Stanford-le-Hope to Tilbury Town, a remote Thames Estuary walk

by Ian Tokelove
The Mucking Flats with London Gateway container port in the background.

A leg-stretching landscape of tidal flats & landfill, saltmarsh & military defences. Topped off with drinks at the World’s End.

This stretch of land, on London’s edge, has been worked hard. Wide expanses of tidal marsh have been buried under millions of tonnes of London’s unwanted rubbish, discarded as landfill. Flooded gravel pits now host fishing clubs and nature reserves. Power stations once dominated the horizon, until decommission and demolition.

The railway station at Stanford-le-Hope leads to Wharf Road and thence to the Thames. Thurrock Thameside Nature Park overlooks the river here. The futuristic visitor centre offers great views across the Thames, along with coffee and cake. It’s also a haven for wildlife.

This was once a gravel pit, and then a massive rubbish pit. In places, the layers of landfill stood 30m thick. During the fifties and sixties, barges would carry up to 660,000 tonnes of waste downriver each year, to be unloaded and dumped here.

As the compressed rubbish is still settling, the visitor centre stands on hydraulic jacks, to adjust to any subsidence.

Three huge cranes silhouetted by the Thames.
Mucking Marshes were first quarried for gravel, and then buried under landfill. These huge cranes lifted London's trash from river barges, to be dumped on the former marshes. The area remains off-limits.

The cranes and foreshore jetties now stand idle, and large areas of the landfill site remain off-limits. Eventually, the nature reserve will expand and embrace these fenced-off spaces. In summer, skylarks now sing overhead. In winter, waders patrol the mudflats, seeking worms and shellfish.

Walking a wet landscape

Taking the footpath back towards Mucking, a new path follows the railway tracks south, and past another flooded gravel pit. The path then cuts back towards the Thames, with fenced-off landfill to the left and another large gravel pit to the right. This can be a wet and boggy route in winter.

As the path meets the Thames a circular concrete structure, reminiscent of WWII fortifications, turns out to be a settling tank from a small sewage works which once stood here. A twin tank stands nearby but overgrown, and other traces of the treatment works can still be seen.

Former settling tank by the Thames Estuary
Former settling tank by the Thames Estuary

The Thames Estuary wall guards the river embankment here. Regular ladders provide a way over.

Walking south, towards the Coalhouse Fort, the path meanders inland a little, through a stretch of scrubby grazing. I’ve seen a short-eared owl hunting here at dusk, buffeted by winter winds.

RemoteLondon: the Thames Estuary wall near Tilbuary
RemoteLondon: the Thames Estuary wall near Tilbuary

The Coalhouse Fort and radar tower

The Coalhouse Fort faces the Thames, partnered by Cliffe Fort and Shoreham Fort on the south bank. Built in the 1860s, this remote, moated outpost defended London from seaborne attack. Now disused, it remains an impressive structure.

Nearby, what appears to be a rusting water tower rises next to the broken remains of a jetty. This structure housed a radar tower during the second world war. The radar was designed to accurately pinpoint any enemy ships attempting to run the river, which was heavily mined here. The mines would have been detonated electronically. This allowed friendly shipping to use the river without risk of setting off mines.

A former WW2 radar unit, disguised as a water tank, at Coalhouse Point.

Bottle beach

The following sweep of coastline skirts the East Tilbury Marshes. The marshes here were sacrificed to London landfill in the 1940s, but the Thames is now nibbling away at the dumped waste. Each tide reveals a fascinating array of discarded bottles, broken porcelain, clinker and old bones. Less enticing is a compacted strata of plastic trash, crumbling batteries and unregulated pollutants, emerging from the eroding shoreline.

Broken crockery and bottles cover a beach
Bottle beach near Tilbury. Also known as Clinker Beach
Bottle beach near Tilbury
Bottle beach near Tilbury

Moving upriver, a large chunk of West Tilbury Marshes was lots to Tilbury A and Tilbury B power stations. Tilbury A operated from 1956 and was demolished in 1999. Tilbury B operated from 1967 and was demolished by 2019.

Rather then being returned to nature, the site is being restructured as a new port terminal, Tilbury2. There is currently significant work taking place, but the footpath remains open.

The remains of Tilbury B, shortly before demolition in 2019
The remains of Tilbury B, shortly before demolition in 2019

The World’s End

Tilbury Docks now block public access to the river, but the high river wall provides an impressive view over the Thames and of Gravesend on the opposing shore. The World’s End pub provides welcome refreshment, hosting a mix of long-distance truckers, port contractors, locals and the odd walker.

From the pub it’s a 25-minute walk to Tilbury Town Railway Station, following freight-heavy roads and drainage ditches, before the welcome comfort of a train seat home.

The World's End at Tilbury Docks

My thanks to Liza Sumpter for company on this walk, undertaken in December 2019.  Some images were taken from a previous solo walk.

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