Turning my Back on the Thames
Walking away from the ExCel exhibition complex at the Royal Victoria and Albert Docks, I experienced a step-change in my surroundings. Road walking was frightening, and deep rubbish was strewn alongside the roadside, verges and paths. The areas of Barking and Dagenham appeared run-down, with most of the former Ford factory in a derelict state. The huge landfill site at Coldharbour was equally depressing. The terminals and wharves from Purfleet led me into more of the same, with the cranes of Tilbury Docks looming in the distance.
At Tilbury I looked across to the Gravesend ferry: had I taken it I’d have saved my legs 85.5 miles, but even now I wouldn’t change that costly decision. I picked up the Thames Estuary Path in Tilbury which I followed over the next couple of days. A low tide meant that the London International Cruise Terminal was empty on the day I walked past. Close to the sea wall beside the defunct Tilbury Power Station, new office blocks have sprung up yet at the same place I found gypsies’ horses stretched out in the sun. Then followed two beautifully maintained (English Heritage) forts, Tilbury and Coalhouse: the latter had seen Wrens work there during WW2.
Glancing across the Thames I could identify all the places I’d tramped through on the Isle of Grain – quite a satisfying feeling. I soon found that the Thames Estuary Path was going to take me on a game of snakes and ladders in the mud, weaving in and out of various marshes with delightful names such as West Thurrock, Mucking, Fobbing, Vange and Bowers. These detours were to keep the walker inland of the vast London Gateway Port – a land of containers, and refineries. To my right I skirted Canvey island.
The walk-in to Southend-on-Sea seemed almost as long as its World Record length pier. I passed through Leigh-on-Sea where I saw the former HMS Wilton which is now the HQ for Essex Yacht Club. It was a glorious evening with stunning views across the Thames to the Isles of Grain and Sheppey. I pushed on hard to get to the pier before last admission time, but alas I was 5 mins late. I had to return next morning, by which time the weather had undergone a major change – unfortunately for the worse.
For those interested, the Pier is a master of survival. Opened in 1830, it was extended to its world record length in 1929, measuring 1.34 miles. It has suffered 3 fires in 1959, 1976 (repaired in 1983) and a further fire in 1995. In addition, at least 3 merchant vessels have collided with it also causing major damage. Despite all this, it continues to survive and thrive. For those unwilling or unable to walk its length, there’s a smart little diesel train to carry them sedately to the end. I confess I also used the train but, bought a one-way ticket!
Leaving Southend and the Thames estuary behind me, I headed out into rain at Shoeburyness. I found the revitalised old garrison town fascinating. Road walking took me round the military Danger Areas before I plunged back into more muddy marshes. The weather went from bad to worse on the next day – I found myself walking into driving rain, sleet and snow on yet more exposed river banks, sliding about in mud.