Canvey Island – 22 May 2011

I overheard a conversation on the train up between a woman from Ilford and a couple of fellow passengers. I didn’t catch a glimpse of her but imagined her to look not altogether unlike Dot Cotton. “I don’t go voting,” she told her new friends in the tone of voice of someone saying “I don’t sleep around.” Her polling station was in the Moslem Centre.”What were they thinking of?” You can imagine the rest. “Nobody listens to us ordinary people … and they all have such big families … my Dad would think he’d come back to a different country … when I was a child we had a garden the size of a postage stamp. He spent so much time out there my Mum said, “Anyone would think you had fifteen acres!” … “I was going to move to Loughton, it’s nice out there – country – but it’s a bit out of the way.” … “Anyway, I says to her, “It’s lovely and hot where you were, what do you want to come here for?” She says, “I don’t like the heat.””

Actually that’s a whole other trip – a walk I did on Midsummer’s Day 2005 shortly after the general election that saw Blair returned with a reduced majority the result, according to the Guardian, of “a pincer movement of working-class antipathy to immigration and middle-class opposition to the Iraq war.” A straw poll on the 10.15 out of Fenchurch Street would have supported this – at least the first part.

I mention this because I just found my notes for the walk. I didn’t write them up at the time and anyhow think a six year time lag not too bad in the dickosphere; where time is just as likely to be measured in rings as minutes and six years only represents about a centimetre and a half – and that’s average years – some of these, between you and me, were distinctly below par.

So. A breezy walk round Canvey Island on Sunday, 22 May 2011, in sun and cloud and just the edge of a squall blowing down the Kent side of the estuary – we put on wet gear only to almost immediately take it off again and bag it up more or less dry.

We walked anti-clockwise for a change – following the road over Benfleet Creek past the flood barrier and boat yard and then peeling off right along the sea wall. You don’t need a map for this walk: just stay on the sea wall and sixteen miles or so later you’ll be back where you started – if tireder and a little windblown.

It’s perhaps not an obvious walk – the first half is overshadowed in the middle distance by a landfill mountain that sometimes adds a ripe note to what the Victorian’s used to call ozone. And then there is the oil refinery that you skirt the other side of Hole Haven Creek. But it keeps the walk real, unfussy; not sterile like a Cotswold village, or geared up to elusive bank-holiday hedonism like Brighton. This is real London on sea. It’s even got legacy – at least there are a couple of fitness machines in a playground on the sea front and a distant view of the Olympic Mountain Bike track under construction next to Hadleigh Country Park – the modern definition of a good walk spoiled. Oddly enough it has been built on a farm owned by the Salvation Army. Lycra is the new dress code for heaven.

When hacks pull out the word liminal I normally reach for my gun – except when it’s the only word that will do. This really is a walk for attention-disordered biophiles, flitting between two worlds like swifts drinking on the wing. When you get bored with fennel and salsify and jack-go-to-bed-at-noon and dog rose and purple clover and photographing dead insects in the brown pools of water collected in spiny teasel cups (how on earth could you get bored with that?), you simply drop down to the foot of the wall (it’s actually a grass covered bank on the landward side of the island) and crunch sea purslane under your feet, and driftwood, drinks cartons with foreign writing on them, bladder wrack and cockle shells; your eyes constantly drawn out along the muddy creek floor where sinuous lines wind away into your imagination like they’ve been drawn with a stick by a bored giant. Occasionally you glimpse a movement in the purslane distance – black headed gulls perhaps or ducks; an egret or two – or was it the same one showing us our direction of travel?

I’d actually never noticed teasel in its green form – I thought of it as permanently dried – something to add romantic contrast and structural beauty to a church flower arrangement perhaps but not interesting in itself. But I’d been on the look out for it since reading Richard Jefferies’s description of the strange water-gathering properties of the plant quoted in Flora Britannica. He described how the leaves connect right round the stem forming “so many natural rain-gauges.” The water was once said to have healing properties and the power to remove freckles but I wasn’t altogether encouraged by its coffee colour or the dead insects floating in it. And I don’t have freckles.

Goat’s Beard

There has been some research to suggest that birds sing louder in cities to compensate for the noise of the traffic, the constant hum of the air conditioning, the rumble of trains and overflying planes, leaked ipods, mobile phone conversations etc. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if flowers produce more vibrant colour, the more challenging and gritty the surroundings. You want colour? Forget Chelsea. Here are purples to blow your mind, bending and billowing in the lush grasses in the lee of the oil refinery smoke stack which looms over the marshes like a permanent Olympic torch or a modern will-o-the-wisp. I noticed reading my old notes that I had been very impressed by purple salsify – Tragopogon porrifolius – and its smaller yellow relative … but what had impressed me most were the hairy seed clocks which are like a dandelion’s but much larger, about the size of a tennis ball, and brown rather than white. Tragopogon means “goat’s beard” apparently, which is about right. But today what most attracted me was the colour. It was for the deep purple flowers – according to the Oxford Companion to Food – that these Mediterranean plants were first introduced here. The root was quite commonly eaten in the eighteenth century. It resembles a long white carrot and is still eaten in Russia, France and Italy, “baked or boiled or made into cream soup.” It is supposed to taste like oysters (hence the other common name for the flower: “oyster plant”) which is particularly appropriate given the diminutive fishing fleet holed up in the creek in the shadow of a derelict jetty.

The first written record of the plant was by Albertus Magnus. Magnus was a thirteenth century scholar who wrote a recipe for gunpowder and would later kick start the Irish cider industry. (One of those facts may not be true). He was first mentioned in this blog on 1/9/04.

Canvey is famous for marsh orchids and marsh helleborine that thrive on former industrial sites. Dumped ash from power stations is alkaline and the soil which this produces as it weathers down, mimics that of a chalk downland grazed by sheep. The orchids colonized an old gas depot (since rebranded Canvey Wick) part of which has now been saved from development thanks to a campaign by environmental groups and local residents. The orchids, real life phoenixes, are something of an icon for a new generation of nature writers who take their biofix as they find it, shaken and stirred, sprouting from the wreckage of modern life. But we were too early by at least a fortnight.

A white weatherboard pub at Holehaven Point on the south westernmost tip of the island makes a good lunch stop. The Lobster Smack, according to A Dickens Dictionary, is the model for the inn which Magwitch was taken by boat from London in Great Expectations – according to the entry “any Thames pilot” could name the part of the river Dickens describes in the book [The wet end (Ed.)] and Dickens researched the journey himself, chartering a small steamer in May 1861 from Blackwall to Southend.

You could quite easily finish the walk here and wonder down Haven Road to The King Canute (20 minutes) from where you can get a bus back to the station – or indeed have another pint. This pub was renamed after the 1953 flood when it had been used as a headquarters during the clear up operation.

On a Friday night in January, 1928, old salts at Leigh noticed a sudden rise in sea level. A full moon and a south-westerly gale had combined to create a storm surge that, compounded by an already swollen river upstream, would bring catastrophe to the capital where fourteen people would drown, many trapped in basements. My parents have a set of chairs in their attic which were rescued from my Grandfather’s flooded home in Wharf Road, Wandsworth after the flood. Canvey on that occasion escaped with six inches to spare. Next time they weren’t so lucky. The storm surge of 1953 brought devastation to large parts of the coastline. The death toll in Canvey alone was 58. Measuring the height of the surge was not helped by the fact that it knocked out every tide gauge between the Tyne and the Thames estuary. But it was believed to have been eight or nine feet higher than any that had previously been recorded. The human cost is still being counted.

But if you do end the walk here you would be missing out. Highlights of the afternoon: well, the river is the star obviously unless you have a real and pressing interest in Calor Gas storage and distribution, or the changing design of fixed caravans since 1953 when the last lot and much else besides was swept away. You would be missing out on all the sea front attractions, toilets with needle bins, paddling pools, cafes, people and the like.

We didn’t make it out to Canvey Point on this occasion – a footpath stretches out almost to the Chapman Sands – home to the last of the Thames lighthouses which disappeared in 1958, two years after it had been decommissioned. Instead we took pictures of boats in the boatyard at Small Gains Creek – I love the name partly because is says much about the struggle between human beings and the sea which has defined the island at least since it was drained and reclaimed by the Dutchman, Joas Croppenburgh, in the seventeenth century. But also because it sounds like a Dickens character. It’s not difficult to imagine Mr Smallgains sitting in a dark corner of the bar at The Lobster Smack, wearing dead men’s shoes and dilating on Custom ‘Us men and foreigners from Ilford to anybody unlucky enough to be innocently waiting for the Hamburg steamer and the morning tide.

Skirting round a reclaimed landfill park rather grandly named Canvey Heights (an accurate description: there aren’t many places on the ground here that you can see over the sea wall) we headed into the home strait past one or two golfers fighting their own unequal battle with the wind. It seemed to chime with my feelings about Canvey in general, unsure whether it is a triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity, or an even worse disaster waiting to happen. The best book about the history of this part of the world’s ongoing struggle with the sea is The Great Tide. The author, Hilda Grieve, who was an archivist at Essex Records Office, points out that every inundation in history is always “the highest tide ever seen” and bad as the floods of 53 were it could have been even worse …

But listen, I wasn’t going to disasterize this week. We had a fantastic walk and finished in fine stile, past mountains of red valerian off to the creek side of the lichened sea wall, the clink of masts in the boatyard and views of the wooded slopes rising from the ooze, Hadleigh castle, and back towards Southend.

I had thought that I might write up our walk in Dengie Marshes on Sunday 15th May repeating my 2-fer-1 blog posted on May 21 (Bedford & Lincoln’s Inn). But I’ve run out of steam – and my “book” isn’t being written.

On Friday I joined Essex Libraries at Loughton – even though it is a bit out of the way. I joined to borrow Coastal Adventure by J. Wentworth Day “A book about marshes and the sea; shooting and fishing; wildfowl and waders and men who sail in small boats.” It was written at the end of the second world war by a writer who had a mindset that would have been teetering on the antique even in 1918 – but he has an easy conversational style, is thoroughly knowledgeable about these strange edgelands, and captures the living personalities as well as the bric a brac of historical curiosity. If you can get past the bluff and bloody – and sometimes bloody minded – tweed carapace he is your man in the metropolitan wilderness, particularly the part the train never reached – the bit that has more in common with the lowlands across the North Sea than the low lands of North London.

He also has a cracking recipe for heron: you need to discard the wings and legs apparently (too fishy) and wrap the breast in bacon to stop it drying out during cooking. He also adds thoughtfully that nobody in their right minds would shoot a heron nowadays – unless of course, he was on a trout stream.

I don’t think we’ve had our last coastal adventure this year.

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