Sinclair McKay

Ghosts of the past

Sinclair McKay on Estuary, by Rachel Lichtenstein, and London In Fragments, by Ted Sandling

Ghosts of the past
Text settings

Estuary: Out from London to the Sea

Rachel Lichtenstein

Hamish Hamilton, pp. 328, £

London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures

Ted Sandling

Frances Lincoln, pp. 245, £

You find it in the vistas of skeletal metal gangways, the abandoned 18th-century forts, the squat oil holders and rusted pipelines, the pale reeds of the marshes, the barbed wire, the peeling housing estates, the lonely river paths. You hear it in the thick silence by the water, broken only by the wide river slurping and slopping against the embankment. There is something in the landscape of the Thames estuary that is curiously and powerfully uncanny.

But how can that be in the otherwise earthy county of Essex? This is one of the subterranean themes of Rachel Lichtenstein’s electrifying exploration of the estuary. What ought to be a grey stretch of post-industrial England is in fact rich in eerie poetry. During the middle of one howlingly stormy night, as the author huddles in her bunk in a pitching boat tied to the lower decking of Southend pier, the banging of hull against wood is accompanied by more frightening, hallucinatory noises — ‘the clamour of a great crowd of people crying out in fear. I could distinguish a woman’s scream, the dreadful noise of children sobbing.’ And Lichtenstein is not alone; her cabin-mate can hear the voices too. They are forced to take their sleeping bags into the boat’s hold to escape the ghosts. Southend pier is apparently infested with them.

This is also a working river with the most extraordinary depth of history; from the Romans sailing in and laying the foundations for the Londinium property boom, to the ships that later sailed out into the world to create the British empire. Here is the sunken SS Richard Montgomery just off the Isle of Sheppey: it’s an American second world war boat, still laden with a massive quantity of explosives altogether too tricky and delicate to retrieve, and which could still blow up at any minute, resulting in a Southend-engulfing tsunami.

There are still cockle-fishers here at Leigh-on-Sea, as there have been for generations; Lichtenstein movingly chronicles just how precarious and indeed dangerous their working lives are. Her own voyages out into the estuarine sea-waters are surprisingly harrowing; running aground on shallow sandbanks in a sailing boat in a shrieking gale is an assault on all senses.

But there is something about these edge-lands that also encourages charismatic radicalism; from the Hadleigh Farm Colony set up in the 1890s by William Booth to provide rural work and fresh air for desperately poor city dwellers, to Canvey Island’s much-loved band Dr Feelgood. Canvey has a haunted history — still remembered for the sea-flood in the winter of 1953 that killed 58 people in one biblically terrifying night. But now it is becoming a welcome home to an increasing number of Orthodox Jews who are swapping north London’s Stamford Hill for a life amid glittering rivulets and wildlife-teeming marshlands.

And the ambiguities and mysteries of this region have long attracted writers. Joseph Conrad lived for a while in the nearby village of Stanford-le-Hope; of course, it was his Marlow in Heart of Darkness who, while gazing out on an estuary sunset, proclaimed that centuries back, this had been ‘one of the dark places of the earth’.

Meanwhile, just across the water in Kent, on the Hoo peninsula, in a freezing winter twilight, Dickens’s Pip was terrorised by the convict Magwitch. In the graveyard that inspired this encounter, in the village of Cooling, you can still see the five tiny gravestones of infants who died of marsh fever. The estuary is all about mortality, with that sense of looking out to the grey ocean and an unknowable world beyond.

But there are fears that are more concrete. A maritime version of agoraphobia is evoked when Lichtenstein visits Sealand, the wartime sea fort standing on huge stumpy legs some miles out from land, owned by Michael Bates and his family. This is the world’s smallest principality. But any suggestion of Ealing comedy about the place is dispelled by the fearsome reality: the 50-foot winch needed to get aboard, the hostility of the winter elements, and the knowledge that on this and other sea forts during the war, some young men were driven to insanity by the isolation and committed suicide.

The odd thing is that just as we become nostalgic for views of industry that once would have made us shudder, the estuary is roaring back to new life. The freshly constructed Thames Gateway seaport — near Conrad’s old place — is bringing vast quantities of produce upriver via supertankers. It is a leitmotif throughout the book; the local suspicion that the dredging of the estuary to make depth for these vast vessels is disturbing its ecology and its ghosts. But the estuary’s story is surely one of continual physical and spiritual disturbance.

That sense of the past coexisting with the present is also at the core of Ted Sandling’s hypnotic — yet infectiously jolly — account of his time exploring the Thames shore in London for unexpected treasure. In Victoria’s reign, mudlarks were children and the elderly desperately scavenging through sewage for anything of value. Sandling, who works for Christie’s, has rather a sharper eye and aesthetic appreciation for the fragments of objects that now surface in the gravel and mud. The detailed photos of his finds are gripping.

Here, astonishingly, is the flint from a fishing spear circa 6000 bc; there, a fragment of a manganese apothecary jar from the mid-17th century. There are pieces of exquisite pottery, luminously green and crimson 18th-century glassware, all found by the author in locations from Tate Modern to Limehouse, and all carrying with them the shock of last being handled hundreds of years ago. ‘The Thames can do that,’ he writes, ‘throw up confluences of time.’ Among the billionaire property speculation apartment blocks, this is the opposite of uncanny: the sense of continuity instead makes you a little tearful.