Two power stations on the Thames Estuary.At the top is the one on the Isle of Grain in Kent, which I believe is no more. Or that might be just the chimney. The second is at Tilbury in Essex, taken in an equally wintry afternoon light from a gun emplacement at the fort. They come to mind because of three things: 1) There's a celebration of the estuary starting about now, 2) Rachel Lichtenstein's book Estuary is out tomorrow, and 3) I shall grab a copy as I make my way to a meeting on the Thames at Blackfriars. I lived close to both these shores once, and have found that over the years they have seeped deep into my bones. First it was helping to race a Thames barge on the wide stretches of water around Southend and Brightlingsea, later lonely walks out on the Isle of Grain and the Hoo Peninsula on bitterly cold days, then the discovery of the Cooling Marshes and Cooling church with its little gravestones that inspired the opening scene of Dickens' Great Expectations. Later still there were commissions that took me to the Essex shore to photograph both the Tilbury and Coalhouse Forts and the wonderful Bata shoe factory. All to the soundtrack of my re-discovery of Canvey Island's Doctor Feelgood. (I'm often asked what period of history I'd like to go back to and inevitably hear myself saying "the Kursaal in Southend in 1973 with Doctor Feelgood doing Route 66". When I should be saying "on the deck of the Victory" or something.) So much to see, so much to feel, so much to hear. Mournful ships' hooters in the fog, the clanking of iron doors on empty forts way off shore, the cries of marsh birds, rotting hulks, the orange flares of refineries. As John Piper said of the Romney Marsh "it's all 90% atmosphere really".
Sometime in the hedonistic eighties we were meandering our way home from Hastings and came across a derelict house next to a railway station in East Sussex. The front door was open, honest, and we shuffled about on broken glass from room to room. In the kitchen I noticed a slightly different surface to part of the wall, and a tell-tale gas pipe told me an iron plate had been placed to absorb heat from an oven. It was streaked with yellow paint and I immediately knew what it was. As I'm sure you've guessed too. Our car had a toolkit and it was but seconds for the plate to be levered away to reveal this very bright enamel sign, still exhorting us to find the station master and take out Railway Passengers Assurance. And still demonstrating the artist's optical trick of giving the perfectly rectangular sign a permanent lean. It's subsequently been in a succession of garages and garden sheds with just spiders for company, until the other day I was putting the lawnmower away and had the urge to take it down and give it a good clean. The enamel, which appropriately would have seen the inside of an oven in its manufacture, came up as bright as the day it left Hancor Signs in Mitcham in, I imagine, the 1920s. One thing I like that you can't really see in the photograph is that there is residue of the green kitchen wall paint on the edges. Probably the only reminder of the house, now demolished to make way for a car park extension. So now I'm wondering where to put the sign. Looking around I think it will have to be the ceiling.
I am a designer, writer and photographer who spends all his time looking at England, particularly buildings and the countryside. But I have a leaning towards the slightly odd and neglected, the unsung elements that make England such an interesting place to live in. I am the author and photographer of over 25 books, in particular Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2006), More from Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2007), Cross Country (Wiley 2011), The Cigarette Papers (Frances Lincoln 2012), Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012) and English Allsorts (Adelphi 2015)