Magazine article Geographical

Flat Land: This Month, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)'s Discovering Britain Walk Takes Olivia Edward through Rural Essex to the Thames Estuary, Where She's Delighted by a Fascinating 'Land of Horizontals'

Magazine article Geographical

Flat Land: This Month, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)'s Discovering Britain Walk Takes Olivia Edward through Rural Essex to the Thames Estuary, Where She's Delighted by a Fascinating 'Land of Horizontals'

Article excerpt

Not everyone is entranced by the Thames's estuarine landscapes. Writer John Fowles, who grew up in Leigh-on-Sea wrote about 'a raw, dull day with a wind and all-pervading greyness. The tide full in and the sea faintly grey, green, ugly.' Only begrudgingly did he admit that a 'bleak sort of affection' could be possible.

Here, where the Thames meets the sea, there are no soaring mountains or rolling downs; no magnificent towering trees or even crashing waves. Instead, as the walk's designer, Ken Worpole, an author and senior professor at London Metropolitan University, says, 'This is a land of horizontals.'

Worpole grew up in the area--his family first moved to Canvey Island from London when he was six, then on to Hadleigh, then Southend-on-Sea, where he stayed until he was married and returned to London. He proposed this eight-kilometre walk because he has become frustrated by the disparaging comments that people make about the Essex countryside.

He has spent years studying the social history of the landscapes around this area and, together with photographer Jason Orton, has produced a book entitled 350 Miles: An Essex Journey. It celebrates the eerie beauty of this area, with its 'huge godless skies' (Fowles again) and left-behind human presences dotted around on the marshes.

'It's not an area for those who subscribe to conventional landscape aesthetics,' Worpole explains. Instead, its allure can take time to reveal itself. It could, perhaps, be seen as a test of sorts, sifting the Wordsworthians from those who are happy to forgo the easy thrill of high-altitude views and dramatics in favour of a subtler tale of soggy fringes and inbetween lands.

ALONE AT LAST

Worpole's trail takes walkers from a small ex-fishing town (Benfleet) to a larger one (Leigh-onSea) via a wilder stretch of agrarian fields and the saltmarshes that accompany Benfleet Creek as it makes its short journey to the nearby Thames estuary. There's a sense of being alone on the flats while also sharing them, not just with the families out cycling and the crying seabirds, but with the far-off creature-like cranes that nod away over at Tilbury docks.

We move from a railway station and roadside to our first glimpse of the sleeping creek and follow it past boats in various states of disrepair, bearing names such as Beryl and Ocean Pearl and Success: past a T-shirted father and son batting, 'No, you're the doofus,' back and forth between each other; and out onto the Benfleet Creek embankment, with its wild fennel and skylarks and lion-headed clovers. In the lush fields, pebble-coloured cows watch over wobbly calves and the whole pastoral scene is criss-crossed by the easy Jet flights curving in and out of Southend's nearby airport.

While the landward side of the embankment appears to be full of activity, the seaward side seems almost deserted. But Dr Helene Burningham, a coastal geomorphologist in the Department of Geography at University College London, says that it's actually bursting with life. She explains how the sediment flowing from up to 350 kilometres inland, where the Thames begins in Gloucestershire, brings with it nutrients that provide food for sea creatures that, in turn, support a rich array of bird life. And the shifting tides mean that there are actually numerous different habitats (low tide for waders; high tide for fish and terns) within one fixed space. So although it might look like a slim sort of landscape, it's actually multi-layered, thick with ecosystems.

Its position between the open coast and inland water makes it attractive to all sorts of organisms. 'Estuaries are interfaces between the open coast and catchments, gradienting between the two so that you end up with this lovely range of environments,' Burningham says. Humans and other creatures journey out to sea for various reasons but the estuary provides a respite when conditions turn inhospitable. …

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