Joe Crowley takes a journey from the Thames flood barrier at Woolwich to the coast at Southend-on-Sea. At Woolwich Joe hears about the tragic floods of 1953.
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Hello. Today's journey takes me along the Thames Estuary path,
a route that is both rural and industrial,
working my way from the city to the sea.
I'll be starting out in Woolwich,
right on the banks of the River Thames,
where I'll be hearing a first-hand account of the tragic floods of 1953
and take a closer look at the barrier that now protects the city.
Where are we now? Are we actually right underneath the Thames?
You are, you're actually in the bed of the River Thames.
Then it's on to Rainham Marshes near Purfleet,
a surprising haven of countryside and wildlife by the M25,
where I'll be learning to identify birdsong
with urban birder David Lindo.
Oh, that's fantastic.
Moving east, I'll be on the lookout for the hidden tracks
at Hadleigh Country Park,
soon to host the 2012 Olympics mountain bike competition.
And my final destination is the bustling seaside resort
where I'll find out how the town keeps its sea squeaky-clean.
And along the way, I'll be looking back
at the very best of the BBC's rural programmes
from this part of the world.
Welcome to Country Tracks.
The Thames runs for 215 miles, starting out near Cirencester
and eventually flowing into the North Sea.
The river is flanked by some stunning countryside.
Only when the water hits London does the scenery drastically change,
the fields turning into a busy urban landscape.
Industrial buildings dominate and the ships get bigger and noisier.
From London, the Thames becomes tidal
and there can be a distance of up to seven metres
between high and low tide as all that water rushes for the open sea.
And the average flow of water
is around 5,200 million litres every day.
And that quantity of water brings with it real danger.
The Thames Estuary is particularly liable to flooding.
Now, there are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, mainland Britain is gradually tilting,
so the Southeast is slowly sinking into the sea as sea levels rise.
And secondly, when very specific extreme weather conditions
accumulate way out at sea, this can cause high-surge tides
of up to four metres which rush up the Thames Estuary towards London.
Both of these could result in serious flooding of our capital and beyond.
The worst case was witnessed in late January 1953,
when the greatest surge on record happened in the North Sea.
Tragically, 2,000 people in Scotland, England, Belgium
and the Netherlands lost their lives.
Around 100,000 hectares of eastern England were flooded
and one area just a little bit further down the Thames Estuary
towards the sea was very badly hit, Canvey Island.
The sea walls literally collapsed and of those who died,
59 were from there.
Ray Howard was 11 years old at the time and living on the island.
We went to bed at our usual time in our usual way,
and I can remember my sister waking me up in the early hours
in the morning to say, "Quick, come and have a look!
"Water is coming down the street at such a pace."
We were all shocked to see such an event.
And was it coming into your house?
It did get into our house and it was about five foot in our house, which was quite considerable.
But of course, we had a house and we were able to stay upstairs
until the army evacuated us in a boat.
There wasn't the streetlights like we've currently got,
but there was a full moon
and it was something that will always stick in my mind.
You were evacuated by the army, in boats, in lorries -
when do you get to see it again?
How devastated was Canvey when you returned?
Well, I mean, the army
and all the various agencies, etc, played a major contribution
in getting Canvey back into life again.
Houses such as my own at the time, we were fortunate,
major works had to be done
to where the salt water had got into the household,
but basically it was done in good condition
and we eventually went back into normal life.
And what have you noticed since?
How great have the changes been here to the flood defences?
It's huge. They have a huge structure.
They are pile-driven down into a considerable depth,
with concrete cladding and a top.
They are structurally sound until 2070.
So it's fair to say lessons were learned
and, even though it was a freak of nature,
the defences are now in place.
Yes, and I pay full credit to everyone who's played that part
and there's been a great amount of people who have made that a success.
Today, Canvey Island is incredibly well-protected from flood risk
to prevent such a disaster ever happening again.
Further up the estuary on that same night in 1953,
London's docklands, oil refineries, gas works
and electricity-generating stations came to a standstill
and the city was in turmoil.
It was a devastating natural disaster which deeply affected
the people whose lives and homes were destroyed.
It became very clear after the flood that something had to be done
to protect the city, and over the next 20 years,
a plan was put into action.
And this is what British engineers came up with -
one of the largest movable flood barriers in the world
and I've got special permission to go inside it.
But just before I do that,
Matt Baker and Julia Bradbury got very competitive on the River Medway,
which runs through Kent and flows out into the Thames Estuary.
The Thames Estuary is much more than just a gateway to London,
it's an area steeped in history and tradition,
and they don't come more traditional than a Thames barge.
These boats were the workhorses of their day.
Now just a handful remain,
but there's no retirement for these girls - oh, no, not today!
Right, it's grudge time here on the Wivenhoe.
We're about to go head-to-head, or keel-to-keel, I should say,
with Team Bradbury.
-And they're definitely Team B.
The plan is to race each other up the River Medway to Upnor Castle.
I'm aboard the Cabbie, the last wooden barge ever built.
Matt's aboard the Wivenhoe, a steel-hulled boat with an engine.
But today it's all about sail power.
Bradbury calling Baker, come in, Baker. Are you there?
-How are you doing?
-Very well! Your crew better be ready!
Yep, we'll just spin round and we'll be ready to go!
It takes a moment to swing the boats into position.
We've got four miles ahead of us. May the best team win!
Tell him we're off.
Three, two, one...
These are definitely not speedboats.
We'll be lucky to hit ten miles an hour.
Winning is going to be in the tactics.
Right, we're nicely to wind of him, so any wind he gets
has already gone through our sails,
so we've taken all the sting out of it.
-Look, we're passing him already.
-I like your style, Charlie.
We're stealing his wind!
'And we're about to steal some more.'
What we are doing is now putting up the foresail,
which now gives us an extra sail,
so we've actually got one more sail than he has. SHE LAUGHS
And this little sail could make all the difference.
Hang on, lads, they're putting... How many sails have they got up?!
-So is this our secret weapon?
-This is our secret weapon, this is, Julia!
-An extra sail?
-An extra sail!
-I knew you had it in you.
We have the power! Now, look, we're overtaking them.
-They're overtaking us.
-They're cheating. We haven't got that thing that sticks out the front
-with the white sail.
-Oh, what a shame!
Barge racing goes back 150 years.
It was started by a wheeler-dealer called Henry Dodd in the 1860s.
So how did this Henry Dodd fellow get all the racing started, Charlie?
Well, he was the sort of prince of dustmen in London, Victorian London,
and a lot of the rubbish was taken from London in the barges
and dumped out at sea,
so he decided to offer a prize, I think it was in 1863
was the first barge match, because he thought that
barges racing against barges would improve the way they sailed,
would improve the rig, make them faster and therefore more efficient.
He was a smart cookie, old Dodd.
He knew that barge racing would keep his crews fit
and his boats profitable.
Racing like this is his legacy.
And so what's the key, then, of racing her fast
and winning these races?
Well, it's all about the way the barge is rigged
and how clean she is and how well she's sailing.
-Have you got high hopes today?
-I had high hopes today until they cheated.
He's just taking an advantage, it's so unfair.
Right. The gloves are off. We can play dirty too. Start the engine!
Do you think they'll hear it?
I think they'll hear it
and they'll see our exhaust coming out the side of the barge!
'I smell a rat - or is it diesel?'
Wow, that's big-time cheating!
OK, we've had a laugh.
Fair dos, Julia, we'll switch the engine off and beat you
fair and square.
When you feel the wind behind you
and it fills that sail,
you don't half get some speed up in these barges. Really surprising, actually.
All the noises, the clunking, the ropes, the sails -
It's not looking good, they're right on our shoulder!
Yeah, but it's not over yet!
We're neck-and-neck in the home straight.
Could this be one last gasp for Team Baker?
I think it's going to be a close finish but I think we'll get it.
-You think so?
-Yeah, I reckon.
We're coming round now into the last corner
and then it's the final stretch up to the finish line.
We're that far ahead now.
He is actually in a faster barge,
but I did tell you
we had the professionals on this barge, did I not?
I can see the castle. I can see the finish line. Come on, lads!
We're on the home straight now and we're inching ahead.
-Look at them go, wow!
-Yeah, we've got him! LAUGHTER
That's it, guys, we're over the line!
In the end, it was Team Bradbury's superior sailing skills
that won the day.
Commiserations, Team Baker. I'm much further up the river from there in the Woolwich
to get a special insight into London's flood defences
at the Thames Barrier.
This incredible structure is run by the Environment Agency.
It's basically one big barrier
stretching 520 metres across the Thames. That's over half a kilometre,
more than five full-size football pitches back-to-back
and it protects 125 square kilometres of London that way.
The unusual shapes push up out of the water,
creating an unearthly appearance of metal domes and concrete pillars.
The Thames Barrier became operational in 1982.
It's got ten steel gates going across the river
and when they're in their defensive position,
they can stand as high as a five-story building,
each weighing 3,700 tons.
The terrible floods of 1953 were really the catalyst
for changing the flood defences of London and beyond
and it was soon after that a committee decided
that the river needed a barrier that would keep tidal surges out
but still allow ships to pass through.
Planning and designing took many years,
but work commenced on the Thames Barrier in 1974
and eight years later, it was opened by the Queen.
London has now been made free from the threat of flooding.
Rachael Hill works on the barrier and has invited me
to join her for a closer look.
Rachael, this is quite a stunning structure, isn't it?
But how often is it practically used,
how often is it needed to protect London?
It ranges from year to year,
wbut on average, two or three times a year, but since 1982,
we've actually closed 119 times
to protect London from the threat from the North Sea.
It's quite a lot. Are those two or three times a year
normally in wintertime when the seas are at their worst?
It tends to be through the winter.
From about October,
we come into what we describe as our tidal flood season
and that's when we start to see these depressions forming
across the Atlantic, they start moving towards the British Isles.
And how do you monitor it? It's not just looking out for a big surge of water with the eyes,
it's, I guess, buoys out at sea, all sorts of things, is it?
It is, it's a combination of normal weather-forecasting equipment,
because you can find out, from our work with the Met Office,
whether you're going to experience this period of low pressure,
these depressions, but then it's our tidal monitors
all along the east coast will be setting off alarms
and notifying us here at the Thames Barrier
whether we're seeing abnormal,
slightly higher tide levels than we would normally expect.
Now when Londoners, or people visiting London,
stroll down the south bank and enjoy the beautiful sights
and the river just lapping away gently,
they couldn't see that if it wasn't for this barrier, could they?
No, absolutely, and that's what a lot of Londoners
and visitors forget, that the Thames Barrier not only protects them
from flooding but it provides us
with a very beautiful view alongside the riverside in central London.
Without the Thames Barrier today,
even just to protect London from the tides and surges we see today,
the walls and embankments would have to be three metres higher,
so as tall as the lamp stands, we would be living in a walled-in city.
-We just wouldn't see it?
-You just wouldn't see the river.
So where are we now? Are we actually right underneath the Thames?
Yes, you are, you're actually in the bed of the River Thames,
because we're in the service tunnel,
the lowest point that you can get into in the barrier.
Wow, it's incredibly long, looking along it! Just how far does this stretch?
This stretches the full width of the river,
so if we carried on walking now, we'd reach the north bank.
This is the best place, really, to show you how the barrier works.
You can see at the moment,
one of the gates is in a defence position, so normally,
they sit on the bed of the river,
so if we want to go and have a look at this one over here,
at the moment, the gate is right below the surface of the water,
so any boats passing through - no problem, no impedence to navigation.
And that wheel just turns
and up it comes to stop the water coming through?
It does, these big yellow cylinders in the pier housing
are connected to those gate arms and one literally pushes,
the other pulls and it moves the gate up.
What's the future of this?
Is this going to be good enough in years to come to protect London?
Absolutely. The barrier is such a reliable, very flexible structure.
As it stands today,
it will keep London safe from flooding way into this century,
up until around 2070.
We will need to continue undertaking the maintenance and,
in some cases, do some quite major engineering works,
but a decision about the future of how we protect London
and the Thames Estuary from flooding will be needed around 2060,
because once we go into the next century, past 2100,
the future means that we might need to look at other ways
of managing future flooding.
The rising sea levels, perhaps more water falling,
-all these things are going to be borne in mind?
With climate change posing a future threat, it's good to know
that the engineers had the foresight to build such an advanced structure
that will keep the city safe for at least another 50 years.
It must be a really reassuring sight for all those people
that live and work upstream of the Thames Barrier, knowing that,
should the North Sea do its worst,
it will protect them from the water - for the time being, at least.
Although the Thames dominates the centre of London,
there are other rivers that play a significant role here.
Griff Rhys Jones spent some time exploring the River Lea and championing its name.
I guess that's Bow Bridge, so we're in Bow,
where Bow bells are and where Cockneys claim their origin.
As long as they can hear those bells, they're Cockneys.
So we must, now, be in the centre of London.
# It's a wonder as the landlord doesn't want to raise the rent
# Because we've got such nobby distant views
# Oh, it really is a wery pretty garden
# And Chingford to the eastward can be seen
# With a ladder and some glasses I could see to Hackney Marshes
# If it wasn't for the houses in between. #
This is one of the lowest-lying regions of London,
which is why Gus Elen, when he wrote that song,
couldn't see anything out of his back garden.
The area is reclaimed marshland, flat,
and, in those days, not a very desirable place to live.
The River Lea has been split into five channels around here,
the water meeting the various demands of numerous businesses,
for in the 19th century,
this was the centre of London's heavy, dirty industries.
The brand-new Olympic development is already having an impact on the river.
The building work will require millions of tons of aggregate,
and do you know how they intend to transport it?
By old-fashioned water, which brings us
to the newest structure on the Lea.
The is Prescott Lock.
It will, for the first time in 50 years,
enable water transport to navigate this part of the river.
This is the gateway to 2,200 miles of rivers
and canals in the whole of the UK.
We are on the old River Lea now.
Over there, that's the Pudding Mill River.
These were all mill leats,
they ran water off the Lea to run mills in medieval London.
This stretch of the Lea is now so secret
we won't actually be able to explore it,
for reasons of security, until after 2012.
I'm not allowed to bring my canoe up here
and bring Cadbury paddling around the Olympic site.
We've got special permission to do this.
This is clearly the way to arrive at the Olympics,
in a sort of state barge.
Coming up the concrete culvert.
In a way, it's going to be the Lea's finest hour, isn't it?
The brand-new Olympic development will have as its centrepiece
a concrete drain,
built originally to prevent flooding in Stratford East.
As the five channels flow back into one looping waterway
meandering towards the Thames,
this is the final part of the Lea's journey.
I'm struck by the greatness of this river.
What started as a torpid bog in Luton
has grown to encompass the whole of London.
My journey is nearly over. I'm now in tidal waters.
The dog has gone a little bit nervous
and I think I can see why, because I feel a little bit like a baby
hedgehog approaching a traffic intersection.
That's right, Cadbury, get your head down. Oh, all right, don't, then.
And I was going to say I don't know where I am,
and then I pop out and straight ahead of me
is the biggest folly of the last 50 years, the Dome.
'Time to hitch a lift to the end.
'This water's too dangerous for Cadbury and me.
'We're going with Chris Livett, a fifth-generation waterman.'
He used to go up and down the Lea and Thames regularly as a boy
and he's seen some enormous changes on this river.
I would come up here with my grandfather, my father, in their tug,
and we would have to physically slow down, a bit like a traffic jam.
You just have to look at all those 19th-century artists.
They were drawn to the river and one of the reasons for that was because of the incredible activity!
Sure. The theatre of life.
The colours, the sounds, the type of boats that would come up,
the type of people that were on those boats
were from the four corners of the world.
I think people are now turning back towards the river
because it looks a lot better, there isn't a putrid smell any more,
it's quite nice, you see some brilliant sunsets,
this is one of the few places in London that you can come
-that you see the horizon, for goodness' sake!
It's the emptiness that strikes me most.
The river has become a new beginning, including,
potentially, a place to live.
I think I've actually been in quite a lot of roof gardens
in London in my time, but not one that sways all the time.
I'm only crossing this floating community of 26 barges
to complete my own circle.
It would be awful to be capsized by a major tree, wouldn't it?
I'm back in the watery heart of London,
brought here by a river which still seems to me
to be essential to the understanding of this city.
It may not be as magnificent or as famous as its big brother,
but the river is a little marvel.
Rivers can take us on a natural journey from their source
to their end, weaving their way through the landscape.
My river has now guided me
on from Woolwich to an unusual spot by the M25 near Purfleet.
This is Rainham Marshes,
an expanse of ancient grazing land right on the edge of the modern city.
Nestled between the high-speed train route to Europe, the Thames
and the M25, this is a wildlife haven.
This oasis of calm is owned by the RSPB.
It's the perfect habitat for a whole host of fantastic birds,
wildlife and plants.
The urban birder David Lindo is a bird enthusiast
and is often drawn here by the variety of species.
Birding, for him, is all about the whole experience
and he wants to show me how to really enjoy bird songs and calls
and how to tune into them.
We brought along some recording equipment to help capture the sounds.
You can listen to birds as much as you can look out for them, right?
You can, it's good to sort of sometimes go out
and sit down somewhere, lie on your back in the grass.
-I love doing that, by the way, have you tried that recently?
Lie on your back in the grass just looking up at the sky
and just listen and you hear so many different things you would never normally have heard.
Don't worry about what they are, just enjoy them
and after a while, you begin to lock into that
-and you begin to zone in to those noises, sounds, calls, songs.
You know, this place is quite amazing
because it's on the outskirts of London, Rainham,
it's covering such a large expanse, it's right next to the Thames
and a lot of birds that actually come in
migrate along the length of the Thames and they see this
and they think, "This is great."
And, historically, this used to be a marsh anyway,
so there's a variety of birds that have practically always been here.
Do you think we'll have a chance of hearing a few birds today?
It's not that warm, it's a bit cold, a bit gusty,
do you think we'll hear something?
I'm pretty sure we will, actually.
I've already heard a sedge warbler singing
and I've heard a skylark calling
-and a goldfinch passing overhead as well.
I'm a complete novice, you'll have to help me tune in,
I'm not even hearing any birdsong at the moment
and maybe we can record a few on this to help as well,
so let's get started.
-It's gone very quiet now. Oh!
It's really loud. It's facing us, isn't it?
It's somewhere over there, yep.
That was brilliant!
That sound is the sound of a singing grasshopper warbler.
What would he be doing with this call? Marking out where he is, telling people to go away?
Yeah, this is this bird's song.
He is basically saying, "Listen, guys, anyone else out there
"who happens to be a grasshopper warbler, I own this little patch here,
"my family have been raised over there,
"this is my little area, keep out."
-It's got a really strange, reeling-type...
-Quite intense, wasn't it?
And it's continuous, it almost seems as if
he's just on a sort of wind-up toy kind of thing, you know?
-Completely keeping going the whole time.
-It's brilliant, I can even hear him above the plane.
He's really loud, isn't he? That's fantastic.
I feel very excited, actually,
because I don't hear grasshopper warblers that often.
I just love it.
And they can be very secretive, but then other times you come
and you can see them quite clearly, they obviously decide
whether they want to show themselves or not
but I just love hearing that sound.
Birds' vocal sounds are classified into two categories - calls,
which are used to give alarm or warning and to maintain contact with the flock, and songs,
which are used to attract mates and defend territories.
A lot of noise coming from these bushes over here,
what are we hearing?
We are hearing the cheeky Cockney sparra, a bird that,
as far as I'm concerned, has become a bit of a speciality
and a bit of a rarity for me.
Where I used to live, there used to be tons of them.
Now, there's hardly any, if any.
Part of the reason for their decline, it is thought,
is the fact that we as humans,
instead of keeping our gardens nice and wild
and filled with natural plants and insects,
are making our gardens into patios,
planting foreign flora, uprooting hedges
and putting in wooden fences, making houses without holes in them
so they can't go in to breed
and making our front gardens into car parks,
so basically, we're pushing them out.
This is very much a chirp that you'd hear in your back garden, if you're lucky.
Yes, you used to hear it everywhere.
It's very much a contact call.
Their alarm call is more of a growling chirp.
This is just a happy, merry, kind of "Hi, I'm here, are you there?"
You know, that kind of call.
There's your reed warbler.
It's tonal. There are lots of notes there. It's all over the place.
Reed warblers have a very rhythmical "chit chit chit" kind of song.
There's another species which is fairly similar in terms of it song.
It's called a sedge warbler.
It, too, does a "chug chug chug", but it's all over the place.
It's chirping, it's making a "chug chug chug",
so often even I get confused because, you know,
they go away for winter, come back in spring,
you've got to learn their song again.
If you don't live in an area where they breed,
you don't get used to their song
and it can be a bit of a minefield, sometimes.
There's a clearly rhythmic nature,
so you can tune into at least that and you can hear one of the two.
Yes. Even if you don't know what you're listening to, just enjoy it.
It sounds fantastic. It's amazing that noise comes out of a bird.
Well, what an amazing setting.
I genuinely didn't expect to find it that exciting, but it was brilliant.
Now I can say I know my grasshopper warbler from my sparrow.
Well, it's a start.
Across the Thames and into Kent, Alice Roberts discovered one of the industries
which was formed around the rivers and coastline.
In the days of sail,
the Royal Navy relied on four main suppliers for its rope.
Portsmouth, Plymouth and Woolwich have now closed,
and the only site still making rope is here at Chatham.
In fact, Chatham's historic dockyard houses
the last traditional working rope walk anywhere in the world.
So, if you want your rope the old-fashioned way, this is the place to get it.
Richard Holdsworth has worked at the dockyard for over 20 years.
It's safe to say he's a man who knows the ropes.
This is it, this is where it all goes on.
Welcome to the rope walk, Alice.
How long is this building?
It's 1,000 feet long.
When it was built, it was the longest brick built building in Europe.
I can barely see the end of it.
-It's a long way away.
The building is so long that the rope makers have come up
with a simple solution to get from one end to the other.
Riding their bikes is an art in itself.
-I tell you what, the bearings aren't too hot either!
There's a machine in the way!
The room had to be so long because rope for strength is made in one continuous length.
These are the bobbin banks.
This is where the whole of the process down here starts.
The fibres have already been spun into yarn,
and here they're being passed through
this wonderful colander type thing.
Everything is controlled by rope - the machines,
the signals are controlled by rope.
So, it's coming through there and coming out and turning into...
This is a forcing tube, this is the register plate.
One of the really skilful bits of the rope makers' art
is how this is all threaded together,
because the way these yarns come through,
and if we pull it you can see them coming through the machine here -
it's twisting at the same time.
They have to come together and lay together.
You see they're all parallel.
There's no gaps in there.
No, it's tight, the construction is firm all the way through.
-This isn't the finished rope, is it?
-No, this is strand.
This is the sort of second part of rope making.
The yarns are the first, the fibres are spun into yarn,
and they're twisted to the right.
In the second stage, which is the strand,
they're twisted to the left.
And the third stage, which we'll see in a moment, you twist the other way,
and that's why it doesn't all unravel.
If we go to the next part of the ropewalk,
we're going to put six strands onto six separate hooks
on this fixed end machine.
That's a vicious looking thing!
It's good fun, with all these hooks.
Every rope is made to be 720 feet long.
Historically, that's the standard length that the Navy required
to anchor ships in 40 fathoms.
The room is over 1,000 feet because, as the rope is twisted together,
And now it's all going to happen.
Each of these six strands of rope are going to be made into two ropes.
At the far end, these three are being brought together to a single hook.
As it twists, it drives a top cart down the floor.
So, the rope being made is actually driving the cart.
There's no other mechanical force to it apart from the twist of the rope.
The real skill of the rope maker -
he uses a piece of rope wrapped around the finishing rope,
and he uses it as a sort of brake.
That controls the angle that the rope comes together at.
It's a mechanised process, but you need a bit of human skill.
We need to squeeze in here, let Fred pass.
Now, you see, there's the...
So, the Royal Navy totally relied on
the strength of these ropes being made at places like Chatham.
Yes. They drove the ship.
Think of sailing ships reliant on ropes for their masts and sails,
it's not only the enemy that's the danger at sea -
it's this sea itself and the wind.
So sailors are basically trusting their lives on these ropes.
Trusting their lives, yes.
The ropewalk at Chatham survives because its rope is still in demand
for the world's finest sailing ships,
and they even make tow ropes for the Army's tanks.
-Two new ropes.
-And there we have it.
I've moved on from the marshes near Purfleet
and headed further east along the Thames estuary to Hadleigh.
As I travel further out towards the coast, the scenery is changing.
The industrial plants and buildings start to melt away,
replaced by rolling hills and open fields.
Up here in Hadleigh, the views are just stunning
as the Thames opens out right in front of me.
I am at Hadleigh farm - 900 acres of land
owned by the Salvation Army for a century,
and used as a working farm which is open to the public.
Beyond that is Hadleigh Castle, and the country park that sits within.
But things round here are set to change drastically.
Now, if you peer just over that hill,
you can see a couple of tracks snaking down the slope,
and that's a very big clue as to exactly why I'm here.
This location has been chosen to host
the mountain biking for the 2012 Olympics,
and I'm getting a sneaky peek at this prestigious course.
I'll be shown around by Billy Whenman, an Olympic hopeful.
Well, that's if I can catch up with him!
You're not in the GB team at the moment,
but as a local boy, how much would you love to be here?
I've been progressing throughout the year
for national championships this weekend,
so then it's all based on points for the Olympics.
You've been all over the country. What makes this course different?
It's got a mixture of everything.
Fire roads, good single track, climbs, downhills,
and lots of technical features as well.
Why do you think it's been chosen?
What makes this such a special bit of terrain?
It's different to all the courses everywhere else, really.
Every other course has trees everywhere -
this is more open.
So, a good spectator course
for those people coming along here with their tickets to see the action,
-they'll see quite a lot?
Even from here, you can see a few places on the course already.
Tell me what's going through your mind when you approach this.
You've got a lot to consider. What sort of speed are you doing?
At the top you're probably only doing about 10 miles per hour,
but, by the time you get to the bottom,
I'd say close to 25 - 30 mph, I reckon.
So, you use these rocks to control your speed, do you?
Yes, slow down before you get to the dirt,
then you don't really do much slowing down on the rocks,
you just let the bike go wherever it's going.
Really, is that the plan? So you're quite relaxed.
If you fight the bike you're more likely to slip or make a mistake.
Just go with the flow.
Well, you've talked me through it. I'd love to see it.
You OK to give it a go?
Brilliant. In your own time. I'm going to stand out of the way,
and see the master at work.
Right, so there we go. It's a proper big run-up here.
Let's see how this is done.
He makes that look very easy,
but basically, there's a point there
where he's almost face down the slope.
Yes, effortless control.
Really good. Rather him than me.
Once the medals have been won and the crowds have dispersed,
the local council hope to leave a cycling legacy
for this part of the Thames Path.
John Meehan is working on ways to connect the area together
and encourage people to come down and use it.
John, I've seen some of the track here. No doubt it'll be amazing during the Olympics,
but the other word we keep hearing with the Olympics is "legacy."
What's going to be the legacy here?
Well, there's a great aspiration
to create not just the Olympic track but outside the Olympic track
on some of the surrounding land,
there'll be mountain bike tracks through there,
across to the railway station at the bottom there, Benfleet,
linking local people and people further afield in,
so what you get to start here
is paths radiating out - these are paths for cycling, for horse riders,
for walkers, so that actually, Hadleigh gets connected.
So it's going to link up into, I suppose, one big green belt,
and there's already the Thames Estuary footpath, isn't there?
Which I've been on as part of my journey.
And this will link up key sites along that route?
Absolutely. The interesting thing about the estuary is
you've got the Thames Estuary path, all the way to Southend,
you've also got this railway, that runs along the bottom of the hill,
so people have options on coming to this area, so they can get off at Benfleet,
walk through Hadleigh Country Park down to Leigh,
have lunch at Leigh and come back along the seawall.
So all the way along the river are these options, and that's our vision for the future here.
And it is a lovely feature, because who'd have thought you'd be mountain biking in Essex?
The rest of it's flat and yet up here, you get this wonderful panoramic view.
You can take it all in.
It would be great to see this land
and the paths along the Thames used for walking and cycling,
and of course, a gold here for Team GB could really put this place on the map.
But moving on from cycling, the Thames corridor also provides
a wealth of food produce straight from the source.
Katie Knapman went to discover more.
Only 50 years ago, the Thames was so dirty it was declared
But decades of effort to reduce the levels of sewage and pollution
have brought it back to life,
and I've come along the coast to Essex, to find out more.
Gary Haggis has been fishing in the Thames Estuary for 40 years
and sells his catch at London's top food markets.
He's seen the changes firsthand.
This buoy here, this used to be a sewer buoy here.
Sewerage was discharged directly into the sea here,
but now it's just a storm water outfall pipe.
And you think that has affected the fish populations?
It's made a big impact, I think.
The Thames Estuary is now a very thriving area for fish
most of the time.
There's now a staggering 125 different species of fish
living in the estuary,
though today it's cod and sprats we're after.
We've come to the very end of the river mouth,
three miles from the Essex shoreline.
It looks like I'm about to do some kind of procedure!
I'm not medically trained, but it's never too late to start!
While the nets sit in the water for an hour,
I've got a chance to see Gary's earlier catch.
Nice quality codlings, and at this time of year they feed on the sprat
which gives them better flavour. The oil in the sprat
gets into the flavour of the cod, makes them...
They're a little bit softer
but they eat really nice this time of year, really good.
So how many of these cod would you expect to land on a good outing?
We try to catch 30 to 40 stone a day,
about six to eight boxes of those.
But how lucky are we going to be today?
It's not a great haul. We've got a few sprats and some herring too,
but Defra restrictions mean we can't catch them,
so they're thrown back in alive,
and we've not caught a single cod.
The most disappointing thing about that bit of fishing
was that we had those nets out for about an hour and when we hauled them in they were full of herring,
which they're not allowed to land, so they had to throw every single fish back into the sea.
It just goes to show how unpredictable fishing can be.
But with the sprats and Gary's earlier catch,
I'm not leaving empty-handed.
This lot is coming with me,
because I've got a rendezvous with one of London's top chefs.
Aaron Craze was a manual labourer before being trained
by Jamie Oliver in his restaurant Fifteen.
Now he's a head chef, and passionate about traditional local food,
so who better to turn our Thames catch into a dish of the day?
-Hello. What have you got there?
Well, let's have a look.
So, here we have some sprats and some cod.
Look at them babies. Beautiful.
Native to the Thames, they are, I tell you.
-So what's on the menu today?
-Oh, look at this, fantastic cod there.
Look at that baby. Beautiful. Bit of fish and chips, I reckon, hey?
-Yeah. Fish and chips is my favourite meal.
So pop it in.
Always move the pan, not the fish. Right?
Aaron's getting into his stride now,
but it turns out that even he is a recent convert to fresh fish.
Fish for me, right,
was always a stranger in my house,
because my mum and dad are very old-fashioned eaters.
They have a roast dinner and all that.
I thought a fish was a fish finger. I thought that was a fish, literally,
-until I became a chef when I was 24, and I actually...
-Saw a real fish?
They went, "Gut that." I was like, "What is that? What is that?!"
It was really scary.
Then I tried it - because I'm a chef I have to taste things,
-and it was lovely.
-It was nice and flaky and it was creamy...
-Better than a fish finger?
-Oh, I've never looked back.
It's wonderful that they're in our estuaries now
and they're becoming quite local and we're fishing them.
If it's in the right way, we're doing it properly,
we're not just taking everything out of the ocean, then game on.
-Look at that.
Then just a nice bit of salsa verde is lovely on it.
Mm. That is lovely. Thank you so much!
It's my turn. It's my turn now!
Would you like a taste?
'It's delicious, and passers-by are beginning to take notice.'
Be careful - there are a few bones.
I don't want to get done for doing a police officer.
This is from the Thames Estuary, this cod.
-Thank you. That's phenomenal.
Well, it looks like local fish is back on the menu
in the heart of London.
Following the Thames for the final time,
I've left the hills of Hadleigh and arrived at Southend on Sea.
Southend became a popular seaside resort in the Georgian era.
Good rail links and its proximity to London
created a thriving tourist industry for people escaping the smog
and heading out for some time on the seven miles of seafront.
The main attraction in Southend, though, is the pier.
In fact, it's the longest pier in the world.
They've even got a train to take you all the way to the end of it
and even that takes nine minutes.
Yep, this remarkable pier stands proudly at 1.33 miles long.
It was built in 1830 and has grown and evolved with the times,
becoming the true survivor of the town.
It's survived fires, boat crashes, two world wars
and all the weather that Mother Nature could possibly throw at it.
There's been a train on here since the late 1800s.
At first it was an electric train. Now it's a diesel hydraulic train which runs the whole length.
Good job, really - I don't really fancy walking it.
The pier launches visitors over a mile out to sea,
to some unique views from the end.
And with just enough room for a cafe and a small lifeboat shop,
there's little else to do but take in the air
and look out towards the North Sea.
And, of course, great views looking back to Southend on Sea.
I'll be heading in that direction shortly
to find out just how clean the Thames is here,
but first, the Country Tracks weather for the week ahead.
Today I've been on a fascinating journey along the Thames Estuary.
I began in Woolwich, right on the banks of the Thames,
where I had special access to the barrier
which protects the city from flooding.
Then I moved on to Rainham Marshes near Purfleet,
a surprising haven of countryside and wildlife close to the M25.
Moving east, I went to check out the hidden bike tracks
at Hadleigh Country Park,
soon to be the location for the 2012 Olympics mountain bike competition.
And my final destination is the bustling seaside resort
of Southend on Sea.
I've already been along the pier. Next up, the beach.
Southend on Sea sits on the Thames Estuary,
which was once the busiest inland port in the world.
It now handles over 50,000,000 tonnes of import and export every year,
so you might think the seawater
and environment here wouldn't be that clean,
but you can actually find Blue Flag beaches here.
Blue Flag is a prestigious international award scheme
which acts as a guarantee to tourists
that the beach or marina they're visiting is one of the best
in the world.
Richard and Mark from the Blue Flag scheme are meeting me here
to take me through the strict
beach assessment criteria and check this beach is up to scratch.
Richard, first of all, what exactly is a Blue Flag beach?
It's a standard of high-quality management on a beach
that ensures that anybody that comes to a Blue Flag beach
is going to find it clean,
with water quality of a very high standard,
and a number of facilities such as toilets and recycling facilities.
I assumed it was just about water quality.
Yes, I think everybody does. And in some ways, that's no bad thing,
because people don't need to know that there are 32 criteria -
all they need to know is that
it's probably very good quality seawater and a good, clean beach.
I didn't know that Southend had... one, two, three -
-how many is it, five?
-Five Blue Flags, yeah.
-Five Blue Flags.
So what does it mean to an area like this to get those Blue Flags?
It's incredibly important. It can really set one resort
apart from another, to advertise themselves as a Blue Flag resort.
And for somewhere like Southend, it's not traditionally somewhere you'd associate with Blue Flag.
The one thing we've got in this country is coastline, and we've got some fabulous coastline,
and even here on the north bank of the Thames,
not too far away from London, we have some incredible beaches.
We're doing well at the moment - lots of Blue Flags.
Can Britain hang on to them all?
What's interesting is that the EU rules on bathing water quality
are tightening now.
There's a new "excellent" standard being introduced
which, actually, Blue Flag will need to adhere to from 2013.
What that means is the water quality standard is twice as stringent
as we have now, so actually,
although water quality is constantly improving,
we may actually see a slight fall in Blue Flags from 2013 onwards,
simply because the target and the standards have actually moved on -
not because anything's changing or quality is getting worse.
You're constantly checking and updating. You've got Mark with you today, carrying out a survey.
Yes. If we were to find anything that was completely non-compliant,
the flag has to come down straightaway
and we'll talk to the local authority about the requirements
to get that flag back.
By and large, we tend to find that there small things wrong
here and there and with a conversation
they can be put right that same day.
-I'll go and give him a hand.
-Excellent. OK. Cheerio, then.
Mark would normally cover the whole of this beach,
checking all the criteria on his list,
but hey - two heads are better than one.
There's an element of common sense to this - one or two bits of litter
won't mean the loss of a flag,
but there can't be an accumulation where it's obvious that it hasn't been cleaned.
No stone is left unturned, and the beach gets a thorough inspection.
-Been through most of those.
Everything's looking pretty good.
-I'm a big fan of there being a free source of drinking water.
-Good. Yes, you'll find it everywhere.
There's nothing on there about water quality - have you got information on that?
Yeah. Water quality is actually tested by the Environment Agency,
the environmental regulator in England and Wales,
and every week that the samples are taken they send the results
through to us at Keep Britain Tidy, who run the Blue Flag scheme.
And at the moment, what's it looking like here?
-We've got "higher." That sounds quite good.
"Higher" is the standard we need for the Blue Flag,
so as long as the majority of the samples are hitting
that "higher" status, you're OK.
You can have a few of these "minimum" standards,
which are basically not quite the "higher" level
but they're the basic level pass.
When you look at the rainfall records for Southend, it was raining quite heavily,
which indicates there's been a sewer discharge or something nearby, bit of run-off maybe,
but then it's come back again at the end of the month,
so we're back to the "higher" status and clearly, what you'd hope
during the season is that the "higher" status is maintained.
If and when we have a couple more of those slightly lower samples,
we'd be notified straightaway, the authority would be notified and the Blue Flag would come down.
-Even halfway through a season? You don't wait till the end?
-Act on it straight away.
-One strike and you're out for the season?
-For water quality purposes.
-Well, it's looking good. So you're happy with everything today?
-Very happy. You've done a good job.
It seems like Southend has passed again with flying colours,
and the locals and visitors can continue coming, safe in the knowledge
that the beaches and waters are clean.
Well, what can I say? The Thames Estuary.
It has quite an industrial backdrop - not what you'd always expect from Country Tracks,
with the factory buildings, the ships, the wastelands.
But dotted in between are the areas of beauty, history and wildlife
which make this area so intriguing.
I've seen the barriers that hold the water back,
I've heard the birds that live alongside the river,
and I've explored the landscape that will be home
to an Olympic event.
Well, we know the water quality's good. I'm hoping to go for a swim...
but unfortunately the tide's out and there's barely enough water to swim in.
Oh, well. It's a bit cold, anyway.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Joe Crowley takes a journey from the Thames Barrier at Woolwich to the coast at Southend-on-Sea.
At Woolwich Joe hears about the tragic floods of 1953 and takes a close look at the barrier that now protects London from flooding.
Next stop is Rainham Marshes near Purfleet where urban birder David Lindo teaches Joe to birdwatch with his ears.
Further along the river, Joe visits Hadleigh Park which will be used as the 2012 Olympic mountain bike track. His journey ends at Southend-on-Sea where he learns how the town keeps its seas safe and clean.