Tollesbury is a village on the Essex coast, not a great distance from where I live. Today it has a marina, the area is well-known for birds in autumn and winter and it’s the kind of place some people retire to. It’s set between arable fields and the seawalls and saltmarsh along the North Sea.
I’d often wondered about some remains of man-made features out on the marshes – a high raised bank bisecting the marsh, heading out towards the sea, and right by the sea, some signs of a structure like a bridge once having been there, with wooden posts sticking out of the water as if trying to reach the other side of the Blackwater estuary.
Then I found an information display had been put in. From the end of the 19th century the bank had carried a railway which ran from Tollesbury village (itself then connected to the rail network) out to a pier, with a station actually on the pier. The idea was that the pier would be extended far enough for big ships connecting England to Holland and Germany to dock, but this never happened. Instead fishing boats and small pleasure vessels used it. Day-trippers and fisherman also used the railway to the pier. The railway closed about 1920 but the pier continued in use till 1940, when it was seen as possibly useful to an invading German force and was blown up, with anti-aircraft guns being installed on the remaining bit: on the approaches to London from across the North Sea, these will have been used many times. Gradually what was left declined till now there is almost nothing left.
Through tussocked field, in winter waterlogged
Scrawled over with briar, the bank, like broken road
Between two towns now dead, reaches the shore.
Then as a gravelled hump, a fossil arm, breaks mud
Struggling with tide and frost; and then a scatter
Of blackened spars point out across the channel.
This thing was an ambition, a conversation
Of land with sea, England maybe with Holland,
A pier for fishing smack and pleasure party
Somewhere for a tired man to walk
The bank, to carry excited trains or vacant
Falling into a gradual decline
Hardly noticed thirty miles away
Then broken in war by men who knew it well
To stop an enemy blown up, and on the stump
Strong lights and anti-aircraft guns conducted
A different conversation of the worlds.
The waft-winged harrier now suddenly
Swivels for urgent pipits, a vagrant bunting
Flushed by a rushing dog whose reddening master
Stumbles angrily calling
The salt sea
Still laps the land
Lulls its lost senses, shifts the empty shells.