Saturday, April 12, 2003

Walk 57 -- Pitsea to Canvey Island

Ages: Colin was 60 years and 339 days. Rosemary was 58 years and 116 days.
Weather: Very sunny at first but with a cold wind. It gradually turned cloudy, and we had a sharp burst of rain when we were only about 200 yards from the car!
Location: Pitsea to Canvey Island.
Distance: 10½ miles.
Total distance: 364½ miles.
Terrain: Grass fields, grass river banks, and finally a concrete path on the outside of the sea wall.
Tide: Out.
Rivers to cross: No.14, East Haven Creek, to get on to Canvey Island – we had to climb over barbed wire fences and several gates, then up a steep bank to get on to the road-bridge, then down to the river bank in a similar fashion at the other end!
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: Nos.54, 55, 56 & 57 near the railway.
Pubs: None.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.
How we got there and back: We drove – with bikes on the back of the car – from Isleham to Canvey Island where we parked by the sea front for free because the ticket machine was broken. We cycled back as far as Benfleet station where we chained our bikes to an official rack. We then caught a train to Pitsea – this was to save ‘cycling’ up a particularly nasty steep hill!
At the end, we drank our much-needed tea before driving to Benfleet to pick up the bikes. Then we drove back to Isleham in Cambridgeshire where we were staying with Paul & Caroline.

Today is my Grandmother’s birthday – she would have been 125! She was a real Victorian lady who didn't want to spend her life 'in service' as most of her seven brothers and sisters did, so she was apprenticed to a needlewoman who made exquisite bonnets for Victorian babies, and learned the trade. She was a tough East-Ender who didn’t suffer fools gladly, but she had a terrific sense of humour. She lived in London throughout the 'Blitz' in 1940. I remember her with great affection, so let’s dedicate today’s walk to her – Jessie Maria, born 12th April 1878.

Due to last night’s lateness, we did not get up this morning as early as planned. By the time we had driven back to Essex and set up the walk it was gone lunchtime, though not as late as yesterday. We decided to miss out the ‘Wat Tyler’ Country Park on the grounds that it was a dead end which we didn’t have to walk if we didn’t want to (additional rule no.2) but we really didn’t have time, and anyway we couldn’t see that it would be much different from the marshes we got lost on yesterday. So, as we left Pitsea station, we took the public footpath eastwards on the other side of the station fence. We think the way was supposed to go right up against the fence, but people had walked along the road in front of the houses for so long it had overgrown. When the road began to bend and houses started on the railway side of it, we saw a path disappearing between bushes behind their gardens. We followed it and came to a stile. Now we were really in the fields and seemed to leave civilisation behind, except for the railway line which was always by our side – four trains an hour in each direction.
We found a dip by a dried-up drainage ditch where we could sit out of the wind and eat our repast. We eyed the distant cattle warily, remembering the head-butting lambs and frisky bullocks of yesterday, but today’s animals were more docile and took no notice of us. It was difficult to find a place to ‘water a bush’ because of the frequent trains on the railway line, but I managed to find a hidey-hole by one of the stiles we had to clamber over. I just hoped no one else was out walking that path, and sure enough, despite it being a sunny Saturday in April, we didn’t meet a single other person until we were within 300 yards of the end of the walk. Perhaps they have more sense!
About a mile further on, we came to a very old and delightful little church all by itself in its own graveyard! There is no habitation anywhere near it and it only seems to be accessible via the footpath or a track, but it is still in use with services advertised in the porch. We couldn’t get inside because it was locked, and there was an apology stuck up with the other notices explaining that – reluctantly – this was a necessity because of repeated theft and vandalism. How sad! Such places are a haven of peace and a fount of history, but so many of them are denied us because of the selfishness and greed of a few obnoxious sods. Apparently, this little church used to be referred to as the “eel-catchers’ church” and served the marshland community which is now almost non-existent; but it must serve some folk in this 21st century because it looked far from redundant and even has some very recent gravestones in the churchyard.
We continued by the railway for another few hundred yards until we came to a track which crossed over it. The other side was a finger-post labelled “Benfleet Station 2 miles” which seemed to be pointing us back on ourselves. But then the path twisted and turned through fields and over stiles as if it didn’t know which way it was going itself! At one point it seemed to be taking us towards an isolated farmhouse, but then it didn’t and we came to an avenue of trees. It was very difficult to see which way we were supposed to go – we think the path should have led us through this avenue but it was so overgrown, that route was impossible. In the end we walked down the field parallel to it, then we were very clearly signposted along a convoluted way across the marshes – at every turn there was a PRIVATE KEEP OUT notice telling us the way we weren’t supposed to go.
According to Tom King, in his exceedingly funny book “The Thames Estuary Trail”, the land and isolated farmhouse belong to an elderly couple who are in dispute with the local Council about the existence of a public footpath across the marshes in this area. Tom was even invited in for tea and scones to discuss the matter, but they still wouldn’t let him cross their land! The Council Footpath Officer admitted that the exact route of the right of way was “in a state of limbo”, but they didn’t want to be seen to be bullying two OAPs so they were not pursuing the matter – especially as hardly anyone ever uses the path. But that must have been four or five years ago – perhaps they have since come to a compromise with the meandering course we were forced to take.
When we were almost back where we started, we looked over an impenetrable hedge and across a deep drainage ditch to a field where a group of people were flying birds of prey – I wonder how they got permission from the elderly dragons at the farm! It was wonderful to watch these huge birds swoop round and catch the bait – but we had to get on because we had a long way to go.
As we approached the Canvey Island road bridge, my heart sank – for it was up on pillars with an overhang! We were hoping to save ourselves over two and a half miles by crossing East Haven Creek using the road bridge, but nobody told us it was up on stilts! In January 1953, Canvey Island was swamped by floods due to a ‘wall of water’ which swept round the top of Scotland from the Outer Hebrides and south across the North Sea, gaining in height and ferocity as it travelled. The whole of the east coast of Britain was flooded, and Holland was devastated. Millions of acres of marshland were inundated and remained under water for weeks.
Due to the fragmentation of the emergency services at the time, no one was warned of the impending tragedy although up to 48 hours notice could have been given! ‘Long distance’ (i.e. further than the next town) telephone calls took an age to connect, and what it came down to was a policeman on a bicycle riding round his local area telling people to ‘expect a bit of a flood’! The water funnelled up the Thames Estuary, completely swamping Canvey Island which is all below sea level anyway. It was the worst storm that Britain endured in the 20th century, far worse than the hurricane of October 1987. In that bleak January week, while Europe was still picking itself up off the ground after the Second World War, hundreds drowned in Britain and thousands drowned in Holland.
It was the first real-life tragedy I remember seeing on the newsreels on television because we had just obtained our first-ever set a few weeks previously. I was seven years old, and my uncle – who was far richer than we were – had to have every new innovation as soon as it came on the market. Whenever a better model came out, he would pass his old one on to us to make room for it. So he was already on his second TV set, and we were excitedly watching programmes on his old first set which didn’t have a case – my father made a hardboard one latterly but I don’t remember him ever getting round to painting it! We had to switch the set on twenty minutes before we wanted to watch a programme to allow the valves time to ‘warm up’, and the sound would come through long before the picture. It was all in black & white, of course, in fact the pictures were more foggy in tone! Every time a car went past outside, we got so much interference it was impossible to see or hear anything. However I do remember watching – horrified – as they showed aerial film of houses flooded up to the roof-tops, and I used to wonder where this mysterious place ‘Canvey Island’ was. I knew where the Isle of Wight was because I had been there, but I had never heard of Canvey Island.
The island is completely below sea level, sea defences being built around the area in 1623 by a Dutch engineer. Then the marshes were drained and used as farmland – as in Holland. By the middle of the twentieth century quite a large community had grown up, and their houses were mainly bungalows. Hundreds drowned or died of hypothermia in their own homes the night of the sea surge – the water came up too quickly and unexpectedly while they slept. Many people escaped to their attics, then had to remove tiles and sit out on to the roof in the dark waiting long cold hours to be rescued by boat. One of the reasons why so many died on Canvey was that the emergency services simply could not get to the island. The only road connecting it to the mainland and higher ground in Benfleet (so near, yet so far!) was little more than a causeway and, of course, it was completely submerged that night. In fact, American servicemen billeted nearby were given rubber boats and sent out to help.
So that is why the new road bridge is up on unclimbable pillars. The road is called “Remembrance Avenue” in recognition of those brave men, women and children who, having so recently survived six years of a most terrible war, perished in their own homes in peacetime.
Colin was even more determined than me to cross the river using the road bridge – neither of us wanted to walk the extra miles. He held open the horizontal strands of a barbed wire fence while I carefully climbed through, having first removed my rucksack. Then I did the same for him while he climbed through. We walked across grass underneath the bridge northwards until we came to a locked gate which we climbed over. Then it was up a steep grass bank, step over the Armco barrier – and we were on the bridge! It even had a pavement for us to walk along, luckily for it was very busy.
We had to walk well past the river bank on the southern side, and looked at several options for getting down. In the end we stepped over the Armco barrier again, down a steep grassy slope to a gate which we climbed over, then underneath the bridge in a northerly direction where there was a gravelly lane. Obviously the gate had not always been locked for the area had been used for fly-tipping – what a mess! But in amongst the ugliness was nature’s beauty – for someone had tipped some garden rubbish there and daffodils were blooming in the midst of it all! We had one more gate to climb, and we were on the river bank on the Canvey Island side. We must have walked an extra half a mile under and over that bridge, but we had saved ourselves a further two miles by not walking to Benfleet and back.
There followed miles of river bank walking which was altogether extremely boring. We also appeared to be going back on ourselves, which was rather depressing. We stopped once to have a little more refreshment, but we hadn’t much left so we soon got going again. When we reached the end of East Haven Creek, we knew we were a mere half mile – as the crow flies – from the plethora of kissing gates we found on the marshes yesterday. When planning these walks, we had been tempted to try and cross two creeks over what was marked as Movable Flood Barriers on the map. The trouble was they were not public footpaths and we didn’t know how movable they were, so in the end we didn’t risk the detour. How glad we were that we made that decision! Today we could see the second one – a very substantial bridge which we could have driven our car over, but completely blocked off with locked gates, barbed wire and unclimbable fences.
We turned the corner to walk down the bank of Holehaven Creek, which was much the same really except it was wider. On the other side was Coryton Oil Refinery which looked absolutely deadly – how glad we were that we had been able to miss it out! A friend of ours – who was born and brought up in Leigh-on-Sea (and also declared she would never return to the area even if you paid her!) – subsequently told us a few interesting facts about this part of the Thames Estuary. Apparently Pitsea is officially the most polluted area in Britain due to all the landfill sites there. Also, it is an open secret that there is a kind of ‘tundra’ under Canvey Island, and if you dig down a little way the ground is frozen! This is because they have liquefied the oil under pressure to make it less volatile, but this has taken all the heat away from the surroundings. As they decommission the site, the thawing out will cause all sorts of ecological problems. What a mess we make of this world in the name of progress!
The sea wall gradually got higher until it was impossible to see over anymore, and – as if in empathy with our mood – the weather deteriorated as well. On our left was a ‘brownfield’ site, an overgrown network of roads in a grid pattern with streetlamps – no buildings. On our right was a long industrial jetty going out over the mud which, we found out months later, has never been used! Apparently there was an ambitious plan to bring crude oil ashore to a huge oil refinery on the island but, having built the jetty, linking roads and streetlamps, the plan was abandoned. I wonder how much it had all cost! (We got this information from a recommended walk in the October 2003 edition of ‘Country Walking’ magazine where they were singing the praises of a sixteen mile ‘country’ walk around the perimeter of Canvey Island! Are they mad?) We came to a pub and a caravan site. We simply couldn’t understand anyone wanting to stay in a caravan in such an industrial area, and the pub didn’t look our sort of place at all being full of pool tables and slot machines with pop music blaring out. We found out later, from the same article in ‘Country Walking’ magazine, that this was the pub used by Dickens in ‘Great Expectations’. I expect it was a little different then!
So we carried on, through more industrial storage areas with lots of industrial noise like loud generators, etc. It is described on the map as an ‘oil storage depot’, and looked and sounded as if it was very much in use. However, a week or two later, I found the following short article in the May 2003 edition of BBC Wildlife magazine:
The real urban jungle
Rare insects thrive in abandoned industrial sites, and now these sites need protection, conservationists say.

Take the disused oil refinery on Canvey Island in Essex. Most of the Thames region’s population of the shrill carder bee Bombus sylvarum live there. It is home to nearly 100 rare insects, including the weevil-eating wasp Cerceris quinquefasciata, which is listed in the Red Data Book. Ecologists recently rediscovered a weevil there that had only been found once before – in the 1830s. Sadly, the site is going to be turned into a business park….
“…and the boll weevil said, ‘Yup! And my whole darn family’s here!’
‘We gotta have a ho-o-o-o-ome!
We gotta have a home!’ …”
So there you are – and we thought the walk was boring! We were stuck behind our high wall – which was too narrow to walk along the top – with the sky getting blacker by the minute, and every time we came to another industrial jetty it looked as if our way was barred. I had visions of detours adding miles and I was so tired, but always we found a ‘tunnel’ through. Colin climbed a laddery thing over the wall, and announced that there was a concrete path along the other side which was just wide enough to walk on. So I climbed over, and that was much better even though I felt I was hemmed between the lofty wall and the sea. For the first time in ages we could listen to the sound of waves plopping on the beach, and it reminded us that this is indeed a walk along the seaside!
We rounded Deadman’s Point (I wonder how it came by that name?) and came to the first real beach since Allhallows in Kent – but what a mess! The top was sandy, but as the tide receded it revealed slimey gunge and pointy bits of wood and metal which looked lethal. I wouldn’t have taken my children to such a place when they were little! This is where we met the first other human beings since we had left Pitsea station. One youth, sitting with his bike, remarked, “You look as if you’re going a long way!” I corrected him by replying, “No, we’ve been a long way, but we’re nearly there now!” At that point, the heavens opened – why couldn’t it have waited another five minutes?
We both hastily stuffed our cameras into polythene bags and donned our kags. Colin was particularly cross – he always takes a sudden shower of rain as a personal insult! “I’m not going to bother with overtrousers,” I decided, “because we are so near the car – it’s only about two hundred yards further on.” Colin stomped off “to make the tea!” When I caught up with him he said, “I didn’t put my overtrousers on just to prove to you how wet you can get without them!”
I’m still trying to work out exactly what that statement meant!

That ended Walk no.57, we shall pick up Walk no.58 next time at the sea front car park on Canvey Island. We drank our tea, and then the rain ceased! On our way off the island, we stopped at Benfleet Station to pick up our bikes. Then we drove back to Isleham to spend the night in Paul and Caroline’s cosy little cottage.

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