A causeway on stilts floats above a marsh threaded through with muddy creeks. Canvey Island lies beyond, below sea level, vulnerable. In 1953, the sea prevailed, broke through the sea wall and reclaimed the island as its own. Fifty nine people lost their lives. Today only an elaborate drainage system and a higher sea wall keep the islanders feet dry.
Growing up in Essex, Canvey Island carried an aura of disaster, strangeness, the kind of place you wouldn’t want to visit. Canvey is a low slung kind of place, bungalows hug the land as though afraid to grow too tall in case the sea returns to sweep them away again. They peter out towards the sea front, overtaken by a sudden surge of architectural optimism. Taller houses with decorative balconies create a sort of Toremolinos on Thames. These give way to the Leisure Island Fun Park. A sound track of sea gulls, barking dogs, tinny pop music and the smell of salt, seaweed and chips. Cars are strewn about on rough grassland. The Thai chip shack and Jimmy Mars Bar and Grill cluster round The Monico, now a rough bar but once an art deco casino built in the 1930’s when Canvey Island offered hope to East-enders in search of respite from London. The Labworth Café, a sleek white modernist gem designed by Ove Arup, sits aloft the sea wall like an elegant liner that just happened to drop by.
Finally the sea wall, now so high that there are no sea views on the landward side. Walking up a grass embankment onto the wall is release into another world. A grey, misty sky melts into greeny, grey sea water. It is vast, an expanse, the horizon that is Kent a dim smudge in the far distance. The still greyness is interrupted by the looming presence of a huge cargo ship piled high with containers. It moves silently in slow motion until it disappears into the mist. Waves crash to shore in the wake of the boat, children squeal as new treasures are washed ashore. The tide is in, the beach is completely covered, the Labworth Café seems to be hanging above the water. The sea walk seems narrow, exciting. They’ve painted the sea-side of the wall in swimming pool blue. When the sun comes out it looks clean, foreign, sunkist, not at all the Canvey Island I had imagined.
Three men in apple green T shirts are heading towards me with a team of huskies. The dogs lurch towards me, the men growl, ‘on by, on by’, the huskies line up and do go on by. Canvey Islanders have taken the Huskie to their hearts, their white fur and blue eyes seem to fit this sea-side dream world.
The light fades, the sea is darker and greener, the sun has thrown down a golden shaft across the bay. Sea gulls wheel overhead in hungry groups. It feels chilly, it’s time to retreat to the dry lands and safety.
Published by the City Literary Institute further to competition in ‘Between the Lines 2016 – An Anthology of Creative Writing’