Notes on Canvey Island

Urban island with a hidden wild side

People lived on Canvey Island during the Iron Age, but for much of its history since then it has been used as offshore pasture for sheep, salt harvesting, shellfish collection, and some cereal production. The island was low-lying, marshy, frequently flooded and uninhabited. In the late 16th or early 17th century 200 Dutch settlers arrived, fleeing brutal repression. In 1623 a local landowner contracted a Dutch water engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, to maintain the sea walls in exchange for land.

By 1900 about 100 people lived on Canvey Island; this grew to almost 1800 by the end of WWI. Access to and from the island was via a ford at that time; the first bridge onto Canvey opened in 1931. Since then the population has increased hugely and the island is now home to around 40,000 people. As a result the eastern half is largely urbanised although there are green spaces and lakes throughout. The western side of the island is agricultural. Although most of the buildings on the island are post-WWII and unremarkable, there are two Dutch cottages (one is now a museum) dating from the early 17th century, and the occasional surprisingly pretty thatched cottage sprinkled through the otherwise unrelentingly dull architecture.

The entire island lies below sea level and survives only because of the sea wall. This wall, built initially in the 17th century, has been increased in height following the devastating floods of 1953 in which 58 people lost their lives.

Canvey Point is the easternmost part of the island. It lies outside the sea wall and is a small oasis of wildness, so close to the urban sprawl yet completely different in every way. The fragility of the land surface (be careful where you walk), the merging of land and sea, the sense of space and the extraordinary light, re-create the island's ancient past. It's a wonderful place to see water birds and watch the marine activity on the Thames. The footpath to Canvey Point can be flooded at high tides.