Billy Bragg Fight Songs

A13 Trunk Road To The Sea

Published: 01/12/1991   by: First pubFirst published in Victim of Geography — The Second Song Book 1991

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 3 mile straights out beyond Gallows Corner. Here they could take their Nortons and Triumphs up to 100 mph '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 Mk 1s, 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 Magical Mystery road to the sea, to the Kiss-Me-Quick Never Never Land that is forever the Essex Coast.

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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's possible to read London,s development as a city like the rings on a tree. Late Georgian squares and Victorian cottage terraces give way to post war hi-rise flats that replaced dwellings destroyed in the Blitz. Hawksmoor churches built in open fields in the early 18th century now nestle beside the post modem architecture of the Docklands Development.

This bustling thoroughfare, once the haunt of East End villains like Jack The Ripper, the Kray Twins and Lou Macari, is constantly clogged with continental Juggernauts searching 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 the British Empire. Where in the l88Os the Labour Party was born in the struggle for the Dockers Tanner now stand new printing works fleeing from the high rents of the City. Nearby, their newly-arrived work force is living in purpose-built penthouse flats in places called Marsh Wall and Mudchute on the Isle of Dogs.

It's at the end of this stretch, just past where the mouth of the Blackwall Tunnel sucks traffic under the Thames to spew it out again in Greenwich, where the real A13 begins. As you drive over the River Lea at Canning Town, with its view of Bow Creek and the Bridge House Pub, the full glory of this road can be savoured. From here it's dual carriageway, sometimes four lanes wide, all the way to Dagenham with three (count em) flyovers thrown in for good measure.

As you speed up the Newham Way and onto the Barking By-pass you have a fine view of the Beckton Alp where the upwardly mobile residents of East Ham can practice their skiing on the artificial ski slopes. When I was a child this commanding height was the blackened slag heap of what was once the biggest gasworks in the world. Now grassed over and with a ski lift on top it has become the Cockney Klosters.

Further along, the A13 is named Alfred,s Way linking the area to the time of the Saxon King Alfred, when Danish longships glided through the creek mists to loot the Great Abbey at Barking.

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 20s near the aptly named America Farm. Rumour has it that on the wharves at Fords there are super rats as big as tabbys, immune to poisons and hunted with air 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 forever night.

It's around here that the A13 becomesa spiral arm of London, a strung out collection of warehouses, haulage firms and post-war semi-detached housing. The emblem of Essex County, a red shield with three Saxon swords on it, was a common enough sight on public works in my childhood but in 1965 an Act of Parliament banished it and its works from the part of Greater London that is forever Essex - yet it still graces dustcarts and such like from Tilbury to Saffron Waldon.

The M25 flyover forms a triumphal arch over the Al3 near Aveley and once through this symbolic gate in the new London Wall you find yourself in a land steeped in history. Place names like Ockenden, Thurrock and Fobbing attest to villages settled in Saxon times.

Despite this, the inhabitants of nearby Mucking were only too pleased to change the name of their town to Stanford-Le-Hope. The Peasants Revolt began in these villages in May 1381 when locals attacked the Kings Commissioner who'd come to levy the hated Poll Tax.

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The land here is flat right down into Kent. One Tree Hill is the highest point in southern Essex, 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 Martello Towers still wait for Napoleon to sail up and attack Tilbury Fort. At Purfleet the Circus Tavern wait for the Four Tops to play a return engagement to Essex's Ritziest Nightspot.

Mud. There's lots of mud out here. And council houses and Cortinas (Ford's much maligned 'Dagenharn Dustbin', still surviving down on the marshes). It's around Canvey Island that the mudflats end and the beaches that make Southend-on-Seaso popular begin. Originally the south end of the village of Prittlewell, it rose to prominence during the bathing boom of the l79Os when the aristocracy flocked to Margate and Brighton 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 this became the holiday destination for thousands of East Enders escaping the drudgery of everyday urban existence.

Southend is the Mecca of south Essex with its Golden Mile and longest pier in Britain but for me, Paradise was beyond the arcades and winkle stalls, past the bright lights that flashed a welcome even on the wettest windiest days. Go along the East Beach where Edwardian beach huts still stand in rows, through Thorpe Bay to Shoeburyness. Here, out of the Thames Estuary and into the North Sea itself is arguably the finest beach in all Essex.

It was here that I came with my family as a boy where we sat on towels on the sand watching Thames sailing barges cross the horizon, hearing the big Navy guns being tested on Foulness Island, eating sandwiches sweaty from Tupperware containers.

One of the fondest memories is of the time my father let me drive his green Morris Oxford slowly across the car park field behind the beach, a primal driving lesson that ended abruptly when I nervously stamped the clutch and the brake pedal down to the floor and he bumped his head on the windscreen. I must have been about twelve years old yet I can still feel the leather of the drivers seat warm on my bare back and hear the bonk! as father, sitting sideways and caught unawares, hit the Triplex very 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 stamped in the puddles all the way back.

Ah! Shoeburyness. The very name of the place brings back memories of a time when everything was larger yet intrinsically simpler, and everything was fun except bedtime. Where are those days now? Not at the end of the A13 anymore. The beaches are still there but not the green Morris Oxford. That 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 Al3 is still there, pulsating, vibrant, the tarmacadam trail through the Promised Land. Essex has been compared to New Jersey and should Bruce Springsteen have come from South Ockenden he'd doubtless have written about this road: The A13, Trunk Road To The Sea.


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