Thurrock has a rich and diverse heritage and culture which is neither exploited nor celebrated at present. It is, or has been: a major commercial port for the imports the UK requires to survive; a crucial military gateway protecting London; the first point of arrival for immigrants and tourists. In its physical riverside form it also encapsulates the threshold condition of arrival more aptly than the airport landing strip.
Thurrock’s gateway location could become the catalyst for a diverse cultural life, signifying a forward-looking and contemporary stance and providing a positive identity for an area best known at present for its motorways and retail park. It has the potential to become a strategic Gateway to the region both culturally and geographically.
The traditional arts have a small although loyal community centred on Grays. Amateur theatre, opera and art societies exist but the proximity of London and regional centres with major cultural facilities such as Southend and Colchester means that culturally-engaged residents can easily access events outside the borough. The socio-economic history of the area means there is no local tradition of ‘high’ cultural activity and those with an interest or talent in the arts have generally moved to more ‘culturally active’ cities.
There are very few ‘cultural industries’ in Thurrock. Craft-based businesses do exist in some areas and there is a local video production company.
Youth culture centres around rock, punk and ska bands rather than dance music. Thurrock’s live band scene is perhaps the most thriving part of its cultural life. Skate rock is popular and there are several local bands and informal networks within each music scene, including web chat pages. The annual Thurrock Music Festival in Orsett Showground showcases local bands in the ‘biggest showcase of unsigned talent in the south-east’.
The Tilbury Trojan Skins were an infamous skinhead clan in the late 1970s/early 1980s who still regularly organise reunions in a working men’s club in Tilbury, playing reggae and ska music. With an undercurrent of racism, they are fiercely patriotic and in the past often violent. They were immortalised in the Pink Floyd film ‘The Wall’, for which they were hired as extras.
There is a significant traveller community in Thurrock, which has the most authorised sites for travellers in Essex. There is a level of antagonism between the travellers and the other residential communities.
Sport is very popular in the borough and remains divided along urban/rural lines. There are many cricket and football teams, and a speedway track. Football is based in the urban areas and many fans following teams from East London. There is also the legacy of industry-related teams such as Ford United in nearby Dagenham. Golf in the greenbelt is well-used. The Tilbury women’s bowls team are the UK indoor champions.
Working Men’s Clubs exist in all the urbanised areas of Thurrock and have been a strong cultural presence among the industrial working-class community. The Tilbury Town Band, is a much celebrated brass band originally made up of railwaymen. Formed in 1919, the band today is still booked to play many engagements throughout the year, including fêtes, shows and other public and private functions. The members actively promote the brass band movement by giving free lessons and the loan of instruments to those who need them.
Flower arranging flourishes in Thurrock and its villages regularly feature in awards for villages in bloom.
Existing arts facilities in Thurrock are centred on Grays, where the only significant arts venues in the borough are located. TheThameside complex is the focus, comprising the Thurrock Museum, public library and a 300 seat theatre. The Civic Hall also hosts some performance and music events. However neither of these are capable of hosting the touring productions that visit other nearby centres such as Southend and Colchester.
A typical season at the Thameside Theatre consists mainly of tribute bands, TV comics, variety shows, theatre versions of popular children’s television shows and a small number of performances from local amateur theatre and musical groups which are not well attended.
The Grays State Cinema is a very fine Art Deco building, now disused, seating 2,200. It closed as a cinema under pressure from more commercial screens and has had various reincarnations as a nightclub and museum, all unfruitful. It has recently
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been used temporarily as a venue for some projects by arts|generate (see below)
The former Tilbury Riverside station has been converted into a successful Arts Activity Centre (see below) which now hosts local businesses as well as dance classes and other community arts programmes.
Other venues for live music include the Tilbury Riverside youth centre, the Grays Working Mens Club, which hosts the Fat Surfer live band club, pubs and village halls.
Community arts involvement, particularly with young people, has recently grown significantly and a large number of successful community arts initiatives are now in operation aided by the arts|generate programme, a strategic initiative developed by Arts Council England, East to support high impact, regionally distinctive programmes that provide a focal point for regeneration strategies in their areas.
arts|generate aims to develop and nurture the talent of local residents with opportunities provided through the arts, and it seeks to support the borough’s diverse communities. arts|generate projects include: commissions, performances, exhibitions, education, and research projects. They have recently commissioned a study into the feasibility of attracting artists and other creative businesses into Thurrock.
Youth music in the community is also growing with the institution of a Youth Music Action Zone.
Creative Partnerships, a government funded national initiative which provides school children across England with the opportunity to develop creativity in learning and to take part in cultural activities of the highest quality, will be launching a programme in schools around Thurrock 2005/06 for at least three years.
Thurrock has much unsung and underexploited architectural and historical heritage. Of particular importance is the military history of the area which has been significant from the Middle Ages to the Second World War. The visit of Elizabeth I, who addressed her troops at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approached, is also an iconic part of Thurrock’s history.
Military history is the most active heritage sector, with re-enactment groups particularly active at Coalhouse and Tilbury Forts and Purfleet Garrison. The area also has a rich archaeology, particularly around the greenbelt areas where ancient field patterns can be found, as well as in the marshes.
The Thurrock and Essex greenbelt has a history of idiosyncratic, idealistic small communities such as at Bata, the Plotlands and others. For further information on these refer to the ‘Green Spaces ’ charette section of the website.