Every visitor from the media and the arts who travels to Canvey Island to write an in-depth exploratory piece, mentions that it “is on the edge” and where Essex man has his spiritual home. And like all cliches it is to some extent true.
Reclaimed by a Dutchman from the River Thames in the seventeenth century, Canvey has always been a place that people move to, thinking that they won’t stay long, and that one day they will leave for metaphorically and geographically speaking loftier places. But for many this never happens. Their relatives arrived just after the Second World War, or to live on one of the London overspill developments in the 1950’s, or in the 1970’s when new housing estates were built and there they have stayed. Turning a bleak landscape into home, becoming part of a community and living an island way of life. For Canvey is definitely an island, and it’s inhabitants have that protective attitude that many islanders have towards their way of life.
At one time Canvey was a holiday destination, but that’s a long time in the past. In the 1930’s and 40’s it was a plotland development, where Eastenders went for fresh air and fun in the sun. The plotlands have gone now, although you can still see the ghosts of them in gardens and on corner plots, replaced by solid suburban houses, with two cars (or more) in the drive and a trampoline in the garden. With the passing of the old plotlands homes has gone some of the fear of flooding, although it’s still true that every home near the sea wall has to have an escape plan for where to go if the Thames should ever break through the wall again as it did during the 1953 East Coast Floods.
One of the best reasons to visit Canvey today, is as part of an exploration of the Thames Gateway, to see it in it’s landscape. If you want to do some research before you go you could watch Jonathan Meades The Joy of Essex, or read Essex Coast Walk by Peter Caton.
Or even better watch Oil City Confidential, the 2009 documentary about the ultimate sons of Canvey Dr. Feelgood. If I’m honest Dr.Feelgood isn’t the music of my youth (I’m just a little too young), but watching Lee Brilleaux and Wilko Johnson on stage in all their manic energy at a showing of the Julien Temple film at firstsite in Colchester last week, evoked the rawness of Canvey Island, and the feeling of making something big happen in the most unlikely of places – on reclaimed land on the edge of the Thames Estuary. You can buy the DVD on Amazon.
For a flavour of the film here are the opening credits.
We saw it at firstsite in Colchester. It was a very small audience, and I’m not sure whether the other people in it were there out of a love for Canvey Island or Dr. Feelgood, but which ever is your particular interest, I’d recommend seeing it if it’s ever shown on TV or at your local arts cinema.