I enjoyed a fantastic cycle trip last week with the Knit Nurse, to fulfil a long-held ambition to cycle along the Thames where it leaves London and heads out to sea. We are always up for a challenge, so instead of cycling along the comfortable Kent coast, we decided to take the train to Rainham in Essex and head towards the wilds of Tilbury.
When it comes to coastal cycling, Essex delivers a stark contrast to Kent. While Kent is well-served with coastal cycle routes – you can pretty much circumnavigate the entire county and even divert onto some of those spooky Thames Estuary islands – Essex is a journey into the unknown. There are several stretches of completed National Cycle Network, but huge gaps where you are forced to share pot-holed road with juggernauts serving the enormous industrial estates that lie on either side of the Dartford Crossing.
But the combination of lonely marshland, heavy industry, military archaeology and modern architecture is incredibly beguiling. Not to mention the smells, ranging from rotting rubbish at the huge landfill site in Rainham, to detergent at Procter and Gamble’s factory in West Thurrock, and even a strong waft of dope enlivening the feeling of hopelessness in Tilbury. It’s a journey of extreme contrasts, of nature at its finest, of deprivation, deindustrialisation and lacklustre regeneration (in particular block after block of the meanest riverside apartments in Purfleet).
We began in Rainham, crossing its spectacular marshes before arriving at the Thames by a fleet of partly-submerged concrete barges, the type used in the D-Day landings and designed by engineer Mouchel & Partners to deal with a wartime steel shortage. We were particularly impressed with the Cor-Ten wayfinding, as well as a series of simple yet delightful bridges that integrated beautifully with the landscape.
The RSPB’s reserve at Rainham was full of twitchers, in particular at the Environment and Education Centre. The stripey building was completed in 2006 and looks like it is wearing pretty well. Designed by architect van Heyningen and Haward, the eco-friendly building stands sentinel over the marshes. There were some pretty good cakes in the café too.
Architectural dross in Purfleet was momentarily alleviated by the stunning High House Production Park, a complex of refurbished listed buildings dating back to the 16th century, plus two major new buildings. The Royal Opera House’s Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop is a hanger-like structure used to create sets for the ROH’s opera and ballet productions. The space is big enough to allow them to be constructed and tested at full scale. Designed by Nicholas Hare Architects, it was completed in 2010.
Next door, the National Skills Academy for Creative & Cultural Skills is opening its new Backstage Centre, designed by Gibberd. It looks to be built around a full-size flytower and, when it opens in September, will offer training in the complete range of technical and backstage skills for theatre and performance.
Back on our cycle route, we headed through the industrial parks around the Dartford Crossing, full of derelict sites and criss-crossed by flyovers to create a truly exciting, end-of-the-world feel. This is particularly apparent at the medieval St Clement’s Church, marooned among the complex industrial architecture of Procter and Gamble’s huge factory, which is like something the Bechers would have wet themselves over.
Because of the lack of cycle route, we leapt onto a train at Grays and travelled one stop to Tilbury Town. It’s not a place you would choose to linger, with its boarded-up shops and sense of deprivation. But things get cheerier as you head out of town towards the London Cruise Terminal and the epic Tilbury Fort, which partly dates back to the 16th century.
As you approach the sublime Tilbury B Power Station, the cycle path once again comes to an end, but it’s just about possible to make your way along the coastal path, through shoulder-high wildflowers and weeds, to East Tilbury and its equally impressive Coalhouse Fort.
I have long wanted to visit East Tilbury, in particular to see its modernist masterpiece, the Bata shoe factory. It didn’t disappoint. Built in 1932 for Czech shoe manufacturer Bata, the range of factory buildings particularly impresses because of its vast expanses of glass. The adjoining planned company town, which features some neat flat-rooved ‘Bata Houses’, adds to the magic.
So if you are feeling intrepid, grab your bike and head to Fenchurch Street Station. Alight at the edge of zone 6, and point yourself eastwards.
You can read the Knit Nurse’s account of the day (and see me in shorts if your stomach can take it) here>