When I tell people in England that I’m going to India, they always seem to say something like: ‘You must love it.’ And after a pause: ‘When were you last there?’ Their implication, I reckon, is that India is changing fast and the India I knew may no longer be around.
Dawn on the last day of our journey and I’m staring out the window into a tarnished silver mirror that is the Thames estuary. It is a perfect day for a walk and we start with a stroll down to Old Leigh-on-Sea where we assemble near Osborne’s cockle shop.
An important element of this journey has become the reclamation of forgotten lands both physically and spiritually, but I think Tilbury was always going to be excluded from that formula. Early on in our quest, at Kew Gardens, I was sketching out the route for an interested bystander and at the very name of Tilbury there was a sharp intake of breath.
North Fleet, as locals are keen to remind us, is not Gravesend. It is, however, home to Ebbsfleet United Football Club where we all meet for today’s walk under a sign that reads, “No Ball Games.” The mayor gives a speech and afterwards I ask him: can a town suffer from low self-esteem? He thinks it can. Gravesend and North Fleet are no strangers to urban decay, social deprivation and failure. However, he assures me that the area is on the way up.
Dawn is just breaking when we emerge from the Kinetika studios and walk briskly down to the port in Purfleet. We are about to be treated to something special, but we don’t know that yet. At the C.Ro port gate we are met by men in hi-vis vests who walk us down past ranks of cars and vans waiting to be loaded on ships. “We’ve got two coming in soon,” says Barry, port manager.
Sitting in the RSPB café, I am looking over Rainham Marshes towards the distant skyline of London. You might think the closest thing to birdlife here is Canary Wharf, which I can see, but then an osprey flies past – or so I’m told, I somehow missed it. Heading down into the reserve I come across a lady wearing the sort of diamante spectacles beloved of Dame Edna Everage and a bright purple sweater. “I’m hoping for a whinchat,” she says. She is a knowledgeable birdwatcher, telling me in minute detail where to see the marsh harriers that live here.
The area around London City Airport feels unloved, a mess of weed-fringed yards and fences, buildings with menacing defences designed to keep people out, or is it to keep them in? As a thin rain falls we walk east, soon picking up the riverside path, itself an uncertain accomplice, tip-toeing its way around obstacles like a trespasser, easily escorted away from its proper home by the water.
Just after dawn I peer out the window of the working men’s hostel where we are staying on the Isle of Dogs and see a fox, a squirrel and a crow disputing the contents of a rubbish bin. The crow wins. It feels like the day has begun with an Aesopian flourish and it continues.
If yesterday was all trees and lovely riverside views, today promises to be very different. For a start our banners are multiplying. By the time we convene at Spitalfields, there are six. And our numbers have swelled to almost a hundred. I’m getting used to the ripple of interest and bemusement that rolls before us. But this is the East End, people speak their minds: “Where’s OUR flag?” “Is that a big sari?!” and, of course, “What is it all about?”