It’s the kind of weather that, a year or two ago, would have had me scarpering for refuge in the local chippy, but now, standing on East Beach in Shoeburyness, getting righteously pummelled by the gusts roaring in across the waves, I couldn’t be more content. This sort of cobweb-blowing rejuvenation isn’t to be found when walking around your local park for the millionth time, or sitting in your living room for the millionth lockdown hour.
An added bonus to the bracing weather offered by this part of the world: it’s also a great spot to begin my journey through an extraordinarily large, multi-disciplinary arts festival, Estuary 2021. Delayed by Covid, a portion of the festival was intended to take place indoors, but has instead moved out onto the natural, well-ventilated landscape. It’s one of those rare cases where the pandemic has actually worked out pretty well. On this fresh Friday morning, to be out in the elements is enlivening.
The second edition of an event first launched in 2016, Estuary 2021 spans 107 miles of coastline, starting at the gaping mouth of the Thames Estuary and travelling deep into its winding gullet. I’m at the most easterly part of its Essex section, but the festival spreads as far inland as Thamesmead, 10 or so miles from Charing Cross, and all the way back out to Ramsgate in Kent.
Looking at the festival map, though, with more than 94 artworks and a huge stretch of river to contend with, it’s slightly overwhelming — especially for someone who’s barely travelled farther than the local Tesco recently. But it’s all been well-planned. A walking route is plotted out by a book, Thames Estuary Trail: a Walk round the End of the World, whose author Tom King has written new chapters especially for the festival. It’s driveable, too, with plenty of parking, and well connected by rail. My train from central London out to south Essex took little more than an hour.
And while my day only took me from Shoeburyness to Pitsea, about 20 miles, it was enough to prove just how rich an area this is to explore; a stretch of land and sea imbued by the spirits and legacies of identity, rebellion, ecology, climate and imperialism.
On East Beach, I’m confronted by a large block of concrete, with a concave dome facing towards the sea. It’s a sound mirror, the kind of which could be found along the English coastline in the pre-radar years, acting as an early warning system for incoming enemy aircraft. But instead of something defensive, the piece, created by artist Katrina Palmer, is emblazoned with a bold ‘HELLO’ sign, a welcome message to those from across the water. In an area that voted to leave the EU with a 16 per cent majority back in 2016, the symbolism speaks for itself.
Further along, in Gunners Park, I find An English Garden by Gabriella Hirst, which draws an unexpected line between rose gardening and what’s described as “nuclear colonialism”. A sign on a park bench explains that six miles from here, on Foulness Island, Britain assembled its first ever atomic device, in 1952, which was then sent to Australia to be tested on “unceded indigenous land”. Around the same time, a variety of rose called the Atom Bomb was created, although it has since become particularly rare.
The plant, now propagated in Southend, is to be grown in a small flower bed here — they’re yet to bloom when I visit — and will “act as a reminder that the red rose of England is entangled with an Imperial past of ‘gardening the world’.”
It’s illuminating, although other parts are more immediate in their message. Down on Chalkwell Beach, an outdoor installation by Spanish street artist Isaac Cordal called Waiting For Climate Change gives an ominous view of our indifference to rising sea levels. A cast of miniature characters, staring at their phones and wearing inflatables, stand atop thin wooden plinths. They’re well above ground level when the tide is out, but when it comes in, the water is perilously close. The tiny people stand unbothered.
There’s some impressive tech, too, like the augmented reality bandstand, viewed through an iPad in Chalkwell Park, placing a digitally recreated structure on the floor and immersing you in the 360-degree sound of a brass band, listened to through headphones.
There’s plenty more I’d like to go back for, not least the specially made mirrors hidden within five Estuary pubs, a fine excuse for a sophisticated skinful. A day is nowhere near long enough to see it all — a great reason to head out of the city and explore a part of the country so close to home, and with so much to offer.
Until June 13, estuaryfestival.com