The last time the tour was on English soil was 2007 when it past through Chatham in the Thames Gateway for stage 1. At the time my future wife, studying for her MA, lived in a small Victorian terrace, near the station and close to the route. She was lucky enough to see it pass at the bottom of the hill below UCA Rochester (technically Chatham), her recollection of it is about 30 secs of bikes zooming past.
The stage took place on a Sunday, if it had been a weekday it would have interfered with her walk to work as, the route followed a similar route. It came under the river, through the Medway Tunnel, emerging close to Dickens World, the old Royal Docks and close to where she worked. At the time she worked for a sub prime credit company, in the collections department, and a large part of her job involved trying to arrange payments from people who really shouldn’t have been given a credit card, or pretended to have no idea how credit and interest worked in the first place ‘so what do you mean, I have to pay for what I bought, and stuff on top of that, THAT’S NOT FAIR’! In some instances the interest rate was as high as 69.9%, however she on the whole enjoyed the work, the company were good to her and it fitted around her time at uni.
There offices overhung one of the huge submarine ponds that acted as a demarcation zone between the mainland and St Mary’s Island. It was Rebecca that first became interested in St Mary’s and persuaded me that we needed to take a walk around it. This is important to point out, as the last time I wrote about the area I suggested that I came across the location. Rebecca gets very annoyed about me claiming credit for things, I blame the passing of time, but reality is I do steal her ideas.
I revisited for the first time in a while, a few months ago, and the first time with a large format camera. The site hasn’t changed much over the years, mainly due to the economic downturn, they are still working on what was then phase 3, The Fishing Village, with the western edge of the island still an unkempt wasteground hidden behind large wooden hoardings. An exercise in screening the new community from the reality of a locale, a phenomenon that Amy Hanley and Rick Dargavel write about in their Edgelands paper
Screening ‐ Visual concealment makes social context invisible. A typical example is St Georges Island, a luxury apartment development in the centre of Manchester.
It occupies a site between the Bridgewater canal, the Metro tramline and a disused viaduct.
The developers used hoardings to visually and physically separate the arches below the viaducts that are used by the homeless as places to shelter, eat and sleep.
The hoardings advertising mirrors the luxury lifestyle and aspirations projected by the developers and is blank towards the homeless spaces.
This visit to St Mary’s came at the end of a two-day period working on exploring the Thames Gateway and Identifying sites. As usual I choose to stay in an edgeland Premier Inn Hotel, this time on a roundabout in Purfleet, next to the M25 and Dartford Crossing. The hotel was stuck between water filled chalk pits and distribution centres, the most impressive of which was situated in an old pit and took up the entire space, with an access tunnel bored through the cliff.
To the south was the high-speed rail line, the only development of note during the original Thames Gateway scheme.
I started by revisiting sites that I first came across in 2012 during my first recce visit. That time I stayed with my now pregnant wife in an Ibis where she purposely asked for a room overlooking the motorway and QE2 Crossing. It was the same hotel that Ian Sinclair visited while working on the film version of London Orbital by Chris Petitt.
I started at St Clement’s Church, and sits in the shadow of the Proctor & Gamble works, which belches out a constant vaguely unpleasant sweet smell.
The church of St Clement is in St. Clement’s Road, south of Hedley Avenue. Until the earlier 20th century it stood alone in the Thames side marshes, but it is now surrounded and dwarfed by factories, warehouses, and a power station.
The choice of such an isolated and inconvenient site has never been explained, and there was apparently no human habitation within 800 metres but the road to an ancient ferry passed close by and some believe it on the route of pilgrimage to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket. Pilgrims were said to either cross the Thames by boat, or at low tide it was then possible to walk across, using a ford which used to exist before the river was dredged in modern times to allow it to be used as a shipping canal.
As usual I parked in the tiny laybay just before the main entrance. You walk down a sandy path in a tiny copse of trees between the plant and the site of the former West Thurrock power station.
The coal-fired station closed in 1993 and was later demolished. The large bulk coal unloader still sits at the end of the Slipway on the Thames.
The power station was served by the two pylons on either side of the river, one mile apart, At 190m they are the tallest in Britain.
In 2006 a base jumper died jumping from the opposite pylon, when his parachute failed to open, The Swanscombe pylon, said to be tallest in Britain, is popular with base-jumpers because of its height and two platforms at 300ft and 670ft.
Big boulders, of alien stone, daubed with lurid graffiti, regularly block the path to stop dirt bikers from using the area.
In reality all it does it force the dirt bikers to widen the path, or make cut throughs.
The path emerges onto the Thames wall, and a bench sits allowing you to take in the bucolic sights and smells of the works. At this point the Thames is a cavernous expanse of wide water and the luxury flats being built on the opposite shore are a pinprick in the distance. The first people I come across are a family on bike using the bench for a rest. It is a weekday and the children should be at school.
A footpath runs along the top of the tidal wall, I have never been to this stretch, but I have experienced it further down river at Canvey Island and around the Isle of Grain. I stop under one of the slipways to the boat moorings and customs point to take a picture, The Proctor & Gamble works framed by the void under the slip. It is a pure cliché, but also the first shot of the day and important to get out of the system. A fellow photograph stops for a chat about my large format Horseman camera, he is carrying a Canon digital and snapping shots of discarded spray cans, A little snobbery sets in on my part, but each to his own.
The whole length of the wall is covered in ornate graffiti that is so thick with paint layers that it breaks off in places like plaster. So close to the road, this section is pretty tame, the further along you go the better it gets, the less talented are obviously not big on walking. The images range from science fiction inspired 1970s style pieces to geometric patterns, clearly inspired by the de stihlj movement.
The whole length of the Thames is littered with remnants of past conflicts, pill boxes sit idle, waiting for an invasion that never came, form the smell of them they are now impromptu toilets. They have started sinking into the soft mud. I take images as and when the mood takes me, drawn to various breaks in the landscape that afford a view of the conflict between the natural and built world.
While taking a shot of a pillbox, I start chatting to a graffiti artist and his highland terrier, who takes an instant dislike to my camera bag. I consider interviewing him, but at this point my ethics statement hasn’t been cleared so I think better of it. Instead we have a loose chat about his connection to the place. I find out that he had recently moved back to the area and was a painter and decorator by trade. He was only just starting to get back into painting and had chosen a space far away from the main slog, that he was going to make his gallery. He confirmed my suspicions that the closer to civilization, the higher the chance the work would be painted over by some newb. He also felt comfortable that he could get back into the swing without being bothered. He had dragged an old ladies shopping trolley for two kilometres, full of paint, something I could appreciate with my huge camera on my back.
Past the former power station and pylon, opens up a wide expanse of scrubland, falling away from the tidal wall and sitting below the level of the Thames, West Thurrock Marshes, making it susceptible to flooding.
In the later 17th century West Thurrock suffered at least two catastrophic floods. In 1668 it was stated that one farm there was vacant and worthless after flooding and that its reclamation would take seven years. In 1690 the marshes were flooded through a breach in the sea walls of Francis Moore. Repairs were neglected, causing a permanent breach over 100 yd. wide and 24 ft. deep at high tide, and a growing sandbank in the Thames. The Rainham court of sewers apparently took no action, and a special commission of sewers, promoted by the City of London, was eventually appointed to deal with the emergency, as with the breach at Dagenham in 1707. The commission attempted to levy a rate to mend the breach, but only one marsh landowner, Sir Robert Clayton, paid. By 1694 the commission estimated that repairs would cost at least £5,000, and that the total freehold value of the marshes, together with Clayton’s rate, was only £5,265. It therefore ‘decreed’ or sequestrated the lands of all the other owners and sold them to a consortium of London merchants and sea captains for £5,145, to be spent immediately on stopping the breach. One source, relating to the marshlands of West Thurrock manor, alleges that the Londoners had obtained the special commission by pretending that the sandbank was dangerous to navigation, and implies that they made an excessive profit on a fraudulent speculation. It states that Benjamin Desborough, lord of the manor, had spent £1,500 on building counter walls and had almost finished doing so when his lands were decreed by the special commission. At all events it seems that the breach was stopped by 1696, or at the latest by February 1697, when the London consortium, as the new owners of the marshes, conveyed them to trustees. The consortium thus acquired some 857 acres, which they later enlarged by purchase, but Benjamin Desborough challenged their title in a series of lawsuits lasting until his death c. 1708, and that was followed by litigation within the consortium, whose complicated affairs were not finally settled until 1750.
At West Thurrock, as at Dagenham, the breach left a permanent mark on local topography. When the sea wall was rebuilt the flood channel behind it, about 1,100 yd. west of Stone Ness, was left as a lake, named as ‘the Breach’ on maps down to the 19th century, and later shown as swamp.
West Thurrock was affected by the floods of 1897, when the railway line to Grays was put out of action for three months. It suffered much more in 1953, when the great industrial complex at Purfleet was flooded, as well as the railway.
A History of the County of Essex: Volume 8, (1983)
Marion Shoard wrote about the importance area in her essay Call to Arms
The West Thurrock Marshes on the edge of Grays on the lower Thames in east London is an example of what I have in mind. No interpretation board greets the explorer who clambers up from a main road along which lorries thunder to come upon this little-known but extraordinary site. Across its 66 hectares, wild vegetation extends in an endlessly changing combination: Michaelmas daisies give way to waving reeds which merge imperceptibly into patches of sea aster then wild parsnip or wild carrot. Walk here in early summer and you come upon the bee orchid, yellow-wort, southern marsh orchid and centaury; in winter carpets of deep-pink glasswort border little paths which wind around the site. The electricity pylons which stride across part of the site provide a reminder that these plants flourish not on naturally occurring soil but a substrate of the dark grey powder of pulverised fly ash (PFA), deposited from a local power station years ago.
Plants of this nature are known as ruderal species and the first plants to repopulate disturbed ground, they are often found on wasteground or amongst rubbish.
In the last decade the site has been of huge contention, with a proposed lorry park and Royal mail distribution centre looking to develop the brown field area, the guardian wrote about the developments and the work of the organization Buglife to seek protection and understanding of brownfield areas, and their vital role in our ecology.
West Thurrock Marshes, on the Essex shore of the Thames Estuary just west of the Dartford crossing, is a classic example of a brownfield site that has become of critically important refuge for endangered wildlife.
The Thames Gateway is one of the driest and warmest parts of the UK, and as such it has a unique fauna with many rare species. Two key flower rich habitats containing bare ground have now been largely lost from the Thames Gateway—upper saltmarsh and gravel grasslands. Sea walls, reclamation and saltmarsh erosion have squeezed out the dynamic upper saltmarsh habitats—areas of rarely inundated bare sand and mud, interspersed with ruderal and shrubby vegetation and a specialised insect fauna. This was once the habitat of the Essex emerald moth (Thetidia smaragdaria maritima), which after decades of hanging on at a few remaining sites was declared globally extinct in the 1990s. The gravel grasslands on the terraces historically deposited by the Thames were once sweeps of flower-rich, low nutrient, wild grasslands, buzzing with bees, wasps and other insect life. These areas have now been almost completely agriculturally improved or built on.
The power station at West Thurrock (now closed and demolished) produced a waste product known as PFA; this material resembles grey sand. The PFA was settled out in ponds on land neighbouring the power station. As these ponds dried out the sandy substrate was colonised by a range of species, including many rare and endangered species that occurred on the unique, but disappearing, local natural habitats.
The 32 hectares of West Thurrock Marshes contains bare ground, flower rich grassland, scrub and saltmarsh and is one of the richest and most important wildlife sites in the country. It is home to 36 invertebrate species listed in the Red Data Book and 17 species of ‘principal importance’ for the conservation of biodiversity (UK BAP Priority Species). Threatened species include; the Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis) and Red-shanked bumblebee (Bombus ruderarius), two of the greatly declined bumblebee species that depend on the large areas of flower-rich grassland; the Sea-aster colletes bee (Colletes halophilus) thrives on the abundant saltmarsh flowers; the Saltmarsh shortspur beetle (Anisodactylus poeciliodes) and the Fancy-legged fly (Campsicnemus magius), upper saltmarsh species that live on bare damp mud; the Five-banded weevil wasp (Cerceris quinquefasciata), which also requires bare sandy areas for nesting; the Hornet robberfly (Asilus crabroniformis), Britain’s largest fly and is a predator associated with animal dung; the Distinguished jumping spider (Sitticus distinguendus), only known in Britain from two development-threatened brownfield sites, and the rare Hump-backed red ant (Myrmica bessarabica), both the latter are restricted to sandy coastal habitats.
The only British sites known to be home to more rare species than West Thurrock Marshes are Windsor Great Park, an area of ancient woodland of the highest quality which is over 65 times larger and the unique coastal shingle habitat at Dungeness in Kent; both of these sites have been much more extensively surveyed than West Thurrock Marshes.
Early in 2006 a planning application was submitted for a huge Royal Mail distribution centre and lorry park on the northern section of West Thurrock Marshes. This would cover an area equivalent to 15 football pitches and destroy over half of the northern part of the marshes, including two thirds of the critically important flower-rich areas that support key insect species. Many rare animals could be lost from the land forever and the area of habitat available to all the species would be reduced: all this despite the fact that the site was designated for wildlife and open space in the local plan. Buglife—The Invertebrate Conservation Trust, alongside the local Council and Essex Wildlife Trust, pushed hard for a less damaging scheme to be developed, but in November 2006 the unelected Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation approved the plans.
A motion was tabled in the House of Commons, calling for the protection of the site, which received cross-party support and in early 2007 Buglife met with then Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Biodiversity Minister to press for the site to be protected. But a political solution was not forthcoming.
Buglife initiated a judicial review to legally challenge the process that resulted in the decision. On the basis that the development runs counter to the principles enshrined by the Biodiversity Convention, and that in deciding to allow the development the Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation failed to have sufficient regard for the biodiversity value of the site and hence did not properly apply the duty to ‘have regard to biodiversity’ that applies to all public bodies as set out in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006). In addition, the Government’s planning guidance on biodiversity (Planning and Policy Statement 9 (PPS9)) sets out a series of processes by which planning bodies should make decisions. These include considering alternative sites if there is harm to biodiversity and ensuring that there is no damage to species listed as being of ‘principal importance’ for conserving biodiversity.
On 22 February 2008 the case went to court. The result was bad news for all wildlife, and not just the bugs of West Thurrock Marshes. Mr Justice Mitting dismissed the application to quash planning permission. In doing so he characterised the 2006 Biodiversity Duty as being a ‘weak one’, and gave greater weight to the statutory documents that underpin planning bodies. The judgment seemed to set a precedent that planning bodies do not have to follow national planning guidance on protecting biodiversity if this conflicts with a narrow interpretation of their regeneration role as requiring all land to be brought into productive commercial use, regardless of its wildlife importance.
Undeterred Buglife launched a campaign to persuade Royal Mail to pull out of the development as a show of corporate responsibility. Ironically in April 2008 the Royal Mail produced a set of insect conservation stamps so Buglife produced a mock set of postage stamps based on some of the endangered species that the development would threaten.
Dozens of letters were written to Royal Mail by campaign supporters. Initially Royal Mail refused to absolutely rule out moving onto to West Thurrock Marshes, but in August 2008 Dr Steven Boorman, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Royal Mail, said ‘I can confirm that Royal Mail will not be moving to the site at PFA lagoons at West Thurrock Marshes. We have found a more suitable site, which better meets our needs, in the area.’
However, the owner-developer Goodman International pushed ahead with their application for planning permission.
Buglife was awarded an appeal, heard in November 2008 the judges agreed that the Development Corporation had failed to properly consider alternative sites for the development, and had not followed PPS9 in a rigorous manner. However, despite this, the appeal was unsuccessful, with the judges concluding that the Development Corporation was entitled to rely upon a paragraph in a Natural England letter – which stated that the development offered the ‘possibility of a long term nature conservation gain for the area’ – as proof that the impacts of the development would not be significant, and that the development was therefore ecologically acceptable.
Buglife petitioned the House of Lords on the grounds that the Appeal Court should have applied a test of ‘anxious scrutiny’ rather than ‘benevolent construction’ to the decision to override the Environmental Impact Assessment; considering the environmental information in the round, and not allowing a single statement to negate the Environmental Impact Assessment. The House of Lords turned the petition down in May 2009.
In January 2010 Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation granted planning permission on the reserved matters, but withheld the agreement of a phasing plan and assessment of the impacts of light pollution on the site’s ecology as additional planning conditions.
West Thurrock marshes: Refuge for endangered wildlife at risk, The Guardian (2010)
Buglife has since used extensive GIS mapping and field visits to survey all brownfield sites with the Thames Gateway Region, this took place between 2005-07
and was revisited last year in their paper The State of Brownfields in the Thames Gateway (2013) , the following text is taken from their executive summary;
Brownfield sites can be havens for wildlife, supporting rare and scarce invertebrates which have suffered population declines due to the loss of natural habitats in the wider landscape. However, brownfields are frequently targeted for development, despite many being the sole biodiverse green spaces in urban areas. Following the ‘All of a Buzz in the Thames Gateway’ project to map important brownfield habitat resources in the Thames Gateway, the dataset was revisited to quantify the rate of loss of sites valuable to invertebrates, since their assessment between 2005 and 2007. The 198 sites of High and Medium importance for invertebrates were categorised depending on whether the site was still intact, partially destroyed, completely destroyed or where planning permission had been granted and was therefore likely to be lost in the near future.
This review highlights that over a six-year period, over half (51%) of important brownfields within the Thames Gateway had been lost, damaged or were under immediate threat. The regional breakdown identifies that London has the highest rate of development with over two thirds (69%) of sites lost, damaged or with an outstanding planning permission. This report highlights that the planning system does not deliver safeguards for brownfield habitats and invertebrates of conservation concern, and calls for greater protection and consideration of their value. The rate of development on brownfields is highly unsustainable, putting rare and endangered species at risk of local or national extinction.
I have yet to take any photos within West Thurrock Marshes, as on the day I was there Network rail were carrying out clearance works as it is now the point that the high speed rail link exits from underneath the Thames. However due to the research I have read, I am keen to return and explore the site.
Further west along the river sits the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, and next to it is a Lafarge cement works.
Another slipway juts out into the water to allow aggregates to be unloaded, for distribution around the UK. I realize that as I am now on the tidal side of the wall the path stops abruptly when it reaches the slipway security fencing, designed to stop people and contraband illegally entering the country without going through customs. My only option is to drop down the stone wall onto the foreshore and walk under obstruction. The shoreline is littered with flotsam and jetsam, plastic containers, rope, oil drums and most worrying a pushchair and child’s ride on tractor that is missing a wheel. As is often the case in these locations, I half expect to see a body washed up, but that is from watching too many films and tv programs.
The closer I get to the bridge the larger it becomes. You never get the scale when you are driving over it, trying to catch glimpses of the area around you, while trying to avoid going it to the back of someone else. In reality the space underneath it is monumental, a lift goes up one of the concrete pillars to the deck above, to allow for the current maintenance work. You can hear the vehicles booming overhead, amplified as the hit the metal expansion joints that separated the expressway from the bridge itself, thudclack, thudclack. The tide is out exposing the base of the pillars that sit anchored to the riverbed, surrounded by the thick Thames mud. I’m impressed to see that someone has tagged the base, no mean feat, being 30 metres past the shoreline.
Past the bridge the space opens out behind the tall security fence, just beyond it is the white funnel air intake for the tunnel below. I have seen it’s sister on the opposite river bank multiple times, it is often the last thing you notice as you drop below ground level. The Dartford side one sits within the complex of roadways and buildings that furnish the tollbooths. This side has none of that infrastructure, unkempt bushes surround it. It is the first time I have seen it, as you’re normally exit the tunnel with it at your back, unless the bridge is closed and traffic is being diverted under the river.
A warning siren sounds, lunch break is over and the overhead conveyor belt restarts at the next-door aggregate works. I continue along the Thames path towards the ferry port, a boat is moored at the end of the jetty, lorries trundle onto the waiting ship. I pass the battered and abused remnants of old wooden jetties, too worn to sustain traffic now.
The path drops down under the roadway above, the narrow tunnel is dark and flooded in the middle. I consider this a good point to turn round and head back to the car.
Before returning to my hotel I decide drive along the new section of A13 and explore the new Ferry Lane industrial complex on the riverbank, just past the new RSPB Rainham Marshes. The location is split by the A13 flyover into a north and south site, it is currently sandwiched by the marshes and the Ingrebourne River. It is a mixture of older industrial units and giant new glass cubes housing companies like Tilda. The south side is were all the development appears to be happening.
As I drive down coldharbour Lane an man sits on the fence opposite one of the older units, a mug in one hand and fag in the other, clearly a response to the no workplace smoking rules. I do a quick lap of the territory in my white van, for once I don’t look out of place. Crossing under the A13, I am back into the familiar edgeland landscape of breakers yards, and transport cafes. The road carries on to the village of Rainham. While on the surface Rainham appears to be another small town/village, the reality is it is the furthest end of the unbroken mass of East London expansion, the only thing that keeps Dagenham, Hornchurch, Rainham etc from merging is the proliferations of small creeks and rivers running into the Thames that separate the conurbations for short periods.
We’ve been going to Rainham Marshes for a few years now – one of our favourite places. Since 2003 the architect Peter Beard has been responsible for a series of commissions for trail-making and interpretation of the site, along with designs for an educational field centre and a series of bridges connecting the nature reserve to the wider public network of footpaths, cycleways, roads and rail connections. The latest addition to this work is the magnificent ‘Trackway’, an elongated high-level walkway and cycle-path connecting the Rainham station pedestrian bridges (as well as Rainham Village) to the north-western corner of the marshlands.
The extensive site – consisting of Rainham, Wennington and Aveley Marshes – is a former collection of military firing ranges and ordnance depots, fringed on its perimeter by a landfill site, a housing estate, with the Thames to the south and a conglomeration of railway lines, electricity pylons, feeder roads, and breakers’ yards to the north. Yet the marshland itself appears as serene as Dutch painting in the midst of all this heavy and sometimes redundant infrastructure. Sheep and cattle graze, great flocks of over-wintering birds arrive and depart in formation, and the variegated colours of the tussocky grasslands, reedbeds, ponds and silt lagoons create a world-weary endurance of their own.
For the past couple of years Peter has concentrated on the north-eastern corner of the marshlands, north of the A13, an area which had been taken over by construction companies working on the adjacent Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL). This area had been given a hardcore surface, which then had to be re-naturalised – but only to a degree. Scrub nature doesn’t take long to return. The interventions here have involved a series of semi-permeable footpaths and farm tracks, with boardwalks and bridges weaving a path through reed-beds and grasses, and across ditches and wetlands around the edge of the site, leaving the central marshlands free for grazing animals and colonies of nesting birds. The different boundary lines – grazing parcels, reed-beds, site edges and off-limits railway lines – are each given a distinctive fencing style, with chestnut paling, traditional iron estate railings, meshed-wire stock fencing, all slowly melding into the lush vegetation.
Return to Rainham, thenewenglishlandscape (2013)
On the way back to the hotel I drive down the expertly named Arterial Road, a truck stop catches my eye, “the arterial road has developed a way of life of its own with its ribbon-type development – villa, ‘caff’, garage, motel, caravan camp” Nairn, Outrage (1956).
The two story glass box is named Circus Tavern and has signs outside for kickboxing events and Asian weddings, attached to one side of it is a flat roofed building, with signs advertising it as Tenshi Gentleman’s club.
This is the first time I have spotted an edgeland strip club/truck stop; I suppose they have thought about there clientele. It is not quite as odd as the sex shop on the A1(m) just outside of Grantham, which is housed in a old McDonalds drive-thru. Whenever I drive past it I always wonder who drives down the dual carriageway and suddenly decides they need some instant pornography in their life?
The problem with staying in edgeland chain hotels is you are either compelled to eat in their own restaurants, which are always full of reps, whose lives are lived between the company car and chain hotel, single serving friends as Chuck Palahniuk described them in Fight Club. Or you try your luck at any of the identical chain restaurants dotted around the neighbouring units, however your choice will always inevitably boil down to burger, dirty chicken, or Italian (pizza). Had I been earlier in trying to find somewhere to eat, I might have tried to find the mythical Taco Bell housed somewhere inside the mammoth Lakeside complex, however as is often the case, I normally finish shooting pretty late, so in this case I went with the pizza option of Pizza Hut, which like all fast food restaurants was a mythical place when I was growing up, only witnessed on TV adverts. Thank you Mum and Dad, for saving me from terrible overpriced food.
The good thing about a large pizza is you can always take some back for you and have an easy breakfast, when you are exhausted from a terrible nights sleep in a strange bed, and sore from lugging a stupid large format camera around all day. While I was driving around trying to find somewhere to eat, I saw that beyond Lakeside, as you start to hit the smaller commercial units is a lot of life late at night, local lads with their souped up hatchbacks, parked up and admiring each others rides. A double decker bus, lit up with blue neon sells burgers to the crowds. I get some awkward looks as I slowly cruise by in my van, but it is no more aggressive than Yarmouth seafront on a Saturday night, and everyone is too busy chatting to really notice me.
The next morning I wake up to find the whole Thames Gateway covered in thick fog. The newspaper and clean air lobby later refer to it as terrible smog, but it is no different to any other fog I have experienced, rolling off the cold Thames. It reminds me of the opening of Dicken’s Great Expecations.
It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.
I check out of the hotel and decide to head back down to the waterfront to see how it has changed in the weather conditions, if it is still the same county that Dickens and Conrad wrote about. I stop halfway back to the church and look at the new bridge for the high-speed line, appearing out of the mist.
You can’t make out the Lafarge works or QE2 Bridge in the background, but you can still hear its constant wail. It is easy to understand how people used to get lost in the marshes; distances and sounds start to play tricks on you, without way makers you get turned around. I set up under the rail bridge, the trains whooshing overhead. The new concrete construction appears to have been dropped down onto the pre-existing landscape, leaving small voids under and around it. I work to cantilever my camera through the gaps in the fence panels, the tripod at a weird angle and the front standard propped against the galvanised metal.
As I’m working I notice that all the lorries pull out of the BP depot, and park in a layby round the corner, each spends around 10 min have a cigarette, checking their cab and reading the paper. I consider asking each of them if I can take a quick portrait of them in the cab, but I only have the monorail camera, plus speaking to to people who approach you is one thing, I’m still not ready to approach strangers and certainly not truckers, if the media has taught me one thing it is that they are strange. As the fog start to burn off it takes on a nicotine colour as the sun tries to break through. It might be time to move on, and I agree with myself to cross the river and head to St Mary’s, but first a stop to look at the new builds I could see around Swanscombe from the river bank the day before. A quick check of my OS map shows that I need to head to Greenhithe, the new development is clearly visible for its contemporary jaunty road layout, sitting next to the chalk cliffs that sit below Swanscombe March.
After paying my £2.50 to cross the Thames at the toll booth, I almost immediately have to take the left junction, swinging back on myself on the exotically named Crossways Boulevard, as usual some clown cuts me up, clearly unaware that junction was so quickly after the toll. This happens every time I come to this section of the Thames. Crossways Boulevard is the main route from Bluewater to the Dartford Crossing, and hugs the contours of the Thames, with new business parks on either side and a series of ponds dotted around its roundabout system.
I come to a roundabout and the road sharply turns to my right heading towards the shopping mall, I take the first left and head into Greenhithe. Greenhithe was once a small hamlet, but little of this appears to remain, and now feels like any other waterside overspill estate, a collection of red brick semi detached houses and newer waterfront flats. It had a brief spell of popularity with the Victorians after the building of a now gone pier, and was the local maritime school housed the Cutty Sark from 1938 till it was given to the National Maritime Museum after the end of the second world war.
A series of blue fencing and advertising hoardings lead me to Ingress Park, a development that appears to have doubled the size of Greenhithe and was one of the few developments ot actually happen under the New Labour Thames Gateway scheme. The town houses drop steeply down the hill towards the Thames foreshore, as the estate curves round to my right it opens up into a wide formal lawn with the grade II listed Ingress Abbey at the brow of the hill.
Introducing Ingress Park; a stunning development of new homes in Greenhithe, Kent by Crest Nicholson. Set amongst 72 acres of landscaped grounds on the River Thames, near Bluewater, this desirable residential development is known to locals as Kent’s ‘best kept secret’.
Designed and set around the historic abbey with its waterfront, established parkland heritage and woodland areas, this development of new homes in Greenhithe delivers on its promise of a strong sense of place and community. Our current phase of new development The Pier introduces a contemporary collection of 1, 2 & 3 bedroom apartments and penthouses overlooking the River Thames.
Ingress Park is perfectly placed with easy access onto the M25 and A2, and within walking distance of Greenhithe station. It is also just a short drive from Ebbsfleet International station with direct trains to London St Pancras in just 17 minutes.
Crest Nicholson’s promotional material
The building and layout reminds me of Port Merion in North Wales, and not in a positive way. It feels very much like the fake rusticity that Ian Nairn spoke of, simply updated for the 21st century. I take issue with the name. I understand that the site is named after Ingress Abbey and attempts to buy into the history of the site, but all I can think about is people discussing the ingress of water and mould into their properties, the word has too many negative connotations. They would have been better of naming it Empire Park, after the Empire Paper Mill that stood on the site in a previous lifetime.
In the 1880s, the Shah of Persia sailed up the Thames and noted that “the only thing worth mentioning at Greenhithe was a mansion standing amid trees on a green carpet extending down to the water’s edge”, and that is how I feel now.
The strangest aspect of Ingress park is how some of the original topographical elements have been preserved and utilised within the masterplan. At the centre of Palladian Circus is a Tudor earth mound, that once apon a time was probably very pleasant, set amongst the grounds and trees. Now set in the middle of the rotund of town houses it looks like a strange helter skelter, and bares an uncanny resemblance to the tree topped hill in the London 2012 opening ceremony, complete with standing stone.
The problem with any new estate is the planned nature of it. We like our villages to look higgledy piggledy and a collection of buildings that have happened over time. Planned developments don’t have this luxury and have to work as planned phases. Various pieces of writing about the development only reinforce my negativity towards it.
The architects of the first phase at Ingress Park took their inspiration from the Grade 2 listed abbey. With sustainability as a priority from the outset, any materials that were recyclable were to be incorporated into the new development. For example, old timbers from demolition were used for street furniture in the new development. An important consideration was to ‘create a real sense of place and not a Disneyland of distinct themed villages’ (Fraser Stewart). This was achieved by a subtle range of architectural detail and a restrained palette being used throughout.
CABE case study into good design
We visited the brownfield site to see the new semi-urban vernacular in action.
When Crest Nicholson was deciding what type of housing to build on its brownfield site in Greenhithe, Kent it found little locally to inspire them. “There are a few gems but not a lot,” says Crest Nicholson strategic director Steve Atkins. “Existing housing stock in the area relates to the industrial past; there’s a lot of back-to-back terrace housing,” he says.
The one clear reference is the Grade II Ingress Abbey, which survived the intervening hundred years of industrial development across the site on the banks of the Thames. Architectural references from the mansion house can be seen in the first phase of new homes at Ingress Park, which is one of ten character areas to be developed in the next two-to-three years. Gables, render and stone architraves are some of the features that borrow from the abbey.
For further inspiration Crest and Tibbalds TM2, the masterplanner and architect, undertook study trips to nearby towns and villages to develop a feel for the north Kent vernacular. The design team included representatives from Dartford Council, which has helped to smooth the planning process for the 900 homes, says Atkins.
The design team were widely influenced by Victorian and Edwardian terraces, which fitted in with an earlier decision to build at a high density. And because of the open book discussions with the planners, the council was also happy with this route. “Part of the agreement was that we would deliver quality in return for density,” says Atkins.
Atkins’ architectural gems are in Greenhithe’s village centre, which contains a variety of Kent house types. These buildings will mostly be reflected in the Village Quarter of Ingress Park, which will sit next to the old village at the waterfront. Materials may include weatherboarding and knapped flint, but Atkins says that some local materials are no longer readily available. As a result materials such as Kentish Rag stone and flint will be sparingly used.
The housing won’t be entirely traditional. There will be an opportunity along the riverfront to be more contemporary, says Fraser Stewart, director at Tibbalds TM2. These homes will still be in keeping with the overall tone of the development. “The integration of detail is important,” he says.
The architect was keen to maintain contiguous terraces, because it believes that it contributes to a more attractive streetscape. The mix of arches, balconies, dormer windows, bespoke garages, bays, gables, orangeries, and different materials also adds drama and ensures a rich variety of housetypes (over 50 in the first 100 homes). “It’s about identifying architectural embellishments that give the townscape value,” says Stewart.
Atkins says the investment in architecture is worth it, particularly in the first stage. “We are setting out our stall. We needed something new that raised the tone and attracted key buyers,” he says “There are competing schemes nearby and our first phase is near the main road which gave us the chance to stand out from the crowd.” Stewart says that quality housing is more important on brownfield land. “If a location is uninspiring the homebuilder has to pay more attention to the architecture in the first instance.” Although the site has been used for industrial processes for the last 100 years, the development of Ingress Park still had to be handled sensitively. Capability Brown had a say in the original landscaping and as well as the Grade II listed house there are seven listed Victorian follies. Atkins says that by working alongside the project the planners could see the amount of investment Crest was putting into the building and restoration of the land. As a result of Crest’s work, which included spending £6m restoring the Abbey, the council is only demanding 10% affordable housing.
According to Stewart, Kent County Council is using Ingress Park as the blueprint for all future developments. This will presumably apply to Crest’s next development in the county. It has bought land on the peninsula next to Ingress Park and is planning to build up to 3000 more dwellings, which will use the 40 000 sq ft of retail planned at Ingress Park.
What makes a streetscene?, Building.co.uk (2001)
While the devolpment has one many awards and plaudits, it hasn’t had it all it’s own way, The Telegraph questions it’s legacy
When wealthy barrister James Harman built his Elizabethan mansion, Ingress Abbey, on the banks of the Thames Estuary, at Greenhithe in Kent, in 1833, he hoped it would become the hub of a villa civilisation to mirror the one lining the Thames between Kew and Richmond.
His architect, Charles Moreing, worked his way through the then enormous sum of £120,000, constructing turrets and crenellations of reclaimed stone from the old London Bridge and Houses of Parliament. The Capability Brown gardens, left over from a previous incarnation of the Abbey, were enriched with follies, grottoes and hermits’ caves.
Then Harman moved in, waiting for others to see the potential of this richly wooded river buff, the first close-up view of England that foreigners had as they sailed into London. He could not have got it more wrong. It was not villas that started popping up along the coast but factories, cement works and, eventually, oil refineries.
By the early 20th century, Harman’s descendants had given up the unequal struggle. They sold off a large part of the grounds for development into the sprawling Empire Paper Mills. The rest of the gardens was left to go to seed and the house was allowed to fall into decay, while around it sprung up the grim, beton brut blocks of the Thames Nautical Training School.
Harman’s ghost has had to wait another 100 years to see the area finally begin to go up. A villa civilisation of sorts is emerging along the Thames Estuary, albeit a rather more mass-market one than he had in mind. With heavy industry in decline and “brownfield development” as one of the great buzzwords of our age, the eastern flanks of the Thames have been declared the nation’s single largest residential expansion zone – the new Thameside linear city as foreseen by Michael Heseltine in the early 1990s when he was Environment Secretary.
If you want to buy a new house in the South-East in the next decade or two, it may well have to be along the Thames estuary. The flanks of the Thames have been projected to absorb more than 100,000 new homes in the next 20 years, accounting for one in eight of all new houses in the South-East.
Welcome to Estuary England, home of the Ford Escort Cabriolet, the glottal stop and now the mega housing estate. Unless you already live here, the most you are likely to have seen of the forthcoming Thameside city is in a hurried glance from the Dartford Bridge, as you fumble around for a £1 coin for the tollbooths.
Save for a misty day, when all you can see is the silvery water of the Thames itself, it does not at first look exactly inviting. There are oil tanks, container parks and cranes as far as the eye can see, while two of the world’s largest pylons carry the national grid across the Thames. Were there still a Shah of Persia to sail up the Thames, he might be tempted to turn back, concluding that Britain was beyond redemption.
Yet, somewhere, among the industrial litter are the first signs of improvement. Along rotting wharves, which not so long ago had intrinsic joke value, the first townhouses are going up.
Greenhithe High Street, a surprisingly pleasant backwater of 18th-century fishermen’s cottages, was, until recently, buried beneath the soot and ash of heavy industry. Now, it has become the heart of a little riverside community. Though the new houses on the quaysides are of indifferent quality, the wonder is that people have been persuaded to live there at all.
But the most promising sign of regeneration is the rejuvenation of Ingress Abbey. Once again, a green carpet stretches down to the Thames and, for the first time in more than 100 years, the house presents a clean façade.
There is a cost attached to its restoration: in return for the £6 million it has spent restoring the house (which it has sold to a technology company as offices for £2 million), Crest Homes has won permission to fill Capability Brown’s former 75-acre gardens with a whopping 950 homes.
It is the kind of deal that is becoming increasingly common, as heritage officers seek to have endangered buildings restored at no public cost and planners try to squeeze building plots out of every last inch. And it is a deal with which, given the state of the park just a couple of years ago, it is difficult not to find sympathy.
Aerial photographs taken in the mid-1990s show the paper mills as an ugly mass of dirty brick, prison-like buildings and the rest of the site, while retaining many of the trees, is unkempt, spoiled by former chalk-workings. Now, a formal avenue of trees, reminiscent of a Parisian park, leads down to the Thames. Soon it will be joined by a riverside walkway and paths through the woods.
There is also a quality that was absent from mass-market developments until recently: the kerb-stones are granite, the pathways in a warm gravel. The houses, too, are a new departure for estuary England, where the mock-Tudor window and the neo-Georgian plastic pillar – often used on the same house – have ruled. Mock-Tudor hasn’t been abandoned but, in keeping with Harman’s original villa, it has been taken upmarket.
It is an environment to which many new home-buyers may find it takes time to adjust. Gone are the sweeping driveways for three family cars which, until recently, buyers believed they had a right to expect. The Thames Estuary is at the frontier of the brave new world of PPG3 – the name of the Government document that obliges local authorities to increase the density of new developments.
At Ingress Park, the traditional developers’ practice of building 12 to 14 houses to the acre has been dropped in favour of 25 to 30 houses to the acre. That means a home for every 1,500sq ft. You do not achieve this sort of density by building detached houses in landscaped gardens. “That’s the closest you’ll find to a traditional house on the whole development,” says Crest’s development executive Steve Atkins, pointing out a detached, rectangular home.
The majority of the development will be three-storey terrace townhouses with parking underneath. “We’re putting in balconies and roof gardens to make up for the fact that the houses won’t have large gardens,” adds Mr Atkins.
Developers, bless them, have been only too keen to adhere to the Government’s campaign to save the countryside by building homes at ever-higher densities. Mr Atkins goes on at some length about how impressed the planners were that the site’s masterplan obeyed the strictures of PPG3, but omits to mention that squeezing in more houses to the acre might suit the developers’ interests, too.
With more Ingress Parks, Estuary England could lose its reputation as a showcase for all that is ugly about modern Britain. But it is when you leave the development that you wonder whether the new Thameside city will be quite the paradise that the planners’ blueprint forsees.
A mile away lie the sprawling car parks of the Bluewater shopping centre. The high-density of the housing is mocked by its low-density distribution and and by the vast gash in the Downs that is the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the ever-spreading lanes of the A2/M2. You have to ask whether we have got it the right way round: people are made to live hunched up on brownfield sites, while commerce and road and rail projects are granted every acre of greenfield land they demand.
One wonders what poor Harman would make of his neighbourhood. South East Living: Paradise found, lost – and regained? The Telegraph (2001)
The real issue with the estate is the lack of infrastructure, being built by private developers they increasingly think of the bottom line before the needs of the communities they are creating or the impact it will have on the pre-existing ones. Greenhithe was a small village before the Thames Gateway initiative started, it schools, doctor surgeries, leisure facilities were not designed to cope with a doubling in size.
At the crossroads of all this building work is St Mary’s Church, from where Reverend Richard Barron has an uninterrupted view of the ever-changing landscape. He is saddened by the failure of developers to meet the needs of the growing local population. “There is nothing that has been built for the community in the last ten years. It’s a though the community has been by-passed. Things like playing fields, places where children can let off steam, doctors and medical facilities.
“There’s a lot of talk, but when it comes to social cohesion – it’s not there. People have to go elsewhere for leisure and pleasure, which is getting away from a socially sustainable community because they’ve got to get in their cars and go somewhere else.” A local resident describes the promise that developer made to the local community, “Things like doctor’s surgeries and schools that were promised have never materialised. It’s now more of a dormitory area, just a satellite for London”.
The city is to-day not such a growing as a spreading thing, fanning out over the land surface in the shape of suburban sprawl. However something even more sinister is at work: applied science is rendering meanigless the old distinction between urban and rural life; the villager is becoming as much a commuter as the citizen.
Ian Nairn, Outrage (1956)
Terms like satellite towns and overflow areas keep popping up when describing the Thames Gateway. If you look at maps from the start early 20th century compared to now you will see that all of the small villages and hamlets have been swallowed up by the east end of London, leaving one continuous band of urbanism. Developments like the high-speed rail link have made journey times into the city even shorter for those that can afford it, meaning the reach of the London Commuter belt has become further. Suddenly places well outside the M25 belt have become satellites of London. It takes me an hour to get into Central London from Epping on the central line, the journey from Ebbsfleet on HS1 is 17 minutes, while from Chatham it is 40min. Housing prices within London as ridiculous, so we push the reach of London further afield, great if you work in the city, but what happens to the old communities that these developments are displacing?
After leaving Greenhithe and driving through Ebbsfleet, my journey takes me down the new section of the A2, strange pockets of land exist between the new road and old Watling Street, which up until a few years ago was the original course of the A2.
Cafes, petrol stations and motels sit idle, many boarded up, unable to sustain themselves now that they are marooned from passing trade by the immaculate greenery of the highways agencies new soft estate.
Like Robert Maitland in Ballard’s Concrete Island they are marooned within sight of salvation, “alone in this forgotten world whose furthest shores were defined only by the roar of automobile engines… an alien planet abandoned by its inhabitants, a race of motorway builders who had long since vanished but had bequeathed to him this concrete wilderness.” The reality is very few will stop to explore these locations, barely see, seldom acknowledged as they are whisked down the road, 70mph, onto the destination, always the destination. The roadway a metaphor for our understanding of the urbanised world, everything is now bypassed, cant step of the path for fear of becoming lost, places fall off our internal maps.
I finally get to Chatham to start taking photos by the early afternoon. It has taken me half the day, but I feel richer for having stopped and explored along the way. Locations I intend to revisit now I have a feeling for them.