overgrown and the booking hall was an empty mausoleum displaying information posters in Russian for the benefit of the sailors operating the few ships that used the pier at that time. It was still possible to catch the occasional train there and get the ferry for a night out in Gravesend, although it was never much of a night out because the last train back left too early.
The old station has been sheared off completely from the port building, the platforms have gone and been replaced by a freight railhead full of containers. A new road sweeps round, and whereas the World’s End at one time was only accessible by an unmade track, it is now an adjunct to the container yard. Tilbury docks seem much busier and more prosperous than I remember them; there are lorries coming and going, and large ships berthed. There’s not a lot of romance to a container dock though. I read somewhere recently that whereas a sailor could expect three days of carousing shore leave when a ship docked, nowadays it was more like three hours sitting in a car park while the containers were taken on and off.
If the docks look busy, and if they are prosperous, this does not seem to have passed on to Tilbury Town itself. If you wanted to experience another facet of ‘wild Essex’ you could do worse than start at Dock Road, Tilbury, one of the most economically blasted and desolate high streets I have seen. I may be taken to task for this by friends who live in Thurrock; and I’m reluctant to be dismissive of a town with such a rich history and of which I have happy memories, and would welcome alternative points of view, but when even the payday loan shops are closing down, it seems to me that a place might have problems. On the other hand, it may be that Tilbury is further ahead than say, Linford or Fobbing in belt-tightening austerity, and is a beacon of progress in terms of current economic policy. Perhaps the ‘model town’ is being reinvented.