The Thames Estuary, where the North Sea meets the River Thames is a major international shipping route bordered by the counties of Essex and Kent.
It has been the traditional entry point for imports and exports, both human and material, for centuries. The area is dotted with military defences, memorials, shipwrecks and churches that tell a rich and complex history of industry, empire and immigration.
Here are (actually a few more than) 7 historic treasures that help to demystify this great waterway.
The River Thames stretches for over 200 miles from the Cotswolds all the way across London and out to the North Sea. In 1197, King Richard I sold his rights to the lower reaches of the Thames and part of the Medway to the City of London in order to finance his crusades. The City marked out its new jurisdiction with boundary stones: the Crow Stone at Chalkwell in Essex (which you can walk out to at low tide), at Upnor as well as an Obelisk, and another stone on the Isle of Grain.
2. Military defences and factories
As the maritime entrance to London, the Thames has always been of great strategic importance and so the estuary was always fortified. Military defences include Hadleigh Castle and Grain Tower, both built as defence against the French in the 13th and 19th Centuries respectively.
Later endeavours include anti-tank obstacles on the Isle of Grain and the striking Red Sands Sea Forts, which were built to provide anti-aircraft fire during the Second World War. Meanwhile Cliffe Marshes is an extensive area of reclaimed estuary salt-marsh and was the site of a Victorian explosives factory that opened in 1892.
The Thames Estuary is home to around 767 recorded wrecks: the earliest known are documented from battles recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 893-894 and the figure also includes downed aircraft from the Second World War and wrecks of Thames barges.
The London was accidentally blown up in 1665, an incident recorded by Samuel Pepys in his diary. The SS Montgomery sank in 1944 and was designated a dangerous wreck in 1973 on account of the presence of live munitions in the ship: her masts are still visible, as the wreck is at a depth of just under 50ft.
In 1606 three ships set sail from Blackwall in London, on board were 105 settlers bound for North America and on arrival they established Jamestown as the first Virginian English colony. In 1616, The Virginia Company of London travelled to England in order to raise funds, bringing with them a Powhatan Native American woman called Pocahontas, who had been converted to Christianity and was married to the English colonist John Rolfe.
The following year as they set sail to return to Jamestown Pocahontas became ill, and was taken ashore at Gravesend in Kent, where she died. Her funeral took place on 21 March 1617 in the parish of St George and though her exact burial place is unknown, a statue in the graveyard remembers her.
5. Early settlers
Located entirely below sea level, the history of Canvey Island has been dictated by the creeks and the Estuary that surround it. In the early 17th century the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden brought land reclamation methods from the Netherlands to England, to undertake work in the Fens and at Canvey.
With him came Dutch labourers and their families, many of whom settled on the island. Two cottages built by the labourers remain, from 1618 and 1621, both of them listed at Grade II.
6. Life and death on the Estuary
On the Hoo Peninsula in Kent is the Grade I listed Church of St James at Cooling, which dates from the late 1200s and early 1300s. The desolate landscape and the gravestones of infants, known as ‘Pip’s Graves’ are generally taken to have been the prototypes for the graves detailed on the first page of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’.
Further east and across the water is the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on Foulness. The remote island is owned by the Ministry of Defence and used for the testing of weapons. It is also home to just under 200 people.
Until the early 20th century, the only access to the island was by a path known as the Broomway, which could only be accessed when the tide was out. In use for at least 600 years, the Broomway extends for six miles and is considered one of the most dangerous paths in England, with over 100 deaths recorded. In the churchyard there are at least 66 burials of those who died attempting to walk it.
7. Tilbury comings and goings
The Port of Tilbury is the principal port for London, with an annual throughput of 16 million tonnes and its own specialised police force. It opened in 1886 as river trade moved downstream out of central London. Close by is Tilbury Fort, where Elizabeth I gave her famous Speech to the Troops in preparation for an expected invasion by the Spanish Armada.
Tilbury was also London’s passenger liner terminal until the 1960s. It was from here that the ‘Ten Pound Poms’ (white Britons enticed to migrate for just £10) set sail for Australia and New Zealand after the Second World War, and to here that the SS Empire Windrush arrived in 1948 with over 1,000 passengers, the vast majority of them Caribbeans seeking a new life in Britain.
Written by Charlotte Goodhart