Southend and Me: Unearthing Pasts, Dreaming Futures
How do our memories and expectations of place shape experiences of heritage in the present? In this blog, Dr Beth Whalley looks both past and future to consider some of the politics of heritage and identity in Southend.
For the first two decades of my life, the geographies of home were characterised almost exclusively by the route of the c2c railway. My east London was mostly caught in flickers through the carriage window on journeys from Upminster to Fenchurch Street. The pebble-dashed back gardens of Barking and Dagenham, the hulking forms of the Bromley-by-Bow gasholders, the shifting Stratford skyline.
From Upminster, though, we would more often go east than west. I loved the Brutalist concrete of Basildon town centre and the dystopian sprawl of Lakeside Shopping Centre, but the best days were the ones where we stayed on the train, almost to the end of the line.
Living in west Essex’s urban fringes, the proximity of the Thames didn’t register that often, even though the c2c route finely traced the river’s course, forty miles west to east. But then you’d disembark the train in Southend and walk down the High Street and there it was, giant container ships and distant power stations in a luminous, sepia expanse. Truthfully, though we often walked along the pier to soak in the estuary’s vastness, it was the brashness of the seafront that was so captivating to me in those days: the weird dioramas of Never Never Land, the familiar blue pyramids of Sea Life Adventure, the frenzied noise of the Kursaal. Today, Peter Pan’s Playground (now Adventure Island) has practically reached semi-mythical status among my friends.
The author with her friend eating doughnuts on Southend seafront, 2008. (Image: Sarah Green)
It was a long time later, when I started my PhD research, that my affection for my local seaside resort started to adopt a new and more nuanced shape. My project was on the cultures of medieval waterways, and I’d nurtured a particular curiosity about how people think about and write about estuaries. And then my colleague lent me a slim little book called The Prittlewell Prince: The Discovery of a Rich Anglo-Saxon Burial in Essex.
The sixth-century burial was discovered in Priory Park in 2003, still containing remarkable, luxury objects: a lyre decorated with garnets from the Indian subcontinent, a Byzantine silver spoon, an eastern Mediterranean flagon. The objects not only revealed Southend’s status as a powerful economic hub in the sixth century, but also gesture towards its place in a vast international medieval network of trade and travel. Finding out about the Prittlewell excavations changed the way I thought about my Essex coast immeasurably – they were my entry point to the layers upon layers of stories that make up the Thames Estuary.
Sketch map of the medieval Thames Estuary from author's early research notes, 2017. (Image: Beth Whalley)
It troubled me that I didn’t find out about the discoveries until long after they’d happened, and I suspect it’s something to do with the ways in which certain places, people and communities – especially those that inhabit the perceived ‘edge’ of things – are denied a history (and, by extension, a future). Consequently, when the objects from the burial went on display at Southend Central Museum in 2019, they were received with biting cynicism from the press. This is Essex, reviews seemed to suggest, and important things just can’t happen here.
Selection of articles from Newsthump, the Times and the Observer, lampooning or negatively reviewing the Prittlewell Burial
There are cultural organisations working hard to combat this image, of course. In 2021 the Estuary Festival curated an impressive programme of public arts telling stories of medieval rebellion alongside nuclear colonialism and contemporary climate justice in the estuary. A 2020 group exhibition by Focal Point Gallery, meanwhile, explored alternative past and future realities for Southend and beyond. ‘To Dream Effectively’ took inspiration from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971), with artists re-imagining various lost pasts as a way of ‘dreaming’ alternative futures into reality.
In her contribution to the exhibition, ‘Arrowcut Slab (colliding not thriving)’, artist Rosie Grace Ward brought Southend’s early medieval histories front and centre. Adorning the railway bridge on the High Street, the slab depicted disquieting imagery, suggestive of early medieval stone monuments and manuscripts: a bird with a humanoid figure in its mouth, a calf pierced by arrows, two sea creatures eating each other’s tails, ouroboros-like. Ward, in her practice, is highly critical of the failings of neoliberal society, and this becomes apparent in ‘Arrowcut Slab’ which urges us to see beyond the myth of linear capitalist ‘progress’. Looking both backwards and forwards, it encourages reflection on the various ways that history continues to live with us.
I can’t help but wonder what younger me would have thought if, aged 12 or 13, I’d been confronted with Ward’s challenging work on my train journey to Southend – what radically creative spaces it might have opened up in the imaginations of me and my friends. I hope we’ll be seeing lots more like it in future.
'Arrowcut Slab (colliding not thriving)', North Side Railway Bridge, Rosie Grace Ward, 2020 (Image: Focal Point Gallery)
Dr Beth Whalley is an Essex-born, Bristol-based writer, researcher and educator, specialising in the environmental humanities, medieval literature, and the contemporary arts. Her doctoral project was on the cultures of medieval and modern waterways, and she has written articles on the Blackwater Estuary, the early medieval Fens, and Old English ‘ship riddles’.