Walking the wild side of Canvey Island

by Ian Tokelove
Canvey Island, Holehaven Creek and Coryton Refinery

Canvey Island offers a remote, wild walk, an easy 45 minutes away from London by rail. The top, western half of the island is a patchwork of low-lying fields and marsh, protected from the sea by a high river embankment. This is West Canvey Marsh, a nature reserve cared for by the RSPB.

A path follows the sea wall, tracing the outline of the island. You can walk all around if you wish, or walk out and back, keeping to the wild side.

From Benfleet station, take the road bridge over the creek. The low, green slope of the river embankment appears on the right, the path marked by a stilted, wooden signpost.

East Haven Creek, Canvey Island
East Haven Creek, Canvey Island

The grassy path overlooks saltmarsh and the creek. Wildflowers and scrub grow along the embankment. For a while, the unwanted noise of traffic competes with bird song, but then the path turns away from the road.

The sea wall follows the creek, ducking under the busy Canvey Way road bridge. Occasional paths lead down from the river wall and onto West Canvey Marshes.

Bowers Marshes and landfill

On the other side of the creek, another RSPB reserve, Bowers Marshes, supports rich wildlife. As so often with Thameside marshes, there is also landfill here, the huge Pitsea Landfill Site. Each year 800,000 tonnes of waste are heaped and landscaped across the former saltmarsh.

The marsh may have been lost, but a new RSPB nature reserve will be created here once the landfill has been capped and rendered safe.

East Haven Creek, Canvey Island
East Haven Creek, Canvey Island

The creek changes throughout the day, filling and draining with the tides. The flow changes with the tides and the skies, drifting from a tempting, sparkling blue to a sullen, murky brown.

Canvey Island and flooding

The path passes the East Haven Creek Barrier, part of a robust, local flood defence system. The area is very susceptible to flooding and homes need protecting. During 1953’s North Sea Flood, 58 people lost their lives on Canvey Island, drowning as the sea defences crumbled.

Holehaven Creek and the Coryton Refinery
Holehaven Creek and the Coryton Refinery

The embankment wall now follows Holehaven Creek towards the Thames. Looking across the creek, salt marsh gives way to Coryton Refinery, a sprawling complex of gas and oil cylinders, chimney stacks, and refinery equipment. The refinery is largely decommissioned, awaiting a new future. You can hire it for dystopian film shoots if your pockets are deep enough.

Canvey Wick

Back on Canvey Island, the path approaches the site of a would-be refinery. Construction began in the 1960s but was abandoned during the oil crisis of 1973, amid embargoes and rocketing oil prices.

A skeletal pier reaches out across the creek towards the deep water anchorages of the Thames. The pier is almost a mile long but was never used. Kayaking here, I once met a couple of stoners, happily adrift in cheap inflatables, seemingly unconcerned by the tides or breeze. They said it was better than watching TV, and I’d have to agree.

Canvey Wick Pier
Canvey Wick Pier, almost a mile long

The abandoned refinery is now a fabulous brownfield nature reserve called Canvey Wick, designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its environmental value. The wildlife is wonderful, rare, and also small, as this reserve is especially rich in invertebrates. Surveys have shown Canvey Wick to have more biodiversity per square foot than any other site in the UK.

Canvey Wick, nature reclaiming asphalt
Canvey Wick, nature reclaiming asphalt
Soldier beetles (Cantharis rustica) mating
Soldier beetles doing their thing at Canvey Wick Nature Reserve

You can wander around Canvey Wick and it is free to visit. The oil tanks were never built, but their huge, circular foundations can be found across the site, like abandoned rocket pads. The dark asphalt is slowly succumbing to nature and soaks up the sun’s heat, creating drowsy pools of warmth amid the scrub and wildflowers.

From the Canvey Wick nature reserve, busy main roads lead back to Benfleet, but it is preferable to retrace your steps, enjoying the salty views from a new angle.

Looking back at Holehaven Creek, the Coryton Refinery and the distant cranes of London Gateway Port.
Looking back at Holehaven Creek, the Coryton Refinery and the distant cranes of London Gateway Port.

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