Notes From A Small Island

by Jarvo J June. 24, 2016 3048 views

I spent all day on Thursday working in a polling station. By the time I got out at some time after 10pm the world had changed. We didn't know it yet, but it would become clear over the following few hours that whilst I had been diligently administering the poll and trying to display a political impartiality that isn't naturally mine, my compatriots had been busy displaying their small island mentality.

I had Friday off. I always do to recover from these sixteen hour balloting stints, so I thought what better than to display my own small island mentality. I would return to the small island of my childhood, Canvey Island in the River Thames, and I'd walk right around it.

I found that a lot of the island has changed and much of it is nicer than than I either remembered or expected. It wasn't the grandest place in the world and people in the surrounding areas of south east Essex can be a bit sniffy about it. I have to say though, I can't think of a better place for me to have grown up in.

When I was young the island was divided in two, east and west. The eastern half was my playground. I can't say I've covered every inch of it, but there can't be much of it that I've not been within a few metres of. The western half (seen here) consisted of marshland, farmland and a few industrial areas. All were all off limits. In recent years though the marshland has been acquired by the RSPB and turned into a bird sanctuary whilst a path has been opened around the entire sea wall. So today is the first time I've circumnavigated the whole island.

The path isn't well maintained or well used at this part. It made it a bit more of an adventure, but also harder work.

The jetty at the old methane terminal. As a kid I never got near this. I remember being jealous of my friend whose dad worked there as he'd been there though. The ship to the left of the picture is the Al Muraykh, it is one of the largest ships in the world and can carry 18,800 twenty foot containers.

Amongst the more famous people to come from the island are rock band Dr Feelgood. They called it Oil City as a more interesting and romantic name.

The Lobster Smack pub as featured in Dickens' Great Expectations. When I set out on the path as one of the most talented amateur drinkers of my generation, this was a rather dark and shabby pub frequented by old men who I would not have wanted to socialise with. Ironically, as I have slowly matured into being one of those old men myself the pub has had a bit of a facelift. Although it's nicer now, I think I'd probably prefer it how it was.

I've been searching all through the city. See you in the morning down by the jetty.

At 10.40pm on the 17th of January 1979 I was in my room laying on my bed. I can't remember exactly what I was doing at the time, but it was almost certainly either listening to records or watching tv. Suddenly my parents came rushing in to my room asking what the commotion was and whether I was alright. I didn't know what they were talking about, but they said they'd heard a loud bang and thought that I'd done something like knocked the wardrobe over. In a portent of the poor hearing I'd have later in life, I had heard nothing. Meanwhile, across the island, The IRA had planted a bomb next to one of these tanks. A large hole had been blown in the side and aviation fuel leaked out. Fortunately it did not catch fire as the terrorists had hoped, otherwise you might not be reading this now.

Scene of the scene. Where these flats are is where The Gold Mine disco was. This was one of the leading clubs in south east England for Disco, Funk and Soul music. It would be much later before I appreciated those musical styles, but in the early eighties it was quite big on the burgeoning electronic music scene. I remember seeing Blancmange and Talk Talk there and used to rub shoulders with Depeche Mode and Yazoo. I say rub shoulders, that's maybe a bit much but I did once get their autographs in there.

The water on the road from yesterday's thunderstorm is a reminder that much of the island is below sea level and in can be prone to flooding, most notably in 1953 when 59 people died and 13,000 had to be evacuated.

The Labworth Cafe, a magnificent art deco building built on the sea wall.

Sadder than the demolition of The Gold Mine was the demolition of the ‘Casino’. This was an amusement arcade with several large rides, including the notorious Wild Mouse, out the back. The story goes that the building, another magnificent example of art deco, was about to be declared as ‘listed’. This would mean that it would have to be protected and kept in a manner in keeping with it's original design. Before the necessary bureaucracy was complete it suffered some mysterious calamity and had to be torn down. It has since been replaced by these buildings.

The paddling pool at Labworth Beach. I sometimes spent whole summers splashing about around here. That might not be as impressive as it sounds though as an English summer typically lasts a few hours at most. There were never any railings in my day. I don't remember anyone being hurt beyond to odd graze but part of the thrill was that if you walked around it when it was a bit rough, there was a risk you could get knocked into the sea.

A contender for worst picture even posted on Photoblog. Just the other side of those railings though is the little school playing field where we stood one day and say UFOs. Now, I am one of the most sceptical people you could meet. I have no time for religion or spirituality and I don't believe in ghosts or little green men. But there were odd lights in the sky that day that have never been explained. In the distance is Hadleigh Castle scene of the 2012 Olympics mountain biking competition.

Canvey Island Football Club. I believe they are the only team in the country whose ground is below sea level.

Canvey Point. A regular haunt as a child. In 1944 a B17 bomber had crashed there and as late as the early seventies, you could still dig around and find small fragments of the wreckage. I had a collection of twisted aluminium airframe bits and even ammunition cartridges. My friend's uncle told us the macabre story that when he was our age he had gone out to the crash site and had found a military helmet. He dug it out of the mud and as he lifted it, a skull fell to the ground in front of him. Looking back I'm sure the story was fabricated or at least wildly exaggerated, but that man certainly knew how to say what an eight year old boy wanted to hear.

My dad was a boat builder and at sometime or another must have worked at every boatyard in the area. For a while, he used to work at one here, and must have helped to push the new launches up this ramp.

The track in the foreground was once a little road just wide enough to take dustcarts. This was known as dump hill. A short incline just at the top of my road where the island's rubbish would be taken to the nearby dump. It was a great place for us to race our bikes and home-made go-carts. I can't say the number of times I went home with bruises and grazed knees as a result of incidents on that little hill.

The green area is now known by the somewhat ironic name of Canvey Heights. When I was young though it was just The Dump. Amazingly you could go and play over there if you didn't get too close to the workmen who would shout at you. I used to think they were mean spirited and never considered that they were actually concerned for our welfare. Nevertheless it was a big enough place that you could get in and be far enough away that they wouldn't bother with you. One of our favourite games was throwing rocks at old cathode ray tubes. They were remarkably resilient, but if you caught one just right with half a housebrick it would implode in the most satisfying manner. Health, safety and environmental concern all seemed to be pretty minimal in those days.

Beautiful patterns as the tide covers the mudflats.

Benfleet Creek, the scene of one of my favourite stories. I won't tell it here as it should always be told in person. I've never tired of boring people with my magnificent tale of power, money and madness. If I am ever in your company you only have to buy me a pint and I'll regale you of my adventure too.

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There are 8 comments , add yours!
Stefan Fletcher 4 years, 2 months ago

Thank you for this fascinating tour. I was enthralled.

4 years, 2 months ago Edited
Sara G 4 years, 2 months ago

Very interesting and quaint place. I was amused by your comments on #5..funny how our perspective changes as we grow older :-)

4 years, 2 months ago Edited
Jay Boggess 4 years, 2 months ago

Fascinating series! Thanks for all the great images & explanations!

4 years, 2 months ago Edited
John Parsons 4 years, 2 months ago

Fantastic post Jon,brings back so many memories of my childhood in Benfleet in the early 50s ,Benfleet creek was our Costa del Sol and we spent hours paddling in the mud! a trip over to the island was a special treat across the old swing bridge and as kids we played on the old Benfleet rubbish tip!During the floods in 1953 Benfleet primary school was closed and those of us living higher up in the village took in many of those made homeless by the floods.

4 years, 2 months ago Edited
Gillian Parsons 4 years, 2 months ago

Yes like my sister this has happy memories my trips to my grandparents are still remembered with fondness.....they left the island during the floods my Dad told us that my grandfather had to be almost dragged away theynever went back....but John and I go to the RSPB bird area and often walk some of the sea walls...............

4 years, 2 months ago Edited
Eiram Marie 4 years, 2 months ago

This is a beautiful post. Thank you for taking us along!
I have the feeling that the world had changed for all of us on Friday ....

4 years, 2 months ago Edited
Marilyn Grimble 4 years, 2 months ago

Thank you John, one of my haunts too as my gran and grandad lived on the island. Bardenville Road, with the sea at the bottom of the road. I learned to ride a two wheeler in his garden.

4 years, 2 months ago Edited
Larry Nelson 4 years, 2 months ago

Great sentiment and commentary, Jon. Turbulence ahead!

4 years, 2 months ago Edited