diamond geezer

 Thursday, May 08, 2008

Two Forts Way: According to Thurrock Council there's a three mile pedestrian and cycle route along the banks of the Thames to the east of Tilbury, called the Two Forts Way. It looks almost convincing on an Ordnance Survey map, hugging the edge of the estuary and wiggling round the edge of a giant power station. So I thought I'd give it a try, on my way from Tilbury Fort to another defensive position further downriver. I'm glad I knew this thoroughfare existed before I got there because the signage was almost non-existent, and I'm particularly glad I didn't bring a bike.

Tilbury 'B', from the east across East Tilbury marshesSetting out from Tilbury Fort, all well and good. And then a small crossed-out sticker on a metal staircase hinted that this was where National Cycle Route 13 faded away. Erm, OK, up and over, to the high tide side of the river wall, and along the rather chancy path hugging the concrete edge. To my left towered the twin belching chimneys of Tilbury 'B', and to my right loomed a Mauritanean tanker. At one point, below the power station pier, the Thames was lapping over the footpath and I had to detour inland through a forgotten wildlife garden and over an enclosed rusty footbridge. Great stuff, if a little unexpected. Eventually these industrial ramparts dissolved away, and I found myself walking across deserted marshes covered by golden rape. Just me and the river and the occasional silent angler. Tiny newts scuttled across the path and I was repeatedly dive-bombed by butterflies. Even greater stuff. It was a real shame when, after a mile of 'proper' irregular footpath, the bland tarmac cycle route suddenly returned. Giggling kids and families with pushchairs signalled car park ahead, and the magic of the secret trail ebbed away. I hope they never link the two ends together with anything too accessible.

Coalhouse FortCoalhouse Fort: When warships grew stronger and Tilbury Fort grew obsolete, the Victorians installed three replacements on the penultimate bend of the River Thames. The best preserved of these is Coalhouse Fort, an armoured casemate battery with curved granite walls set behind protective earthworks. Bloody enormous guns were lined up around the perimeter to take aim at any French (and later German) battleships that dared to approach. None ever did. The fort is now in the care of a devoted band of volunteers who are slowly restoring its crumbling fabric, and who open up the gates to visitors on the last Sunday of the month and on bank holidays. So I popped in here too. The £3 for admission was a bargain, and they chucked in a free hour-plus guided tour as a bonus. I was impressed by our guide who managed to keep talking throughout, in spite of the echoing moans of a couple of uninterested toddlers being dragged round by their smiling parents. From the dark (now damp) tunnels where the gunpowder was stored up to the gun emplacements on the roof, she battled to tell us every last elaborate detail of the fort's operation. Most informative, perhaps overly so, but a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse of 19th century ingenuity all the same.

Once dismissed from the tour I went to looked round a couple of pleasingly amateur museums, each crammed with a hotchpotch of military exhibits and ephemera. There's a particular emphasis on aviation, including several 'bits' that the curators hire out to film crews who need authentic plane crash debris. Out in the courtyard I found a selection of old army vehicles, and the remains of a V2 bomb which landed on Wickford (ha!), and a handful of stalls peddling crystals and tarot readings. I'd turned up on the day of the fort's annual Psychic Fair, although very few stallholders had made the effort. Judging by the lack of consumer interest, it was the psychics who'd stayed at home who had the true predictive ability. I was too late to pay a pound for a visit to "The Haunted Tunnel", and I also missed Yvette Fielding who was here with her over-hyped film crew a couple of months ago. If you dare follow in her (and my) footsteps, your next opportunity is in three weeks time.

Bata Factory, East TilburyBataville: And finally, on the long walk back to East Tilbury station, what looks like a peculiar Eastern European outpost. To the west of the road are a series of blocky white factories, now mostly empty, and to the east a compact square estate of semi-continental-style houses. All date back to the 1930s when Tomas Bata came from Czechoslovakia to build a shoe factory in these estuarine meadows. He was a man with a passion, not just for footwear but for the welfare of his workers and their families. He planned a utopian 'garden village' settlement, promoting modernist design, with all of its services managed by the Bata Shoe Company. There was a Bata cinema and a Bata butchers and a Bata supermarket and even a Bata war memorial (plus, of course, a Bata shoe shop).

Shoe production has long since moved overseas, leaving the estate as a peaceful commuter village with half a row of shops and a central library. Walking round the tightly-packed grid of leafy residential avenues it's clear that this is still a desirable place to live, even without the community infrastructure so carefully cultivated by its original benefactor. But Tomas's legacy lives on at the Bata Reminiscence and Resource Centre, whose website will tell you all you need to know about the history of this unique location. If expansion plans for the Thames Gateway go ahead, there may yet be thousands more homes on their way. Let's hope they don't smother the site's quintessential Bata-ness.

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