The Story of Canvey Island I

The Days of Long Ago

The old folks say this Island used to be
A sea of cornfields circled by the sea;
With here and there the farmsteads scattered wide
Like boats becalmed upon the golden tide.

Old Bell, the Thatcher can recall the day
When, three-score years ago, he made his way
From farm to farm to roof them with his reeds,
A simple emblem of their simple needs:

When plodding on, his willows on his back,
Mile after mile he trod the field-path track;
The only sounds to wake the drowsy morn
The lark’s glad chorus and the rustling corn:

When alone alive on land or sea
Amid the gathering night he seemed to be
A spell of awe lay on him like a thrall
Till broken by the wild-fowl’s strident call.

Old Bell the Thatcher still recalls the time
When, tired of play, a youngster he would climb
His grandsire’s knee beside the log-fire’s glow
And bid him tell the tales of long ago:

Of how the Dutchmen came to save the lands
And made the mighty wall: how still it stands
A rampart raised against the ocean’s strength
To guard the land within its tortuous length:

And so he heard how Croppenburg had planned,
And how Vermuyden led the lusty band
Of Lowland labourers beating back the sea
With oaken stake and mud and masonry:

Of how the Dutch, of all the land re-claimed
Retained a third, and in the Isle remained;
Their bond to mend the wall if it were harmed
And keep well-drained the fertile fields they farmed.

The round Dutch cottage, which the youngster knew
Echoed again its builder’s wooden shoe;
And as the old man talked the boy once more
Could see the Dutchman sitting at the door;

His patched-up breeches and his baggy blouse,
And by his side his stolid white-capped spouse;
While from the window laughed their little Jan
And baby Pietken round the building ran.

The boy looked grave as Grandad told him then
Of feuds between the Dutch and English men;
Of bitter battles wherein blood was spilt
Beside the wooded church the Dutch had built;

The church which was, by irony of fate,
Burnt by their kinsmen at a later date
When Dutch commanders’ wily stratagems
Brought raiding warships sailing up the Thames.

For part II click here

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