The Road to Erith Pier
The other Sunday seemed to be the first proper warm day of the year. A day without coats and without regrets about not wearing coats. A day when you can sit indoors, but will feel the guilt creep over you as you see the sun outside, the weather you’ve been waiting for through those months of damp and cold and wind. You feel compelled to go out.
We headed to a local park. Naturally, everyone else has the same idea. I like a good walk in the park. This park is a good one in theory. There are lots of trees. A lovely boating lake. A country house looking over it all. A place to buy snacks, a pub for some lunch, but also plenty of paths to just wander, to enjoy the day.
These sorts of open spaces should be the ideal democratic spaces. Anyone can enjoy them. Yet, the park soon became a space for selfishness. We were nearly driven off the path by kids on their bikes. I could forgive them, obviously. It must have been the first time they could ride their bikes since they got them for Christmas. But I was annoyed at the parents, who didn’t offer an apology, or even a nod, or even a quiet word with their offspring to be careful around others.
Soon there were adults riding the footpaths on their mountain bikes, fully helmeted in case one of us pesky pedestrians knocked them over. On a lovely day I didn’t really understand why these fully-kitted-out cyclists didn’t just drive to somewhere where they could cycle properly, rather than a park full of people, a park that would probably only take 20 minutes to cycle all the way around.
Then there was the group with remote-controlled cars, screeching around the park, their controllers sole purpose seeming to be to wind up their large dogs, barking and straining at their leashes. Not the best soundtrack for a Sunday afternoon.
So, we headed towards the pub. There was a long queue of cars outside. This is very much a local park, not somewhere you would drive miles to go to. Yet people had chosen to drive, had chosen to sit in a jam on a lovely, warm day rather than just take a walk to the park.
The pub itself was packed. A jam in your car, followed by a queue in the dark pub, followed by a long wait to get served your meal and drink, either in the dark pub, or on the tables overlooking the traffic jam to get in the park. Funny what people do on a sunny day.
We decided it was time to go.
We headed to Erith Pier. Nobody really heads to Erith on a sunny day. I like that. It is good to have somewhere to get away from it all, without having to actually get away from it all, with the time and logistics that involves.
The pier juts out on to the Thames. It is rarely crowded. It feels like a genuine democratic space.
There are the guys with their fishing rods. I suspect the rods are just props. I’ve never seen them catch a fish, or even really pay attention to the rod and line. I think the fishing gear just give them an excuse to sit on the pier, drink a beer, chat to the guy next to them. That may be the case for all fishermen everywhere, but you really notice it here. One fisherman sits in his motorised wheelchair, personalised to look like a Harley Davidson.
There are the parents taking their kids up and down the pier. The couples taking a breather on a bench, with their lunch spread over their laps. The teenagers who may or may not be dating, listening to music through their phone.
Everyone keeps themselves to themselves, you can find peace here. But also it feels like you could talk to people if you want to. Here is a place to think, or if you want, to just go blank, to let the wind and the sky swallow you up and forget all the day-to-day. To find comfort in being small, inconsequential.
The peace comes from the wind. It blocks out any chatter or noise, the everyday. There is peace in the huge skies. You don’t usually get huge skies around here, except on the pier. There are blues forever.
It is not an obviously beautiful spot. To the east is a rubbish dump, industry, then the Dartford Crossing. To the west, some housing, more industry. Wind turbines in both directions. But all of this jutting into the skyline provides real drama, punctuating the sky. All this harks back to the Thames as a working river, and shows that it still is, just about.
It is not all industry. You can just make out Erith yacht club. This doesn’t feel like a town for yacht clubs, but there it is. Across the river is Rainham marshes, a nature reserve, just out of reach, still dotted at the riverfront with warehouses, still grounded in industry.
Here is a space to think, to get away from the crowds. A space to enjoy a moment of calm with a loved one, or to savour a moment alone. A place very much of London, while also somehow outside it, where new build homes and factories sit alongside nature, the sea, sky and marshes beyond.
This is where I can pause and see beauty in everything, where I can see clearly there is more to beauty than picture postcard views, where I can be among people, yet not feel crowded by them. Where it feels like everyone is just themselves and don’t feel the need to claim the space as their own. This is a true public space. These are the places we should be using, these are the places we should be investing in, these are the places we should be protecting from the selfish, the loud, the thoughtless. Let them have their parks. Let me have the pier.
Photos from the author. Apologies they are a bit wonky. It was so sunny I couldn’t see the screen to see what I was taking. I’m also too lazy to Photoshop them straight.