“You’re talking bollocks!” – man in Essex Marina.
Oh, don’t get me started.
Turns out where I’d pitched up last night was not Hadleigh Park but the picnic area of the very public Benfleet boating club. Despite being pretty soaked, I had a good night’s rest and woke up about nine. Dog-walkers passed my tent gingerly. Packing up took a while as everything from my wallet to wedding ring had a knack of disappearing inside a sleeping bag or some grassy undergrowth. I managed to cook some beans on the stove and typed up day 1’s escapades while it was still dry, but every muscle on my body was announcing its pain in a different whining sound. I tried drying out the clothes in vain.
I followed Google’s recommended path to Southend, which turned out to be a muddy and tough path flanked by beautiful marshland. Small boats jingled in the wind and the path was largely empty. The scent of sea-air is deeply reassuring for some of us. The scenery was wonderful, but my bike was dying under the strain. One pannier, already broken by the rigmaroles of Ilford, lost another of its parts, making riding with it difficult. The sleeping bag got stuck in the wheel, breaking the mudguard.
“My life hath been the ocean storm
A black and troubled sea,
When shall I find my life a calm
A port and harbour free.”
John Clare certainly isn’t the first to find in the sea some expression of an existential conundrum. But the sea’s always been tempestuous on many English coasts, from the millennia-old fishing communities now being dispersed in south-west Cornwall or Hull, or in the sailing and war-making of Kent and Essex. We forget that the Dutch once sailed up the Thames and wreaked havoc on the sitting navy ships near the Medway. This island’s fear of invasion has largely been borne by Kent, Essex and Sussex. They’re also much-invaded too, with small towns and roads having French and Dutch names.
Everything felt incredibly heavy. Everything hurts. As the slow road continued on, I decided that the stove would go. I eventually made it through the park and the adjacent Salvation Army farm, and some ruins in the distance. I pedaled through the leafy tudorbethan suburbs of Chalkwell, Leigh and Westcliff-on-Sea and made it to Southend, which cheered me immensely.
I love the place, I love its fish and chip caffs, adventure island and the prospect of ice-cream and a uniquely unromantic vista of industrial works in Kent. I love Southend, I really do, with the elated and melancholic pleasure that any kind of tragic unrequited love entails. I would’ve happily stayed, but Southend’s one of the few places I’ve been many times. So I went on, following a sea-path besides patriotic-titled pubs, and endless chippies, til I got to Shoeburyness.
Shoeburyness is intriguing. Long dismissed as a suburban nowhere, it’s full of mysteries. When I arrive, no one is allowed to visit the beach due to the discovery of unexploded WW2 bombs. A large boom still survives from either 1939, 1944, or sometime in the 1950s (I can’t find an immediate conclusive source), built to prevent German ships and submarines attacking vessels in the Thames. The Internet is useless in this respect, full of contrary views holding weight based on how many people click the link. I ask a preoccupied looking elderly man at the beachfront where the boom is and receive clear and factual information. Today it is a long line of wooden piles. Nearby, an MOD sign warns that gun practice continues today. Like Orford Ness in Suffolk just to the north, signs of war and the fear of invasion remain.
I post the gas stove back home, and give my cooking bowl to a lady in the post office, who promises to use it to feed her dog. I feel a little lighter after.
My next direction is Burnham-on-sea, back through the suburbs of Shoeburyness and Southend, which increasingly appears like a large and similar conurbation. I pass more McDonalds, more suburban semis, and little I can call distinctive, except that most of what I see is distinguished by a similar set of styles. J.G. Ballard wrote with relish that it is in the suburbs that the ‘real Britain’ exists, defined by dual carriageways, rent-a-car forecourts, massive malls and nearby airports. Yet Ballard’s ‘real Britain’ reflects the middle-class suburbs of Walton, Shepperton and Kingston. Whilst I broadly agree with the view, the low-income, patchy looking places I pass are more common, and more indicative of a kind of sterilised disorientation of cultural life. I’m not sure what happens here.
But then I’m free, out in the fields, passing through a place with the improbable name of Sutton with Shopland, and from there to genteel Stambridge which seems to hold some association with Anne Boleyn. I’m enjoying the ride again. The marshlands are full of mysteries and the towns I pass reassuringly old-fashioned, poorly-appointed newsagents and Indian restaurants from the 1970s. I know it’s false, but I like it. Here’s some more John Clare:
“I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down”
“And man, that noble insect, restless man
Whose thoughts scale heaven in its mighty span”.
I get to Essex Marina at around ten past five, but the joy is over. The last ferry to Burnham-on-Crouch left ten minutes before, and there is no way round the River Crouch except a two or three hour cycle. I can’t bear it. It’s so frustrating not to get everything now, immediately. It’s a generational feature I’ve discovered, from conversations with people born in the 1960s and prior. Growing up with the internet lends itself to thinking everything else ought to be of immediate access.
Fortunately, there’s a bar nearby, and a campsite with a shower not too far either. Here I am. Not much further in terms of distance, but getting closer in terms of encountering ways of life not like my own. Some of the young people here are about to leave to go and work in Kavos and the clubs of the Mediterranean. Seems I’m not the only one seeking out some unknown satisfaction in a distant adventure.
And, to be honest, I’m not sad about taking it easy and enjoying a few pints at the Marina bar. But I do miss my home and my bed.
So, change of plan tomorrow: I’m keen to get to Orford Ness on Saturday morning, the only day of the week that it’s open. I’ll pass Burnham, St Peter on the Wall and Maldon as I meant to today, and from there I’ll get to Colchester and straight to Ipswich. I’ll miss some places I wanted to see: Jaywick, Clacton-on-sea and Walton-on-the-naze, but I can capture some dilapidated seaside resorts on the Kent leg. Felixstowe I’ll be sorry to miss, but I’ve been promised a bed in Ipswich that I look forward to. Wish me luck, it’s a lot of miles.