When artist Ali Pretty first took the road to Tilbury from her home in Hackney, she admits to feeling a little scared.
“Going from this hugely Remain-leaning area to Thurrock, where they have nine former Ukip councillors and a huge number of people voted Leave, I wondered what I was doing. Now I love it.”
To be exact, 72.3 per cent of voters in Thurrock chose to exit the EU in the 2016 referendum, while 78 per cent of the turnout in Hackney picked Remain.
So it’s a strange twist of fate that Thurrock, whose population harboured anti-immigration feelings strong enough for Nigel Farage to try to win a seat as an MP there at the last general election, is home to a small port town that is now synonymous with the fightback against the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies.
That town is Tilbury, where the Empire Windrush famously docked in 1948, bringing with her over a thousand passengers from the Caribbean who had answered a plea from the British government to help rebuild the country following the Second World War.
Pretty, an established name in the world of outdoor art who recently moved her organisation Kinetika to Thurrock, has been hired as the artistic director of Tilbury’s nascent carnival, which returns on 20 July.
What started in 2018 as a smattering of people following a four-metre tall puppet of a dock worker to mark the 70th anniversary of the Windrush’s arrival is this year a day-long celebration – backed again by the Tilbury on the Thames Trust, but with an injection of cash from both Arts Council England and the Windrush Foundation.
Pretty’s brief is to honour the history and diversity of the town, and much of that is linked to the docks – from the locals who work there and the shopkeepers who serve them, to the passengers who have arrived there from far-flung corners of the world, including those on the Windrush.
But that is easier said than done in a place whose history is not always well known to the people who live there.
“Tilbury is just as diverse as Hackney,” Pretty explains. “The problem is that a lot of people here don’t know about Windrush.”
Her theory as to why Thurrock is one of the most Eurosceptic constituencies in the UK, despite its diversity, is that the council doesn’t do enough to combat racist behaviour or show its appreciation for the different cultures under its supervision.
“The council doesn’t acknowledge diversity in the same way that councils in London do,” she says. “In Hackney, for example, people want to know, they want to learn about different cultures, but here, people don’t embrace difference.”
That’s why her idea for the carnival is centred around getting communities to talk to one another.
The parade on 20 July is just the last leg of a mammoth 15-day walking and talking festival themed around food – “something that unites us all”, says Pretty.
She set off on the walk earlier this month armed with two tablecloths, on which the people she meets along the way will share food and write down recipes for others to learn.
She’s also running workshops in writing, drawing and journal-making, and meeting local chefs along the route – the fruits of which will be on display at the carnival along with the tablecloths.
It’s a complicated directive to capture the spirit of Tilbury, and particularly its connection to the Windrush generation, in a way that attracts a local population which doesn’t know much about it, and which has signalled its displeasure at levels of immigration through its voting choices.
But Pretty, a veteran of the Notting Hill Carnival and someone who has spent a lot of time in Trinidad in her career, is well placed to succeed.
The event will see floats, carrying huge puppets, dancers, displays and specially designed Windrush flags, parade through Tilbury before culminating at the famous cruise terminal, which will be open to the public for the day.
Cultural and educational activities will pay tribute to the town’s links to Windrush, to the history of the docks, and to the diverse communities who call it home today.
There will also be plenty of food and music to enjoy.
Pretty, inspired by environmentalist George Monbiot, says she wants to create a “new story” for the misunderstood borough of Thurrock, and says it can follow in Hackney’s footsteps.
The artist, who lived on the Nightingale Estate in the 80s and still swims in the lido close to her home in London Fields most days, remembers the borough before its sweeping regeneration over the last two decades.
“I’ve lived through a lot of change in Hackney,” she says. “But it has never lost its vibe.
“It really gives me hope that other boroughs, other communities, can do the same, and that it happens in Thurrock.”
The Tilbury Carnival parade kicks off at 11am on Saturday 20 July from Anchor Fields Park on Hume Avenue, and finishes at 1.15pm at the cruise terminal. Activities and performances will run from midday until 4pm.
For more information about what’s happening on the day, head to tilburycarnival.tott.org.uk
Trains to Tilbury Town run from Hackney Central and West Ham, with the latter taking roughly 30 minutes