I thought I would be able to get a clear view of the river from anywhere here, but no. The island, four thousand acres of reclaimed mudflat, seven miles wide and four miles long, shaped ‘like a billowing sleeve’ is hemmed in by an 18 foot high wall made out of steel sheet piling capped with high density concrete. It chops up the view of the sky and the wide sweep of the river, the mighty Thames.
Either through confidence, ignorance or apathy, Canvey Islanders will tell you that their sea defences are the best in the country. Situated just off the north bank of the Thames in the county of Essex, this low lying island is protected from the vociferous North Sea and formidable tides of the Thames estuary by a sophisticated network of weirs, sluices, floodgates and seawalls without which Canvey Island simply would not exist.
The first sea defences to be built on Canvey Island were built in 1623 by Dutch seawallers under the supervision of the London-based engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden. The early seawalls would have been made from locally-sourced marsh clay and chalk, their wooden frameworks from elm – a wood chosen for its durability and resistance to water. The south side of the wall – the stretch that bears the brunt of the tides, and where I am walking on this fine Saturday afternoon - was fortified with grey-green Kentish ragstone, a material also used in the construction of nearby Hadleigh Castle and a number of local churches. Over time, and many breachings, parts of Vermuyden’s original wall were flung to back into the sea, sloughed off like layers of old skin, and counterwalls were built within its ruined confines. A rough labyrinth of earthworks can be found across the island. They follow the curves of the winding creeks – havens for wild flowers, which attract colonies of butterflies such as the Essex Skipper and the Marbled White. Inland they run between the lines of houses, acting as boundary markers between one set of back gardens and the next. They provide the island, most of which lies at or below sea level, with unexpected contours and brief moments of altitude.
Over the years frequent renewal of these earthworks has been essential, not just because reclaimed land is always vulnerable to flooding but because records of the island’s history show that once in every generation there comes a storm that is so powerful that the sea is returned to its medieval limits and the island is washed away by a killer tide.
The last time this happened was in 1953. They talk of “the flood” on Canvey Island, but what happened on the night of January 31st of that year was more than that. In the words of an anonymous islander whose testimony of the events of that night was later recorded in Hilda Grieve’s compelling book on the subject The Great Tide: The Story of the 1953 floods in Essex, it was “the night the sea came to meet Canvey”. Islanders sat in their seaside homes that night would have been alarmed at the sound of the wind as it rattled their windowpanes, but would have had had no idea that out in the North Sea a massive storm surge was building up, backed by gale force winds and heading towards the mouth of the Thames. It was just before midnight when the sea breached fissures in the earthen seawalls and the island began to fill with water, like a soup dish. Then, in the early hours, witnesses reported seeing a wall of water, similar to the bore on a river, surge clean over the walls and come pounding along the island’s unmade roads, carrying with it detritus of all kinds: small boats, garden fencing, trees, armchairs, baulks of timber, caravans, bales of rags.
Those who were able to do so smashed holes in their ceilings and climbed out on to rooftops where they sat shivering in their nightclothes, awaiting help from the emergency services which didn’t arrive. Others sat on windowsills, their legs dangling in freezing water, or hanging by their fingertips from eaves and gutters, watching helplessly as wave after wave rolled in from the sea and flood water overwhelmed their homes and sent electricity cables crashing down around them. Those who remained indoors saw the sea come smashing in through their doors and windows. Some were able to clamber onto their draining boards or table tops and lift their children above their heads. Others watched as their babies died in their arms of the cold. Many of the islanders who died that night perished in their beds, oblivious to the warning cries of their neighbours.
High tide came in the early hours of the following morning. According to the testimonies of the survivors, as dawn grew near, the wind ceased howling and there was a brief spell of eerie silence. The surface of the flood water was bright with reflected moonshine.
The great storm that inundated eastern counties of England that night was the worst natural disaster to befall Britain in the twentieth century. Maybe because it occurred so soon after the end of war the tragedy became something of a footnote in the history of post-war Britain. Of the 307 people who were killed that night, 58 of them came from Canvey. The island lay battered and broken by the sea, its houses and roads reduced to ruins, its soil poisoned by salt. Many islanders had no choice but to seek refuge in London or on the Essex mainland. There was talk at the time of the authorities abandoning the island to sea, but in the end it didn’t come to that. Gradually the improvised seaside homes (many of which had been used as shelter by bombed out Londoners fleeing the blitz) were cleared away; the unmade tracks and paths were replaced with clinker roads and, with the help of the army, houses that survived the inundation were pumped dry. Islanders began to return to their homes. As a matter of urgency, the seawalls were all replaced, higher and stronger this time, battle-ready for the next killer storm.
The modern seawall, built after the flood, was heightened to 18 feet in 1981. Those houses directly behind it tend to have their sitting rooms in the upstairs so they still have a view of the river which would otherwise be cut off. The wall is a boon to walkers like myself and today, a Saturday afternoon in early summer, the waterfront is quiet and leisurely. There’s a queue for tables at the art deco Labworth cafe – one of the few buildings to escape the wall’s unrelenting straightness – and down on the beach a few stalwarts brave the estuary breeze and the thin sunshine, eating ice creams, throwing beach balls or turning stones in the rock pools, looking for crabs. From their chatter, they sound local, Canveyites walking their dogs, or day-trippers from the working class suburbs which run alongside the A13: Hainault, Dagenham, Pitsea, Benfleet. Canvey Island long since ceased to be the holiday destination of choice for Londoners, but it still has the nearest beach to the East End and is handy for cheap and cheerful day trips when the weather is reasonable, as it is today.
I head east from the Labworth cafe, on the sea side of the wall, where the harsh monotony of the concrete is broken up by sudden daubs of colour and rashes of words. The island’s graffiti are raw, silent and anonymous fragments of island life. With 14 miles of blank cement to scrawl upon, one might think Canvey would be a graffer’s paradise, like the walls lining the Grand Union Canal or the underpasses of the Southbank in London, but that’s not quite the case. There’s some tagging, but nothing ambitious enough to call itself street art. Whilst the capital’s graffiti has become something of a commodity, its Canvey equivalent is, for the large part, modest and old fashioned “writing on the wall”, with a distinct local feel, scribbled in haste using coloured chalks or, where surfaces allow, humble felt-tipped pens. Some of it capitalises on the vertical aspect of the wall, some – such as the 20 foot long spliff chalked onto the wall just to the north of the café – the horizontal. But much of what is written there is cryptic, at least to daytrippers from the mainland, like myself. I wonder what the people who are drinking cups of tea in the outdoor Concorde Cafe, which overlooks the kiddies’ paddling pool on the beach, make of the words scrawled onto the slug of concrete behind them:
your irish master is dead
Not far from The Labworth is Canvey’s most famous piece of graffiti. It reads:
CANVEY IS ENGLANDS LOURDES
I’ve walked past it a few times now, each time resisting the urge to add the missing apostrophe. The letters are white, about a foot high, just over an inch thick and applied with a brush, not a spraycan, so in graffiti terms it’s a period piece. Apparently, for a time, CANVEY IS ENGLANDS LOURDES had a tag line which read:
YEAH! FULL OF CRIPPLES
But no trace of this remains today. I’ve been told the declaration refers to a local story, of which the details are disappointingly scant. Sometime in the early 1970s, around the time when cheap flights to the continent spelled the end of the island’s wave of popularity as seaside resort with Londoners, a Canvey woman claimed the Virgin Mary appeared in the back garden of her bungalow. For a time the garden became something of a shrine, attracting the faithful and the curious from London’s East End by the coachload. Today people stand by it to have their photograph taken, perhaps having seen it in Julian Temple’s film Oil City Confidential, in which it is featured.
Most of the graffiti along the Esplanade is of the more ephemeral kind, written in chalk, usually white but some in blue or pink. Because the house style is free of the restraints of punctuation, grammar, or orthodox spelling, much of it reads like experimental poetry, hymns to surrealism:
a watched pat at tap
wigs false teeth inverted nails purple patches feet infections alcohol twitch
Of course, some of it is just downright nasty. Turn the sharp corner of the wall, up by Canvey Point where any vestiges of seaside gaiety are forgotten and shingle and dog shit litter the cracked slabs of the walkway. Here is where the mudslingers, shit stirrers, racists, and pornographers hang out. Where FREE BLOW JOBS is daubed in red spraypaint, two foot high. Where men are denounced as “wife beaters”, or as having “ball cancer”; where “monster” families are named and shamed and women tarred as “slags on demand”. But by the time I write this up most of these smears will be gone, cleansed by summer rain. If you hadn’t noticed them, you would never have known there’d been there.
I step down from the walkway at Canvey Point onto a ribbon of pathway which is only accessible at lowtide. It leads along the perimeter fence of the yacht club, down onto an expanse of saltmarsh which stretches out to the water’s edge. Somewhere out in the mud are traces of an old Roman settlement, long since abandoned to the sea but still marked on old maps. I step across inlets made by the currents, over marsh plants, onto ground that has the consistency of grey blancmange and oozes under my feet, or is made of clay that is shot through with vivid green algae and clings to the soles of my shoes. I pocket a three inch nail which could be a souvenir from the 250 ton ferro concrete barge that stood here for 45 years before being bulldozed as part of a cleanup campaign, or from one of the B52 bombers which collided here, one foggy night, during World War Two.
I come to a bank where the firmness of the ground is bolstered by the presence of cockleshells – one of nature’s sea defences. A curved ridge of jagged wooden stakes poke up out the wet sand. I look closely at the tightly interlocking grain of the elm from which they are made – a wood once used in the making of coffins. These are the skeletal remains of Vermuyden’s wall. Because they have lain here in the mud for almost 400 years and are clustered with tiny grey barnacles they could easily be mistaken as one of nature’s creations, rather than the work of those Dutch engineers. The broken struts, hidden when the water is high, are, so I’ve read, a potential hazard to the many small boats which use this stretch of water. But at low tide, they are a reminder to the passer-by of the ferocity of the waters which surround this frail, but resilient piece of land, and the passage of time and tide.
Julie Garton is originally from Kingston upon Hull but now teaches in Creative Writing in London. Her background is in theatre and children's TV. She has recently published an account of the closure of a psychiatric hospital in Ipswich and is part of the Tidal Margins project in which a number of artists, photographers and writers have responded to the Suffolk coastline.