Postcards From Canvey Island

by Chris Warrington May. 01, 2018 1220 views
A view across the creek  from Benfleet looking across the island's marshes towards Thames Haven.

A view across the creek from Benfleet looking across the island's marshes towards Thames Haven.

I have always been drawn to and fascinated by British seaside towns. Not an especially unique predilection, but my interest in them is more than just a nostalgic or ironic one. Like many of us, I have memories of being taken on day-trips as a child to the seaside, with all its requisite trimmings. Well, two at least; one to Colwyn Bay with my aunt and her in-laws in their tobacco-stained Austin Princess and the other when my best friend’s parents pursued me and another friend down a dirt track along which we were bike-riding, told us we were part of his surprise birthday trip, bunged our bikes in the boot and took us to Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

The seafront picturehouse on Eastern Esplanade, Canvey Island

The seafront picturehouse on Eastern Esplanade, Canvey Island

In my teenage years, I experienced what it was like to live in a seaside town, when I went away to school in the archetypal Victorian resort of Llandudno. In the summer, Llandudno was full of colour, energy and fun. But in the winter, it could be miserable. My overriding memory of Llandudno on a February Sunday in the mid-1980s was the very definition of dereliction; a deserted, drizzle-drenched promenade whose vibrant summer colours had faded to grey and the sea and sky merged into one murky mass of melancholy.

Eastern Esplanade, Canvey Island

Eastern Esplanade, Canvey Island

Despite offering a host of hedonistic pleasures, there is an inherent wistfulness to seaside resorts. They can be outward looking yet insular, welcoming yet defensive, sandwiched between the transient currents of sea-sider and sea.

Sea wall, west of Thorney Bay Park.

Sea wall, west of Thorney Bay Park.

Fantasy Island, Eastern Esplanade

Fantasy Island, Eastern Esplanade

Coming from the North West and moving to London in the mid-1990s meant that I knew little about Canvey Island. I knew it was a seaside resort in the Thames and that it was the birth-place of pub-rock bands such as Dr. Feelgood.

The Lobster Smack

The Lobster Smack

But, the fact that it was an island was intriguing and somehow made it feel exotic. It is a seaside resort, but nothing like a traditional Victorian one. Its history is deeply coloured by its geography. An island in the stream of the Thames Estuary. Not quite exotic, but certainly unique.

Eastern Esplanade

Eastern Esplanade

Canvey gains its island status through its land mass being separated by a slither of a waterway off the Essex coast called the East Haven Creek. Inhabited since Roman times, its history has been influenced by its close proximity to London, but dictated to by the sea.

The jaws of an old sea wall, Eastern Esplanade

The jaws of an old sea wall, Eastern Esplanade

Canvey Island barely peeks above sea-level and has been flooded on several occasions. Many efforts have been made in its history to stave off the tide, including a land reclamation project in the 17th century led by Dutch engineers, whose experience of their own country's sea defences enabled them to build dykes and other sea defences for the island. They were paid in kind with land and many of them settled. Their legacy and influence on the island can still be seen in Canvey's street names and octagonal cottages, 2 of which still remain today.

Dutch cottage, Haven Rd.

Dutch cottage, Haven Rd.

The worst flood in Canvey's history was in 1953 when the North Sea Flood struck in the middle of the night and swept through parts of the island, including a number of holiday bungalows, killing 58 people. Since then, heavily fortified flood defences have created a concrete walled island.

Thorney Bay

Thorney Bay

This forbidding wall has been relieved of its drab grey tones by a series of multi-coloured murals created and painted largely by locals. In addition to securing the island against the uncaring tides, the wall has now become both a memorial to lives lost and a celebration of the island's indomitable history and culture.

Eastern Esplanade

Eastern Esplanade

Canvey is an island of contrasts. While its seafront enabled tourism, its position at the mouth of the Thames invited the petrochemical industry to set up shop there to transport liquefied natural gas in the 1950's.

Holehaven Creek

Holehaven Creek

The gas industry and its operators have evolved since and their petrochemical facilities still dominate the south-western end of the island, though the nearby holiday and wildlife sites remain resilient next to their heavy industry neighbours.

Holehaven Creek

Holehaven Creek

The circular silos of chemical storage plants sit blithely next to uniform rows of static caravans, like oversized yurts gate-crashing the camping party.

Holehaven Caravan Park

Holehaven Caravan Park

Just down the road is Canvey's largest caravan park. Thorney Bay Park is nestled between the chemical storage facilities on the one side and the paddling bay it takes its name from on the other.

Thorney Bay Park

Thorney Bay Park

Thorney Bay Park

Thorney Bay Park

Canvey Island is and has had to be a hardy place, constantly being called up on to defy the forces of the sea, heavy industry and, during the Second World War, an expected German invasion. Many of its inhabitants are working class families from London, some of whom moved there having been priced out of its gentrifying East End.

The Canvey Club, High St.

The Canvey Club, High St.

There is both an openness and defensiveness, naturally and characteristically, to the island and its islanders. Tides, both of sea and people, bring opportunity and threat.

Canvey Rd.

Canvey Rd.

Proudly English and even prouder of its island status, Canvey has a strong sense of independence and it is no surprise that constituents overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. Indeed many residents believe that Canvey should even have its own governance and to separate itself from a perceived lack of mainland interest in its future.

Haven Rd

Haven Rd

Matched by a desire for independence is a core value of community. That Canvey's people have more in common than not is underlined by its almost exclusively white population.

There is an irony about an island, whose very foundations were protected via the ingenuity of continental immigrants, being a UKIP stronghold, apparently unwilling to accept foreigners on its reclaimed turf.

But Canvey is not alone as an island with a complex relationship with heritage and multi-culturalism. In many ways it can be seen as a microcosm of mainland Britain as somewhere that wants to welcome people, but on the condition that their culture and community are not compromised.

Canvey Rd.

Canvey Rd.

Canvey's community spirit will once again be challenged by a new migration to their island, that of London's Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. They and their new neighbours have at least one thing in common; economic displacement.

Their eastward exodus is down to the same reason as so many other Canvey inhabitants; the need for greater, cheaper space within connecting distance from their original neighbourhood.

A recent BBC documentary Canvey: The Promised Land captures the well-meaning efforts of the islanders, led by the extroverted Chris Fenwick (the manager of Doctor Feelgood) to welcome the introverted newcomers.

How these two very different communities can co-exist will create another of the island's contrasts, but Canvey is an island that weathers contrast well.

The Concord Cafe, Eastern Esplanade

The Concord Cafe, Eastern Esplanade

Riete Oord's BBC documentary: Canvey: The Promised Land

Canvey's desire for independence BBC news piece

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Antonio Gil 2 years, 11 months ago

Great work throughout

2 years, 11 months ago Edited
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