Another misty sky. Yesterday it cleared by midday. I thought of going to the Thames Path but didn’t. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow. Sometimes I start motivated, then think about what I want to do, and the thinking makes it too difficult, and the motivation dissolves. I have to sense when that hurdle off too much thought is approaching and push harder against it. My hands are getting worse, hence writing with a different pen, a soft tipped fine black marker, like a Sharpie but with a thinner barrel.
I went to Canvey Island this afternoon instead. I’ve been thinking for some time of visiting, the first time in four decades or so. It isn’t far, I could consider it a journey to the past. The train journey was good, or at least okay. Fenchurch Street is an odd station, tucked away up side streets in the city. Cannon Street was the first to be built within the limits of the City walls. I don’t suppose much of the actual wall existed by the time the railways arrived, but even now the boundary of the old Corporation is liminally present. Knee-height barriers of concrete line pavements and bridges these days, a supposed defence against terrorist attacks. Blue-painted sentry boxes stand in the central refuge of certain roads, intended to house police officers checking road users in and out of the city. They bear the crest of the Corporation’s own police force. It is rare to see any of this in use now. The city has little purpose now, the financial sector started a slow unwilling drift over to the Isle of Dogs many years ago, but probably less than half actually made the move. Other cities, especially those I’ve visited in North America, seem to have clearly defined financial districts, but they plan city design for zoned uses, to allow everyone an excuse to have to drive everywhere. London’s financial district has two parts, amoebic, close, joined, different in character. Both are deserted now, as people work at home. Possibly this will be a permanent state, leaving the city ripe for redevelopment, or decline. I’m just watching some film of the London Eye from Hungerford Bridge that I made a few months ago when I regularly travelled to the West End, I shot the scene every day just through habit and familiarity. I wonder how I’ll feel when I’m working there again. I don’t really miss it at the moment, it has little to offer me other than employment. Perhaps the Eye will fall into disuse, a great rusting circular monument to a past era of exuberance, eventually to be demolished. Here in the city, street names familiar to Pepys are all around. I walked past the end of Pudding Lane, where the great fire started. The monument to the fire is similarly tucked away, but I suppose all streets of that time were narrow, crooked, labyrinthine, ideal for that old opium afficianado Thomas De Quincey to sleek around seeking out whores, thrills and halucination.
The railway route to Canvey Island, the London, Tilbury and Southend railway, has a few deviating branches, but is in the main a simple end to end, in-out railway. For my journey it didn’t matter which train I took, just get on the next one and see which way it goes. There was a single track past a hideous shopping park place, with an equally hideous housing estate of insipid orange brick to house the people who need to go shopping there to keep it viable, and who probably also work there to be able to afford the tacky neon things they have to buy to fill their insipid houses with. A whole consumerist town. We went past and through Tilbury, where two huge ships were docked. They looked like luxury passenger cruisers, probably laid up at present, eight or so storeys of sumptuous cabins, empty and dusty. There are lots of flat fields, pylons, lush verdant green grass, the soil must be healthy. Someone at the seat opposite was viewing me suspiciously as I was filming on my ‘phone, he might have thought I was a boat spotter. He was young, average skin, average brown hair, black trousers and anorak, rucksack, watching something moving quickly on his ‘phone. Perhaps he has no imagination.
Canvey Island is attached to the mainland by a road bridge over East Haven Creek, which today was a broad, flat muddy ditch, with just a thin trickle of water flowing out to the estuary. There were boats moored further up the creek, marooned from water, connected by an elevated wooden path over the mud and reeds. It’s hard to imagine them ever floating. Two men made their way along the path, pale, weary, silent.
Before the bridge was built there used to be a ferry, I wonder if my grandparents used it when they lived on Long Road. I don’t know when they moved here, let alone why. It seems to have always been a place for outsiders to settle. For several centuries landowners attempted to keep the sea at bay with flood defence walls made from whatever materials were available, like wood or wool. Presumably they needed ongoing renewal, a fourteenth century Forth Bridge challenge. Some Dutch navvies came to help, being the people who know most about flat sodden land. In lieu of payment they were given plots of land on the island to grow food and the opportunity to settle and naturalise. If only things could be so simple today. There are quite a few Dutch street names on the island today. There are oil refineries too, with effluent gases burned off at the top of tall thin chimneys. I suppose they are there for safety reasons, because any explosion would be more dangerous in densely populated mainland areas. Islanders’ safety is presumably of less concern. The North Sea storm of 1953 flooded much of the island, destroyed homes, many of them flimsy post war prefab houses. After, a huge concrete wall was built on the seaboard side, protecting the low lands, and incorporating small access points to the beach. Taking in a view of the sea must have felt a little like penetrating a border in cold war Berlin.
I don’t know what attracted my grandparents to the island, or where they came from. Hornchurch was referred to, and Shoreditch is on birth certificates. My grandmother moved away to various other bleak windswept landscapes, and I last visited the island several decades ago. We’re a family of nomads, my parents moved about quite a bit, I only have shallow roots. I get settled in one place, then start to feel unsettled. I’m at the unsettled stage now.
It’s still misty outside. Apparently the orthodox Jewish community are migrating to Canvey from Stamford Hill, bizarrely. They are said to be an insular, self-protective community, so perhaps the island’s fortress-like sea walls appeal. Stamford Hill has some grand mansion blocks and views over North London, and has an okay Sainsburys at a road junction.
I may go back to Canvey sometime and cycle the perimeter. Arriving at dawn in winter would be best, to see the gas flames against a warming sky. I don’t know whether that would be a last visit, leaving something old behind, or looking for something new.