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At Canvey Island

August 23, 2023
by the gentle author

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Inspired by a brochure given to me by Gary Arber, I decided to go for a day trip to Canvey Island. Printed by W.F.Arber & Co Ltd in the Roman Rd 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 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

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Andrew Shields permalink
    August 23, 2023

    Lovely article. Nice to read a piece about Canvey that a) isn’t jaundiced and b) doesn’t mention Dr Feelgood!

  2. Lorraine permalink
    August 23, 2023

    I can’t suppress the excitement enough: yesterday Walton on the Naze & now, today, the main prize, Canvey Island, the home of childhood dreams and now nostalgia for that childhood. My East End family may have first visited Canvey in the Edwardian era & I have lovely photos of 3 generations having fun there together (in an all too short break from their tough lives) in the 1920s. This is then superceded by hundreds of photos taken there throughout the 50s, 60s & 70s. In those days the journey seemed longer due to the old cars & poor roads so we were ‘forced’ to stop for refreshments partway there at the Five Bells pub. My memories are filled with rumbling across the rickety old bridge from Benfleet towards the seafront arcades, peering over the sea wall & perching on the slopy rocks alongside it, sitting outside the Monico & other pubs such as the Red Cow, the Haystack, & the Lobster Smack. Our time was spent under canvas & enjoying long walks along country lanes in the company of our grandparents, aunts & uncles & cousins, sometimes up to about 16-20 of us. Although I now live far from the East End & Canvey I still visit often to have a superb lunch at the Lobster Smack & reminisce with my sister. The ashes of my grandmother & both my parents reside there, as will we when our time comes.

  3. Ian Johnson permalink
    August 23, 2023

    I very much enjoyed this celebration of the oddness and charm of Canvey Island, but I do have one minor quibble. The waterway one must cross in order to get from South Benfleet Station to Canvey Island is Benfleet Creek, not “The River Ray”. There is “Hadleigh Ray”, further downstream, and there is an anchorage for small boats, left by the tide off Southend, called “Ray Gut” (or usually just “The Ray”) but the tides at Benfleet flow through “Benfleet Creek”.

  4. August 23, 2023

    Check out the former OZONIA Hotel and its architect Ernest Trobridge who used to take his family from North London to Canvey on a motorcycle-with-sidecar

  5. daphne steele permalink
    August 23, 2023

    There has been a very interesting development in the last 5 or 6 years with Haredi Orthodox Jewish families relocating to Canvey Island from around the Stamford Hill area of North London due mainly to rocketing house prices in the area. They have found much cheaper large houses in Canvey that can accommodate the large families of 6 or 7 children that are not unusual, and the population is becoming established and growing steadily.

  6. John Berry permalink
    August 24, 2023

    ….it’s health giveing properties is probably why Peter Green settled down on Canvey to recuperate from his years leading Fleetwood Mac.

  7. David Cantor permalink
    August 26, 2023

    My parents met in the queue of people waiting to get in to a dance hall at Canvey Island in the late 1930’s. My father cheekily asked for the last dance, quick as a flash my mother replied ‘of course you can, but you’ll have to pay for me to get in’. I wonder where it was situated.

  8. John French permalink
    October 30, 2023

    I was a Building Society Manager in Basildon in the 1980s. Mortgages on properties on Canvey often became complicated.
    I was told that, in the early 1900s, East Enders would come to Canvey on a day out. The Island, at that time, had a lot of land that didn’t seem to be owned by anyone. Some intrepid East Enders brought tents with them and stayed the weekend. Instead of lugging the tents back and forth, some would leave the tents in situ and return the next weekend. From this developed some building of basic shacks – and then more permanent houses.
    In the 80s these properties would come up for sale (some would, by then, have the appearance of a regular house in an established road) and the solicitors would discover that there were no Title Deeds.
    Local solicitors were quite used to using “posessory title” to establish a “good root of title” so that the conveyance could proceed. Land registration started in 1925 but didn’t become compulsory for the whole country until 1990 – so, by now, I suppose that all poroperties on the Island will have acquired a Land Certificate by being sold, or bequeathed by those enterprising original owners.

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