Review: A Snapshot Image of the Thames Estuary’s Swirling Waters

Back in the eighteenth century the Lord Mayor of London and his officials would travel down the Essex coast in steamers and row round a stone in the water three times. They drank a toast “God Preserve the City of London” in a ceremony that marked the end of the city’s jurisdiction of the Thames estuary.

The story is one of the many historical jewels that adorns Estuary: Out from London to the Sea, the latest book by the London-focused historical writer Rachel Lichtenstein.

The City’s limit used to run to the something called the Yantlet Line that connected the Crowstone with the London Stone off the opposite bank.

Modern technology and cartography have made such customs irrelevant but the Great Wen still exerts an influence over the myriad communities that live next to the rivers as it wends its widening way towards the North Sea.

The most recent and most significant is the construction of the London Gateway, a giant docking facility on the Essex coast that can cater for the giant cargo ships that globalisation has created a need for.

To build it required the dredging of millions of cubic metres of riverbed which has had negative consequences for the river creatures that fishing folk hunt and for the navigability of their boats.

This is an issue that percolates gently throughout Estuary. Yet it is the only political issue that appears in what is otherwise a literal and metaphorical journey down the banks of the Thames Estuary, the vast 800 nautical mile swath of water that extends to the English Channel.

The book is a pencil portrait of five years of travelling up and down the two sides of the estuary talking to people who has restored boats, taking part in races involving old craft, dock masters and local celebrities.

The former manager of Dr Feelgood, the rock band that put Canvey Island on the map and who still lives there, and Michael of Sealand, prince of a micro-nation based on a former platform just outside British Waters, are the celebrities.

a gentle celebration of histories and communities 

Through the voices of this collection of people, Lichtenstein is able to tell separate parts of the story of the estuary. She is adept at this “slow” history having made her mark with Rodinsky’s Room, a record written jointly with Iain Sinclair of her painstaking investigation into the reclusive David Rodinsky, who disappeared from his room above a synagogue near Brick Lane that was discovered undisturbed 20 years later.

All Estuary’s water-borne encounters are used to tell a particular episode of the story of the estuary. One learns about the tugboats, barges and lighters that were once so numerous on the Thames that it was possible to walk from one bank to the other.

However sometimes the readers feel like a passenger on a barge with a failed engine and no rudder where they may feel they are floating round in a directionless orbit on the river. Even Lichtenstein ends the book wondering if it is little more than a collection of events over a five-year period.

But what Lichtenstein, who was herself brought in Southend-on-Sea and now lives in Leigh-on-Sea, does bring out is the character of communities so near to and dependent on London but yet so distinct from the city that they could be located hundreds of miles further away.

The book is a gentle celebration of histories and communities rather than a socio-economic tract or a historical whodunit as Rodinsky’s Room is. But maybe just as Lichtenstein helped pioneer the current writers’ obsession with Brick Lane, Estuary may do the same for this vast but yet largely ignored stretch of water. Keep an eye out for the bestseller fiction book and the film.

Estuary: Out from London to the Sea by Rachel Lichtenstein is published by Hamish Hamilton, Hardback 336pp £18.99

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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