Canvey Island, East Anglia, Essex, Hoo Peninsula, Jules Pretty, Julian Hoffman, Ken Worpole, Kent, landscape, Leigh-on-Sea, Literature, London Gateway, marshes, Nature writing, place, Rachel Lichtenstein, Robert Macfarlane, Thames, Thames Estuary, walking, water
Arriving at Leigh on Sea on the Essex fringes of the Thames Estuary, the light dazzled. The tide was out and I was appropriately on my way to the literary Shorelines Festival, curated by author, and resident, Rachel Lichtenstein. This was the second outing, the first, which I had greatly enjoyed, being in 2011 in Chalkwell, just a bit downriver. It seemed an appropriate way to follow on from my Sebald walk in the East End, following him downriver.
Unfortunately I had missed a lot but did catch the estuary talks on the Sunday which did however include most of my favourite writers. Jules Pretty recreated This Luminous Coast, his walk east along the East Anglian coast from the QEII bridge at Purfleet, past two miles of graffiti covered river wall at Grays, a mecca for taggers and with a memorial to Ozone; more graffiti at Canvey Island “Canvey is England’s Lourdes“; taking in a Victorian rubbish tip where bodies where dumped when moved out from London burial grounds; the Munden Oaks of the Dengie peninsula, dead trees kept as a memorial; land art made of whelks at Shingle Street in Suffolk and the solitary cliff top tree remaining at Covehithe. A scene of constant change where the wild and the industrial exist side by side.
Ken Worpole was launching his new book The New English Landscape, with photographs by Jason Orton. Using Essex as a test case for a new aesthetic of landscape focused on the working landscape, he dismissed popular landscape photography as being stuck in the 19th century with traditional views of pristine wilderness. Englishness used to mean Shakespearean Stratford, moving on to Edward Thomas’s South Country more recently migrating to Eastern England with the post war influx of artists and writers, such as W G Sebald. Brought up on Canvey Island he talked about the Dutch influence on street names and carnival costume. Dutch costume was common in Foulness until the 1st World War apparently, with the legacy of Dutch influence on the Eastern coast of England. Englishness with a continental flavour obviously.
Julian Hoffman gave a mesmerising presentation on the Hoo peninsula on the Kent side of the estuary. Comparatively little known (although Dickens portrayed it in Great Expectations and my partner used to go for day trips as a child, with his parents, from Dartford to All Hallows, site of a putative resort) and recently under threat from airport expansion plans, this marshy haven for wildlife was conjured up through words and sounds.
The Broomway, also known as the Doomway, or just the Way, an offshore path near the Essex coast, was the focus of Robert MacFarlane’s talk. A chapter in his book The Old Ways, his account of this mysterious path in “an alien world, no longer Essex”, has apparently taken on a life of its own, achieving fame worldwide, combining with photographs by David Quentin, some of MacFarlane as a Gandalf figure with staff in an expanse of mud, and has also resulted in the commissioning of a piece of music, Silt, from The Pale Horse. We were effectively transported to this other world as a conclusion to his presentation.
Finally Rachel Lichtenstein gave a taste of her new project on the working life of the Thames Estuary. Based on an article in Aeon magazine this was a plea for safeguarding the ecology of the estuary in the face of more development, this time the new London Gateway super port.
So a fair amount of doom and gloom but through a new appreciation of the beauty, history and ecology of hitherto disregarded places, perhaps hope for a different future.
And so I walked off into the sunset with for me not a new regard for my own places, but an even further enhanced one.