I wanted to save this penultimate blog entry for the last day’s activities. I had initially planned a last long run for Wednesday 25th, but a look at the weather forecast told me that there were impending flash storms throughout the day. Although I’m used to running in all weathers, given the choice, I’d rather not be running in a thunder storm so I decided to postpone the run to Thursday when the weather looked more favourable. It would be more symbolic in any case, I thought, to mark my last day with a final long run.
On a previous discovery run I had done back in March during my first visit, I had discovered and partially run round the sea wall and flood defences that encircle Canvey Island. These were constructed in the 1980s to replace a previous ones built following the famous North Sea Flood of 1953, which killed 58 people and led to the evacuation of 13,000 others. The island has always been under threat of flooding due to its distinctive geography (most of the island is built on reclaimed land and is below the mean high water mark of the Thames Estuary), and whilst the new flood defences offer significant protection, rising sea levels and the deterioration of the concrete from some of the walls, mean the island remains under constant threat. I was intrigued by this place that is in effect below sea-level and having previously run along part of the flood wall, I felt I should take on the complete circuit. I had previously chanced on the wall on an extended run from Chalkwell and had pushed myself to c0mplete 13 miles before stopping. This time I would begin and end the run from Benfleet rail station, which lies at the end of the main c0nnecting road from mainland to the island. Different accounts had told me differing lengths of the circuit, which varied between 14km and 14 miles. I concluded that the worst case scenario would have me completing a 14 mile run, which was only one mile more than I had previously done.
The last part of this Blog Entry is dedicated to Ryan Williams, one of my students on the MA Fine Art course at Cambridge School of Art, Anglia Ruskin University, who died suddenly in the early hours of last Friday 27th April. He was a dedicated artist and superb individual, who had much ahead of him and he will be sorely missed by many. My condolences go out to all his family and friends. RIP Ryan, you will not be forgotten.
Last Thursday 26th April I set off for Benfleet station where I would begin my circuit of Canvey Island. The weather was coolish and cloudy with a few menacing rain clouds. Leaving the station I took a path along the north side of Benfleet Creek, which joins the B1014 road connecting the mainland to the island. I had decided to start the circuit from a footpath on a grassy ridge off right hand side of this road that would take me anti-clockwise. It was the end of the section I had previously missed and is where the separation of the island from the mainland is most apparent in the network of marshland and grassy creeks that dominate the landscape, along with a number of abandoned boats. I climbed onto the grass ridge/flood defence, which gave me a soft, but firm ground for running on and a great vantage-point of the landscape around me, following the south side of Benfleet Creek on the north side of the island and then East Haven Creek on the west side. This area of mainly marshy rural farmland lay in marked contrast to the more residential/ holiday areas I had seen on my previous visit, and is also an important site for nature, including West Canvey Marshes, acquired by the RSPB in 2007 and Canvey Wick Nature Reserve. It also has an important role to play in the Environment Agency’s Thames Estuary 2100 flood defence plan.
The flood defence system consists of complex system of sewers, culverts, natural and artificial dykes and lakes which feed seven pumping stations and gravity sluices that discharge the water into the Thames and creeks. This has created a unique landscape and ecosytem, but has also been controversial due to the effects of the proposed plans which would allow the western side of the island to be developed as a site which is either temporarily flooded at times of risk, or transformed into a permanent wetland. This naturally worries island residents, and also creates potential problems for freshwater wildlife.
I felt privileged to be running alone near to such precarious habitats, not least Canvey Wick, formerly the site of an oil refinery that was never completed and now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and haven for endangered wildlife. As you approach the site you are very aware of the presence of a number of rusting, abandoned oil jetties, and white circular oil storage tanks, presumably relics of the refinery and the petro-chemical shipping industry. The tanks at Canvey Wick are diminutive compared to what you see across the water at Shell Haven, Coryton, the site of a former gas across the other side of the creek and now part of the developing superport at London Gateway. As I ran I was continuously amazed at the changing landscape, seemingly at odds with its neighbours; not long before reaching the abandoned jetties at Holehaven Creek at the southwest corner of the island and the view of Shellhaven opposite, I had been running alongside fields of grazing cows and seen warning signs of the presence of a bull. Now my view was whole-heartedly industrial.
By the time I had reached the point where the creek starts to meet the estuary proper I had covered at least 6 miles. It would then be another 2 or 3 miles of precarious ducking and diving underneath the old oil jetties positioned between the now concrete sections of the flood wall before I would reach the more populated south side of the island. The tide was high, and though it was starting to retreat- a slip on some wet algae caught me unawares and I had to be extra-careful on the remaining small areas of rocks and stones next to the wall, which after all, were not far from the water. As I reached just over halfway at 8 miles, I was starting to the effects of what would become a long run, but I had come prepared with fluid and energy bars to keep me going and slowing down a bit across the rocks and stones, gave me some respite. It also allowed me to take pleasure in the site and expanse of the widening estuary, with more distant views of North Kent and the occasional presence of industrial shipping.
The grey concrete wall suddenly became a sky blue as I approached the south side of the island. It was a welcome sight to the darkening sky that was threatening rain, as was the small ochre-coloured sandy beach at Thorney Bay, where I could run on the still damp, compacted sand. A row of potted palm trees standing against the flood wall marked the start of the Western Esplanade, where there were a few people walking and benches for people to sit at regular intervals. This led to the midpoint section of the seafront at Labworth Beach, site of the amazing Labworth Café, a modernist International style reinforced concrete building built in 1932–1933 by the engineer Ove Arup. The restaurant was closed so I was not tempted to stop for a cup of tea and I continued onto the Eastern Esplanade and the eastern part of the seafront called Concord Beach. Here there were a series of distinctive colourful murals, from a project commissioned and funded by the National Lottery and completed by artists and locals that tell the story of the 1953 floods and the subsequent building of the sea wall. I enjoyed seeing this piece of local history in a flash as I ran past, which really well done and I hope it remains well-maintained. There were the odd fragments of previous, less-well conceived murals as I continued to the end of the esplanade, where the distinctive blue paint on the wall abruptly ran out and the wall returned to its concrete grey. Here, the view ahead was of the yacht club and marina on the turn into Oyster Creek, which would be the start of the final section of my run following the east side of the island.
I was really tiring now and with still about 5 miles to complete, I was beginning to struggle, but determined to continue. The turn into the creek was unkempt and on very rough, dry ground. As I approached the marina, the route on the outside (estuary side) of the wall ended and I had to follow the path on the inside. This took me around the marina and the other side of the creek and to Hadleigh Ray, a wider creek, leading in from the estuary at Two Tree Island, into Benfleet and East Haven Creek. This part of the route was a contrast of wild grassy marshland that made up the shores of the creek on the other side of the flood wall on my right, whilst on my left there densely-packed rows of identical houses that lined the edge of the island’s residential area. By this time I was half running and half walking and just wanted to get through this run; the last 2-3 miles alongside the golf-course seemed dreary and interminable. Finally, I could see trains in the distance coming into Benfleet station and I knew it wouldn’t be too long before I was there. As I approached the station I checked my Garmin watch that told me I had completed almost 15 miles.