Canvey Island

At the weekend, we walked around Canvey Island.

This was, I think, the tenth time I’ve done this walk. It is very accessible from where I live: direct trains from Limehouse (which used to be called Stepney East, and is only a ten-minute walk) go to Benfleet, right by the bridge onto the island. The walk is somewhere around 23km, and the quick journey makes it feasible even in winter when daylight is in short supply.

Canvey Island

(Cue a small rant. Limehouse station, like many in Britain now, is unstaffed on Sundays. We are oldies who have travel passes that let us go free as far as Upminster. Is there any way of buying a ticket from Upminster to Benfleet from the ticket machine? We are surely not the only people who have this problem. It is tempting to suppose that it is a ruse by the train companies to overcharge their older customers.)

So here are some impressions of Canvey Island, in winter:

Canvey in winter

and in spring:

Canvey in spring

Of course, at the weekend it was between seasons and not so spectacular.

Canvey Island is full of surprises. When I first walked round the island, the egret was not listed in the books of British birds. Indeed, a couple of years before, I had spotted a very bedraggled egret on the spit near Lymington, presumably blown in on a storm; soon afterwards, a party of about twenty twitchers with expensive cameras and telescopes passed the other way in search of this rare bird. But on my first Canvey walk, I came upon what appeared to be a breeding colony of egrets on the west side of the island, and I have seen them on every walk since then. Also, on an early walk, I found a rosebush which was blooming in autumn, despite being covered with rosehips. The bush makes a habit of this; I have seen it a couple of times since.

But the best thing of all is always the quality of light. The Thames estuary is a very special place, especially in the afternoon and evening; I don’t have words to describe it, but it never disappoints.

Canvey Island is separated from the mainland by Benfleet and Holehaven Creeks and a small channel joining them. The island was devastated by the deadly flood of 1953, since when a sea wall has been built; the walk is all either on top of the wall or on the seaward side, so it is easy to ignore the suburban character of the residential part. The big gas storage facility is less easy to ignore. It is so dilapidated that each time I expect it to have been demolished, but this never happens. This time, the only new stuff, apart from a lick of paint on some of the gas tanks, was new razor wire on top of the rusty spiked fences around the compound. The “Canvey Terminal” building has a big pool of water in front of it, and looks as if you might have gone there to catch a flying boat to the colonies in the early twentieth century.

The first part of the walk goes between the yacht club and a golf course, signs that Canvey Island is upwardly mobile (borne out by other signs later). A hill which looks like a disused landfill has now become “Canvey Heights” and has picnic tables with fine views to Southend Pier and the Kent shore. On the seaward (or rather, riverward) side, under the sea wall, the graffiti is old and faded, including the classic “Canvey is England’s Lourdes”.

We ate at the Labworth Cafe; not my first time there (though mostly I used to go to Albert Green’s fish and chip shop) but I had been reminded of it by Diamond Geezer’s review. With hindsight, Mothering Sunday was probably not the best day to go; the upstairs restaurant was fully booked, and there was a ten-minute wait for a table in the cafe. But it was worth the wait; they did a very acceptable lamb shank as one of the “Sunday roasts”, with a glass of Merlot, followed by apple pie and ice cream. The only downside is that our table was next to the door, which didn’t shut properly, and I had a cold draught in the small of my back; eventually I had to put on my outdoor coat on to eat.

On the south-west part of the island, a long-abandoned industrial complex moulders away, the only visible sign being lots of concrete under the brambles. A small part of this has been converted into an apology for the nature reserve; the rest is a new industrial estate, with a new road, warehouses, even a McDonald’s.

The weather was quite changeable, with a cold east wind in our faces for part of the way back, but the light in the west was as usual quite remarkable.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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7 Responses to Canvey Island

  1. I meant to say, and totally forgot, that according to Diamond Geezer, the Labworth Cafe was designed and built by Ove Arup, who also built the Sydney Opera House, the building that nearly bankrupted the New South Wales government. Indeed, at about the same time the Australian government bought F111 planes from the Americans; the planes went up so much in price during the contract that the F111 became known as the “flying Opera House”.

  2. Canvey seems an unlikely place to go for the same walk ten times, but there is something uniquely fascinating about the place. I can see why you enjoy the circumnavigation.

    Glad you enjoyed your meal at the Labworth, even if it wasn’t the best day to visit.

    I’ve never made it to the remote western side of the island… I must rectify that one day.

  3. Sarah says:

    Refreshing to see some positive comments about Canvey, most highlight only the negative so thank you, I enjoyed reading your blog!

  4. Rob says:

    Living on the Island for all of 46 years now and it’s the first time I have heard anyone describe the views and things that I noticed as a boy but have forgotten with time. The wild life is special and even the old industry has a strange quality when photographed, always reminded me of scenes out of “Mad Max” films lol
    Thank you Peter
    all best

  5. Pingback: Estuaries, Islands and Industry – Hike Mike

  6. Rob Golding says:

    One little correction. The sea wall was not built after the 1953 floods. The wall was first built around 1663 but was breached in 1953 by the surge of water down the North Sea. The government at the time considered abandoning the island and paying residents to move elsewhere but reconsidered and decided to mend the breach and to the drive metal pylons (I think they were old tram lines) down into the wall thereby strengthening it and raising the height by about 10ft.

    • Thanks for the correction.
      Sad to say, because of the pandemic, I am locked down in St Andrews — a nice place to be locked down but it is not so easy to go out for a walk around Canvey Island…

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