First walk of the year this week, and perfect weather. Three of us ambled slowly from Benfleet-on-Sea to Leigh-on Sea, just five miles, but much to look at and enjoy. Bargain tickets on C2C trains, just £6 return to Leigh from London’s Fenchurch Street Station, with a Freedom Pass and a Senior Railcard. The train journey itself tells the story of London and its expansion to the east in accelerated time. Limehouse, West Ham, Barking, Upminster (all variations and attenuated extensions of the historical East End), until one reaches the marshlands and estuary shoreline of Rainham, the scrubland of Laindon with its motley scatterings of ponies and horses, before the train pulls directly alongside the Thames at Benfleet Creek. From then on it is open skies and vast expanses of bright water.
I’ve done this train journey on and off for nearly seventy years – since a steam train used to take my mother, brother and myself from Benfleet to Barking to visit relations in East Ham in the early 1950s. While the London end of the trip is now a place of constant change and upheaval, the approach to Benfleet Creek and the view across to Canvey Island and the North Kent coast has hardly altered. Even the railway station seems much the same. As the writer William Gibson once wrote, the future has arrived but has been unevenly distributed. The further you travel to the Essex coastal creeks and marshlands, the further you travel back in time. A lot of the broken carcasses of old houseboats, cutters and sailing barges beached on the mud at Benfleet date back to pre-war times, if not long before.
Benfleet is not only the start of the downland approaches to Leigh and Southend, but also provides a bridge to Canvey Island. From here on it is ‘neither land nor sea’. At high tide water flows in, around, behind, and sometimes all over the shoreline and its myriad tributaries and creeks. Islands, outcrops of saltmarsh, grazing land, all appear and disappear in the space of a couple of hours. Hence the swirling clouds of waders in the sky, as their feeding grounds disappear beneath the waves, and they are forced to move further inland. This particular walk was memorable for so many of these fast-drifting swarms of dunlin, curlew and Brent Geese, the former shoaling in the air, wave after wave. The mud shines iridescent before it succumbs to the incoming tide. There is a lot of bird piping, particularly from redshanks, oystercatchers and curlew.
Rather more eerily, looking out to the Thames beyond Canvey Island, backlit by the sun and therefore in hazy outline, a strange shape was seen moving slowly downriver, against the tide. It looked like the whole of Basildon or Thamesmead was being towed out to sea. In fact it was one of the vast container ships heading into the Channel from the container port, DP World: London Gateway, at Thurrock, now creating a monumental shadow theatre. Turning inland, in complete contrast, there are the dramatic ruins of the 13th century Hadleigh Castle, painted by Constable shortly after his wife died, a darkening psychological study in abandonment. On this walk however it was more a case of ‘the splendour falls on castle walls’, as a bright sun lit up the remaining and imposing corner tower.
We sat for a while overlooking the western tip of Two Tree Island where the salt-water lagoons have become a thriving breeding ground for avocets, though this year’s cohort have yet to arrive. Instead, large numbers of curlew were re-grouping there. Finally arriving at Leigh-on-Sea, on what had become a warm Spring half-term holiday, the fishing village was en fête: packed to the gills. All the pubs had spilled out onto the cobbled High Street, and the seafood stalls had long queues. It was difficult to remember that it was still February. It always surprises me how too few Londoners know of Leigh-on-Sea, given that it is a proper working fishing harbour, with a picturesque collection of pubs and cafes, less than an hour from London by train. On the journey back to Fenchurch Street I suddenly remembered that some years ago I wrote up this walk for the Royal Geographical Society’s project on ‘Discovering Britain’: one of a number of ‘modest’ walks they had commissioned, and it can still be found online here.
Benfleet, Essex, March 2013 © Jason Orton
Books and talks
Although both editions of The New English Landscape are now out of print, there are still a few copies of 350 Miles: An Essex Journey available, though not for much longer. You can buy them here. Meanwhile the Radical Essex book is currently re-printing and the Essex Book Festival starts next week.