Eleven Thames lighters were landed and part filled with concrete on Essex mudflats in 1986. This to protect the seawall at Sales point, in the mouth of the River Blackwater, Essex. Further along the coast stands Bradwell A, a decommissioned nuclear power station.

A Thames lighter is a giant iron trough used to take the load of a large ship mid river and, to bring the load ashore. Coal, potatoes and other much needed goods. The skills needed to handle a Thames lighter was considerable. One man and a boy crewed the lighters using large poles. The lightermans knowledge of the tides, currents and winds was the ultimate tool of controlling these boats.

The same tides and currents that scoured away at the seawall, diminishing saltmarsh and beach, called those lighters to have a different function. They are doomed to sit still. Stationary they are decaying. Slowly falling over and sinking in the soft estuarine mud. From drifters, controlled by man they are now quiet. Changing slowly in colour, texture and form. One has toppled on it’s side another is barely hanging onto it’s chain.

Faintly in the background 2 cladded reactors, debris of Bradwell A Nuclear Power station.

During high tide the barges fill with water. Most have holes in and water seeps out during low tide.

As lighters they are outdated as protectors of the seawall their success is disputed. A few years ago during a very high tide and a strong wind from the east, sea water threatened to lap over the sea wall. Locals walked the seawalls, checking the rising sea levels with torches. Sandbags ready to use. Breaching was postponed that night.

I have swum around these barges feeling the tide pulling me.  Mud particles floating and swirling around me. Streaking me with flecks of mud. I have listened to them , the barnacles and clams ,disturbed by my shadow, snapping shut and making a swooshing noise while doing so.

But only when I climbed on the barges did I understand that whilst they were reaching the end of their life, their function had yet again changed.

During the summer the water inside the barge warms up creating a large artificial tidal pool. A new and unexpected habitat evolves. Squatters moved in the empty structure, from coal and potatoes to native oyster, peacock worm, clam, various seaweeds and, sea anemone. With thanks to Dr. M. H for identifying these creatures.

Essex has no rock pools to speak of. It is far too muddy, but somehow I feel now, that Essex has got them in the shape of old Thames lighters. As with naturally formed rock pools not very easily accessible and some dangerous to approach.

Thames lighters, groynes, tidal pool, quit a few functions for an iron trough. In the summer I am expecting different creatures to appear. Anyone out there who would like a guided tour?

With thanks to the Othona Community for their use of a fabulous Art Studio  https://www.othonaessex.org.uk/


Inlet and outlet

Middle part of the Barrier wall, leftover structure from Bradwell A Nuclear Powerstation in the Blackwater River, Essex UK. 2020

The paper is crisp and crackles when opened, real paper, yellowed.  The  decades old folds resist opening. It takes paperweights and a mobile phone to force it flat.  Real paper, entering, by a click of my camera  the digital world of my computer.  I am in the National Archives at Kew looking at a technical drawing of Bradwell A’ s barrier wall.   I like architectural drawings.  Behind the clear and focussed lines lies a dream.  Plenty of electricity, better lives, prosperity and economic competition.  A potential.  Someone drew this with detail and attention.  Someone in the 50ties wrote: Inlet and Outlet.

Twenty years after the powerstation stops producing electricity  I walk the seawall near Bradwell A  and spot two rusty and redundant outlets,  a discontinued look on their round lids. I worked once.  A dream, finished, redundant and mossed over.

The inlet and outlet tunnels of the barrier wall run under the seabed,  leading to the barrier wall.  From there cooling water was taken.  The river gave 182924 million litres of seawater per day to a thirsty pumphouse.  This water returned carrying with it chlorine and the heat of the cooling systems.  The Blackwater river temperature increased by 1 degree C.  Leaving it warmer for the next user. One third of sea level rise is caused by increased water temperature.  Let that sink in.

The Blackwaters river is famous for it’s  Ostrea Edulis  also know as, native oyster, Colchester oyster, Mersea oyster, Pyefleets, mud oyster, European flat oyster or edible oyster.   Every name adds it’s own claim.  I like the names Colchester and Mersea Oyster and,  Pyfleets it gives it locality,  it speaks of heritage and pride.  Culture and food.

In the late 90 ties  I lived and worked in the City of London, one pub near the Bank Of England sold  3 Mersea Oysters and a glass of champagne for lunch.  I remember the excitement rippling through the queue. The expectation of flavour. The R is in the month, the oysters are back.

Oysters as filter feeders also have an inlet and outlet. They take in water and all the small particles drifting about in it. An individual oyster filters up to 227 litres of water a day. Leaving it clearer for the next user. Plankton samples taken from the Blackwaters in June 2013 had around 13 Mersea oyster larvae per 100 litres. That is roughly 130.000 larvae being destroyed by the intake of cooling water per day. A couple of years down the line that could be a small oyster bed.

I planned a swim last year following the intake and outlet of the pipes. It would not be a very long swim about 1 kilometre, 40 to 50 minutes. But having sailed passed it this Spring this year I was reminded of a term we use in Holland ” Kwaad water” . Angry water. Reading the water around the baffle wall I saw angry water. You simply don’t swim there. Perhaps one day on a neap tide when relatively little water enters the estuary just before slack water I could have a go.

A plan exists to remove this structure as part of the decommissioning of Bradwell A. Although the water will be less angry, with the wall’s stark visual presence in the river, the question “was it worth it “? might also disappear.

When swimming, in the river I play a game. I lay on my back in the water. I can feel mud particles flocculating on my arms and legs. I have let myself into this water and know that I have to let myself out again but for the moment, I am a marine wanderer nothing more than a small creature slipstreaming the tide, unable to choose a direction. The drift will do this for me. I lose my human form and am now part of the oldest and most life giving habitat on this planet; a rich oxygen producing congregation of microscopic creatures. I imagine being a phytoplankton contributing to the sage green colours of the river. I feel water I see sky, that is all that matters. My body turns and lines up with the incoming tide. I am inhaled by the rivermouth and flow to an inlet.

Plankton sample July 2021 River Blackwater