Seaside postcard: Shoeburyness
Have you ever been to the mouth of the River Thames? The very end, where the river meets the North Sea and the shoreline bends from estuary to coast? Probably not, even though there's a direct train from the City of London. And there's an A Road - the A13 - which is the best way to get here if you're Billy Bragg. But I bet you've never been. To ShoeburyNess.
There's nothing quite like being the only tourist in a seaside resort. Actually 'resort' is a bit strong. Shoeburyness hasn't been one of those for years, not for anyone outside the local area, and in late winter doubly so. But between 1911 and 1939 this was the furthest flung outpost of the London Underground, with District line excursion trains making seasonal journeys to bring holidaymakers to the last halt before Belgium. Many would have stayed at the Shoeburyness Hotel, now boarded up and desolate, its gleamingironwork safe only until some thief or vandal slices it away for scrap.
Across the road a sheet stuck to the window of the Cambridge Press offers up a plaintive "Goodbye" from its former owner. Roy had been working in the family business since 1957, so he tells us, serving the diverse printing needs of the community for more than 60 years. But the advent of ubiquitous colour copiers forced him into retirement earlier this year, and his once proud shop now stands empty. In a High Street that fails to open even on a Saturday afternoon, every business is in danger.
The only people on East Beach are locals. Three teenagers wandering the shoreline, along with two dogs scampering on the exposed mudflats. Another hound plays frisbee with its owner on the common, then refuses to retrieve the disc when it lands in the middle of a particularly wide puddle. The rusting remains of a wartime defence 'boom', erected to keep enemy submarines and ships from entering the Thames, stick out one mile from the beach into the North Sea [photo]. Where it begins, an iron fence blocks the beach. You could easily walk around it at low tide, but a red sign advises otherwise. [Danger / Firing Range / No Entry]
The army moved in beside Pig's Bay during the 1840s, initially for artillery practice, then with rather fiercer weapons. Troops are no longer garrisoned here (which for current recruits is damned good news), and the site is ghost-run by contractors on behalf of the MOD. A little further up the coast is Foulness Island, once selected as the site of London's third airport, now a military nomansland where the public are almost never welcome.
Shoebury's other former garrison is to the south, nearer the Ness. It's currently being transformed from a desolate waste littered with ruined defences into a desirable housing estate plus waterlogged park. There are even plans for an 18-storey 'landmark tower' to mark the far eastern end of the Thames Gateway, but (thankfully) there's no sign yet. A concrete path leads along the foreshore, above the seawall, above the groynes, linking the town to the river's end. This bleak route is somewhere to take the kids cycling, or to give purpose to jogging, or to promenade with your spouse beneath a protective layer of hood, scarf and gloves.
The tip of the Thames is marked by a wooden jetty poking out into the river [photo]. Judge the tide right and there's decent fishing to be had - judge wrong and you'll be dangling your bait in mud. That's Sheerness Docks across the other side of the estuary, and the power station chimneys of the Isle of Grain belching grey into the Kentish sky. What view there is exists only as a thin strip along the horizon, maybe a container ship chugging distantly by, maybe a distant wind farm if you squint carefully enough. England's greatest river dissipates not with bravado and grace but with a turgid whimper.
From Shoebury Ness it's more than 200 miles up the Thames to the source near Cirencester. That may be a gorgeous Arcadian walk, most of the way, but the first 500 metres are grim. Inland is a post-military waste, still heavily fenced off, plus a coastguard tower watching out over the languid waters. Along the shoreline is an unbroken white wall, just about low enough to be climb-over-able, and all that stands in the way of a killer tidal surge from the North Sea which would demolish this corner of Essex. Then comes the 'beach', or rather a patch of sand merging rapidly into mud. Don't try walking along the sand because there's another iron fence blocking that further up, as if somehow the MOD would really rather you weren't here. [photo]
There's a slipway immediately beyond, where you might find local lads pushing a motorised boat down into the water. Ordinary blokes love boats round here - they crave watersport action in the same way that men inland roar around on motorbikes. Retired boatmen are more likely to be found in one of the 700+ beachhuts that line the next strip of coast, or sat outside Uncle Tom's Cabin on the foreshore downing tea and/or hot dogs.
With Southend only a short distance up the coast, the lesser delights of Shoeburyness are likely to stay forever eclipsed. Not quite seaside, not quite popular, not really anywhere you'd travel miles to enjoy. Just rest assured that it exists, with a flat bleak charm all of its own, and that if you never visit you'll not be missed.