A Journey to the Edge of Britain: Exploring the Thames Estuary

A journey to the edge of britain: exploring the thames estuary
“Beware”: Summer picnicking next to a dislodged and disintegrating Second World War bunker / © Adam Tanaka

Adam Tanaka reflects on his post-Brexit bike ride along the Thames Estuary, Britain’s historic edgelands, where he encountered a landscape already far from Europe.

Follow the Thames River out of London and towards the sea, and the landscape changes rapidly. Skyscrapers give way to riverfront apartments. Office parks cede to logistics hubs and sewage plants. As you move further east, the river grows too wide for bridges to span. Settlements grow few and far between. You are now in the Thames estuary: a sprawling no-man’s-land where the metropolis dissolves into a surreal mosaic of swamps, power plants, seaside resorts, and military facilities. This summer, I spent two days exploring the estuary by bike. I covered roughly one hundred miles in thirty-six hours, tracing the southern and northern edges of the Thames as they meet the English Channel.

Growing up in London, I had long been intrigued by the city’s hinterland. In 2013, I conducted an exploratory art project that took me from central London to the Thames Barrier, on the estuary’s western edge. In the post-Brexit fallout, I decided that it was time for a longer and deeper journey through the city’s border zone. As the results of the referendum revealed, the estuary was not just a border-to-be between Britain and Europe. It was also a border between two competing visions of Britain itself, with one side voting strongly to remain in the European Union, and the other — closer, physically, to the continent — strongly against. Nowhere else in the country saw such divergent results in such close proximity. In the county of Thurrock, in the heart of the estuary, 74% of residents voted to leave the EU. Just 20 miles west in Hackney, 79% voted to remain.

As I explored the region, however, I realized that Brexit was only the latest manifestation of a longstanding British wariness of the continent and its intents. This was particularly true for the estuary, which is the country’s most vulnerable flank, offering a wide-open corridor to the capital only fifty miles from the French coast. As I journeyed around the mouth of the Thames, I encountered half a millennium of British paranoia: Elizabethan castles guarding against the Spanish Armada; nineteenth century forts preparing for a Napoleonic assault; concrete bunkers steeling themselves for a Nazi ground invasion. None of these attacks ever took place, but the landscape remains pockmarked with psychological scars. […]