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At Canvey Island

September 7, 2010
by the gentle author

Each Summer, as a respite from Spitalfields, I take a day trip to the sea. Last year, I enjoyed a visit to Broadstairs, but this year, inspired by a brochure given to me by Gary Arber, I decided to be more adventurous and go to Canvey Island. Printed by W.F.Arber & Co Ltd in the nineteen twenties – when Gary’s grandfather Walter ran the shop, his father (also Walter) was the compositor and uncles Len and Albert ran the presses – this brochure seduced me with its lyrical prose.

“Canvey Island, owing to its unique position at the meeting place of fresh and salt waters, which continually wash its shores, enjoys a nascent air which is extraordinarily health-giving and invigorating, and is, indeed in this respect, possibly above all other places in the kingdom. Prominent physicians in our leading hospitals pay tribute to the properties of the air, by sending patients to the Island in preference to any other locality.”

Yet in spite of this irresistible account of the Island’s charms, when I told people in Spitalfields I was going to Canvey, they pulled long faces and declared, “You’re joking?” Undeterred by prejudice, I packed ham sandwiches in my satchel and set out from Fenchurch St Station with an open mind to discover Canvey Island for myself. Alighting at Benfleet, I crossed the River Ray to the Island arriving at the famous wall that reclaimed the land from the sea – constructed in the seventeenth century by three hundred dutch dyke diggers under the supervision of Cornelius Vermuyden.

“One of the first places the visitor will make for is the sea-wall, which he has undoubtedly heard a good deal about before coming to Canvey, and with which he will be anxious to make a closer acquaintance. The wall completely encircles the Island, and, following all its windings in and out, covers a distance of about eighteen miles.”

Since I had no map and had not been to Canvey before, Gary Arber’s brochure was my only guide. And so I set out along the wall where stonecrop and asters grew wild, buffered and blown by salt winds from the estuary. With a golf course to the landward side and salt marshes to the seaward side, that widened out into a vast open expanse stretching away towards Southend Pier on the horizon, it was an exhilarating prospect and I enjoyed the opportunity to fill my lungs with fresh sea air.

“The grand secret of the wonderful health-giving properties of the air is the evaporation from the “saltings,” during the time when the tides are out, which charges the air with ozone, which is thus constantly renewed and refreshed, making it extremely healthy, clean and bracing.”

Reaching Canvey Heights and looking back, the contrast between the hinterland crowded with bungalows and whimsical cottages, and the bare salt flats beyond the wall became vividly apparent. Many thousands before me, coming to escape from East London, had also been captivated by the Island romance that Canvey weaves – and I could understand their affection for this charmed Isle that proposes such a persuasive pastoral idyll, when resplendent beneath a sky of luminous blue.

“There is a charming freedom about life on Canvey which will appeal to most people whose work-a-day life has to be spent in towns or their suburbs. The change of scene is complete in every respect; streets, bricks and mortar, are replaced by bungalows of very varied designs and appearances”

Surrounding Canvey Heights, I found a neglected orchard of different varieties of plum trees all heavy with fruit, and filled my satchel with a selection of red, yellow and purple plums, before making my way to Rapkins Wharf with its magnificent old hulks nestled together in a forgotten creek. The Island breezes played upon the rigging like a wind harp, filling the boat yard with other-worldly music, where old sea salts sheltering amongst the array of rotting vessels. Next, turning the corner of the Island, I reached the shore facing the estuary and walking along the esplanade soon came to Concord Beach Paddling Pool where I joined the happy throng at the tea stall, spying the big ships that pass close by.

“All the vessels, bound to and from the large ports on the Thames, must pass Canvey, and thus a constant procession of all sizes can be watched with interest and pleasure, ploughing their lonely furrows through the waters.  Monster ocean-going liners bound for the other side of the world, sailing vessels with their full rig of canvas spread, and, as the sun catches the sails, delighting the eye with one of the most haunting sights to be imagined  - the estuary teems with interest at all times. Here one can realise that, despite the progress of motor and steam in water travel, there still remain a few ocean-going vessels under sail only.”

At the next table, a group of residents were debating the relative merits of Benidorm and Costa del Sol as holiday destinations, only to arrive at the startling yet prudent consensus that staying here in Canvey Island was best. Eavesdropping on their conversation, and observing the idiosyncratic villas adorned with pigeon lofts and flags, I recognised that an atmosphere of gleeful Island anarchy reigns in Canvey, situated at one remove from mainland Britain.

“The strict conventions of dress and deportment so tiresomely observed in towns can be ignored here in Canvey, and the visitor casts off all artificial restraints, simply observing the ordinary rules of decency and respect towards others which his own courtesy will dictate.”

Crossing through the streets, marvelling at the varieties of bungalows, I came to the Canvey Island Rugby Club playing field at Tewkes Creek, where I sat upon a bench to rest and admire the egrets feeding in the creek, while men walked their bull terriers on the green. Tracing my path back along the wall towards Benfleet station, I discovered circles of field mushrooms and picked myself a bunch of the wild fennel that grows in abundance, imparting its fragrance to the breeze. Then I returned home on the train to Fenchurch St at six, pleasantly weary, sunburnt and windswept, with my mushrooms, plums and fennel in hand as trophies, enraptured by all the delights of Canvey.

“For the family there is no better spot than Canvey for holidays – the glorious, exhilarating air sends them home again pictures of health and happiness.”

I never saw Canvey Island’s petrochemical refineries, or what happens at night. I am prepared to countenance that Canvey has its dark side, but I was innocent of it. I am an unashamed day-tripper.

This boat is for sale, contact the owner at Rapkins Wharf, Canvey Island.

Mushrooms picked at Canvey.

Plums and fennel from Canvey

The wall around Canvey Island.

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Joan permalink
    September 7, 2010

    Just over a week ago we were staring at the Canvey oil refinery over the estuary from the beach at Egypt Bay on Kent’s Hoo peninsular. It was warm enough to go for a paddle and while our thoroughly modern guidebook had overdone it a bit by offering a Hebridean white beach it was well worth the trek. Nice eight mile walk from the RSPB reserve at High Halcrow. And worth a side trip to nearby Cooling to see the children’s graves that supposedly inspired ‘Great Expectations’.

  2. September 7, 2010

    We found a fairy ring of mushrooms last Sunday in a beautiful old church yard. I pondered for a while but decided to leave them where they were. With my lack of knowledge regarding the identification of fungi and knowing my luck, I would probably now be a resident in said graveyard. I have now promised myself a one day fungi foraging trip this autumn. I have to say however, that the mushrooms looked exactly like the ones that you managed to harvest (Field Blewits).

  3. Gary permalink
    September 7, 2010

    Well written Gentle Author you have brought my 90 plus year old brochure to life.
    You may not have seen a red sailed yacht but you had a lovely day in the health giving air and I expect you feel better for it. I hope that you got the Fennel right though, the umbellifers can be tricky to identify correctley
    Keep up the good work
    Gary

  4. the gentle author permalink*
    September 7, 2010

    I ate them all (grilled on a toasted slice of bread from St John) and I am still alive.

  5. jeannette permalink
    September 9, 2010

    thought you might be amused by the net surf your ramble inspired — wikipedia entry on canvey, to lobster smack pub, to its curry night menu, to this recipe for goanese veg curry.
    http://www.syvum.com/cgi/online/serve.cgi/recipes/srcpv8.tdf?0

    happy trails!

  6. November 10, 2010

    Loved your description of your trip to Canvey. It really is a magic place. You might like to visit Canvey’s website and find out a lot more. Just for the record we do not have an oil refinary. That’s at Coryton

  7. George permalink
    September 6, 2011

    Have only just come across your Canvey trip account. I was lucky enough to get to know Canvey well in 2008/9 whilst working with Julien Temple on Oil City Confidential – a film about those famous sons of Canvey Island, Dr Feelgood.
    If we met I could give you a copy. (I could wear a blindfold)

  8. Malcolm permalink
    September 3, 2013

    I’ve only just stumbled across this blog entry and thought I would mention that Canvey Island is the home of the only building designed by the celebrated structural engineer Ove Arup who worked with the Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, on the Sydney Opera House – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labworth_Caf%C3%A9

  9. Sue Condon permalink
    September 5, 2014

    I have only just stumbled on this entry on your wonderful website. You have made some lovely comments on my old island! Never knew you could get wild fennel too!

  10. John coronado permalink
    January 4, 2015

    you should have walked further up and marvelled at the disused docks,the lobster smack and then the Dutch cottage.If you decide to come back to canvey visit me at my coffee shop on the seafront and I will happily give you a tour.(coronado sa) .Loved your comments about Canvey,it usually gets a bad rap.

  11. John coronado permalink
    January 5, 2015

    I have shared this with canvey now and then fb page,they absolutely love it and have asked if they can archive it for new members to see later.

  12. John coronado permalink
    January 5, 2015

    On your walk there used to be a concrete barge,which was originally one of the mulberry barges used in ww2, it broke away and was beached there.As kids we grew up exploring it and finding all sorts of stuff…unfortunately in today’s health and safety climate it was destroyed.

  13. the gentle author permalink*
    January 5, 2015

    Of course you can. i an honoured!

  14. Shawdian permalink
    September 12, 2016

    So disapointed with the state of CI. Could not wait to leave. Friends said we could pay a visit and stay at their home for the weekend whilst they were abroad. We left after two hours.

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