Factory living

Not far from Tilbury docks, Tom Blass discovers the Bauhaus grandeur of a maverick Czech shoemaker

Just a stone's throw from the eponymous dock at Tilbury is a town born of shoes. It isn't on any heritage trail or way marked with tourist signs, and the hotel no longer takes guests. Catering facilities are limited and themed activity-centre or park-and-ride facilities have yet to be constructed for the benefit of visitors.

For aficionados of Bauhaus design, lack of official interest enhances the "bleak chic" qualities of an unexpected modernist treasure trove that has largely been left to moulder in peace.

The Bata insignia on the factory roof is just discernible from a mile away. Until you get closer, it looks quite new. "Sixty turned up to have a look around the other day," said the security guard at the old factory gates, "although today you're the only ones." He almost didn't let my photographer friend Alex and me in. But eventually he capitulated, evidently proud to be guarding a unique jewel of British and Czech industrial history.

Tomas Bata believed that what Henry Ford had done with cars, he would do for footwear, providing affordable shoes to the masses along with decent conditions, housing and recreation for those that made them. Starting on home soil, a team of Corbusier-inspired architects helped articulate this vision in the Czech town of Zlin, using clean, modernist lines and acres of glass.

Detractors would describe Bata as a bully who inflicted punitive sanctions on the work-shy, was overly sympathetic to fascism, and came down hard on union membership. Even his death in a 1932 air crash was blamed on megalomania - he allegedly coerced his pilot into flying, against the man's better judgement.

None of this would hold up the project at East Tilbury, chosen as the launch pad for his British ambitions and replicating the Zlin factory buildings, houses, cinema, school, hotel/ballroom and fire station block for block, in effect creating a self-enclosed industrial/living community that would thrive for almost five decades.

Just as the jungle swallowed up Amazonian rubber-boom cities, so Essex threatens to reclaim Bataville. This is the Essex that the middle classes find difficult: Staffordshire terriers, football shirts, pineapple hairdos, tattoos, the cross of St George and S6 number plates. Against such a backdrop, Bata's flat-footed modernist semis appear dislocated and at odds, but, despite their avant-garde credentials, no less pinched and worn than their mock-Tudor, pitched-roofed contemporaries elsewhere in the vicinity.

It was the early 1980s when the company sold off the housing, and today few people remember the "Bata days". Peter was strimming grass outside one of the old factory buildings, now turned over to self-storage and archiving space. His parents were both part of the original team of Czechs brought over to show the local people how to make shoes. As a man whose life was shaped by Bata, he has given it some hard thought.

It was, he concludes, a good thing. In the main a strong, happy community, crime-free and safe. Reflections like this, of course, are the hallmarks of nostalgia - as Loudon Wainwright III pointed out, the good old days are "good because they're gone". But Peter insisted that East Tilbury was different. People had been proud to work for Bata. Outsiders would travel miles for the excellently sprung dance floor at the hotel, and there was ample time for the cinema, egg-collecting and the odd fumble by the river. He is uncomfortable with the idea of it having been a benign dictatorship. It was true that you'd be hauled over the coals for absenteeism or lateness. But that's just what things were like (in the good old days). The flipside was that if you showed flair you were rewarded for it - like his friend Mike, who ended up building a Bata factory from scratch in the middle of an African jungle.

It was the redundancies in the 1980s that dispelled the notion that the company cared for the sake of caring, or that philanthropy had been anything other than a commercial expedient. The "community spirit" quickly unravelled, while the housing sell-off brought in outsiders and, with them, a new rootlessness. More crime. Less of a sense of belonging - coinciding with the official proclamation of society's demise and, paradoxically, with the rise of Essex Man.

The landscape around Tilbury is haphazard and appealing: big ships coming into dock, the looming power station, fields of rape, ponies (colourful, shaggy and friendly-looking - a different kind of animal from the trim, sleek beasts of the Home Counties). It's a wild, post-agricultural space post-dated by the Thames Gateway - lambasted locally as being all about enrichment of bigwigs and nothing about quality of life.

Until the new houses go up and the "oppor tunities" arrive, Tilbury will just get on with being itself. Washing the car at the weekend, beer and football, yes, but not just that. Along the riverbank by Tilbury Fort (remember Elizabeth mustering the troops?) a kid shouts: "Oi, mister, I caught a fish." He has sharp Saxon features, a crew cut and trainers, and an air pistol tucked under his jacket. "But I put it back." Modestly, he indicates the fish's length with his hands - about the size of a child's shoe.

Just along the river, a middle-aged couple propped up on camp chairs share sandwiches and binoculars with which to watch an avocet dabbling in the receding tide.

Hedged by privet, a shrewd-eyed statue of Bata stands outside the factory gates in a patch of Rizla-strewn lawn. There is also evidence that the young people practise birth control. Structurally the town remains intact, largely under a preservation order and apparently sold for a song. But the factories are stripped bare of machines; the cinema is now the town hall and the hotel a block of grubby flats above a supermarket.

The Bata company still produces shoes, but in Asia and central Europe. Meanwhile, and though only vestigial traces of East Tilbury's Czechness remain, its inhabitants good- humouredly endure the stares of the curious, photographers, architects, shoe fetishists and writers who see in their semis the fading footprint of a quirky, shoe-topian vision.