The word estuary may arouse similar associations as the word nest – a comforting, nurturing place, cozy, gentle, a cradle for bird life, a safe mooring place, a place of richness. Estuaries are wetlands, are fringed by wetlands, share the ecological abundance encompassed by the word wetlands, a now largely positive word, eclipsing the word swamp, with its formerly negative associations. But despite newfound understanding of the importance of such places, estuaries still suffer. The Thames estuary is typical in this regard, a gateway to the city but also a dumping ground – for old boats, toxic waste, sewerage – and while the water quality is being improved, this is still an area in which to hide away the more unsightly elements of modern industry. The Thames estuary has container ports; it was also deemed a possible location for another London airport. Locating these large pieces of infrastructure here is possible because it is usually thought that there is not much scenic landscape for such things to be a blight on.
We are still captured somewhat by the Romantic imagination that seeks the sublime rather than the subtle in landscape. Or we value small ‘r’ romantic notions of rolling, lush farmland. In estuaries, with their mudflats, tidal lagoons, salt flats, marshes, the fecund lushness can turn simply fetid and rank in the imagination. And the flatness can numb the senses. In the Thames, there is also the exposure to the extremes of weather – wind, fog. Country Life magazine apparently rated the estuarine area of Essex a zero out of ten on their scenic scale. This dismissal of the natural value of such places lends itself to the proliferation of utilitarian development – ports, power stations, military bases, rubbish dumps – which in turn contributes to the lack of traditionally scenic beauty. (The Yarra River’s estuary has almost been obliterated by a container port, a process David Sornig narrates in his great book Blue Lake.) The location of container ports on the estuary has meant the necessity of dredging to allow massive container ships, a practice that has resulted in declining cockle beds and fish stocks, as well as, possibly, other issues such as foreshore erosion (something which happened also in Port Philip Bay).
It’s not an excusing factor, but the dredging was a boon for archaeology. (Just as the big mining companies pay for archaeological work on indigenous sites in Australia as some sort of penance, the container port people are paying for dives on historic wrecks.) And the Thames estuary is a place of wrecks, more so than any other piece of UK coastline. It is not necessarily a gentle place. Some are accidental, some deliberate – the estuary is something of an expired boat dumping ground. One of the most significant is a warship called, appropriately enough, the London, whose sinking was described by Samuel Pepys, but whose wreck has only been recently discovered (the very murky water of the estuary hinders discoveries). As well as the estuary regularly turning up stray bombs, there is a ship full of (probably live) explosives sunk there in WWII, masts sticking out above the water serving as some sort of warning to commercial shipping and the unwary tourist.
There are wrecks above water too, including the eerie WWII forts at the easterly end of the estuary, structures that may recall the aliens of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, now-rusting double-storey bunkers resting on tripod legs. They were used primarily as anti-aircraft installations. The danger and monotony of the surroundings were not conducive to remaining sane. Later the structures were a magnet for pirate radio operators in the 60s, and now for artists and documentary film crews (as well as pestilent developers who haven’t had any luck so far). Artist Stephen Turner had a residency for weeks, embracing rather than being driven bonkers by the isolation (though his project of cataloguing the detritus there might suggest otherwise). Elsewhere in the estuary, artists accept and embrace the fragility and ephemerality, the nature of things in these zones, much as artists have been traditionally the first to spy the appeal of the ephemeral space elsewhere – the ruin, the thunderstorm, the fog.
The appeal of the estuary is getting more local recognition. In her book on the estuary, Rachel Lichtenstein quotes a rower, a frequenter of the waters, commenting that the unobstructed mirroring of sea and sky, and the minimum of distractions, allows the mind to wander. More widely, Robert Macfarlane has documented the abundance and adaptability of wildlife on the estuary’s coastline. There are plenty of books on the Thames – by Belloc and Ackroyd, and about walking it or houseboating on it. Interest in the further reaches of the Thames is not new – Joseph Conrad wrote extensively on it, but more recently there has been a focus again – Iain Sinclair’s novel Downriver, Rachel Lichtenstein’s 2017 book Estuary (from which most of the above information is taken), and just recently, Caroline Crampton’s personal exploration, The Way to the Sea.