Night is darker at sea than it is on the land. The water absorbs the gloom and is reluctant to relinquish it, even when dawn arrives. That particular night, no wakeful observer on the Essex shore could have seen the boat. Alone in the silent dark, she traversed the mouth of the estuary in mile-long sweeps, making a little more progress up the river each time she turned. Wind and tide were pushing her away, back towards the sea.
It was 3 a.m. on 17 September 1984, and in the outer Thames the wind had picked up and was causing choppy waves to slap haphazardly against the hull. On board my mother was scanning the darkness for the flashes and glimmers that could mean navigation marks to guide them safely through the channel or ships that might run their small boat down. My father bobbed up and down the cabin stairs, checking the chart. That paper map was their only way of knowing where they were.
My parents had been at sea for almost five months, covering over 8,000 miles. They had sailed here from Cape Town, in a boat they had built themselves during weekends and evenings snatched from their full-time jobs. This trip into the estuary was the conclusion of a voyage that had been ages in the planning. Building the boat alone had taken three years.
Since their departure from South Africa in April, they had sailed up the Atlantic, stopping at St Helena, Ascension Island and the Azores. After arriving safely in the English Channel, they spent the summer familiarizing themselves with some of these islands’ most dramatic coastlines, in the sea lochs of western Scotland, Ireland and the Irish Sea. They spent a memorable fortnight stormbound on the Isle of Man, sitting in pubs with the tax exiles and the motorcycle-racing enthusiasts waiting for the winds to quieten, and made contact with the few British cousins who make up the pre-colonial emigration branch of our family.
It was only when the days started to shorten, signalling autumn’s gusty arrival in the northern hemisphere, that they began to realize they would not be sailing south again that winter. Like many other nomads before them, they settled on London as their next destination, reasoning that they were unlikely to freeze living on a boat if it was moored in a large city, and that there might be a chance of earning some money there. They made their way along the south coast, stopping to buy charts and almanacs in Eastbourne. At 9 p.m. on the previous evening, they left the harbour at Brighton and headed north, towards the estuary.
By the time they rounded the corner of Kent at North Foreland, passing Ramsgate and then Margate just after midnight, the wind had gone into the west. It strengthened considerably and the tide turned against them. The boat’s log entry for 0315 contains all the obligatory navigational data in its neatly ruled columns, and then just four words in my mother’s firm, loopy handwriting: ‘Tacking in lumpy sea.’
The process of tacking – that is, sailing at an angle so as to zigzag in the direction that the wind is coming from – is arduous, tedious and often unpleasant. With both wind and tide against the boat, the water beneath the hull becomes turbulent and unpredictable. Combined with the natural difficulties of navigating this stretch of water even in calm weather, it makes sense that the Thames estuary contains more shipwrecks per square metre than anywhere else on Britain’s coast.
Their charts and almanacs told them that they were in constant danger, with obstructions under the water on either side of narrow, twisting channels between treacherous sandbanks. Yet from the deck all they could see was emptiness, a great watery flatness stretching off into the dark. After the azure seas of Cape Town, this was another world, of rocks and slime and currents so changeable they appeared to be flowing in every direction at once.
At first light, they passed the Isle of Sheppey – the marshy, muddy island off the north coast of Kent where the River Medway, the final Thames tributary, flows into the estuary. Using the binoculars, my father picked out the landmarks of this low-lying, tidal island: a prison, a port and a steelworks. There was little else for him to see, as the dawn gradually slid over the water and touched the land.
When I am asked where I’m from, I find it difficult to reply with a place name. I have South African parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, but have never lived there. I had lived in six different houses by the time I was six years old, so it’s difficult even to point to one of those as a convenient place of origin. In fact, the idea of our family, a tiny immigrant outpost in a new country, began in a small boat moored for the winter in St Katharine Docks on the Thames, just by Tower Bridge, because it was there that my parents realized that they were never going home.
St Katharine Docks opened for business in 1828. Two deep basins were dug out of the north bank of the Thames, right next to where the Tower of London’s moat now stands empty. Boats enter from the river via a gated lock and a short canal, before tying up at one of the quays around the edge, upon which stand the warehouses that used to house goods from all over the world. Although for over a hundred years it did a thriving trade in everything from wool to ostrich feathers, by 1968 the docks’ business had moved downriver to bigger ports and St Katharine’s was closed.
When my parents turned up in the early 1980s, it was home to a motley collection of houseboats, Thames barges and sailing vessels. The warehouses were mostly derelict, since nothing had yet arrived to replace the shipping business and the area was poor. At that time, St Katharine’s was on the edge of the area that was just becoming known as the ‘Docklands’, thanks to the Thatcherite programme of regeneration aimed at turning formerly industrial areas into expensive apartments and City offices. This was the battlefield of east London’s capitalist gentrification and the fight was just beginning. My parents, with all their worldly possessions aboard a small boat that they had built themselves half a world away, fitted right in.
Despite the fact that an old London by-law prohibited permanent residence in the docks, a friendly lock-keeper arranged a way for them to stay there for the winter. He allowed them to lock out into the river and then come back in again immediately once a month so he could record them as departing and returning, thus proving that they weren’t long-term residents. They settled quickly into this strange, transitory life on the river, although they did have to turn the boat around in her berth so that the tourists who occasionally wandered along the old wharves couldn’t see straight into their living quarters below, where laundry was hung in the cabin and meals were prepared on the small gas stove tucked in by the companionway.
That winter, in an echo of the great Thames frosts of centuries past, the water in the docks froze around their boat. Ducks walked on the ice and my mother was kept awake by the knocking of the frozen chunks against the hull. It was an extraordinary sight for two young people from the southern hemisphere, used to the powerful waves and warm waters at the southern tip of Africa. In an attempt to feel some connection to their erstwhile homeland, they bought a tiny black-and-white television and rigged it up on board so they could watch the news reports from South Africa. Inside the condensation-filled cabin, they saw the footage of lynchings, disappearances and police brutality. Such was the censorship and media blackout at home that they were learning about much of this for the first time. The place they thought they were from dissolved before their eyes and was replaced by the sharp reality of riots, oppression and endemic, institutional racism. This boat on the Thames was now the only place left they felt they belonged.
In his maritime autobiography, The Mirror of the Sea, first published in 1906, Joseph Conrad wrote that ‘amongst the great commercial streams of these islands, the Thames is the only one, I think, open to romantic feeling’. This river, unlike most other British waterways, has a peculiarly timeless sensibility; a particular way of sliding memories and stories together, so that they overlay each other in a palimpsest of experiences within the landscape. It has a historical and literary character all of its own, distinct from the country through which it flows. The Thames can be at once T.S. Eliot’s strong brown god, William Blake’s visionary waters of Sion, the sweetly medieval stream of Hilaire Belloc’s imagination – and also the watery backdrop to a thousand tourists’ selfies.
Spanning 215 miles, the Thames is full of contradictions: at one end, it exists as a gentle, rural stream at its source in the Cotswolds and, at the other, as a vast estuary that merges seamlessly with the sea. Day by day, it is a changeable creature. Perhaps it is because its mud is so readily reshaped by each tide that it has accreted such a layered identity. Every twelve hours, it presents a blank canvas upon which a new age can leave its mark. At low tide in central London mudlarks flock to the foreshore, tenderly sifting through the debris of ages past for treasures. As the tide flows back in, I can stand and watch the mud disappear under the water and reappear a few hours later in a new guise. And yet I know that someone standing in the same spot a hundred or a thousand years ago could have observed the same process of reincarnation. The Thames’s mutability is its permanence.
At high tide on a calm day, the river can be so wide and flat that it looks as if the sea has entered the city. Stood on London Bridge at high tide, I have observed the silver surface at my feet and gloried in the way it slices through London, a strand of contemplation in a busy metropolis. It flows past the key points of the city, as if posing for the postcards: the Palace of Westminster, the London Eye, City Hall. This is an extremely well-documented landscape. For centuries, writers and artists have been producing work around a seemingly endless array of Thames topics: its secret underground tributaries, its literary connections, the afterlives of its ships, docks, bridges and wharves. However, the vast majority of these explorations end long before the river does. The picture that the collective consciousness of the Thames provides looks a lot like the one from the EastEnders titles. Seen from above, it shows the great loop of the river’s meander around the Isle of Dogs and then a thin blue squiggle coming in from the top where Barking Creek joins the main channel. But then the right-hand edge of the screen slices through and awareness leaks away. The estuary is off-screen, unseen.
There are many reasons for this. The myriad stories that London holds draw focus from the rest of the Thames, crowding out the elsewhere. Then there is the problem of access: the estuary, with its marshy shores and wide expanses of water, is not particularly easy to visit, especially without a boat. A bigger obstacle, though, is its unlovely reputation. Over centuries, London has acquired the habit of displacing everything from sewage to silt to the working poor downstream. If the archetypal picturesque English landscape is like something that Capability Brown might have devised, or that E.M. Forster immortalized in his 1910 condition of England novel Howards End – a politely reticent vista of rolling green hills, interspersed with charmingly crooked farmhouses and the occasional copse – then the Thames estuary could not be more different.