The mouth of the Thames, in the south eastern corner of the UK, is one of the country’s largest inlets and a major shipping route in and out of London.
‘Essex Chronicles’ is my personal exploration of life along the northern - Essex - side of that estuary. I’m focusing on our interaction with the everyday places that occupy the land alongside it, rather than life on the water itself.
The coast is home to a diverse mix of industry, human habitation and leisure, all co-existing with the natural environment and varied wildlife. Different communities, with different relationships to the estuary, live, work and play here. Edgelands, marshes and mudflats rub shoulders with amusement arcades, power stations and wartime relics.
To some this is the land of ‘Estuary English’ accents and lazy stereotypes but it has always been a source of inspiration to artists and writers.
I’ve lived in Southend, on the estuary, all my life. When I was a child I took the seaside for granted but now I’m older I can appreciate how the coastline contributes to the identity of the entire area.
The images here cover the whole length of the coastline, from Foulness Island in the east and as far west as the area around the QEII Bridge and Purfleet.
1 Southend pier.
2 The Arches, Westcliff-on-Sea.
3 RNLI volunteer Amy, at the inshore lifeboat station in Southend. With a station at either end of the pier, Southend was the busiest coastal station in 2016, with 148 launches, 100 persons rescued, and 7 lives saved. The service is run entirely by volunteers - approximately 100 people, including 35 crew members.
6 First World War memorial overlooking the estuary, Westcliff-on-Sea. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and unveiled in 1921.
7 The Beach Hut, Westcliff-on-Sea.
8 Leigh Regatta.
9 Gunners Park, Shoeburyness.
10 ’Youth and Wheeled Sports Facility’ (ie. skateboard park), Leigh Marshes Youth Area, Leigh-on-Sea.
11 The QEII Bridge over the River Thames, connecting Thurrock, Essex and Dartford, Kent.
12 Procter & Gamble factory, Thurrock.
13 Holiday chalets, with petrochemical storage tanks in background, Holehaven Creek, Canvey Island.
14 Hadleigh Park, overlooking the estuary at Hadleigh. The tracks were built for the 2012 London Olympics mountain biking events, and were opened to the public in 2015 as part of the Olympic legacy.
15 Fantasia, Southend-on-Sea.
16 The Beach Club, Southchurch.
17 August Bank Holiday, Leigh-on-Sea.
18 Mini golf, Southend-on-Sea.
19 ‘Green Scream’, Adventure Island, Southend-on-Sea. This rollercoaster has the ‘distinction’ of holding a Guinness world record for the most naked people on a theme park ride - 102, in August 2010.
21 Mudlarker find on the banks of the Thames, near Tilbury.
22 Queen Victoria statue, overlooking the estuary in Clifftown Parade, Southend-on-Sea. It was presented to Southend to mark her diamond jubilee in 1897, and has stood in the current location since 1962.
23 Tour guides Brian and Toni on the Broomway, off Foulness Island.
Foulness is an island of scrub and marshland, a haven for wildlife, that has been owned by the Ministry of Defence for over 100 years. They use it as a testing centre for military ordnance - it is believed that over the years everything from depleted uranium, atomic and chemical weapons, guided missile systems, bombs and even plane ejector seats have been tested here.
The area is protected by the Official Secrets Act, and large signs along the coast warn of various dangers and restrictions. The only land entrance (by road bridge) is protected by manned security gates.
Surprisingly though, a dwindling civilian population still live on the island - 125 remain as of May 2016, renting their homes and farms from the MoD. At one point the population was as high as 750.
Aside from seven open days per year (and occasional charity cycle rides), the public can only visit the island itself with an invitation from a resident, and even then movement is severely restricted.
The Broomway, first recorded in 1419, is an ancient right of way that follows the coastline of Foulness, 300 metres out on the mudflats, for almost 10 km. It’s very dangerous due to the fast flowing tides, lack of pathway definition, and the aforementioned firing exercises, so a guide is recommended. If a red flag is flying, then firing is taking place. On the day I visited, we found scores of explosive shells laying on the Maplin Sands, fired the day before.
The Broomway itself used to be marked every 30 metres with bundles of brooms tied to poles (hence its name), but it is no longer so marked or maintained, and there is no track. For much of its length it is nothing more than the public’s right to pass and repass over it.
The only access to the Broomway is via Wakering Stairs, which although not on the island itself, is also on MoD land and has limited access most of the time.
The MoD don’t really want walkers here, and on the day I visited, we were aware of being observed from the watchtowers that dot the coastline.
24 Canvey Island.
25 Thorpe Bay.
26 Fishmonger at Fisherman’s Co-operative, Victoria Wharf, Leigh-on-Sea.
27 Nightclub area, Southend-on-Sea.
28 Swimmers at a triathlon event, Thorpe Bay.
29 and 30 Southend-on-Sea.
31 Foulness Island.
32 Sea angler, Southend pier.
33 Asphalt plant, Purfleet.
35 Sea Life Adventure, Southend-on-Sea.
36 Leigh Regatta.
37 Southend pier.
38 Yellow warning diamond at the point where East Beach meets MoD property, Shoeburyness.
40 A public Menorah, marking the Jewish Hanukkah festival, at the top of the cliffs in Westcliff-on-Sea. Southend’s Jewish community began in the late 19th century with migration from the East End of London.
41 An idol of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh, left on the beach at Thorpe Bay during the annual Ganesh Visarjan festival. Around 20,000 people attend the celebrations in Southend each year, and the idols are left to be taken by the sea.
42 Flood defence, Grays.
44 Tilbury Power Station, a now decommissioned fossil fuel plant. These towers were built in 1969 and were demolished in September 2017. At 170m they were the tallest standing structures in Essex but took less than 10 seconds to destroy.
46 Thurrock Thameside Nature Park, with the huge new deep-water DP World London Gateway Port in the background.
47 Benfleet Creek.
48 Across the estuary to the Isle of Grain, Kent.
49 Three members of the Gilson family - Paul, Bill and Glyn - at their fishmongers in Southend-on-Sea. This family of fishermen have been working the Thames estuary for around 200 years and are well-known locally. The shop has been there for over 40 years and I can remember others around town in the past. Paul’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all fisherman but Paul believes he will be the last - when he retires the business will likely close. Dredging in preparation for the London Gateway project has depleted the fish and shellfish stocks in the estuary.
50 Southend pier.