We traveled from East London in a Zipcar, beating the traffic bound for Lakeside, the out-of-town shopping center. The pier car park was sparsely filled with cars. Abandoned in a corner was a statue of the Virgin Mary the size of an umbrella stand. Out of season, the Essex archipelago lures only the most hardened. By October, the weather is spitting and icy, and its landscape is too bleak and monotonous to qualify as ruggedly beautiful. A Wikipedia entry had told us there are nineteen islands off the coast of Essex, most of them owned by the British Ministry of Defence and contracted to private companies testing ammunitions. The individual entries were nearly all stubs, waiting to be filled in. An archipelago struck a curious exotic note in a place associated mostly with commuting, military test sites, and, most recently, “constructed reality” television.
American import Jersey Shore inspired The Only Way is Essex, a show similarly centered on the intricate love lives of pneumatic people living in an area derided for being culturally bankrupt, despite its proximity to one of the most exciting cities in the world. Jersey’s Essex County was even named after the UK’s own historical Essex, in 1683. Maybe there’s no need to make analogies between the UK’s Essex and anywhere else because its reputation is internationally bad, and we don’t defend it. The county town Chelmsford, where I was born, was voted eighth best place to live in the UK on the prerecession property-porn show Location Location Location. Residents promptly rang in to call it soulless; flashy on one hand and tedious on the other, like a nouveau riche neighbor with dull preoccupations.
Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom by the Sea documents his journey around depressed post-Falklands English seaside towns in 1983. The travelogue by the American author dismantles Essex into generic attributes: “There was always a Funfair and it was never fun … There was always an Indian restaurant and it was always called the Taj Mahal and the owners were always from Bangladesh.” Similarly, previous visitors have found little to keep them there. In 1768, Reverend Philip Morant’s guide to the Essex coast just gave one line to the archipelago, in which he only acknowledged two of its islands: “New England and Rushley have nothing remarkable.” The history of the islands is as loosely strung together and fragmentary as the archipelago itself.
Maybe its obscurity lies in how the few locally known stories center on failure. John Harriot, businessman and founder of the Thames River Police, tried to farm Rushley Island towards the end of the eighteenth century, attempting to leach sea salt from its waterlogged land. He was flooded out twice; the second time, his new expensive eight-feet-tall walls were demolished at high tide within three days of being put up.
In a diary entry from the end of 1791, he wrote: “I looked down at the raging watery element swelling itself to a height that had never been known before, and over-topping my walls as if in search of what I had formerly wrestled from its dominion.” It took Harriot two more years of disastrous experiments and diminishing funds before he decided to conquer the less inhospitable North America instead.
When I phoned the number on the MOD website to ask about public rights of access on the intriguingly named Foulness, the largest island in the archipelago, I was given a landline number for “Pauline in Shoeburyness.” Pauline answered her telephone straight away, relaying information in the flattest of tones with only a quick, buffering hello and good-bye. She told me that there was no possibility of getting onto the islands until March, when the Heritage Centre opens on the first of each month. There was only one boat cruise left for the season and we would have be at Paglesham Car Park by 9 a.m. on the following Saturday to catch it. I imagined her irritably winding up an interrupted game of Solitaire on her home PC after dealing with my call.
There were only four other day-trippers waiting by cars, expensive binoculars hanging from their necks, and sensible layers on. The sound of the anchor flexing in the wind carried all the way down the pier. The boat was tiny, requiring us to sit opposite each other on the narrow benches. There was a middle-aged couple who rarely spoke, as if they had dispensed with words for fear of scaring rare birds away. One man had a thin white beard, as long as his hair, which nestled against his scarves. He resembled a druid, except in Gore-Tex. Like the other travellers, he had the distinct yod-dropping Essex accent and seemed to know the tour guide from previous trips.
Brian, who has run the cruises for over twenty-two years, told us that it was so cold we’d be coming back early, before the usual three hours was up. All around us were what appeared to be floating hedgerows, battened down by rusty seawalls. The boat can only circle the archipelago most days, because of security restrictions imposed by the aerospace company QinetiQ. Sometimes the boat stopped teasingly at the mouth of an inlet. Close up, the smaller uninhabited islands were covered in yellow- and emerald-streaked samphire, limp as empty rubber gloves.
The journey to the archipelago was on a last-minute impulse. I’m easily enchanted by names, especially fantastical ones. The idea almost foundered on the fact that I can’t drive and no one I know in London has a car. But trips like this help you find out which friends would be most useful in a survivalist outpost. Robin stumped up with the driving, his girlfriend Nicky read the map, and Cecily supplied the commentary on the way there. We didn’t know what the Essex archipelago would yield but we also didn’t know anyone else who had been there.
Curlews spun above us, easily identifiable by their elegant tweezer beaks. Most striking were the rows and rows of avocets whose black and white wings made them look like a giant handwritten scrawl spanning the width of the island. The boat’s engines were momentarily turned off to encourage a lone seal to come nearer to us, but it continued bobbing up and down in the water indifferently. When the boat started up again, and we turned the corner, we saw more of them flopping like full water bombs onto the red earth.
Seen through our borrowed binoculars, the winter birds were black, white, and shades of dun. They made troupe-like Vs against the sky, swooping up and descending collectively. The birds revelled in companionship, except the squat herons below, which stalked the thinning shorelines on their own.
The low-key nature of these trips—only nine of us on the boat sitting where the tarpaulin would normally be—is likely to change very soon with the proposal and development of two sites. The first is the controversial Thames Estuary Airport, dubbed “London International.” An airport has been in the planning for nearly four decades, under various guises, before it was co-opted by Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. Architectural firm Gensler’s “floating” airport is one of the most futuristic designs so far for the project. The structure would be situated on an artificial island between the Isle of Sheppey in Kent and Southend-on-Sea.
But the area is already undergoing significant construction work to attract another kind of avian life. Wallasea Island, which is the southernmost island of the archipelago, is being turned into Europe’s biggest nature reserve. Six million tons of excavated soil, from another big-scale London transport project, will be used to build a minimal tourist infrastructure for the wetlands. The process of drawing in more wildlfe and rare birds began over a decade ago when the island was flooded to recreate its ancient saline lagoons and mudflats. The boat will probably become one among dozens occupied by more far-flung visitors in the future, though the local nature and conservation charities don’t want the airport to bring about a tourist influx. As the capital continues to sprawl eastwards, the islands might become a distinct marker of identity for Essex.
For my teenage self, the county’s redeeming feature was its proximity to London. The capital was only forty miles away, the strewn Lego of containers and storage units making up most of the scenery on the way there. All that life-shelving in between testified to the fact that nothing exciting was going to happen before Liverpool Street, Zone 1, where the Central Line waited. I couldn’t imagine what had brought my father from his native landlocked Sylhet, in Bangladesh, to Southend-on-Sea in the late 1960s instead of London. The town’s tower blocks loom startlingly close to the islands, stiff and white as the drag of clean fingers in thick dust. Maybe it’s the same contrary impulse that’s always informed people who have moved to Essex, a site of utopian living experiments and concrete ambition. James Baldwin said in Giovanni’s Room: “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” The archipelago will never offer any constancy. What compels me to return home to it is to see and learn more, not be reassured by what I think I already know.
The islands don’t give away their idiosyncrasies to visitors. There is no scenic route to them and no clues in the surrounding towns which are themselves scuffed and disfigured. In order to get to the archipelago, we drove past industrial parks, storage companies, Holiday Inns, shopping outlets, more recently built places which are outside of the rhythms of communal life. They occupy what has been described as the “edgelands” by countryside campaigner Marion Shoard. The edgelands is the space between country and town, the part we mostly travel through to get elsewhere, which “barely exists” in our literature or film, despite its continuing domination of the motorway landscape.
As Harriot discovered, the natural vicissitudes of the area put any big-scale project at risk. Brian told us that he expects the reserve to go under in forty years. The tides, in recent springs, have arced over the existing seawalls. He added that it’s hypnotic watching the water completely engorge the island and invert the sky, before leaving the land clean of human traces. The Wallasea project is only a caesura before the tide takes back the land, he said, describing new developments as part of an ongoing battle between the water and industrial claims on space.
He recalled standing in the middle of Foulness’s treacherous Broomway, a path made from buried brooms, intended to guide people back to shore in the brief window before fog falls on the island. The silence there is as pervasive as gravity. While we were on the boat, chatting and laughing at the seals, complaining about the cold seeping under our city-light clothing, it was impossible to imagine what this archipelago would be like without another human sound. But it made me realize the appeal of the bare landscape is not its desolation. What makes it worth our notice, and what makes it so peculiarly Essex, is its sense of possibility.
Zakia Uddin is a London-based freelance journalist who has written about everything from mechanical turks to Selena Gomez.