Seaside postcard: Canvey Island There can be few less attractive midwinter tourist destinations in South East England than Canvey Island. A flat muddy estuarine island in the lower Thames, most of it below sea level, packed with housing estates, creeks, caravans and gas tanks. So I went for a visit at the weekend, so that you don't have to. And you know, it wasn't that bad.
Flooding: It's not immediately obvious why anyone would choose to live in the middle of the Thames, below the water line, hemmed in behind a concrete sea wall. But almost 40000 people think otherwise and have made Canvey Island their home. Their confidence is occasionally misplaced. One hour into February 1953, a cataclysmic North Seastormsurge broke through the sea wall and innundated by much of the island. Those living in bungalows and caravans were particularly imperilled, and by morning 58 lives had been lost.
Many lessons have been learned since that grim day, and the sea wall has been rebuilt bigger, thicker and stronger to try to keep the next innundation out. The wall's a great place for a bracing walk, all the way around the seaward side of the island if you so choose. Every so often there are steps up and over the barrier, through a locktight floodgate [photo], and at these spots you can climb up top to compare the difference in elevation on either side [photo]. It was high tide during my visit and, yes, sea level was very definitely higher than the front gardens and ground floor rooms of the Canvey houses in the depression below. Several three storey homes have been built with their living rooms at the top in an attempt to see over the wall, but most residents live out of sight of any clue that the seaside is only a few yards away. One of Canvey's suburbs is even called Sunken Marsh, which doesn't exactly engender confidence. I'm not sure I could ever live around here and sleep soundly in my bed at night.
Seafront: Strange as it may seem, in the first half of the 20th century Canvey Island grew to become one of Britain's most popular seaside resorts. Proximity to London can be the only explanation, making this a popular destination for time-starved East Enders, at least until 1970s package holidays lured them away to somewhere considerably warmer. In midwinter 2009 those golden summer days seemed impossibly far distant. Various ramshackle shoresidebooths were shuttered, the lacklustre crazy golf was securely locked and nobody was even thinking of sitting outside The Monico mega-pub. Cheeky Monkey's Outdoor World [photo] claimed to be open "every day of the year", but when I stepped inside this sparsely-fitted children's funfair I found nothing but mothballed rides. It was hard to imagine anyone spending a day entertained around here, let alone a full week.
But there is one extra-special leftover from Canvey's holiday heyday, and that's the LabworthCafe. It's a bold modernist structure made of reinforced concrete, with central rotunda and two symmetrical wings, said to resemble the bridge of the Queen Mary. It was designed in the early 1930s by Ove Arup (not the company but the Danish architect himself who would later go on to found the internationally renowned construction company). The cafe was once an integral part of the seafront complex but has since been isolated behind the sea wall and is only properly appreciated from thebeach. Unfortunately I arrived at high tide so my attempts to capture the Labworth's fine frontage were somewhat compromised [photo][photo]. Inside the place seemed busy enough, with chatting friends and smiling families enjoying the home-cooked food and hot beverages. I was mighty tempted by the menu, and by the chalkboard of daily specials visible through the window, but foolishly resisted going inside. Maybe it's a good thing the Labworth's not located somewhere more fashionable or easily accessible, so this Art Deco treat can remain a special secret a little longer.
Canvey Point: Follow the sea wall to the far easternmost point of the island and you reach one of Essex's less exclusive sailing clubs. Their car park looked like a dead end to me, until a single wooden signpost suggested otherwise. And yes, there between the squat brick clubhouse and a flotilla of laid-up yachts was an unassuming public footpath leading shoreward. It had to be worth following, even though it looked especially muddy. A few yards along there was a warning notice advising that the path ahead was sometimes submerged at high tide. but that just made venturing forward even more tempting. The path soon threaded beside a brackish creek to a primitive wooden stile (more mud), then dropped down to a broad expanse of squelchy salt marsh. My OS map insisted that the footpath continued for another half mile to the tip of the island, but I could see no discernible right of way across this barren estuarine landscape. I negotiated the first few steps safely enough, before stopping to scrutinise a curve of spiky weed-coated timbers [photo] (which I later discovered were the chalky remains of Canvey's first 17th century sea wall). It was at this point I noticed how much mud had attached itself to my walking boots. Taking everything into consideration (lack of path, being all alone in the middle of nowhere, high tide approaching) it seemed unwise to try to proceed any further. I managed to scrape some of the Thames off my boots on the walk back to civilisation, but there are still dried chunks of Canvey littering my doormat.