The Isle of Grain, Deadman’s Island, Bedlam’s Bottom, Shivering Sands. There are strange and evocative names scattered over this liminal place, the Thames Estuary. The Way to the Sea is a readable and engaging tour of this diverse and often mysterious landscape.
Starting at the head of the river, Crampton travels the length of the river telling both her own story and the river’s as she goes. Her parents sailed to Britain from South Africa. They moored in St Katherine’s Docks, just over the river from the Riverside Bookshop, and then settled in the UK. As a child it was normal for the family to travel from Kent in the own boat, docking upriver for a weekend away. She captures the sensory experiences of the river, its distinctive smells, its mud and sudden fogs. Some of the mystery of the estuary comes from communities that seem to be outside the mainstream of British life, either by choice or circumstance.
Some of the stories she tells are relatively well known, like the highly explosive wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery which sunk in 1944. Monitored remotely by river authorities, if it were to explode it would cause widespread damage. Lesser known stories also pop up, including the RSPB takeover of former Ministry of Defence land at Rainham Marshes. Easily accessible by train from central London, visitors can now see rare birds (and if you are lucky, a weasel) amid the ruined shooting ranges and pylons.
Crampton is excellent at pulling interesting fiction and non-fiction references into her narrative. It was a pleasure to be reminded of Thames fiction including Phillip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, and Richard Jefferies’ After London. Joseph Conrad is often cited uncritically in discussions of the Thames Estuary, and it is excellent that Crampton gives proper space to Chinua Achebe’s 1975 lecture ‘An Image of Africa’ which, as Crampton writes, “skewers the racist assumptions that pepper Conrad’s writings” (p.94). The Way to the Sea is a useful companion piece to Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary, which takes a more artistic but equally interesting approach. Lichtenstein’s book references Robert Macfarlane’s excellent film, the Wild Places of Essex, which is another useful watch to complement this book.
The personal and historic photos which break up the text help make this a quick and interesting read. If you have an interest in the Thames, past or present, this is a satisfying addition to your library.