One of the most beautiful tourist destinations in England
It doesn’t appear in any brochures. It’s not mentioned by tourist agencies or travel magazines. But it’s quietly fascinating and almost beautiful nevertheless: it is the largest food warehouse in the United Kingdom off the M25 in Essex and it belongs to the supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s.
Every night, this goliath receives dispatches from a myriad of food suppliers and recombines them for onward delivery to stores across the country. It’s a busy place: the aisles of an average supermarket contain twenty thousand items, four thousand of which are chilled and need to be replaced every three days, while the other sixteen thousand require restocking within two weeks.
There are fifty lorry bays running along the length of the building and vehicles arriving and departing at a rate of one every three minutes. Inside, staff circulate between shelves, placing goods onto automated runways, which rush them to rows of steel cages lined up behind the loading bays, where they wait to be driven to a range of obscurely numbered destinations. 02093-30 refers to a cathedral town boasting a theatre and a brewery, a place which hosted a parliamentarian army during the civil war and retains several fine Georgian squares and which every morning, unnoticed by most of its residents, is visited by an articulated lorry from across the Pennine Hills, carrying in its hold parmesan cheese, red jelly, fishcakes and lamb cutlets.
Components of the national diet race around the building on conveyor belts high above the ground: thirty cartons of crisps for Northfleet, 1,200 chicken drumsticks for Hams Hall, sixty crates of lemonade for Elstree. Time is of the essence. At any given moment, half the contents of the warehouse are seventy-two hours away from being inedible, a prospect which prompts continuous struggles against the challenges of mould and geography. Clusters of tomatoes still attached to their vine, having ripened to maturity in fields near Palermo on the weekend, are exchanging the destiny seemingly assigned to them by nature to try to find buyers for themselves on the northern fringes of Scotland before Thursday.
Blind impatience is equally evident in the fruit section. Our ancestors might have delighted in the occasional handful of berries found on the underside of a bush in late summer, viewing them as a sign of the unexpected munificence of God, but we became modern when we gave up on awaiting sporadic gifts from above and sought to render any pleasing sensation immediately and repeatedly available. It is early December and in a central aisle, twelve thousand blood-red strawberries wait in the semi-darkness. They flew in from California yesterday, crossing over the Arctic circle by moonlight, writing a trail of nitrogen oxide across a black and gold sky. The supermarket will never again let the shifting axis of the earth delay its audience’s dietary satisfactions: strawberries journey in from Israel in midwinter, from Morocco in February, from Spain in spring, from Holland in early summer, from England in August and from the groves behind San Diego between September and Christmas. There is only ninety-six hours’ leeway between the moment the strawberries are picked and the moment they start to cave in to attacks of grey mould. An improbable number of grown-ups have been forced to subordinate their natural laziness, to move pallets across sheds and wait in rumbling diesel lorries in traffic in order to bow to the exacting demands of soft plump fruit.
If only we weren’t so snobbish about what we consider ‘important’ or ‘beautiful’, the warehouse would make a perfect tourist destination. Observing the movement of lorries and products in the middle of the night induces a mood of distinctive tranquillity, it magically stills the demands of the ego and corrects any danger of looming too large in one’s own imagination. That we are each surrounded by millions of other human beings remains a piece of dull, unevocative data, failing to dislodge us from a self-centred day-to-day perspective, until we take a look at a stack of a hundred thousand ham-and-mustard sandwiches, all wrapped in identical plastic casings, assembled in a factory in Hull, made out of the same flawless cottony-white bread, and due to be eaten over the coming two days by an extraordinary range of our fellow citizens which these sandwiches promptly urge us to make space for in our inwardly-focused imaginations.
After several thousand years of effort, in the industrialised world at least, we’ve become the only animals on this planet to be free of an anxious search for the next meal. As a result we have time – in which we can learn Swedish, master calculus and worry about the authenticity of our relationships, avoiding the compulsive and all-consuming dietary priorities under which still labour the emperor penguin and Arabian oryx.
Yet our world of abundance, with seas of wine and alps of bread, has hardly turned out not always to be the happy place dreamt of by our ancestors in the famine-stricken years of the Middle Ages. The brightest minds among us spend our working lives simplifying or accelerating functions of stunning banality. Clever engineers write theses on the velocities of scanning machines and consultants devote their careers towards unearthing minor economies in the movements of shelf-stackers and forklift operators. The alcohol-inspired fights that break out outside pubs (or inside homes) on Saturday evenings are symptoms of fury at the big prison we’ve built for ourselves. They are a reminder of the price we pay for the carefully-ordered beautiful modern world we inhabit – and how many sides of us this world still doesn’t quite satisfy, despite its dazzling advantages.
Richard Baker is a photographer from London working on personal street and cultural themes. You can see more of his work here: Richard Baker Photography.