An icy blast of wind battered the end of Southend Pier as I stood, looking out across the Thames Estuary. Somewhere on the other side of the water, the outlines faintly visible in the haze and bright sunshine, were a plethora of industrial buildings including a large tower or chimney (who knew which), and the town of Sheerness-on-Sea. Closer by, and easier to view, were the cargo vessels and ships heading to various ports dotted around the south east, and perhaps around the world. Some may even have been making their way towards London, perhaps to deliver rice or sugar to the factories that line the riverside at the eastern edges of the capital.
I strained my eyes in a vain attempt to make it all more visible, and then have up as a particularly strong gust of wind bashed me squarely in the face. Weather conditions were not in my favour? Where have I heard that before?
Where does the River Thames end and the sea begin? Well it’s certainly not at the Thames Barrier. The Thames Path may have its eastern end there, in the suburbs of London, but the river goes on for much longer. Nor does the river end ten miles downstream at Crayford Ness where a walking trail called the ‘Thames Path Extension’ will deposit you if you get to the Thames Barrier and simply can’t stop walking.
No. It’s quite some way from there.
But, and this must be said, nor does the river give way to the Thames Estuary where I was now, at the seaside resort of Southend-on-Sea. In fact common consensus has it that the river becomes the estuary roughly 16 miles to the west of the point I was at now. The town of Canvey Island on the northern shore usually marks the point on the northern bank, with a line going through the water to the south bank, where mankind has somehow managed not to build an equivalent, matching town.
I say common consensus, because, as ever, there’s only a majority view and there will always be those that disagree. Just as there are people who say the Thames stops at Oxford and that everything from there to the source is the River Isis, there are those who proffer the view that, as the Thames is tidal downstream of Teddington Lock, the estuary must start there. Although, my advice is that if you ever meet a person offering that view, you hit them over the head with a wet fish. Also ask them where the Thames Estuary started before the lock was built in 1810, and see what they say. And then hit them with a wet fish again.
So anyway, given all that, why was I at Southend-on-Sea and not Canvey Island? Well for starters Canvey doesn’t have a train station, whilst Southend does. But also I had a toddler in tow. I’d started my Thames Path journey with my son in a pram, and it seemed only appropriate that he came with me on this pilgrimage to the end of the river. Whether he liked it or not. And when push came to shove, a seaside resort town seemed like it would offer more toddler friendly diversions than a town best known for its petrochemical works. And for good measure, Southend allows you to get right out into the estuary thanks to the town having the longest pleasure pier in the world; the pier stretches out a distance of 1.34 miles.
Indeed, the pier is so long that those who walk it all can get a certificate celebrating their achievement. And if you can’t be bothered with such exertion, well the pier can help there too. It has its own railway service, running a frequent service from the promenade to the pier head; something which proved extremely exciting to a certain three year old, and very practical to his mother who was heavily pregnant with his future sibling.
There I was, with the two people who had set off on the Thames Path journey with me, staring out at a copious amount of water. Really, there could be no better place or way to say farewell to the Thames than standing on this structure of iron and wood in the middle of the estuary, quite some way from dry land.
Over 200 miles away, in deepest Gloucestershire, water was arising from a variety of springs. Doing an inverse journey to the one I had done, that water would flow along and eventually turn up here. It would meet up with scores of other rivers and streams to become the mightiest of Britain’s rivers. A waterway that, over the history of the United Kingdom, had played a defining role in building towns and cities. It’s the river that helped London grow to the size it has, and which remains one of the most iconic landmarks of the capital. It would transport goods and people, supply drinking water, power factories, and give people something to look at whilst supping a pint from a picnic bench outside a pub.
All that water would come here. And it would go on as it became the sea. Who knows what adventures it would provide?
What a thought. And I kept on thinking about it, until, at least, another icy blast of wind whacked me in the face. And with a shiver I stopped staring and went towards the pier head café for a reviving piping hot cup of tea.