It was my first visit to a ‘reclaimed island’ in the Thames estuary.
Canvey Island has an area of 7 miles² and a population getting on for 40,000. It’s separated from mainland south Essex by a network of creeks.
When we crossed the tide was out, the creeks dry, and the transition from ‘mainland’ to ‘island’ was vague, blink and you missed it. Lying only just above sea level it has a long history in inundation and perversely occupation.
The island was mainly agricultural until the 20th century when it became the fastest growing seaside resort in Britain between 1911 and 1951. The North Sea flood of 1953 devastated the island, killing 58 islanders and leading to the temporary evacuation of the 13,000 residents. Canvey is consequently protected by modern sea defences comprising of 2 miles of concrete sea walls.
Canvey Island is enigmatic. Erased and bland and strangled by a grid of the faceless housing developments. The wealthiest houses crane their necks and strain for a view of oily sea over the concrete and tar of the sea wall. An island of skies perhaps? A near dead resort. A place of last resort. The dream’s obviously long since faded on Canvey; the money, the crowds, the 50s, 60s and 70s have all long since gone, leaving a dormitory, an echo, a non-place of rentals and holiday lets and struggling islanders.
We followed the grid of roads past boarded-up pubs and chip shops to Castle Point. The ‘end-of-the-line’ where low-lying land meets sea defences and mud, and the mud returns to water, and water to the horizon, and to ships and Southend Pier jutting preposterously far into the sea.
Under the sea wall we ate sandwiches, watching a container ship form from a dot on the horizon and fill in detail as it closed in and passed (disturbingly) close to our picnic. We watched a dogfight of vapour trails form enigmatic kisses in the bright blue sky.
And we explored. Our pockets filled with oyster shells and empty winkle shells – ‘sea snails’ the Boys called them – as we walked across belching bladderwrack and litter.
But the pleasures of a world where land meets sea aren’t Canvey Island’s only attraction, it has something else entirely.
You won’t find in the faded arcades or parade of desperate shops nor in the stoic souls who’d come in search of seaside fun an frolics and ended up feeding the penny slots but, it can be found in the ex-Canvey & District bus depot and a municipal playing field. The bus depot these days is home to the enthusiasts of the Castle Point Transport Museum and houses an array of historic buses and heritage vehicles. It’s a building and a collection held together not by large bequests or grants but by the ‘can do’ and ‘make-do-and-mend’ spirit of the volunteers who welcomed us into their midst and allowed us to race Scalextrics cars and shunt G-scale locos into stations…
And the municipal playing fields? Well, they’re home to the Canvey Model Railway & Model Engineering Club and their various outdoor model railway lines.
But the secret we found on Canvey wasn’t these two faded attractions (delightful though they were) but was the SPIRIT and SOUL of enthusiasts embodied in the warmth and friendliness of the old guys who ran them.
Long-since retired they’d found companionship, camaraderie and a meaningful new lease of life in old age sharing their enthusiasm with a willing world. So many smiling faces, so much time to answer the Boys’ questions and nod-&-wink a free ride when no-one was looking. They were both practiced tellers of tall-tales and skilled engineers, these gentle old blokes made our day memorable and in their company this erased island once more made sense.