Great British Drives: Thames Estuary in a classic Ford Fiesta XR2

1989 Ford Fiesta XR2 - with 'The Big Figure' Dr Feelgood drummer
The timewarp Fiesta XR2 from 1989 with car enthusiast John Martin, aka 'The Big Figure' from Dr Feelgood

The Lobster Smack sounds like the ­Essex equivalent of a Glasgow Kiss, but it’s actually a pub. You can find this one-time smugglers’ inn clinging to Canvey Island’s outer reaches on the Thames Estuary. Charles Dickens wrote about the clapboard building in Great Expectations

I was there to meet John Martin, better known as “The Big Figure”. He was the original drummer with the fabulous Dr Feelgood, a band once described as “The Sweeney with guitars”, whose sawn-off, English rhythm and blues vignettes, leavened with an Essex estuary vibe, electrified the music scene in the late Seventies and early Eighties. 

This was the highlight of a Medway and Thames Estuary-themed journey that started in Rochester, plunging into Canvey en route for the bright lights and candyfloss bling of Southend-on-Sea.

I was driving a vibrant red, valiantly uncouth 1989 Ford Fiesta XR2. An immaculate, un-thrashed, un-crashed one-owner car, it belonged to Ford’s collection of 100 historic vehicles, tended by some lovely gents at its Dagenham factory.

A generation ago little boys making “vroom-vroom” car noises produced sounds very much like those made by the XR2, whose fruity, no-nonsense rasp bounced against the 1930s bay-fronted houses, shops and industrial units on the seemingly endless A229 that took us into Rochester. Our destination was the cathedral and castle area, with its steep, cobbled roads over which the XR2 jiggled and bounced.

Rochester castle and the River Medway, the starting point of our Thames Estuary sojourn Credit: Alamy

The cathedral, with its elegant Romanesque façade, dates from 1080 (although this has been a religious site since 604AD), and is one of those places where you mostly look upwards, drinking in the Norman and Gothic elements of this tranquil space. Both it and the castle, which dates from 1127, overlook the east bank of the River Medway, which the castle guarded until the 16th century.

Run by English Heritage, the castle remains open throughout the winter, but time was pressing so I took a stroll round it, had a quick look at Rochester’s sometimes tatty, but often very old, shopping streets, then it was back in the Fiesta, blatting along the A2 towards a sludgy M25 and the Dartford Crossing, where, as part of an army ant-like mass of slow moving traffic, we were sucked into the tunnel under the Thames, emerging in the Essex boondocks.

The rural/industrial landscape here isn’t beautiful, but it is inimitable, with big fields, some with solar panels, some dotted with damp looking ponies. Exiting on to A127 Southend road, we streamed along, then dived on to one of the many lanes that radiate from it, wriggling our way along twisting, undulating tarmac, flying through stark, wintry woodland that gave way to fields of distinctive, brown soil.

The Fiesta was at home on the minor roads of Essex

The Fiesta follows road irregularities, rolls in bends, has a strange combination of squishy and bone-shaking ride, its unassisted steering could be sharper, gear change slicker, brakes better, yet it’s huge fun. Small, eager and forgiving, it feels fast, although it isn’t really. A car you almost wear, the XR2 is a friendly terrier on wheels, and was perhaps the most enjoyable thing I had driven in the past year.

It also created constant goodwill. Time and again middle-aged gents appeared to have happy, nostalgic, “I used to have one of those” conversations. Few cars have been more loved.

The countryside took on a rolling flatness as I joined the A130 and roared into Canvey, which has an otherworldly feel. It’s full of mobile homes, bungalows and pockets of thrift shop depravation, but possesses a tough charisma. A walk by the grey, muddy estuary, with its shrieking seagulls and distant skeletal cranes, is never less than fascinating

The haunting Essex marshes Credit: Alamy

A straight road reaches the Lobster Smack, passing giant oil-holding tanks en route. This welcoming pub, which serves excellent fish finger sandwiches, crouches behind a hefty sea wall, the legacy of the devastating 1953 floods that killed 307 and made 40,000 homeless. Here I met “The Big Figure”; a chunky, friendly man with a love of cars and a fund of good stories.

As a six-year-old flood evacuee he found the experience exciting, and was even interviewed on the radio by Wilfred Pickles. “I ended up singing ‘Me and My Teddy Bear’ – my first public performance,” he said.

“Figure” grew up roaming Canvey’s farmland with Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson, both enjoying long-vanished childhood freedoms - think Swallows and Amazons without the tweeness.

At Canvey Island, Dr Feelgood's heartland

He started driving an Austin Westminster with a hefty six-cylinder engine, and offers has plenty of hair-raising tales of hooning around Canvey in this stolid old barge. He bought and re-built Mk2 Jaguars, one costing £60. Cars were places he and Wilko could listen to music, fitting them with sound systems that were better than their parent’s radiograms.

The band’s record advance was spent on an old coach, which became a DIY tour bus with bunks and occasional rancor. Vocalist Lee Brilleux, driving in London, was stopped from going under Admiralty Arch, reversed into a bollard and in a fury snapped off most of the gear lever.

“I got a box spanner and some tube, lay on the floor and changed gear with them. Lee worked the clutch,” explains my my musical tour guide.

The bright lights and gaudy atractions of Southend-on-Sea

“Figure”, who kept drumming after leaving the band, mentioned that his dad and son worked at Ford’s Dagenham plant, and said that he became a car and later aircraft mechanic. Sadly, I had to leave him, as the skies grew leaden and Southend beckoned.

The Fiesta danced its way into Southend, where I failed to find the seafront until a kindly traffic warden put me right. Out-of-season seaside towns have a slightly desolate romance, and we passed gaudy, empty amusement arcades, and Southend pier, at 1.34 miles the world’s longest. During the Second World War it was taken over by the Navy and re-christened HMS Leigh.

Having previously experienced its little railway I eschewed this pleasure and parked the little XR2 near Rossi’s ice cream parlour, which despite the cold was doing a roaring trade, and took a happy, ear-tingling trudge along the seafront, watching the gulls bob on the roiling, pale green sea.

There was so much I still hadn’t seen. As the light faded I promised myself I’d be back to see it.

THE FACTS

Ford Fiesta XR2 Mk2

PRICE NEW £8,430

ENGINE 1,597cc, four-cylinder

POWER 96bhp

TOP SPEED 110mph

ACCELERATION 0-60mph in 9.3sec

FUEL ECONOMY 32.9mpg

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Credit: Jessica Saunders