The Demise of Canvey Island…
Since all of us have been children, we have a physical place that is undeniably part of our being, having being the place of our becoming. The sound, scent and sight of living, the very tactile presence of living remains embedded in us. As adults, our lives are filled with layers of the present, past and future. Visiting Canvey Island as an adult took me back to the old good days. As the sky’s golden yellow flame of the flickering sun glinted in my eyes, memories of the full, original, rich and real lives of the Canvey inhabitants filled my mind. Although some Londoners may not have a clue of what and where Canvey is, it is a few meters from St. Martin’s-le-Grand and it is connected to the rest of the world through the London South-End Railway . Before the construction of the Colvin Bridge, the Benfleet creek could only be crossed by rowing-boat ferry or by stepping stones or a gravel causeway at low tides. Since the 1970s, local politicians and residents have called for the construction of more roads in a bid to ease the congestion at rush-hour and to have a viable means of evacuation during flooding.
The location of Canvey Island has seen it welcome people of different walks of life: those who visited to tap the seawater salt, the traders and Romans who used it as an entry point into Britain, cheese makers, shepherds and many others . For me, the fascinating journey to this island had been triggered by a sentimental yearning for the past. The first place that I made for upon my arrival at Canvey was the sea-wall, a place that I had undoubtedly heard a great deal about and had been eager to make a closer acquaintance with. The floods that devastated the island in 1953 and left 59 islanders dead have been remembered on the 80m sea wall. Individuals have wept at the pictures on the gigantic mural, perhaps due to the memories that they have brought back, while some have wept with joy.
The island attracted flocks of families for holidays because of its pure, glorious and exhilarating air that oozed happiness and health. Since the Second World War, Canvey has moved ahead in leaps and bounds. Industrial sites, more roads, community centre, beach amenities and recreation ground are just some of them. A second bridge and the new sea walls have further helped in the island’s progress. Early maps suggest that Canvey was divided into several islands. What made Canvey so remarkable is that while Great Britain is an island, Canvey is a peninsular when the tide is down and an island when it is up . Further, the beaches always came to life thanks to the presence of women and men dressed in bright colors, offering hope through their warm smiles. Children, who moments before had been seated attentively in their classrooms, were playing in the sand and welcoming the unending flocks of visitors. These were the days before computers, before mobile phones were a necessity, in a world where adventure was the norm and everyone ceased the moment to explore as much as possible. The people of Canvey and their visitors lived happily in this world of imagination and to them; the island represented the entire world.
On the peaceful island, the morning began in the kitchen. I could hear noises, when I had a normal hearing with my old hearing aids before I become deafness, of rumbling pots, and knives and spoons banging on the table. This reminded me that it was time to savor the flavor of each mouthful. Everything that was brought from the kitchen was always delicious and magically tasty because of the secret recipe that everyone would share freely. In my father’s words “the secret recipe used around here is called Love”. I remember vividly his robust, warm hands, his quiet gentle love and laughter. We could stroll down the beach together in the evening, looking for shells. I always looked forward to this after a long day of strong sun and salty air. The shells had the most vibrant colors I had ever seen and I imagined that if the cracked shells could talk, then they would have the most interesting tales to tell about the sea and sailors.
Perhaps these shells could make me understand the legend about Canvey’s “haunted house”. It is believed that the haunted house located near Denham Road was at one time inhabited by two old men. While one gentleman was a true Christian believer, the other one was an unbeliever. One day, the Christian believer said that if he died first he would appear to his old friend to convince him of the hereafter. When the Christian died, he sneaked back on a wild night as the wind roared round the chimney. The unbeliever was awakened by a peculiar noise and saw a gust of wind coming into the room. The wind slowly died away but he could not see anything. The cat that had followed him to open the door showed a sign of recognition and even purred and rubbed itself against something in the pitch darkness although the old gentleman could see nothing.
I love to look over at the Lobster Smack Pub on the island on my way to the western end where there are creeks. The view across the Shell Haven Refinery to the buoys and the ships is breathtaking. There is just something about this place, but obviously that is wrapped up in memories of the most expressive landscapes I have ever seen. The magnificent huge sky and the broad river lead the eye to different effects of sunlight and this spectacular natural beauty stirs something in me. Sometimes I try to explain this feeling but I do not know what it is, you know, maybe it’s because human beings have crossed this river for over 2,000 years. But also, looking over at Canvey I think of my late father. Looking over at this once beautiful haven and thinking of him, it is really good. It is heartbreaking at times, but good. That is personal association but I still feel there is something more that I cannot actually put into words.
At times my childhood memories make me sad: others they lift me up when I am feeling low. The shadows of the once blissful Canvey, its people, its customs and its loveliness –it seems that these emotions will never fade away. The thought that Canvey’s highly praiseworthy assets have fallen into the hands of the prying enemy dismayed me. The captivating and alluring delights of Canvey have been replaced by a damnable ambience as the streets are traversed by ex criminals, scroungers, outdated clothes and chavs. As I watched the moon’s faint glimmers pave their way through the mists, my heart could not help but bleed for the hard time in these lands where a lot of men do things for which they are ashamed and even suffer for the rest of their lives.
Contax645 & Leica M6
Portra 160 & 400, Fuji 400h, & Kodak 400tmx