Memory Maps: 'A13, Trunk Road to the Sea' by Billy Bragg
For as long as I can remember, whenever my father and uncles spoke lovingly of their motorbikes, of speed and the wind in their hair, the road they spoke most of was the A127, the Southend Arterial, with its three-mile straights, out beyond Gallows Corner. It was where they could push their Nortons and Triumphs up to 100mph, ‘doing the ton’ down to the Halfway House roundabout and back.
For their sons, the Boy Racers in their two door Ford Capris and jacked-up Escort Mk1s, the road to ride was one of sharp bends and swift change-downs, of New Towns and land fills – the A13. This was the main drag out to the Promised Land of the Goldmine Discotheque on Canvey Island, caravan capital of the world. This was the route to the Kursaal at Southend and a plate of cockles or a cup of whelks. This was the road to the paradise of the Kiss-Me-Quick Never Never Land of the Essex Coast.
The A13 begins life as the Commercial Road at Gardiners Corner in Whitechapel where the City of London meets the old East End and, travelling eastwards, it is possible to read the progress of London’s development as a metropolis like the growth rings of a tree. Late Georgian squares give way to Victorian streets full of cottage terraces in areas pock -marked by the post-war high rise flats that replaced the dwellings destroyed by the Blitz. Hawksmoor churches built in the early 18th century nestle next to Peabody Buildings beneath the shadow of Canary Wharf.
Here the A13 is a bustling thoroughfare, constantly clogged with trans-continental juggernauts looking in vain for a cross-London link road.
Once past Poplar Town Hall, the A13 becomes the East India Dock Road, recalling a time when the wharves of East London bulged with the plunder of empire. Where, in the late 19th century, the Labour movement was born in the struggle for the docker’s tanner, huge printing works now stand, escaping from the high rents of the City. Nearby a newly arrived workforce are living in penthouse flats on the Isle of Dogs in places with such evocative names as Marsh Wall and Mudchute.
It’s at the end of this stretch, just past where the mouth of the Blackwall Tunnel gorges on traffic, only to spew it out again into Greenwich, that the A13 proper begins. As you cross the River Lea at Canning Town with its fine views of Bow Creek, for the first time the full glory of this road can be savoured. From here on, it's dual carriageway, flyovers and underpasses, four lanes wide, all the way to the M25.
As you speed up the Newham Way and onto the Barking by-pass, you are afforded a fine view of the Beckton Alp, where the upwardly mobile residents of East Ham can practice their moves on the artificial ski-slope. When I was a child, this commanding height was the soot-black slag heap of the Beckton Gasworks, once the biggest in the world. Now, grassed over and with a ski-lift plonked on top, it aspires to become the Cockney Klosters.
Crossing the River Roding, just beyond the junction with the new North Circular Road, the A13 takes on the title of ‘Alfred’s Way’, linking the area to the time when Viking longships glided through the creek mists to loot and burn the great Benedictine Abbey of Barking during the reign of Alfred the Great.
Where once the Abbess held sway over the fortunes of south west Essex, now stands Henry Ford, who built his mighty motor works on the Dagenham marshes in the 1920s on the site of the aptly named America Farm. Rumour has it that on the wharves at Fords there are super rats, as big as tabbies, immune to poison and hunted with rifles by men who work best in darkness and no matter what time of day it is, there are some parts of Fords where it is always night.
It is around here that the A13 becomes a spiral arm of the London conurbation, a strung-out collection of warehouses, haulage firms and post-war semis. The badge of Essex County Council, a red shield emblazoned with three curved Saxon swords , was a common enough sight on public works and school workbooks in my childhood, but in 1965 an act of parliament banished it from that part of Greater London that is forever Essex.
The M25 forms a triumphal arch over the A13 near Aveley and, once through this symbolic gate in the new London Wall, you find yourself in a land steeped in history. Although the inhabitants of nearby Mucking were only to pleased to change the name of their village to Stanford-le-Hope, it was here in May 1381 that the Peasants Revolt began, when locals attacked the King’s Commissioner who had come to levy the hated Poll Tax.
The land here is flat right down to Kent. One Tree Hill, the highest point in southern Essex, is a small ridge left by receding glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. Down by the cold grey waters of the Thames Estuary, the remains of several Martello Towers still wait for Napoleon to sail up the river and attack Tilbury Fort. Meanwhile, the Circus Tavern at Purfleet waits for the Four Tops to play a return engagement at ‘Essex’s Ritziest Nitespot’.
Around Canvey Island the mudflats of the Thames Estuary end and the beaches that make Southend-on-Sea so popular begin. Originally the south end of the village of Prittlewell, the town rose to prominence during the bathing boom of the 1790s when the aristocracy flocked to the coast in order to benefit from the medicinal properties of sea breezes.
They built the Grand Hotel overlooking the Promenade and when the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway was completed in 1856, the town became the holiday destination for generations of East Enders looking for some respite from their everyday urban existence.
Southend is the mecca of Essex, with its Golden Mile and longest pier in Britain. However, for my family, paradise was to be found beyond the arcades and winkle stalls, past the coloured lights that flashed out a welcome on even the wettest, windiest days. Go along the East Beach, past where Edwardian beach huts still stand in rows, through Thorpe Bay to the hamlet of Shoeburyness. Here, out of the mouth of the Thames Estuary, facing the North Sea itself, you will find the finest beach in the county.
It was here that I came with my parents as a boy to sit on towels on the sand and watch the Thames sailing barges lazily cross the horizon, listening out for the big Navy guns being tested on Foulness Island, eating sandwiches from Tupperware containers.
One of the fondest memories of my childhood concerns the time my father let me drive his green Morris Oxford very, very slowly across the field that served as a car park behind the beach. It was my first ever driving lesson and it ended abruptly when I nervously stamped the brake pedal down to the floor and father banged his head on the windscreen.
I must have been about twelve years old yet I can still feel the leather of the driver’s seat warm on my bare back and hear the bonk as father, sitting half-sideways and caught unawares, hit the Triplex hard. What great days. Every visit we would buy a plastic football and lose it before we went home and sometimes, if the tide was out, my little brother and I would walk almost to Holland it seemed, watched over through parental binoculars as we jumped in the puddles all the way back.
Shoeburyness. That name brings back memories of days spent far away from the cares of home, when everything was fun except bedtime. The beaches are still there but the green Morris Oxford has gone the way of so many precious things and I shall never see it again. Me and my dad have joined the Saxons and the Peasants Revolt in history but the A13 is still there, rolling through a Springsteenesque landscape in which riverine Essex takes the place of the New Jersey shore, a tarmacadam trail to the Promised Land.
© Billy Bragg
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