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Arts feature

Estuarial towns are an architectural utopia, says Jonathan Meades

On the eve of the start of the Estuary Festival, the writer and filmmaker takes a look at the weird constructions and sublime landscapes of the Thames and Medway estuaries

3 September 2016

9:00 AM

3 September 2016

9:00 AM

Utopia dons some unlikely guises, crops up in some odd places. On the sea wall a couple in their teens stood clutching their baby and gazing half a mile across the opaque river to where streets run down to the shore: spires and warehouses, inns and gables announced a town. The boy asked me if I knew over there. He said that that was where they wanted to go to, where they wanted to be. There’s so much happening over there. Not like here. Here there were only vast ships, big sheds, cranes, mean houses. And nothing to do. No life. We were between Tilbury Fort and a pub called the World’s End.

On the other side of the water was hope. These kids were on the money. The object of their longing was Gravesend. As with many — most — estuarial towns, reputation and actuality are at odds. It is not — patronising, snobbish, ignorant appellation — a ‘crap town’. No town is a crap town if you learn to look at it without faecally tinted spectacles. Amon Wilds Jnr, one of the major architects of Brighton, worked here. So, more than a century later, did Jim Cadbury-Brown, part of the Festival of Britain design team. And just upstream stood Rosherville, a pleasure gardens built, like Buttes-Chaumont, on the site of a quarry. There was a zoo, a bear pit (now listed thanks to the Victorian Society’s powerful ursine tendency) and labyrinthine paths. It was ‘avoided by ladies of good standing’. Zola’s friend Hippolyte Taine, approaching by steamer from London, was foxed by the gleaming piles at the water’s edge. As his vessel drew closer, they resolved themselves into nacreous pyramids of oyster shells. There isn’t much to see but there is a lot to imagine. As for oysters, we must head east, later.

The kids put their child in a buggy, nodded farewell, went away to dream. I went to join my director Frank Hanly at the flashy watergate of Tilbury Fort, designed by the Dutchman Sir Bernard de Gomme. Where and how this gate, a prodigy of un-English baroque, would fit into the film about utopian Essex that we were preparing did not bother us. If it’s striking include it. No justification required. No explanation. No apology. And no apology for returning, four years after we made that film, to this recondite subject which is celebrated next weekend in a series of screenings, exhibitions and walks organised by the Focal Point Gallery in Southend as part of the Radical Essex season. Disparate modernist set-pieces will be scrutinised: Bata, the now abandoned Czech-designed shoe factory and the workers’ estate beside it; Frinton, where Oliver Hill embarked on what would have been the largest white wall/flat roof project in Britain had the developer not gone the way of so many developers. Silver End (in whose massive communal hall the screenings will take place) is the garden village built for Crittall’s workers, the ‘family’ who produced the windows that make Britain’s first-generation modernist and moderne houses distinct from, say, Czech ones. Both Bata and Silver End were bastions of communality, joining in, team spirit, games, competitions. More interesting, then, to visit utopia than to inhabit it.

This applies, too, to the Salvation Army’s Hadleigh Farm (‘where broken men of bad habits might be reformed’ and readied for transportation); the few remaining chapels of the Peculiar People (an offshoot of Methodism) who wore beards without moustaches, delusionally rejected medicine in favour of prayer and walked to worship in Indian file; experimental communities like the Q Camps (there was one near Braintree) and the various further projects of psychiatrist Norman Glaister, who was involved in the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, Braziers Park and Grith Fyrd (which taught handicrafts, logging, eugenics). In what might be taken as an act of expiation, brewer Frederick Charrington established a temperance community on Osea Island in the Blackwater. The soap magnate Joseph Fells set up a land colony for the agrarian unemployed on the Dengie Peninsula. Manifesting the knee-jerk anti-Semitism that the English left displays to this day in its enthusiasm for Palestine and Islam, the Fabian Beatrice Webb, co-founder of the New Statesman, dismissed Fells as a ‘decidedly vulgar little Jew’.

Formal communal experiments invariably ended in mud, indigence, recriminations and grave doctrinal schisms (you build clinker but carvel is the true way). Essex also sprouted self-built plotlands (Jaywick, Pitsea and a score of others), hymns to recycling and asbestos whose motto should be fais ce que voudras, places of low-level pleasures hated by the prim and by the jobsworth guardians of Ingerland’s precious sod. The urbanist Thomas Sharp derided ‘a romantic universal individualism in which every man glories in his self-sufficiency and separateness’. Separateness? Essex is today the proud possessor of more dogging sites than any other county.

The right bank of the estuary has not — pace Kenny Noye, the Hatton Garden robbers and the Krays’ country house — shared Essex’s bling-bright infamy. But for devotees of oddball garrison towns, all-purpose weirdness and sturdy recidivism, north Kent still has much to offer. Little was weirder than Jezreel’s Tower at Gillingham, somewhere between a Guinness Trust tenement and a neo-Elizabethan warehouse. It was built by James Jezreel (né White), Messenger of the Lord and follower of Joanna Southcott. His disciples, standard-issue dupes, lost interest when he failed to rise from the dead where he had been dispatched by alcoholism in 1885. Three years earlier the chloral-addicted D.G. Rossetti had died further along the coast at Birchington in, aptly, one of that village’s greenery-yallery aesthetic-movement bungalows, designed by J.P. Seddon with sgraffito decorations by George Frampton (father of Meredith). A recuperating John Buchan, who scorned artiness in all its forms, is supposed to have discovered that one of the bungalows had a tunnel through the chalk to the beach comprising 39 steps.

Essex may have the more atmospheric and intimate creeks, the finer vernacular buildings such as the sail lofts at Tollesbury. But Kent has the better estuary and it is not that of the Thames. The Medway’s is the most thrilling of estuaries. Its tiny affluents are beyond number. Desolate saltings, desolate marshes, leats and sluices, detriting hulks, the site of the only landborn lazaretto in Britain, upside-down Allegros and Mondeos bathed in mud, the echo of age-old joyriding songs, electric murmurations, wrecked explosive factories, cranes, such cranes, the Grain Tower (low tide only), concrete anti-tank defences, power-station chimneys, distant refinery chimneys. Here is one of Britain’s most affecting landscapes — and not a pretty hill or cute drystone wall in sight. It is epic, sublime and wondrously impure. All would have been lost had the former mayor of London’s halfwitted plan for an airport in the Thames reached fruition. It was actually a non-starter given the lurking submarine presence off Sheerness of the wrecked explosive-packed liberty ship Richard Montgomery, which fascinated Uwe Johnson, the German novelist who had made Sheppey his home, perversely. Sheppey does, after all, have three prisons. And when they leave choky many cons stay on. They do their reintegrating on site. It’s not a place to make eye contact with

The Estuary Festival later this month aims to ‘celebrate’ this landscape, this waterscape and the people who inhabit it. Performance artists, audio artists, singers, folk singers, multidisciplinary gestural wailing, well-rehearsed seadogs, installations, meta-fictions. I could append some of the artists’ statements. The point is: the only mediations this marvellous place requires are cinematographic (Harry Waxman, The Long Memory) and photographic (Frank Watson, Soundings from the Estuary). They do not dump on it a pile of occlusive ‘art’.

Radical Essex’s Architecture Weekend, 10–11 September; the Estuary Festival, 17 September–2 October. Frank Watson will be at the Francesca Maffeo Gallery, Leigh-on-Sea, talking about ‘Soundings from the Estuary’ on 25 September.

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