BOTTLES, BENCHES AND BONES
It occurred to me while reading The Luminous Coast that my ramblings about / over the East coast of England are in danger of becoming parochial. I have written at length (see here, here, here, here, ad infinitum) about a stretch of coast measuring about 25 miles from north to south (that between Dunwich and Felixstowe), but as much as my Suffolk pride may not stand the fact that there is more to the coast than Shingle Street and Orford, it is nevertheless true. There is Norfolk, and North Suffolk and the Shotley Peninsula, and Essex.
So on Friday, I took the day off work and decided to walk along the coast at Tilbury – a little out of my comfort zone since it is neither (a) mid Suffolk nor (b) the inner-London Thames. I began my walk at East Tilbury, or rather the northern section of East Tilbury which is served by the Fenchurch St to Southend railway.
East Tilbury used to be a small village, dotted with weather-boarded cottages and a traditional village pub, perched on the river where Coalhouse Fort stands. But in 1933, it grew northwards when the Bata shoe empire arrived from Czechoslovakia and chose the South Essex as its British base.
Tomas Bata had started the company in Zlin in 1894. Inspired by the Victorian industrialists, his business plan was to set up factory communities overseas (Vikram Seth lived in a Bata community in India and described it in A suitable boy). In effect, these were garden cities, but they differed from Letchworth and Bourneville in one important respect: Bata was a devout advocate of Modernism.
When he died in an airplane crash in 1932, his half-brother Jan-Antonin took up the reins and built one of these garden cities in East Tilbury. At the centre of the new settlement, a functionalist factory, hotel and administrative building were erected, along with flat-roofed houses for the workers, plotted along a grid pattern which adhered strictly to Ebenezer Howard’s formula.
The Bataville in East Tilbury appears, from reports we read, to have been a uniquely corporate benign dictatorship. Loyalty to the company was paramount, and the Bata empire’s techniques were positively Fordist. But John Tusa, whose father was the general manager of the East Tilbury factory, describes it rather wistfully, even if much of its mystique was a bit eerie:
Looked at from today’s harsh, market-driven methods, the Bata enterprise was incredibly paternalistic. Nobody acts like that nowadays, building model estates, looking after workers for a lifetime of service. The Bata estate contained a Bata school, Bata technical college, Bata hotel and restaurant, Bata cinema, Bata swimming pool, tennis court, Bata farm, butcher, grocer, Bata shoe shop, doctor and a Bata garage [...] Everybody regarded both the objective setting, the performance measurement, the league tables and the bonuses as part of the Bata system. It was tough; it was paternalistic. And it certainly assumed that a good deal of private life was enmeshed into company life.
Across the world, at one time or another, Bata produced shoes for Nazi soldiers, Soviet bloc citizens and Western consumers. Today, its obsessive approach to targets as ends in themselves seems rather modern; Bataville in East Tilbury, meanwhile, feels rather tired. The cinema is now a Co-op; the Bauhaus houses are mostly pebble-dashed and stand apologetically next to their more traditionally English neighbours; the factory is completely deserted (though much of the land still belongs to Bata).
I walk down through old East Tilbury (past cottages with cheesily evocative names like Shangri-la, Mariner’s Cottage and Alpha, and one which has been christened “Council House”) to Coalhouse Fort, built in the 1860s as a defence against the French. It was never used for this purpose, of course, but in the Second World War it contained equipment which tested whether the magnetic field of British steel hulled ships were effectively neutralised to deter attacks from magnetic mines. In the 60s, it was leased to Bata for storage.
I sat by the moat among families of picnickers and ate my sandwiches, then walked towards the old radar tower by the river, which is still marked on maps as a water tower, a hangover from the extreme secrecy that surrounded radar during the war. As I approached the water, I saw something extraordinary: a bench, commemorating the life of Harry, “a very special boy – 28.02.1997 – 29.08.2003”. There is nothing to explain who Harry was, where he came from, or what his connection was to this barren stretch of shoreline. Teddies and stones and pot-plants surround this shrine, and a framed card to “a little angel.” It is incredibly poignant, not least because it appears to be tended by complete strangers, people like me who pass this spot and add something. “It is an ancient desire,” writes Jules Pretty, “this wish to leave something of ourselves on the land to mark someone’s passing. But something has changed. Once the berth in the graveyard was booked. Now there is no such certainty. This disconnection from future place is something of a novelty.”
I turn westwards towards the huge power station at Tilbury. I think this is the closest I have been to the Thames without being on a boat. I can almost feel the water lapping at my feet, and when I reach the site of the old rubbish tip, I can hear pieces of old pottery tinkle under the tide. In the nineteenth century, when the old cemeteries of the City were excavated, human remains were dumped here, and it is not unusual to find a hip joint or a fibula on the beach. (Rather wonderfully, this Flickr user found the remains of an old Nestle advert – full version here – but I could only see some nice old bits of plate and what looked like Jagermeister bottles.)
Seasoned walkers of coastal paths, especially those with an industrial past or present, get nervous when they are among scenery which is stirring or cute, because it usually signifies that menace is just around the corner. The path from the ceramic beach-cum-boneyard became vague the nearer I got the power station, and I soon found myself hemmed in between a high concrete seawall and an evil-looking structure like two cranes balanced on a ship’s hull.
The wall zigzagged, so that I had the bewildered sensation of not quite knowing which direction I was walking in, and that somebody was lurking behind every corner, ready to attack. But while my pace increased, I couldn’t help but stop every few minutes to look at the graffiti. Most of it looked at least twenty years old, and had been painted on rather than sprayed. Its themes seemed to be Mods (pro), the Miners Strike (anti), the Tories (also anti) and this logo (a Pink Floyd reference?):
Exhausted by the Thames at Tilbury, I turned inland, walking along the busy Fort Road, ducking into hedges to avoid lorries bound for Tilbury Docks. Eventually, having found a side-road, I walked up the quiet side-road to West Tilbury and across the fields back to East Tilbury station. With your back to the twin chimneys of Tilbury power station, the scene is almost bucolic (though not quite – for all the chirruping birds and country pubs, one cannot avoid noticing the groups of migrant workers picking potatoes and sugar-beet from the fields). But what does the future hold for this community, whose roots lie so far back in English history?
Thurrock is a key part of the Thames Gateway plan. East Thurrock (the area around Shell Haven) has been bought by Dubai Ports and will become one of the UK’s major container ports. Meanwhile, the Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation aims to build 18,500 homes in the borough, and it is believed that 26,000 jobs will be created. In a part of the world this seeped in history and so removed in the public imagination from London, it is easy to slip into melancholy and fear that the essence of the area will be swept away by mass construction. But, as with so many settlements next to a river or sea, Tilbury seems not to have an essence as such, and certainly no eternal kernel. How its inhabitants will adapt to the development (and vice versa) is anybody’s guess, but it is certain that in ten years time it will look very different. And yet, just as water continually flows from the source out to sea but the Thames remains the Thames, so Tilbury will remain Tilbury. It will still wave across the river to Gravesend. It will still, I suspect, be a strange place, its beaches scattered with bottles and benches and bones, and no amount of new housing or container shipments will alter that.