From London to the Sea

Estuary – Rachel Lichtenstein (Hamish Hamilton)

Part travelogue and part-homecoming, Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary is a journey out from London along the Thames to the sea. Estuary traces the great river through the capital’s marshy hinterlands and out through the counties of Kent and Essex, from metropolis to open sea via fishing village and seaside resort.

This journey is both metaphorical and literal. Lichtenstein is returning to her roots, in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, where her family home is visible from the river. She takes to the water, on trips that are sometimes fraught with danger, portraying the river as a space of loss and unpredictability as well as a resource, drawn upon and put to use by those living alongside it.

However Lichtenstein’s own biography is only hinted at: instead, she focuses on the lives of those who use the water for living, working and recreation, from fishermen and fishwives’ choirs to boat racers and artists responding creatively to the river, as well as community groups campaigning for the ecological and environmental significance of sites alongside the Themes.

The book aims to create a ‘collective memory map’ of experiences, lives and perspectives, showing the importance of the Thames to work, livelihoods, trade, industry, culture and community. Interviews and shared encounters are interwoven with histories of the river and their physical and cultural traces, from shipwrecks to sunken wartime bombs to the cruise terminals where passengers from the Empire Windrush first encountered their new country, to the brief intervention into the airwaves of pirate radio, to Canvey Island band Dr Feelgood, whose ‘Thames Delta’ sound was inextricably linked to the estuarine vistas of their immediate environment.

A highlight of the book is the time she spends visiting the Maunsell Sea Forts, huge concrete towers originally built for defence, which stand tall above the estuary on stilts. Acknowledging a tradition of Great British eccentricity and obstinacy, she pays a visit to the kingdom of Sealand, a remote outpost constituting one family’s private and vigorously defended castle. Lichtenstein looks to the future of the river, too, considering the ways in which the Thames might be transformed once again by the creation of the Thames super port.

It’s difficult to write about the Thames without discussing landscape and the river’s relation to sea, sky and earth, and the way in which it has shaped and been shaped by the places and activities around it. Joseph Conrad is quoted liberally throughout, yet the book itself is written in a brisk, business-like, workmanlike style, sometimes reading like a factual report on the findings of a research project.

That the river is a working thoroughfare is well-conveyed, but the book leaves little room for passion, poetry or politics, preferring instead to take a matter-of-fact, documentary approach. However, what does come across strongly in Estuary is a sense of change, a notion that this book presents only a snapshot of the river at one moment in time, that it is a place to be appreciated, respected and revisited

– Natalie Bradbury

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