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Martians, music and mud: how the Thames Estuary broadened cultural horizons

Jan 27, 2024

It was Conrad's gateway to the heart of darkness, HG Wells envisaged Martians on its misty shores. Now artists from around the world are exploring the mysteries of the Thames Estuary

As you head west from the mouth of the Thames Estuary into London, the distinctive shape of the giant quay cranes at the London Gateway Port dominate the horizon. They are situated close to Stanford-le-Hope, the village where Joseph Conrad was living when he began writing Heart of Darkness (1899). The novella opens with a description of the estuary as the launching place of England's great ships, where Sir Francis Drake sailed past on the Golden Hind, which was full of treasure, capturing the imperial ambitions of the nation: "What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires." Further upriver, Conrad witnessed the immense energies of the docks: seeing London on the horizon, the world capital of industry and investment. In his great collection of autobiographical essays The Mirror of the Sea (1906) he describes the lower reaches in equally vivid terms, "spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth".

Conrad's estuary was a gateway, both into London and out to the heart of darkness and beyond. The mysterious atmosphere of the place he captures so well is also evident in HG Wells’ classic science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, where he imagines crowds of people fleeing a Martian invasion along the misty shoreline of Foulness. As they wait for a vessel to take them out to sea and safety, a Martian appears in the estuary, "advancing along the muddy coast" – then another, and another, "all stalking seaward".

The eerie atmosphere of the Essex marshes is also evoked in Paul Gallico's melancholic novella, The Snow Goose (1940), where Rhayader, a lonely hunchbacked artist, lives in an abandoned lighthouse. Gallico's marshlands are a place where "time shifted land and water"; they become a metaphor for loss, loneliness and death. These themes could have been lifted straight from the opening pages of Great Expectations, where Pip first encounters Magwitch on the flat desolate estuary marshes in Kent. Dickens was very familiar with this terrain. He lived in Gads Hill towards the end of his life and walked extensively along the coast of the estuary. When he published Great Expectations, he rented a steamship and took journalists to visit Canvey Island, the setting for one of the climactic episodes of the book.

A boat full of journalists came downriver from London once again last week – to visit Estuary 2016, a new biennial arts festival curated in response to the Thames Estuary. The festival was launched by arts organisation Metal and is located across various historical venues along the Essex and Kent shorelines. The ambitious programme of visual art, literature, film and music involves more than 70 artists from around the world, showing both new and existing work responding to this unique place. "The estuary is wilder and more unpredictable here," says Metal's artistic director, Colette Bailey, who has lived and worked alongside it for the past decade. "It's not quite river, not quite open sea. Artists are naturally drawn to these kinds of indefinable places."

There is a rich variety of artworks made specifically for the festival. Estuary World Without End (no reported incidents) is a film by New York-based Jem Cohen, which captures the landscape and people of south Essex. "The Thames Estuary and its insistent tides brought in not only nature and history, but prize-winning Indian curries, an encyclopedic universe of hat wear, and a nearly lost world of proto punk music," says Cohen. In the work of artist Liz Lake, found flotsam and jetsam are cast into concrete and sliced to reveal an invented geology with strata of landfill, concrete, aggregate and ash. A River Once Ran Through My Veins is an installation in a former Port of London Authority office at Tilbury Cruise Terminal which imagines a future where the estuary landscape has long since been swallowed by silt. Louisa Fairclough spent a lot of time camping out in the estuary marshlands before creating her work: a sound installation enriched with drawings of found objects relinquished by the Thames. Sleeping out on the marshes enabled her to "tune in to the landscape and its soundscape in a heightened way". And photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews documented the routines and rituals that take place at the water's edge for her new series of works, Thames Log (2011 – 2016).

The festival also includes the Shorelines literary programme. During the inaugural weekend, artists and writers spoke about how the estuarine landscape has influenced and inspired their work. Award-winning nature writer Julian Hoffman focused on the astonishing wild landscape of the Hoo Peninsula, which has drawn him back "like a magnet" since he first visited. Patrick Wright, author of The River: The Thames in Our Time, considered the view across the estuary from the window of the East German novelist Uwe Johnson, a notoriously reclusive man who settled on the Isle of Sheppey in 1974. Johnson took up residence on Marine Parade in Sheerness, where he sat gazing at the protruding masts of the SS Richard Montgomery, a sunken Liberty Ship that dominates the view and the imagination. This vista eventually became the inspiration for his Granta essay "An Unfathomable Ship". Film-maker Nikolaj Larsen discussed his recent film and book project, Portrait of a River (for Film and Video Umbrella), which premiered at the Museum of London's 2013 Estuary exhibition, in which he follows the Thames on its widening course out to sea.

American poet Justin Hopper performed from Public Record: Estuary, a piece of site-specific poetry designed to be listened to while walking around the fishing village of Leigh-on-Sea. The poems contain fragments of the documents that inspired them: late‑19th-century reports of minor shipwrecks and other disasters at sea. Artist Nastassja Simensky discussed her performance piece, Colloquy, an elegy to the wreck of the HMS London, a warship that blew up in the estuary on 7 March 1665, killing more than 300 of her crew. Simensky collected historical and numeric data, as well as sonar scans and depth diagrams, working with composer William Frampton to produce a musical score from the information. Their piece was performed live by a string quartet on the deck of a cockle boat floating directly above the shipwreck, which still lies on the estuary seabed. And Stephen Turner revisited his extraordinary living art experiment, giving a presentation on the 36 days he spent alone in the derelict tower, one of the Shivering Sands sea forts, in the middle of the estuary. The forts are temporary anti-aircraft structures that were built in the Thames mouth during the second world war and have since become the source of much artistic inspiration.

But for me it was cultural historian and writer Ken Worpole who summed up why the estuary has inspired the works of so many artists and writers. Worpole has written extensively on this area, in books such as 350 Miles: An Essex Journey and The New English Landscape, in which he discusses Constable's fascination with Hadleigh Castle on the Essex coast and how Turner went to Margate and beyond to capture the great skies and expansive vistas of the estuary. But, he says, "It was Conrad who first captured the ominous mystery of the place when empty, or at dusk. Sometimes when I look at it on an overcast day, it reminds me of that disturbing sea in Tarkovsky's film Solaris, which seemed prescient – alive almost – with the memory of everything that had ever happened there."

Rachel Lichtenstein's Estuary: Out from London to the Sea is published by Hamish Hamilton. Estuary festival continues until 2 October.