London-on-Sea

Even inland there are the seawalls. Curved ridges of reddish marsh clay rippling with nettles and tall grasses act as boundary markers between gardens and provide the island, most of which lies at nought degrees sea level, with unexpected contours and brief moments of altitude.

In places, these old walls run parallel with the modern seawall, a vast concrete edifice which encloses the entire island. It was built after the infamous flood of 1953 but has since been heightened and refortified to protect Canvey from the increasing threat of rising sea levels, coastal erosion and killer storms. The walls are a boon to walkers such as myself. I spend the afternoon to the north of the island, following the ribbon of path which runs alongside the seawall overlooking the windswept marshes and muddy creeks that separate Canvey from mainland Essex. The path is well trodden by dog walkers. I have to watch my step to avoid smears and coils of dog shit. By one of the floodgates someone has chalked up on the wall: to the person who is doing this you are sick in the head you are transforming this spot into a shit hole take it with you.

Around six I head inland to meet Kelly outside the King Canute. The pub was formerly known as The Red Cow but was renamed in the aftermath of the 1953 floods because it marked the point where the floodwater which had engulfed most of the island began to recede. After a day out and about on foot by myself it’s nice to have some company and a ride in a warm car. Kelly’s come dressed-up for a night out without the kids – in high heels and a dress. I feel scruffy in my damp jeans and walking boots and wish I’d made more of an effort. She lives in Benfleet, just across the water from Canvey, but grew up in Dagenham. It often strikes me how few people I meet who were born in London. That’s because we’ve all moved to Essex, Kelly says. For her, Canvey is an island of memories. As we drive around the island’s labyrinthine one-way system, she recalls the days before cheap flights to the continent spelt the end of the island’s popularity with Londoners – queuing for the helter skelter; the amusement arcades along the Esplanade; rockpooling with her dad.

We park on the kerb outside Kings, a tightly ring-fenced chalet park to the east of the island. I’d seen this park on one of my walks and couldn’t tell if it was an out of season holiday park or a well-kept housing estate. Its clean smell reminded me of a launderette. There was something of a model village about it and I would have liked to have gone inside but was put off by the presence of the security guard on the gate.

Kelly leads the way in, past the guard and I follow. Across the entrance is decked a tarpaulin banner on which is written: Modern Living, Traditional Values. A wonderfully happy, safe way of life for the over 50s.

The road is edged on either side by clipped grass verges and neat lines of conifers and exotics. Single-storied chalets – not quite bungalows but a step up from static caravans – are set well back from the footpaths. They have satellite dishes, rotary washing lines and designated car parking spaces. Some have mock Tudor woodwork, some cartwheels, some both. They all look neat and well-maintained, but frail.

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When Canvey flooded in 1953 it was this easterly part of the island that bore the brunt of the deluge. The old clay seawalls, where sheep and cows were left to graze, were no match for the high tide of the night of January 31st which had been whipped up out in the North sea by storm force winds and a low pressure system. When it hit the easterly counties of England in the early hours of the following morning, it took 307 lives, 58 of them on Canvey Island. Many thousands more were made homeless. Wave after wave pounded over the island that night, sweeping away holiday homes and rough-cast bungalows, or inundating them with freezing cold sea water. Many of the casualties drowned in their beds; others escaped the rapidly rising waters by climbing onto the tops of wardrobes, or clambering out onto windowsills and rooftops where they spent the night, teeth chattering in the fierce wind, waiting for the arrival of the emergency services.

The lines on the surface of the meticulously clean outdoor swimming pool quiver in the falling light. Surrounding the pool are cuts of green baize flooring and striped sunloungers. The pool rules are displayed on a laminated sheet attached to the fence – residents are allowed to bathe at certain times; guests at another with other times stipulated for the under fifties; the over fifties; children and ‘exceptions to above’ etc. It feels eerie with no one else around except ourselves, as though we’ve strayed onto the set of a film where the actors have all gone home for the day.

Over the road is the residents’ social club. Kelly says there was a night club on the first floor and suggests we call in there for a drink. When she was last here, during the eighties, Canvey Island was still marked large in on the Soul Map of Britain. King’s never had anything like the cachet of the legendary Goldmine on the Western Esplanade but its all-nighters were hugely popular with clubbers from Essex and east London. Bank Holidays were the best times to come, Kelly recalls. There was always an extended license on the bar and two DJs working the tables.

A Stannah stairlift has been installed since Kelly’s last visit. Upstairs the club room is almost empty. The only other customer besides ourselves is an old boy in a blazer who leans on the bar with a pint watching the day’s coverage from St Andrew’s on a plasma screen TV. There are stags’ heads on the wall, photographs of boxers and numerous display cases containing specimens of glassy-eyed carp. We go up to the bar and order some drinks.

The barmaid leans against the beer pump which is wrapped in plastic ivy, happy to make conversation. She’s in her sixties and looks well-kept without having had to work hard for it – the air of someone who’s permanently on holiday. She upped sticks and moved here from Hainault when her husband retired but they’ve been coming to Canvey since they were first married. They’d bring their caravan here at the weekends and in the holidays. A lot of people, she says, still think of Kings as it was when it was the old caravan site – fields rather than roads, standpipes, a bit rough and ready in those days but of course it’s all changed now it’s residential. She’s done well. Most people have to downsize when they come to live here but she and her husband got a good price for their one-bedroomed council flat and have ended up in a chalet with two bedrooms and an L-shaped lounge. The main advantage of living here, she tells us, is the feeling of safety. One road into the park, one road out. Everyone knows who everyone else is. She doesn’t leave her front door unlocked but a lot of her neighbours do. Just like London was, she says, years ago.

Kelly asks if there are any families living here.

No one under fifty. You can bring your dogs. Dogs are welcome. But it’s not a place for families. Some weekends her grandchildren visit but they try and see they don’t overdo it. Otherwise, she says, that wouldn’t be right. People are considerate here. No one puts their washers on first thing of a morning, or last thing at night.

Not putting washing machines on after dark, or flushing the toilet after eleven at night –different rules apply here, it seems, to those on the mainland. I’m reminded of the long nights when I’ve lain awake in my small London flat, in my busy street, all too aware of how the lives’ of my neighbours, some I know and many I don’t, overlap with mine. I find myself warming to this ‘considerate’ vibe. It sounds fantastic, I say, where do I sign?

We certainly don’t have any regrets, she says, smiling.

Kelly says, I suppose it’s ethnic-free here, as well? I hold my breath for a second, unsettled by the cut of her jib.

You will find that most people here, the barmaid replies, in fact, most people on Canvey Island – are Londoners. And we go back a long, long way . . .

Outside we adjust our eyes to the yellowy street lights. It’s turned chilly. Above us dark clouds are drifting inland across the evening sky, their ragged edges fringed in gold. We walk back along the single road, through the gate and go and find the car.

This essay is a companion piece to Julie's previous essay, 'Seawalling'


Julie Garton is originally from Kingston upon Hull but now teaches Creative Writing in London. She is part of the Tidal Margins project in which a number of artists, photographers and writers have responded to the Suffolk coastline. She recently won the 2014 British Czech and Slovak creative writing competition with her essay about the Czech poet and dissident Ivan Blatný.