Shoeburyness, south-east Essex. The walk to East Beach from the station takes you alongside a single-track train line, held behind mesh and kept neat from weeds. Following it to the source leads you to gates, and high, barbed-wire topped fences, beyond which squat the anonymous buildings of the Ministry of Defence. The train track runs along the perimeter and snakes behind a corner. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, a trio of men smuggle themselves into ‘The Zone’ – a landscape beyond the rules of physics – on a railway work car, the gates opening and shutting behind them. Today the track is silent; the entrance is closed. The fence is pockmarked with warnings of what happens to trespassers, but the so-called firing range looks peaceful: trees stand in a recently trimmed lawn.
Opposite the MOD is a drive leading to an innocuous estate of bungalows, purpose-built for retired employees. A silver car is parked in a driveway, a wheelbarrow rests. It may feel like there is something dangerous in the quietness, but this could be any other seaside resort.
There is no human activity behind the fence on the walk down the road to the sea, although a new MOD warning is in place at every few metres. In the sand the fence runs out. You can feel its invisible line alongside you even if the clusters of seagulls care nothing for the unexploded munitions they stand on. A spine of columns leads down the sand towards the distant tide, which is too far out to be heard. A woman walks a little dog. There are birds in the water and birds in the air, and the pools on the sand reflect the sky. The morning’s shadows point towards the MOD.
Shoebury Common Beach, late afternoon, is a different place. The tide is in, the orange sun is drifting, and daytrippers who have braved the cold are packing up. Beach huts are strung along the promenade and run down onto the beach. The numbers are uniform, on little plaques, while some have additional lettering: Haddock’s Plaice, Rest Ashored, Our Oyster. A few are named for people: Pat’s Pride, Jim’s View. The funeral director’s sign across the top of the beach shelter hints at the age group who settle here. Most huts are padlocked shut for winter, but a few of the more modern ones are occupied: behind a sliding glass door a man and woman sit facing the sea.
My great great aunt, Ann, had a yellow and white beach hut along the sand leading to Thorpe Bay. She was standing in the beach hut with her husband, Frank, in 1984 when he collapsed from a heart-attack. Winnie, their friend, was waiting in the car with their little black poodle; Winnie was the one who called the ambulance. Frank was dead before he reached the hospital and Ann never went back inside the beach hut. At some point a friend must have come in and cleared it for her, removing the personal items – the last objects that Frank touched – to strip it out for the new owners, while the sun spangled on the waters.