books monthly july 2017

This month Jerry Dowlen looks at Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein

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Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)


‘Maybe life is coming back to the river’.  Rachel Lichtenstein’s fascinating new social history of the Thames Estuary.


According to the Daily Telegraph’s critic the author Rachel Lichtenstein is ‘a cultural archaeologist, digging up forgotten stories’.


That is a fitting part-description, for sure, of the great enjoyment to be found in Rachel’s fascinating and informative new book Estuary. Sub-titled Out from London to the Sea the book uncovers much history of the wide breadth of the Thames estuary and its waterfronts in London, Essex and Kent.


In the current year 2017 that marks the 350-year anniversary of the Dutch Navy sailing up the Thames and Medway to sack the English fleet we can reflect that there are many tales of bravery, shipwrecks and war in this watery segment of the UK’s south east. Dead Man’s Island, Horrid Hill and Slaughterhouse Point are ‘places that reverberate with military occupation, prison ships and quarantine vessels’. Joseph Conrad noted that the Nore, a treacherous sandbank, ‘could conjure visions of …battles, fleets and mutinies.’




Did you know that the wreck of the SS Montgomery is monitored day and night, by radar, for fear that its cargo of World War Two ammunition and explosives might still today threaten a catastrophic conflagration beside the coast of Sheerness? ‘The Ship Full of Bombs’ is a scary chapter to read! – for when the American ship broke up and sank in August 1944 after running aground it was carrying 8,687 tons of bombs and detonators. Much of the hazardous cargo was removed from the seabed but a stack of TNT and phosphorus was left behind.


History and Place


Rachel Lichtenstein is an accomplished compiler of social history, utilising documentary research and oral history (the interviewing of old residents and knowledgeable local historians). Her previous books have covered Jewish London and now she has boldly turned her attention to the Thames Estuary, an area that one of her interviewees, Professor Patrick Wright, has described as a ‘non-place in the minds of popular culture, a liminal landscape of mud, waste, ruination, dereliction, danger, memory and collapse.’


Fortunately for her readers, Rachel succeeds triumphantly in revealing that the Thames Estuary is very much a real place! – one that enables her to present a sequence of twenty short chapters whose names alone evoke the atmospheric locations that they describe: Black Water (the Essex river of that name); Neither Land nor Sea (Benfleet Creek); Oil City (Canvey Island); Shivering Sands (the sea forts built in 1943 off the Whitstable coast; in the 1960s briefly the home of a notorious pirate radio station run by Screaming Lord Sutch).


Where does the Thames river end? Where does its estuary begin? Rachel offers that the commonly agreed break point is at Gravesend ‘where the brackish, dirty water from London merges with the saltwater from the North Sea.’ The Inner Estuary runs perhaps to the ancient marker stones of the Crow Stone at Chalkwell near Southend-on-Sea and the London Stone at Yantlet Creek on the Isle of Grain. Might the Greater or Outer Estuary extend as far north as Orford Ness in Suffolk? - and to North Foreland near Margate to the south? That is a moot topic, but whatever your opinion, there is a feast of plenty more evocative place names to enjoy finding on the maps:  Black Deep, Foulness Island, Gallions Reach, Gunfleet Sands,  Hole Haven Creek, Kentish Knock Lighthouse, Ray Gut, Rough Sands and Sunk Head!    

Modern  Industry


Estuary is much more than a history book. The author devotes substantial page space to the here and now of 21st century river activity and industry: boats, ecology, farming, fishing, freight, leisure and transport. Rachel has collaborated with the Essex author Iain Sinclair on previously published works, and she pairs with him here in a fascinating chapter about Tilbury: a container port; an immigration and emigration point for passenger cruise liners; a ferry terminal. Iain declares: ‘In this place you’re moving in two directions at once, flowing in and flowing out.’


Some of the freight statistics are staggering: ‘Ninety percent of the world’s cargo is now transported by sea, on the biggest ships ever constructed. The largest of these deep-hulled container ships are over five storeys high, over 1,300 feet long, with capacity to hold 18,000 containers. They consume 380 tons of fuel a day … they are the biggest single polluters of the environment on our planet, yet they are a much more eco-friendly method of transporting freight than road or air.’


At Sea … The Future?


As an invited guest and temporary member of the crew Rachel took a London to Outer Estuary round trip on the Thames barge Ideaal in 2011 and another from Brighton to Chatham on the yacht Jacomina in 2015. Her accounts of these voyages make compelling reading: there is a necessary element of technical jargon (for which a most helpful glossary is provided) but the abundant impression is exhilaration tinged with high-velocity fright when storms and spills inevitably intrude. Rachel’s flowing prose vividly conveys the unique sensations of travelling by boat; finding, for example, that ‘on the water, the sounds of the city [in the Port of London] seemed altered.’


Sweeping past the Royal Docks where over forty thousand people had been employed prior to the 1960s, and where ‘the place was once so congested with boats you could walk across them from one side to the other’, Rachel saw in 2011: ‘ Evidence all along the route of former industrial sites being demolished and replaced by residential developments.’


History and modern-day commercial reality collide too at the London Gateway Port near Stanford-le-Hope. Funded by DP World (Dubai), with aim to become the most automated deep water super-port in the  world, this new-build site has revealed an old Roman salt works and some prized archaeological finds and shipwrecks. Rachel concludes her book at this futuristic location ‘dominated by colossal quay cranes.’ Observing that in its clinical modernity it looks ‘different from anywhere else along the Estuary foreshore’ she tells us that thousands of jobs will ultimately be created at the London Gateway Port and its surrounding logistics park. But what will be the toll on the local environment and ecology? This is a controversial topic, especially the long-term effect of the recent seabed dredging, but, as Rachel notes: ‘The development of the new port and the big ships that travel there from around the globe are part of the continual battle over the space of the Estuary. In the late 19th century, steam and sail were in conflict over the same territory.’


And lest anyone should assert that the Thames Estuary is a ‘non-place … [of] ruination, collapse’ Rachel’s final chapter of Estuary includes an optimistic forecast by retired tugman Keith Toms: ‘A void was left after the docks shut down. Now you can look at the new port and say maybe life is coming back to the river.’


Jerry Dowlen

June 2017

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


  Stan Barstow

   The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.

  The novelist R.F. Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.

  How The Wild West Was Written

Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins

John Updike

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


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