Canvey Island – A Beach Island Time Capsule
What’s Not to Love About “Britain’s Mississippi Delta?”
Canvey Island has reinvented itself numerous times over the years, and seen its share of good times and bad. It is a unique corner of Essex.
There is something romantic about the idea of island life. However, when the island in question is situated just a short drive from Basildon, the spiritual home of the archetypal Essex Boys and Girls made famous by TOWIE, and the landscape is dominated by oil refineries and heavy industry, you might think that romanticism is the last thing on the menu.
Before you cross the bridge from the A130 at Benfleet, leave your preconceptions behind. Canvey has a unique character that has shone through dramatically changing times over the past century. Estate agents and financial service providers that offer independent mortgages in Canvey Island are never short of customers, as once you set foot on the island, it starts to work its magic, and you might decide you never want to leave.
Britain’s Mississippi Delta
The phrase was coined by renowned music video director and documentary maker Julien Temple in his 2010 rockumentary Oil City Confidential. What set out to be a study of Canvey Island’s pub rock and R&B band Dr Feelgood turned into as much a study of the island itself. The film features some in-depth interviews with guitar legend Wilko Johnson, who talks fondly about Canvey Island and its unique influence on the band.
From seaside resort to industrial hub
The music scene of the 1970s that is captured so vividly in Temple’s film is just one stage in Canvey’s evolution. Up until the late 1800s, it was predominantly set aside for agriculture, with just a handful of houses. Even then, it had a reputation for the unusual, however. The Lobster Smack inn gets a mention in the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations and its remote location made it a magnet for everything from smuggling to bare knuckle boxing back in the 19th century.
In Victorian times, the island saw its first major reinvention, as it underwent significant development. By the 1930s, it was one of the nation’s most popular holiday destinations among Britain’s well-to-do classes. However, all that was literally swept away by the terrible events of 01 February 1953. The North Sea Flood claimed the lives of 58 people, and one night changed Canvey Island forever.
In the aftermath, millions were invested in sea defences to ensure such a tragedy could never be repeated. But where did the money come from? It all began with an ambitious Anglo-American petrochemicals project that saw investment pounds and dollars directed at Canvey from both sides of the Atlantic. By the 1970s, British Gas, Occidental Petroleum Texaco and United Refineries were all in residence at the southern tip of the island.
Together on an island
Surprisingly, however, the major industry, the traditional seafront chalets and the older 1930s-style town centre in the centre of the island that survived the flood, all coexist happily. The idea of relaxing on a beach with refineries just a few hundred yards away might sound odd, but don’t dismiss it till you’ve tried it.
Canvey has a unique character and a way of getting under your skin. No wonder Wilko Johnson is still a regular visitor – all these years on, and he still lives just a few miles down the A13 in Southend.