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Thames Estuary: exploring London's forgotten gateway

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A new collection of images by photographer Frank Watson captures the bleak and haunting dereliction of structures along the Thames Estuary shoreline, writes Rakesh Ramchurn

The Thames Estuary was in the news again last week. Not on account of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s ill-fated estuary airport, plans for which have been kicked into the long grass by the Davies Commission, but because of reports that a crumbling Victorian island fort known as the Grain Tower Battery had been sold to a mystery buyer, who wanted to turn it into a boutique hotel.

Interior view of the Grain Tower Battery. Image: Frank Watson

Interior view of the Grain Tower Battery. Image: Frank Watson

The buyer would certainly have acquired a unique building. Accessible by foot only at low tide, the fort was built in 1855 at the strategic point where the Thames and the Medway meet, had fortifi cations and gun emplacements added during both world wars, and has since been abandoned to the elements and the whims of space-hacking graffiti artists.

Although a number of people have expressed interest recently, a quick call to the estate agent confirms that the Grain Tower Battery remains unsold and that the rumour of a boutique hotel is just another of the many stories of imminent development in the area, which lies a tantalising 40-odd miles from London. Long before Johnson’s dreams of a new airport, the Blair government had grand plans to redevelop the forlorn Thames Estuary, (rebranded the ‘Thames Gateway’), while last year Peter Hall, the late professor of planning and regeneration at the Bartlett, spoke of the need for London to grow ‘the underdeveloped east to alleviate the overcrowded west’.

A jetty at West Thurrock. Image: Frank Watson

A jetty at West Thurrock. Image: Frank Watson

It was this sense of a district with unique environmental features on the brink of change that encouraged photographer Frank Watson to team up with writer Germander Speedwell on a project entitled ‘Soundings from the Estuary’ to document the natural landscape and unusual built structures of the area. The project took the form of spoken word and ambient sound recordings along with photographs by Watson, and these images form the basis of a new book.

‘Much of the estuary is seen as a brownfield site that lacks the traditional attributes of the picturesque,’ Watson says, adding that its most prominent features are ‘landfill sites, prisons, oil refineries, and industrial and military ruins’.

Despite this bleak description, Watson insists the estuary has a ‘sense of place’ that would be lost if major construction were to come to the area, and his photographs convey the eerily beautiful desolation of a terrain whose buildings – many in ruins – tell stories of the estuary’s rich past.

Although little remembered now, the entrance to London’s river was a front line in the defence of the country during the Second World War, and remnants of fortifications from this period can be found 70 years later. One photograph shows a radar tower sitting precariously on the shoreline; another shows a section of beach littered with concrete anti-tank barriers deployed to halt an amphibious assault by Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and which now help to prevent erosion of the shoreline by rising sea levels.

Concrete anti-tank barriers on the Isle of Grain. Image: Frank Watson

Concrete anti-tank barriers on the Isle of Grain. Image: Frank Watson

‘The landscape is always changing because of the weather and also the tides, which make the estuary a constantly changing terrain,’ says Watson. ‘The estuary never stands still and there are many photographs I have taken which would be impossible to capture again.’

The area’s industrial history is also evident in Watson’s photographs. A factory operated by Procter & Gamble in Grays in Essex appears as a monolithic machine that overwhelms its environs (you can build these sorts of things out in the estuary) while a view of Tilbury Docks shows the close relationship industry had with the waterways, through factory buildings that lead straight to jetties and wharves. Watson recalls taking the photograph on a murky day in January: ‘It was just before the fog became so thick that you could hear the ships go past, with their foghorns groaning, but could not see them. A very eerie experience.’

In all the images, the built structures are set in an unkempt and windswept landscape but, on closer inspection, even the apparently natural elements of the landscape may be the result of more human agency than is immediately obvious.

‘The word “natural” is complex because it is difficult to know what has been reclaimed from the original marshes and the way industrial and maritime interests have put the site to work,’ says Watson, ‘but it is still possible to get a glimpse of what the city of London is actually built on.’

Derelict light aircraft at Cliffe Marshes in Kent. Image: Frank Watson.

Derelict light aircraft at Cliffe Marshes in Kent. Image: Frank Watson.

Perhaps the most evocative picture is of a derelict light aircraft lying abandoned in the scrub of a disused chalk quarry at Cliffe Marshes in Kent. It’s a very evocative photograph, but there is more to the picture than initially meets the eye. The site is now a water sports leisure facility and the plane was supposed to have been sunk to give divers something to ‘discover’ underwater. However, in a story that has become typical for Thames Estuary projects, the plans didn’t materialise and the aircraft lies rotting on the shore instead. But, like many of the abandoned structures of the estuary, it’s hauntingly beautiful and is perhaps best left as it is.


Soundings from the Estuary
by Frank Watson, with an essay by Jonathan Meades
Hush House Publishers, 72pp, £20



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