Beach of Dreams: 500 miles, 500 stories, 500 flags
Cicerone author Peter Aylmer supported designer Ali Pretty in her epic 500-mile journey along England’s east coast as part of her Beach of Dreams collaborative project
It was the Christmas 2020 quiz of the London Long Distance Walkers Association. Amid the Zoom pleasantries, chair Ali Pretty said to me: 'I’ve got a little project for you.'
But she didn’t tell me what it was. Well, she had a quiz to run (I’m not so modest not to drop in that I won – it helped to have written Cicerone’s guide Walking in London).
I’ve known Ali for years. She runs an arts company called Kinetika from a base in what you might think of as the unglamorous surroundings of Thurrock in Essex. The Royal Opera House has its production studios next door, so culturally it’s a bit more up-and-coming than you might expect.
Ali is a brilliant and creative fabric designer, at her happiest treating the finest silks with the batik process of pattern design. And she’s a relentless, committed long-distance walker. Her shtick is to put the two together: march the silks across miles of countryside (or townscape). I rather guessed that her project might involve mapping.
I’d first worked with Ali on her 2017 project Silk River. It linked two great rivers and cities – the Thames from London to the sea, and the Hooghly around Kolkata. I helped put the Thames-side walks together and was lucky enough to join in some of the planning at Murshidabad, up-river from Kolkata.
Murshidabad was once one of the great centres of Indian silk production, but had fallen on hard times as its artisanal, home-based spinning could not compete with modern machinofacture. Until Kinetika made an order, and the spinners dusted down their looms. Silk River paired 10 Thames communities with 10 Hooghly communities; each designed a 20-ft high scroll of Murshidabad silk that picked up on shared links – so Kew Gardens with the Kolkata Botanic Gardens, or the shoe factories of East Tilbury and Batanagar.
Silk River was at once a mix of visual art, performance art, community activism and physical exercise. It brought together artists and walkers, teachers and musicians, business people and heritage experts, plus plenty who just liked the idea of either the walking, or the art, and found themselves enticed over to the other side. More importantly, people who might not have talked to each other before, or even met, did so, and discovered their common ground.
An epiphany at Tilbury
Ali engaged one of Britain’s foremost travel writers, Kevin Rushby of the Guardian, to join Silk River and write a daily blog. He wasn’t looking forward to the eighth day of the Thames walks, through the dockers’ town of Tilbury; he’d been warned that it’s 'not a good place ... The last pub there was declared the toughest pub in England, and then it was closed because of all the fighting: dockers versus the rest'. But 'past the defunct power station, treading gingerly around the rising tide, dodging under gantries and around razor wire', he had an epiphany.
'In the bleakest setting, on a grey flat day, with a muddy tide sucking on a scraggy shoreline, I came across a beach filled with marvels and treasure. It was the place where London had dumped its Blitz debris on top of a Victorian tip which was itself on top of a Georgian dump, and so on back to the Romans…
'Gently extracting a complete 19th century glass bottle from under a broken WWII wireless set and a vicious thistle, I reflected that you just never know where joy and salvation are coming from. Beauty and hope can crop up in the unlikeliest of places.'
It was, he said, the Beach of Broken Dreams.
Along the eastern coast
Scroll forward a few years, and for 2021 Ali is planning another epic journey, this time along England’s east coast. Start: Lowestoft. Target: the Beach of Broken Dreams. In between, 500 miles. The project would be called the Beach of Dreams, without the ‘broken’, for coastlines, full of comings and goings, symbolise opportunity not despair.
Each mile, as she saw it, would be its own mini-collaboration: it could be ‘booked’ by someone for whom it had meaning. Through words, they would tell their story, and express their hopes for the future. Through their photographs, Kinetika’s artists would create a pennant, using Murshidabad silk. So, 500 miles, 500 stories, 500 flags.
Ali would walk the whole 500 miles over 35 days of high summer 2021, starting in late June. Kevin was game for another long walk, once more blogging all the way, with radio producer John Offord joining them to give much-needed media production skills – for example, he recorded each of the stories as read in situ by its author.
Ali, who succeeded me as chair of London LDWA a couple of years ago, knew what long walks felt like; Kevin was a keen outdoorsman, although not such a regular walker; John looked forward to finding out his walking skill-set as they went along.
They needed a route. Coastal walking isn’t just a matter of keeping the sea on your left-hand side. That’s what the call on quiz night was all about. It helped that I’d walked pretty much the whole of this coastline myself – indeed it had helped me get the Walking in Essex gig – plus I’d put together my own long walks across each of Wales, England and Scotland, among other excursions.
The brief, though, was exacting. Start and end dates were fixed. Certain places had to be hit on certain days – Harwich for its festival, for example – and some non-coastal communities to be visited as well, notably in Thurrock where Kinetika has strong roots. Plus it was February, lockdown still very much in force.
Ferries were allowed, but otherwise no motorised transport to circumvent awkward spots. Ali appointed Colin Saunders, another LDWA stalwart and Cicerone author, as ferries supremo – no small task, as seven crossings were needed, some simply a rowing boat by special request.
But before you ask 'Lowestoft to Tilbury 500 miles? One hundred at a push', consider the nature of the coastline.
Shore, estuary, island
Part of the answer comes from the Ordnance Survey, who will tell you that Essex has the second longest county coastline (to Cornwall), at 562 miles. Bounded by two estuaries – the Stour and Thames – three other great inlets scour deep into the county, the Colne, Blackwater and Crouch.
With their side-streams, they create an intricate maze of channels that dike-top paths trace faithfully. Suffolk might not quite match this, but the Blythe, Alde, Deben and Orwell all give inland diversions too.
Add in Mersea, Wallasea and Canvey islands, and the potential to reach the magic 500 was clearly there. (The 562 Essex miles of OS are not quite achievable. The fractal salt marshes, such as those of the Dengie peninsula, need a kayak rather than legs, plus there are some access issues, most notoriously Foulness Island, where bombs are tested.)
Well, it gave me something to do, as lockdown wore on. With to-and-fro to Ali and her team, it was on-and-off a month’s work.
The Beach of Dreams goes live
In April the website went live and the miles began to be booked. Honeypots were snapped up, others went more slowly. It’s hard to explain the remoteness of some stretches of this coast. Best example: the 17-mile day from Bradwell-on-Sea to Burnham-on-Crouch passed precisely one place of habitation, and that a religious community that has searched out seclusion. Beat that, Northumberland.
But we’d devised, during February, a route that was published in April and would be walked through July and a few days either side. What could go wrong? Quite a lot. A storm breaching the sea wall. Blocked or impassable paths. A late change to the brief; one such saw the route on day one heading along the coast, thanks to a low tide, rather than use the official Suffolk Coast Path inland.
Prime among these difficulties were the Thurrock stretches. Some of the road miles were positively murderous, on tightly-hedgerowed country lanes purloined by gravel lorries or boy racers. I did a few checks of my own, and found that what I thought would be an idyllic traffic-free green lane was an overgrown thorn-fest between two foul-smelling quarries. With help from the locals on Ali’s team, we re-routed away from the worst of the problems.
But the very final day, a loop from Grays, Thurrock’s administrative centre, out to Coalhouse Fort and back to the finale at its upstream twin Tilbury Fort, was to present the most intractable challenge of all. Simply put, unavoidable roads to Coalhouse were too dangerous to use, and just outside it the Thames-side path had been closed owing to tidal damage. And it was that path that led to the Beach of Broken Dreams.
Walking the coast
The only constants on each of the 35 walk days were Ali, Kevin and John. Sometimes they were joined by just one or two locals, perhaps only walking ‘their’ mile; other days upwards of a dozen could be with them the whole time. Occasionally, I was one.
And this being a typical English summer, the weather could, and did, do anything. My biggest concern for them in planning had been 35 days of heatwave; it turns out that they had ‘only’ six, roughly in the middle of the walk, although this included the above-mentioned 17 miles to Burnham-on-Crouch, with not even a vagabond palm tree for shade.
But they soldiered through. If Ali was struggling, you couldn’t tell. For Kevin and John, it was a different matter. I first joined in the walks on the Felixstowe day, and at lunchtime Kevin sent out for a change of footwear; I didn’t dare look at his feet. By the end of the day, John found himself in the Ipswich A&E with ankle problems. Somehow, they kept on going, though if you’re squeamish like me it pays to read Kevin’s blog through half-closed eyes.
And always, to mark this out as different from most long-distance walks, with the accompaniment of silk pennants, if not people: not all 500 pennants every day, that would be silly, but the pennant for each mile covered on the day and maybe a few more. If its ‘owner’ was present, the party would stop at their mile and hear their story. Two recurrent themes, the natural world and past lives, featured strongly; all stories spoke of their hopes for their future. Four times, all 500 pennants were gathered together, at start and end of Lowestoft and Tilbury, with Harwich and Shoeburyness in between.
A grand finale
For the last week, arrangements were a bit different, for the Beach of Dreams walks started and/or finished alongside another Kinetika project, the Thurrock 100 Walking Festival. This has been running for some years now, and with walks of no more than about 5 miles it is accessible to most mortals in a way that a 500-mile walk is not.
So although the walk past the Beach of Broken Dreams had been lost, in its place was a grand finale alongside the final Thurrock 100 walk, a guided tour of Tilbury led by former docker Les Morgan.
Four years before, Kevin Rushby had discovered something he hadn’t expected, at the Beach of Broken Dreams. Now, in the town, he found something else: 'The sense of community is strong here,' he wrote in his blog. 'People volunteer. The streets are clean. Kids play out on bikes.'
And Ali, Kevin, John and Les lead the walkers to the finish point, the former parade ground of Tilbury Fort. There’s a band playing, and Ali does a jig. 'They said Tilbury could never have a carnival but we got one – thanks to Ali,' said Les. 'There’s good stuff happening.'
I had a grand time on the final day, meeting old friends from Silk River for the first time in four years. But I’m a bit bereft. I was told to get the walkers to the Beach of Broken Dreams, but hadn’t. Maybe the roads to Coalhouse Fort wouldn’t have been too risky on a Sunday. Maybe the damaged path could be sidestepped.
I looked at my watch. Seventy minutes till the day’s grand finale, a song for the town of Tilbury. Two miles downstream, I was told, lay the Beach of Broken Dreams. Tight for there and back, but maybe. Maybe I could get there before the party ended. It would have to be solo, and quick. Ali was still dancing, and both Kevin and John would shoot me rather than walk another yard.
I slipped out quietly. I skirted an inlet, climbed a rusting ladder stile, edged round a concrete wall; looked nervously behind when I thought I heard a sound – this place, on a workless day, is as remote and unwalked as many a glen of Scotland. There’s a little cove – the beach? No, too soon, too closeted. I’ll go just to that little inlet, 35 minutes out, time to turn round – and there’s this bay, with beachcombers, pretty much two miles to the inch from where I’d set out.
Work continues on the England Coast Path, a new National Trail. Originally planned for 2020, the opening date is clearly some way away – indeed the Essex coast still has many issues to resolve. But when it does open, it will need a celebration, linking walkers, locals and all those with an interest in the Path. How about a nation-wide Beach of Dreams?
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