From The True History of the Working Class (chris-mccabe.blogspot.com), a blog written between March and July 2008.
I thought that to end this blog I would have to walk the route of the buildings that remain, from Barking Abbey via the Cross Keys pub to end at Dagenham Ford Works. Ford’s the oiled Mordor of the local economy, symbol of inter- and post-war progress, hope, regeneration—towers turreted above Dagenham Heathway, the Thames as moat—demanding faith from the people through the automatic power as provider. I thought that the route would be formed through what remains of Dagenham’s marshland and village past towards its great modern enterprise: felcher of Thames water, funnelling the hilltop. But to see Dagenham is to get out of Dagenham, to look back towards the towers.
This happened almost by chance yesterday as the three of us—Sarah, Pavel and me—left for a day out to Rainham Marshes. We took the 103 bus from outside Dagenham Civic Centre towards the War Memorial at Rainham. After six years in Dagenham—leisure options brick-locked between two local pubs—it was hard to believe that just five minutes beyond Dagenham East tube (District Line’s lush stripe of green) there’s this village, quaintly English—The Albion family pub, Norman church, gargantuan Tesco Extra—the July sun soldering us silent to the very fact that this is here. Shoreditch, Liverpool St, has been our release for when the bricks have pressed down too much—Romford as a one-mouth pocket of air—but here is English Essex-London, just a bus ride from where we live.
As usual we haven’t planned the route, the marshes not signposted. I walk into a newsagent’s to ask for directions. The shopkeeper—shaded and cool amidst reams of white—shakes his head and explains that the marshes are very complicated to get to and, despite a left leg in plaster, reaches for a map on the top shelf to show me the route. The marshes—Rainham, Aveley—spread over half a page of folds like an X-ray of lungs against the swallowed toothpicks of the A13. He advises that we go to Purfleet by taxi or train and walk along the Thames from there.
We opt for train and walk through Rainham to the station, past the church and graveyard—EDWARD ROBINSON DIED 1847 AGED 23—and on a bench in the centre of the tombstones, a couple (the man, from a distance, seems much older than the younger gothic girl) both shamelessly aroused: she straddled across his legs, negative-vampyric in the daylight at eighty degrees. Iain Sinclair has discussed the Purfleet-Dracula connection (Jonathan Harker as clerk for a property sale on behalf of the never-dead), which only occurs to me now that we’re making our way there.
Past the all-day drinkers outside The Phoenix and over the railway lines to the station. We ask for tickets for Purfleet and the man behind the desk asks, Are you sure you don’t want to go to Grays for the same price? I say we’re going to Rainham Marshes and he shrugs, dispensing us tickets for one stop at eight pounds each.
Sarah and I have a personal mythology with this route to the coast: the C2C from Fenchurch Street to the sea (an old Victorian Sunday leisure trip), as after we secretly married at Barking in 2006 we took the train to Shoeburyness and drank champagne by the sea. Monday afternoon: a lone man surfing, a woman with a toddler. The Thames at Purfleet is an intersection as yet unknown, announced at Fenchurch Street as a sign for someone else’s commute, but we descend the station hill towards the Thames and find, sprayed by chance, our name for each other—NESS—on the gates of SGS Oil and Gas Chemical Services. FOR SALE posts like frozen Powerpoint presentations against the Victorian cobbles of terraces—colours flash like kingfishers in a tophat—a convertible Audi outside, show the work-commute has already been struck upon. Bram Stoker, apparently, did Purfleet once.
The hill draws us down to THE ROYAL HOTEL—the only pub in Purfleet—square white ship moored against the Thames, winking brown and silver in the sun like the scales of a carp. Locals—a man reading a paper with an orange pint, two young women semaphoring talk with pink Bacardi Breezers—look out over the Thames to Dartford Power Station (dwarfed amputee of Battersea) and the webbed silver of the QEII bridge.
This is the second time Pavel has seen the sea and as at Southend—his skin locks the light—he finds this immense breathlessness hilarious. The brick loops of Dagenham a memory, for a moment, he looks to us in almost disbelief at how open a space can be. A bloodblack ladybird specks Sarah’s bra strap, Pavel’s multi-striped seasuit declares SMILE. To the left of us the Stoker prophecy is fact: property developers have raised flats in mock-simulacrum of the Thurrock Council Estate, good-time chalets, leading down towards the marshes.
With Pavel throned across my shoulders, aghast at his own weightlessness, we walk under the trees, tracing a shadow of a bird above that we can’t see until we walk past the leaves and then look up—expecting a hobby, peregrine falcon, kestrel—to see the white wingspan of a gull. Following the river we come to a long low brick hut between clusters of housing with a sign that reads PURFLEET MAGAZINE No. 5.
A tourist board of information tells us that it was created in 1759 and was used to test, store and supply gunpowder for the army up until the M.O.D. sold it to Thurrock Council in the 1960s. As the women at Dagenham Ford marched on Trafalgar Square to demand equal pay as men, this place had come to the end of its service for the nation. I think of its extra 200 years history at Ford’s and wonder how many men walked from Dagenham in that time to work against the flash expanse of the Thames, when just one spark of fire could have set the whole thing off? As Ford’s coincided with the creation of the Becontree Housing Estate—still the largest ever housing project in Europe—to power the local economy through its titanic turrets (and they still make one million diesel engines every year, fuelled using only the wind that blows over the terraces) just down the river, here, the ammunition was being flatpacked and shipped in mail-orders for the killings of the Second World War. Later, in Rainham Marshes, we see a brick turret made in 1906 that was used as a look-out post to spot submarines coming up the Thames. Dreadnought-spotting, that Edwardian pastime.
Looking citywards—Dagenham wind turbines in static take-off—the Ford Works shocked to be near-obsolete before the megalithic sim-cards of Canary Wharf, strobing in epilepsy-inducing stand-by mode. Ford’s productive past absolutely bound to the Thames for water—for imports and exports—the housing estate latched to the changes in the workings of global finances like a brick pedometer. Perspective is only possible with a centre, as power thrives on size: Ford’s as a museum that still churns out its engined artefacts.
As we walk towards the marshes, past the council flats, we laugh at the river-view that the state offers but as we talk it through Sarah is right to say: that as the river in flux offers hope and possibilities, to watch it flow whilst having none—land locked by utilities—tantalises the expansiveness of despair. Tea, tabloids, seasons: watching gulls hawk brown stones at low tide.
We reach Mardyke Sluice where three men are fishing over railings—impossible task of landing any decent sized fish over seven foot steel bars—but one ledgers his bait inches from the bullrushes in what must be the greatest cast I’ve ever seen. The skill against the constriction is admirable. Before Rainham Marshes opens out to the new RSPB centre the path narrows to a track of nettles and midge—a bridge over the sluice—then opens suddenly to a gold carpark and Pavel on my shoulders still, laughing at two dogs. His sun hat left behind in a nettle-bush, next to a rain-yellowed polystyrene chip-box.
Access to the marshes should cost us six pounds but the woman at the desk asks where we’ve come from—we say Dagenham—and she lets us through for free.
The land here is ancient, untouched in parts for six thousand years, murmurs under the heat, swarms and stirs an instant relaxation. As we stare at coots (curious), buntings (steroid-magpies) and little egrets (skewed on sticklegs) the potency of the earth beneath us is staggering: this is what Dagenham was, up until the building of the estate. At the base of the Ford works there is a remaining pool of water called Dagenham Breach (from the breach of the Thames in the early C18th) but the rest of the marshlands have since been built over. Even eighty years ago, before the project towards a cultivated working class began, this is the same marshland that Dagenham—as it is now—was built upon. The freedom felt by the first working class to have a modern (inside) toilet came at the loss of other freedoms.
We feed Pavel facing the water as a group of school children are made to listen to the whispering bullrushes. Tracing the trail to look for wrens and water voles (these marshes has one percent of the population) there is an expectation never sensed in the city, a hushed suspense in every pram-push. As we’ve learned of Dagenham over time—no surprises—these marshes are not as clearcut as they seem. They have kept, as a kind of museum, the vestiges of their military training camp history—this is the only reason the land has not become a site for property. Looking for creatures the unsuspecting naturist comes across disused firing ranges and paintings of soldiers aiming rifles. A military storehouse declares itself against a sign for DEADLY NIGHTSHADE. Look but don’t touch.
I spot the back of a vole in the stream—wet matted back humping the stream towards land—but it’s too late by the time Sarah looks. The stone crane of the heron—demented airfix—cranks over Aveley Flash in a five foot wingspan. Bizarrely, in a field of square cows there is a Stetson top down in the grass. I climb over the fence to retrieve it—braving the constipated gaze of a cluster of Friesians—and give it to Sarah to wear as we walk. A remaining firing range of metal numbers is now used as a mouse-lookout for the kestrel. Up the path to the RSPB café—avian crockery for sale, a peewit tea-cosy—we stop for tea before starting the walk back to Purfleet Station.
We’ve had such a perfect day—Pavel is thriving, alert, allowing the natural world to customise itself to him—and we’re both much less stressed than those first months of thinking we had to know ‘how’ to grow a baby. He’s leading us forward, at the front of his pram, back against the flow of the river. At Purfleet Magazine a mother scolds her son for playing at the base of the bricks—Don’t play there, there’s broken glass. We walk past a mound of grass with groups drinking, men topless with latte tans, making the most of the heatwave. A crow’s nest at the centre of the grass looks out to the water.
On the grass beneath our feet plastic Union Jacks start to appear, cut free from a sequin decoration from an unknown past occasion I don’t want to dwell on. Sarah takes a photo, even though we want to get back to the pub we saw earlier, The Albion in Rainham. Printed on each flag is just one white word: THANKS.
There is nothing more uplifting than watching Sarah—still wearing the stetson—pushing Pavel back along the terraced ranch of Nicholas Road, Dagenham, with the wicker of the hat crocheting her shoulders with light.