Wednesday, 22 July 2015

London Countryway via Tilbury Town: an alternative route


A P&O cargo ship glimpsed through maisonette blocks from Koala Park, Tilbury. Ships of this line have sailed from here for
well over a century.

THE LAST SECTION OF THE LONDON COUNTRYWAY is also one of the most attractive and interesting, particularly the final stretch along the river Thames between two historic forts, culminating on a ride on the Tilbury ferry. But it’s also the least direct. This alternative via Tilbury Town is rather different and more urban in character, but it’s interesting and thought-provoking in its own way. It’s also much more direct, shaving 5.4 km off the total distance. I wouldn’t recommend it above the classic route if you’re walking the Countryway as a whole for the first time, but it provides a variation for a revisit, and a glimpse of a side of London’s hinterland that the Countryway generally avoides. And both options together form a substantial 20 km circular walk, though you’d have to walk one of them in the opposite direction to my description. In this case I’d recommend starting at Tilbury Town station and walking clockwise, tackling the alternative route in reverse, so that you still have the riverside near the end.

To avoid confusion I’ve incorporated the walking directions into an alternative version of the full route description for the section of the Countryway between West Horndon and Tilbury, which you can download below. But if you wanted to walk just this section on its own, the point at which it diverges from the classic route is only a few steps away from a bus stop with regular services from Grays. The commentary below covers only the alternative parts of the route, so if you want to know more about the stretch from West Horndon to Chadwell, see my earlier post.
St Mary's church, Chadwell

Chadwell St Mary


The alternative route diverges from the classic one at the northeastern edge of the mini-conurbation stretching from Purfleet to Tilbury, in the little woodland known as Old House Wood, a precious and popular green oasis hard against the three forbidding tower blocks of Chadwell St Mary’s Godman Estate which, if you’ve been walking from West Horndon or Orsett, will have dominated your view for some time.

They’re a reminder that the area through which we’re now walking is quite different in character from the prosperous rural playgrounds and protected landscapes we’ve traversed for most of the rest of the way, and much more like the deprived stretches of riverside east and southeast London it almost adjoins, though without the advantage of being officially part of the metropolitan area. These riversides have long been more industrial than agricultural, and have suffered the consequences of changing industrial practices and decline. There are no more converted barns with picture windows and Range Rovers parked behind high railings and CCTV, and the closest we’ll get to equestrian centres are the sturdy travellers’ horses put to graze opportunistically on traffic islands.

As mentioned in the commentary on the main route, Thurrock, the unitary authority that rules here, came bottom in the government’s wellbeing index in 2012, giving the area the unwelcome distinction of being the most miserable place in England. The main route of the Countryway tiptoes delicately around most of the evidence of this, while this alternative gives a rather more varied and honest picture, though not without its interest and its flashes of unlikely beauty. As always communities are resilient and there are many people who’d contest the idea that this is a bad place to live. There’s a rich culture and history here, tied to the proximity of the river and the capital, plenty of green among the grey, a sense of the contrast between hill and marsh underneath the urban clothing, and some occasional welcome signs of investment and care.

Chadwell is the name of the ancient parish that covers pretty much the entire alternative route. The ‘St Mary’ affix was added only in the 19th century to distinguish it from Chadwell Heath near Romford and is rarely used locally. There’s a folk etymology that it’s named after a well blessed by St Chad of Mercia, a 7th century bishop who played a key role in converting Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity. A more likely origin is given by the parish’s entry in the 1086 Domesday survey, which records the name as Celdewella, ‘cold well’ or ‘cold spring’.

By that stage the area had been inhabited for at least a few hundred years – in 1996 the remains of a 6th century sunken Saxon hut, one of a type known as a Grubenhaus with a floor surface about a metre below ground, was discovered on the site of the local primary school. Until the late 19th century Chadwell remained, like many of the other ancient Essex villages we’ve encountered, a dispersed settlement without a dense centre. What changed all that was the construction of Tilbury Docks, and in the postwar period the area became even more built up with the social housing estates so obvious today, giving it something of the feel of a New Town.

After crossing one last field, the Countryway reaches an outlying cluster of housing at Orsett Heath. The Greyhound pub nearby is another victim of closure and sale to a developer: from its appearance you can still imagine how it used to look as an isolated inn on the road across the heath between Chadwell and Orsett. During World War II it overlooked an anti-aircraft battery, and the site of this, along with quite a bit of the heath, has been preserved as open space, with the extensive and irregularly shaped Chadwell Recreation Ground now buffering the built-up area from the busy A13 spur road to the docks in the west.

Pyramid resource centre at Chadwell recreation ground
This green swathe is undoubtedly appreciated locally and provides an airy route for our walk, but is otherwise an obviously neglected and underexploited asset: a great plain of mown grass with little diversity in either appearance or ecology, peppered with the remains of broken play equipment – a wooden structure on a curious hillock turns out to be an abandoned zipline – and boarded-up buildings of uncertain purpose. A huge hard-surfaced rectangle in the middle of the grass was presumably once a sports court of some sort, but now I’m reminded either of a landing pad for UFOs or the derelict Nazi parade ground at Nürnberg.

Right by where the route enters the space is a cluster of concrete pavilions in geometric late 1960s style, no doubt the pride of their original architect but now looking badly decayed and abandoned. It turns out one of them has been enterprisingly converted into the Pyramid Resource Centre, a project recycling materials for children’s play and learning activities. Behind the unpromising exterior is a treasure trove of brightly coloured paper, card, plastic tubes, tubs, fabric and cardboard boxes that could keep a Blue Peter presenter happy for years. The nearby fields are also put to good use for grassroots football.

The path passes St Mary's cemetery where there are more than 30 Commonwealth War Graves dating from World War II and the grave of Thurrock man Neil Wright, who died in the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City on 11 September 2001. You then emerge on the edge of the village centre: a short distance to the left here, past the primary school with its buried Anglo-Saxon secrets, is St Mary’s church, a rather stern-looking building with a no-nonsense 15th century tower, though parts of the rest date back to the early 12th century. Just opposite is a library and information centre.

Looking across to the North Downs in Kent from Hutts Hill, Chadwell, with the Gateway Academy (possibly the
site of the eponymous well) in the near distance, right.

Looking south from the church, or from the sliver of panorama ahead of you on the downhill urban footpath the route now follows, you’ll realise that the east-west street we’ve just crossed, River View, really would deserve its name if it wasn’t for the houses in between. Chadwell is sited strategically on a promontory above a wide Thames marsh. Chalk rears up close to the surface here and was once quarried locally. The street runs along the top of the ridge, and when the church tower was built its prominence in the landscape must have inspired awe.

There’s an even better sense of the geography as the path bends along the contour of a lower terrace above a public green space, Hutts Hill, before descending sharply to the marsh. The flat ground below is now largely drained to create green fields, with the docks prominent ahead of you and a view stretching across to Kent and the North Downs. But try to imagine the expanse of treacherous marshes, first created by falling sea levels in late Roman times, that would have confronted the viewer here for over a millennium. And then remember that most of the lower Thames would have looked like this before it was embanked and contained, even up into what’s now central London. The view from Brockwell Park or Peckham Rye must once have been comparable.

The recent building to your right at the bottom of the hill, shaped like a G, is the Gateway Academy, a secondary school opened by an independent trust in 2006. St Chad’s Well, the supposed source of the place name, was recorded somewhere close to this site in the 19th century as tank-like and large enough to walk into, though it had disappeared by the 1980s.

Tilbury Town


As recounted on the main route, the location now thought of as the centre of Tilbury, centred on the docks and Tilbury Town station, was not originally Tilbury at all. Prior to 1903, the parish of Chadwell reached southwards all the way to the river. Tilbury was the neighbouring parish to the east, another scattered settlement between the riverfront and East Tilbury, where Elizabeth addressed the troops with her “heart and stomach of a king” speech. Though the docks were built in Chadwell, they named themselves after nearby riverside landmarks Tilbury fort and ferry, which were actually in Tilbury. And as the docks soon became the most important influence on the area, it’s not surprising that both nomenclature and administrative arrangements adapted around them.

The Thames is deep but sheltered here and has long been used for shipping, though most of the business went to the Kent side, with ships anchoring in the river and unloading cargoes onto lighters from Gravesend. As ships got bigger, outgrowing the London docks and the river moorings, the demand grew for new deep water docks along the Thames. In 1882, in response to competition from the newly built Royal Docks at Beckton, the East and West India Dock Company, which operated docks on the Isle of Dogs and at Limehouse, began digging on the Chadwell marshes upstream of the ferry.

The basic layout of the docks, with a main dock and three side branches, remains today and is clearly evident on maps and aerial photos, though there have been many improvements to create one of Britain’s three major container ports, the largest deep water port on the Thames and the biggest UK port for imports of paper. For much of the 20th century the Port of Tilbury was part of the Port of London Authority but it was privatised in 1992.

Tilbury as we know it today grew up to service the docks, and the ancillary industries that followed them, through several generations of housing from late Victorian terraces to 1970s tower blocks. When these estates were first planned there was plenty of work but, though the generously proportioned infrastructure at Tilbury survived the development of containerisation and mechanisation which put paid to the London docks in the 1970s, its workforce bore the full brunt of the reduced demand for labour that followed. By the mid-1980s the town had a 20% male unemployment rate, and it has never quite recovered. As Economist columnist Bagehot put it in 2014:
The result, in Britain’s prosperous south-east, is a polyp of hard-up, mostly white, grumpy people. During a day wandering Tilbury’s run-down rows of public housing and depressing high street, with its boarded-up premises and betting shops, your columnist heard almost nothing nice said about the place. People who had lived in Tilbury for generations described it as “hopeless”, “a third-world place” and, in the favourite local phrase, “a shithole and beyond”. Tilbury’s Labour Party candidate, Polly Billington, calls it a “northern town in the south”. It is no wonder that the comic Sacha Baron Cohen, currently making a mocking film about the northern town of Grimsby, is shooting it in Tilbury.
Some of these observations might be anecdotal, but the picture they paint of local attitudes is also reflected in more objective work like the Let’s Talk About Tilbury survey commissioned by the council in 2013, where respondents voice concerns about lack of recreational facilities and good shops, poor environments, crime and antisocial behaviour. Billington’s remark is particularly telling. The neglect of housing and the public realm, with decaying buildings punctuated by open spaces of uncertain status blighted by fly tipping, is the most obvious issue on view, although today it’s hard to find so much apparent neglect and dilapidation even in northern cities – I’m reminded more of Glasgow and Manchester when I first knew them in the 1980s. You certainly now rarely see anything quite so run-down even in the poorest parts of London and it’s a surprise to find so much of it just a few stops beyond Upminster. But then inner city London and the big northern cities have benefitted from targeted regeneration resources, while pockets like this in the supposedly prosperous southeast are so easily overlooked.

The only practical way south from Chadwell is along the road, but the pavements are broad, the traffic not too heavy, and at first the green of the former marshes stretches out on both sides. On the left the bulk of the riverside power station rises above the fields. For centuries these marshes separated communities but they would undoubtedly have been built over in the 20th century if not protected by the green belt.

The residential triangle to your left as you enter the built-up area, just after the fork in the road, is worth a look: it’s modest 1930s social housing but geometrically arranged in model fashion around a now-neglected square, on the pattern of a posh 18th century estate, and the streets are named after artists and musicians: Elgar Gardens, Gainsborough Avenue, Millais Place.

Immediately to the south is a recreation ground known locally as Daisy Field, but officially as King George’s Fields, one of over 470 playing fields in the UK established in memory of King George V after his death in 1936. The trust that originally supported the initiative handed over custodianship in 1965 to the National Playing Fields Association, now known as Fields in Trust. Opposite, when I visited in May 2015, was a large and overgrown empty site where St Chads School, one of the “failing” schools superseded by the Gateway Academy, stood until it was bulldozed in 2006, but planning permission has recently been granted to redevelop this.

Koala Park, Tilbury
A cut through the 1960s and 1970s estates on the other side of the road reveals a mixed picture. Against some of the worst dilapidation, there are new piazzas and concierge offices at the foot of tower blocks and, in the midst of it all, a quirky little park, Koala Park, surrounded by squat New Town-era low rises that look more like they belong in Budapest than on the Thames estuary. The park looks like it was once one of those ill-thought-out and badly connected open spaces typical of its period, but has had a recent slightly eccentric, obviously low budget but inventive makeover with springy turf, gabions, landscaped banks, plenty of vegetation including planters rich with wild flowers and some decent-looking play equipment.

The Australian nods in the name of the park and some of the surrounding streets acknowledge the destination of many of the ships from here. It’s a curious space that makes the detour worthwhile, particularly if, like me, you suddenly notice a huge ship’s funnel rearing up above it between house walls, and realise both just how close we are to the docks, and how big ships have become.

Tilbury Docks as seen from Tilbury Town station footbridge.
The docks aren’t easy to visit – it’s hard now to imagine the London docks when they were off-limits like this – but you’ll get a sense of their scale walking down to the riverside, and the best closeup view from the footbridge at Tilbury Town station, opened as Tilbury Dock on the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway in 1885, and renamed in 1934. Its initial orientation to the docks is still apparent, though, in the location of the Victorian main station building on the opposite side from the town.

The station was a location in Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank, a stark depiction of the life of a young working class woman just up the river in South Hornchurch. But while the Mardyke Estate on the London side of the boundary, used as the principal location after it had been emptied and condemned, has since been redeveloped into the upmarket Orchard Village, the estates of Tilbury still stand.

Towards Tilbury Riverside


On the other side of the railway, London walkers may be surprised to be confronted by signing that appears at first glance to be for the Thames Path, albeit with an unfamiliar logo. It’s actually for the Thames Estuary Path, currently a 46.5 km trail from Tilbury to Leigh-on-Sea, sometimes running quite a long way from the riverside, created as part of the European Union’s interregional Maxigreen programme to improve green heritage and underused green spaces, with sister projects in Belgium, France and the Netherlands. But it’s also part of the Thames Gateway development work and an expression of an ambition to extend the Thames Path more fully along the estuary.

When the National Trail was opened in 1996, it stopped at the Thames Barrier not because everyone thought that was the obvious place, as the Thames is considered to end at Gravesend, Southend or Frinton depending on whose definition you use, but because going beyond it was thought impractical. Since then the government agencies involved have been unwilling to extend their responsibility, and of course financial commitment, to any further stretches of national trail, but various others have proposed extensions, and two London boroughs even implemented one of them, opening their own Thames Path Extension to Crayford Marshes in 2001. In 2005 the Thames Estuary Partnership, which brings together various local authorities and others with a development interest along the tidal Thames, published its City to Sea vision of a route on to Shoeburyness on the north bank and the Isle of Grain on the south bank, followed in 2008 by an indicative survey sponsored by the Department for Communities and Local Government. But so far the Tilbury to Leigh section, opened in 2014, is the only one completed, and with the England Coast Path due to run as far inland as the Woolwich foot tunnel, it looks like the estuary will eventually get a Thames Path extension from the other direction.

Hairpin Bridge murals: Frankie goes to Tilbury
Meanwhile we can be grateful for the fact that, though once again a road route is the only practical option, the Thames Estuary Path work has made it a relatively pleasant one to walk along, with a broad pavement and cycle track. On one side is the wall of the port; on the other is a reedy stream and the railway line. The line severs this lane from the town, with no connection until you reach Hairpin Bridge, originally a road bridge first built in the 1860s. Traffic was banned in the 1980s for safety reasons and the 2012 replacement is determinedly for walkers and pedestrians only, but the extensive grassy area around the bridge foot, now partly relandscaped, gives some idea of its former extent. It links to the southern end of Tilbury town centre and while we don’t need to go that way, it’s worth a closer look for the unexpectedly fun murals, intended to reduce graffiti, which depict a motley bunch of popular music heroes alongside quotes from their songs, including Adam Ant, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, Vera Lynn, Madonna, Elvis Presley and Amy Winehouse.

Lorries on Ferry Lane, Tilbury, seen from the Thames Estuary Path
Tilbury Landing Stage, now London International Cruise Terminal
A little further on, the path gets even better as it crosses the road and runs on the other side of the stream, with a verdant strip dividing walkers from passing lorries. At this point the railway curves off towards East Tilbury and Southend, but the old branch to Tilbury Riverside continues for a while, now petering out in the yard of the Fortress Distribution Park, where the shipping containers, in forbidding stacks of tower block proportions, are the closest thing to fortresses in sight.

Approaching from this direction and crossing dock gates you have a fine view of Tilbury Passenger Landing Stage, now the London Cruise Terminal, rearing ahead of you. Designed by Edwin Cooper, it was opened in 1930 to create a convenient London berth for the cruise liners that were then the principal means of long distance travel, and among those passing through were evacuated children, the only German World War II prisoner of war to escape from Britain (Bavarian aviator Gunther Plüschow, who since 2015 has been commemorated by a plaque on the site), ‘£10 poms’ emigrating to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, and the hopeful new arrivals on the Empire Windrush. I’ve talked about its resonances at greater length in the post covering the main route, so I’ll resist repeating myself too much here.

The railway tracks once extended to the smaller building between the ferry landing and the terminal, the old Tilbury Riverside station, opened in 1854 to connect with the ferry and other shipping on the river, many years before the docks were built. It was originally simply known as Tilbury, and was finally closed in 1992. I’ll also resist repeating too much about the ferry, except to say that since I wrote up the main route it’s at last returned to the restored Gravesend Town Pier on the opposite side, a much more attractive way to arrive in Kent.

If, like me, you just miss a ferry, it’s no great hardship on a fine day to sit on the landing stage, contemplate the river and the Gravesend waterfront and try to feel the vast waves of history that have washed through this little stretch of water. I find myself thinking about the passage in the original London Countryway guidebook where author Keith Chesterton avers that while Gravesend turns out to be less interesting than it looks, Tilbury turns out the other way round. I wonder if he’d still think the same way having walked the route that I have. It would be good to think that, with the Thames Gateway and all the other projects on the go, some self-confidence and prosperity might return to the town. But somehow it seems that, while plenty of water washes this way from the capital, wealth is rather less fluid.

Gravesend, from Tilbury ferry terminal

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