Once, I stood on the bridge of a container ship as we headed from the River Medway out to sea. The river pilot required to navigate these treacherous waters (the Thames estuary holds more shipwrecks per mile of seabed than any other part of Britain’s coastal waters) pointed out landmarks: a sunken US Liberty cargo ship, its masts now sea fence-posts poking above the water; the Shivering Sands towers, the marshes over which Magwitch escaped in Great Expectations. I had oceans ahead of me but I was intrigued, still, by this peculiar place, neither river nor sea, neither foreign nor domestic. And now here is a whole book of it.
Caroline Crampton is a child of the estuary, and the book is her praise-hymn to the muddy, marshy far reaches of a river that is often seen only as a backdrop to the great buildings of Oxford and London. Her parents, arriving on a sailboat from South Africa, arrived at St Katharine Docks in London and stayed, before moving back to the mouth of the river, to Kent. As a toddler, Crampton swung in a hammock in the boat’s cabin while her mother cooked. As a teenager, she had her tantrums on deck, on weekend sailing trips. She raged “against my parents’ obsession with sailing to nowhere”.
We begin the book afloat with them, arriving from Africa, but it is a deceptive start, because soon the scenes transfer inland to the riverbanks, as Crampton starts at the Thames’s source, a dull pond in a field. This sailor is also a walker, and her walks take her through time. These are not forgotten histories yet, as they feature figures such as William Morris or Joseph Bazalgette, who built the great embankments at Westminster and was lauded for putting “the river in chains” (as if that is a good thing). The Thames Barrier does “chain” the river, yet is ignored by the millions of Londoners whose lives it will save one day. By its familiarity, the Thames can seem bucolic and domestic: Crampton reminds us of its wild power. In 1099, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded, “On the festival of St Martin, the sea flood sprung up to such a height and did so much harm as no man remembered ever before.” Just because no man or woman now remembers such floods it does not make them impossible.
These historical lessons are instructive – a captivating section features Margaret Ursula Jones, an archaeologist who fetched treasures from the mud of Mucking, Essex – but I warm too to Crampton’s more personal history. Before taking up a place at Oxford, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the white blood cells. She does not give much detail about her illness, but the brevity of her account does not diminish its force. Oxford was on the river, and the river mattered. She walked “hundreds of miles” of its banks during her student days. “When I struggled with the limitations my health placed on me, or felt weighed down by the need to pretend to those around me that everything was fine, the vitality of the river could cure me. Quietly making its way through the locks and past the meadows, it connected me to home.”
Home was the estuary, and childhood homes near its shores. But it was also a sailboat. Perhaps that is why the pace seems to pick up when Crampton joins her parents at Limehouse Dock, and they set sail to the river’s far end (if a river ever ends). To the estuary, their backs to the great city, past the London Gateway port and its insistent modernity of cranes and containers, towards eerie, ethereal marshes and flatlands. These are familiar sights to Crampton, who spent many trips gazing at the banks. “This is where we belong, in our in-between place.”
In-between, but also removed, which is why industry has been shunted down there, to be tolerated by the working poor. There are giant ports, huge chemical plants, vast car parks for the vehicles that pour from the ship transporters that deliver them. These lands are for the unseemly, the unseen and what needs to be got rid of. The estuary is where sewage was dumped after earlier waste discharges nearer the city at Beckton and Crossness had disastrous consequences: the pleasure boat Princess Alice was gored by a coal barge in September 1878 and 650 working class day-trippers drowned in fetid, choking water.
The light is partly what has drawn painters to the far ends of the river. Turner set his great painting “The Fighting Temeraire” here, and though he put the sun in the wrong place, “For an artist so fixated by the merging of sea and sky, there was no better place to paint.” Lines blur; horizons are smudged; things shift underfoot. (Turner came prepared though, with “Varnish/Razor/Blue Black/Bt Sienna/Fishing Rod Flies/Pallet Knife and Shoes”.) This entrancing light also holds darkness: prison ships probably designed only to harm their inmates, and Deadman’s Island, where ships dumped their dead and human bones now dot the mud. No wonder the people who live here feel different, distant. Crampton’s dad, working on the Isle of Sheppey, met an 18-year-old lad “who had been born and brought up on Sheppey and who had yet to leave the island to go to mainland Britain. He just didn’t see the point.”
Perhaps the shifting nature of the water and the marshes is why humans have tried to anchor both with remarkable place names: Mid-Swatch, Blacktail Spit, Knock John. If I could go back to school, I’d want it to be the academy named after a long-lost railway line called the Hundred of Hoo.
We leave Crampton at the mouth of the river, the estuary “a watery drabness stretching off as far as the eye could see”. But this drabness to her is also wonder. Drab yet glorious. A river yet a sea. Marshlands that are water and land at once. There has been much to be captivated by, ashore and afloat, and I want more, now, as the great river opens into the estuary, the ocean takes over and the boat sails on.
Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)
The Way to the Sea
Granta, 302pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 05 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance