The London Road was a migratory route. An escape from the slums of the docklands usually meant moving east into Essex. Depending on money and ambition, an Eastender might set his sights on Dagenham, or Hornchurch, or if funds allowed then still further east towards Southend, a place engraved on East End imaginations as a playground with its hundreds of seafront hotels, its pier and its endlessly ramifying amusement parks and seafood stalls. Old Leigh at the foot of the cliffs was originally a waterside village on the western fringe of Southend, but the village had already been cut off by the railway line from London and later by an oversized road development that marooned the sixteenth century houses and sailing barge wharves behind a wall of concrete and galvanised railing. Up on the Leigh cliffs was where the new town was taking shape.
In their twenties my grandparents had already made one critical move, out of the terraces of the London docklands to a semi-detached house with a garden and a garage overlooking Wanstead Flats. Aldersbrook Road was only three miles from Silvertown, although it might just as well have been located in a different solar system. Wanstead Flats was a place of open parkland and grazing, where cows were herded and where Londoners lucky enough to be climbing out of the working class came to buy their first houses, and park their first cars.
The house in Aldersbrook Road was a squat and ugly Edwardian villa. My grandparents liked it so much that they used it as the model for the new house in Leigh. In the architect’s plans the house looks like a military blockhouse, with small rooms and constricted windows, a house turned in on itself, determined to make ill use of the space that surrounded it. My grandparents had carried a version of their childhood world with them and reproduced it on the Leigh cliffs.
High brick walls encircled the garden, ensuring that whatever view it could have enjoyed was largely cut off. The waters of the Thames estuary would originally have been visible from the upper rooms but my grandparents soon constructed an additional enclosed verandah around two sides of the house, removing that view as well.
In any case the view would soon have disappeared as new buildings rose from the fields. The London Road was being parcelled up into development lots, sectioned into new roads with new names – Uncle Bob the developer who followed my grandparents to Leigh named some of these roads after family members. Olive Avenue memorialises my great grandmother who I met once in a curtained room on a day that seemed like a visit to the nineteenth century. Walker Drive was also ours.
Shops appeared in a ribbon on London Road, pushing up against the new villa. Oblong spaces marked on property plans merged and became brick terraces, as if hurriedly shaded in by a remote hand. The track on the cliffs became Thames Drive, unrolling downwards like a carpet to surprise the established pre-war houses of Marine Parade. Offices and garages appeared on the northern reach of the London Road, and men in the motor trade marked out forecourts on the road to Hadleigh. The Leigh cliffs became Leigh-On-Sea.
In my grandfather’s world all the magic lay in boats. The house on London Road had many pictures on the wall, but I cannot recall a single one that did not have a boat in it. There were matching sets of Venetian scenes busy with gondolas, and photographs of tugs being launched by my grandmother. There were many watercolours of Port of London scenes, and sketches of boats on the Leigh foreshore. There was also a very large watercolour by an early twentieth century specialist in marine and riverside scenes called Samuel Warburton, depicting sailing barges in the Isle of Man.
The Samuel Warburton painting hung above the fireplace. This painting drew me in. It showed a rocky foreshore under a summer sky. The tide is low, the shoreline is empty, and a stone-built jetty cuts diagonally through the scene from the left. The sailing barges are gathered in the middle distance; there are no signs of human life on any of the barges despite the heavy sail they carry. It looks as if they are under the control of some unknown agency. Meanwhile a lone navigator is making his way out towards the barges in a clinker-built dinghy, the sailor seen from behind and standing up in the small craft which is listing to starboard as if it is about to tip the man into the water. Despite the summer clouds and the milky blue sky there is an air of doom.
There is one other person in the scene, an ancient rustic mending nets on the stone jetty, his back also turned towards the viewer. This figure had obviously been added to the painting at a late stage because it is painted over an earlier depiction of flagstones and waves dotted with foam. Perhaps this figure was added to break up the human emptiness of the scene. To me it seemed as if this bent and semi-transparent form was a ghost without a face. The house in London Road often seemed to be a place where ghosts might operate and the figure of the old man on the jetty was further evidence. A complication was that the figure on the jetty looked like it might be my grandfather. He had the same stocky hunched manner of sitting, the same wisps of white hair.