Friday 12 March 2010

Walking the Essex Coast - Canvey Island

Apparently we have the Dutch to thank for Canvey Island. They turned up in the seventeenth century, built dykes and reclaimed the land from the sea, although most of it lies beneath sea level. They liked the place so much that they settled there and left behind two pretty circular cottages, one of which is a museum. The Dutch influence is still strong in Canvey and can be seen in road names like Harlaam Road or Heeswijk Avenue. Most people know of Canvey Island because of the disastrous floods in 1953 that claimed 58 lives. Since that time sea defences have been strengthened and Canvey is circled by sixteen miles of sea wall, all of which is accessible to the public. Famous Canvey natives include Olympic decathlete Dean Macey and some bloke from Dr Feelgood.

Canvey Island has everything that the Thames estuary coastline has to offer good and bad; salt marsh and river marsh, farmland, industry and industrial wasteland, boatyards, beaches, birdlife and long stretches of riverside walking. It wasn’t that difficult to escape the madding crowd on an island barely five miles wide and three miles deep, and home to nearly 40,000 people. Until the Victorian era Canvey was home mainly to sheep. It suddenly became fashionable as a sea side resort, and given the size of the two caravan parks, it still is popular today. However, flooding is still a problem!

Not up to the challenge of walking around the sea wall in one go, this walk was done over two greyish days, with the old shower and sunny interval. The main difference was the wind which was absent of day one making it feel quite mild. I started from Benfleet, which has a sizeable car park (no height barrier and free at weekends). Benfleet Church has finely carved wooden porch and there is an old looking pub in the High Street called the Hoy and Helmet. This is something to do with ships not our famous cycling Olympian. It’s a short walk from Benfleet to the bridge onto Canvey and the sea wall and I started on the western side walking around the island in an anti-clockwise direction.

The western side of Canvey is the least built up part and there are fine views across the marshes to Bowers Marsh and of the surrounding hill top villages of South Benfleet and Pitsea. However the first few miles alongside East Haven Creek are within earshot of the A130, so not that peaceful. The sea wall here is a grassy mound and has been churned up by hooved animals. It was a testament to the drying wind that it wasn’t a morass but merely bumpy. The RSPB will be opening a new reserve on West Canvey this year but sadly the car park had a height restriction so I won’t be visiting.

After a few miles East Haven Creek joins Vange Creek at the moveable flood barriers to form the much substantial Holehaven Creek. There was a fine view east to Tilbury Power station, Fobbing Church and marshes and the oil refineries at Coryton on the other bank. At this point the sea wall becomes much more substantial too, with concrete walls and a firm metalled track. This part was popular with horse riders and cyclists as well as other walkers and there was actually some activity on the river. Some piece of machinery in the oil refinery makes the noise of a very large drum making the very regular booming noise that I heard when walking in East Tilbury.

After crossing under a disused pipeline at Canvey Wick, it was possible to get onto the water’s edge as you approach the Thames. On the western bank is Shellhaven Point and Holehaven Point is on the eastern bank. I stopped for refreshment at the Lobster Smack pub, mentioned in Great Expectations, hidden behind the sea wall. Next door are old Coastguard cottages, some horrible new development, and acres of oil storages units. The southern coast of Canvey stretches for about four miles alongside the Thames estuary which is over a mile wide at this point. The Kent coastline is dominated by the power station on the Isle of Grain.

Travelling west to east, you pass the oil storage depots, Thorney Bay Caravan Park (looks a bit like a WW2 POW camp), Thorney Bay, an inlet with a sandy beach and then the sea front promenade of Canvey which looks as if it has seen better days. The coast line is shingly with the odd bit of sand. The Labworth CafĂ© built in the 1930’s was designed by Ove Arup who went on to build the Sydney Opera House. It is possible to walk on either side of the sea wall as a couple of the floodgates have been opened to allow access.

Just past the Yacht Club on the eastern end of Canvey and you can walk out onto the salt marsh and follow a ‘footpath’ to Canvey Point, the most easterly point. I remember taking Noddy here a few years ago and he trod in something that turned his paws black and was extremely difficult to remove. Not knowing the tide tables, I turned back at the warning barrier. There is a fine view east to Southend Pier and the river looks huge as it meets the North Sea. It was also the first point on my journey that smelt like the seaside, a distinctly salty tang in the air.

The eastern end of Canvey is where the boating types hang out with boats of every description packed along Smallgains Creek. Next to the boatyards is Canvey Heights Country Park, reclaimed from the old town tip. A small but perfectly formed little hill gives you a splendid 360° panorama over Canvey, the Thames Estuary and Southend. This was where I stopped for lunch to admire said view, before turning west along the northern edge of the island. Next to the Heights is another big mobile home park, slightly more upmarket than Thorney Bay. This part of Canvey was the area worst affected by the floods of 1953.

Despite the closeness of the houses I thought this was a particularly pleasant stretch of walking, with marshes then a narrow stretch of water separating Canvey from Benfleet Marshes and good views of Hadleigh Castle. I spotted a curlew wading in the mudflats and barely passed a soul. The northern sea wall runs alongside the local golf course so I suppose it could be a bit dangerous if someone shanks a ball.

I enjoyed this walk very much; it was very peaceful, the scenery was always changing and there was plenty of variety and a few surprises, and with the exception of a couple of stiles, it wasn’t too hard.

To see more pictures of the beautiful Essex coast click here.

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