Canvey Island Memories.
I was taken to Canvey for my annual fortnights’ holiday each August from my first year until I was 12 years old. In the war there was only my mother and myself, and as I have no memory of that time, I can’t be sure we went every year, of course. Here is a photo of me in 1939 on the front lawn of Goodmayes Lodge with my grandmothers dog Tony. After the war I accepted without question that ‘Daddy doesn’t like holidays, so he’ll just take us and visit at weekends’, not realising that they could not afford for him to take time off work. He was a self employed window cleaner after the war, his pre-war employer being unable to offer him a job on his return to civilian life. Below is a rare photo of him relaxing on the front lawn outside the bungalow. How formal we were then!
Going to Canvey was an adventure I enjoyed every year. We would pack the suitcases, and all get on the bus at the corner of East End Road, right outside our home; we lived in Finchley, North London. Daddy mostly came with us, and came back either the following day if we went on a Saturday, or possibly the same day, as it was ok for a day trip. We would get out of the bus and walk along to Fenchurch Street station. As we approached there would be exciting noises of shunting trains, and great belches of black smoke, and the sounds alone were a thrill to me. Down lots of steps we would go, onto the platform, and maybe there would be an express train through before ours came, rushing past with a great deal of noise and puffing of steam, but often our train was the next one in. It would puff gently to a stop, and we would all get into one carriage. Sometimes there would be a corridor train, but not often, mostly you were in one carriage. There were pictures in long frames above our heads, of all the fascinating places you could visit by train. I can remember climbing onto the seat to look properly at these photos, balancing precariously as the train rattled along (this was probably shortly before they discovered my short sight!) It was very noisy, and we had to remember to shut the windows before we got to any tunnels, if we knew they were coming, because it was nasty when all the black smoke came into the carriage. It was very dirty anyway, I always had black hands from the upholstery after a journey. There was a loud clackety clack as the train went over the tracks. We rushed through some stations, and stopped at others, soon getting to fields and seeing cattle by the track, and fields of corn and wheat waving in the wind of the trains. The land was flat as we approached our station, with dykes across full of water. When we arrived at Benfleet we would get out and walk across a sort of bridge – these things are coming out, I’m not all that sure of this! – across water, to an open space covered in gravel or something similar, where a bus waited. The ones we got on were not like those in London, they were green, not red, and when we went upstairs, which we always did because I wanted to, the seats were long, with a corridor just along the one side, as you came up the stairs. You had to edge along from this passage to get to the seats by the window, where I liked to sit.
There were lots of dykes, full of glistening water, and mud, and little wiggly water ways, and a long bridge across to the Island. I think! There was one long straight road, and on the way, as we approached a bend, we passed a little round house that always fascinated me. The Dutch House, I think. Then we would arrive at our stop, right outside Goodmayes Lodge, and walk along to the little gate, open it, and walk across the little bridge over the ditch beside the walk way. Another gate on the other side to open, then a long garden path made of crazy paving, with roses and almond trees on one side and the lawn in the middle – another path went up the other side of the lawn. Probably Tibbles would be in our way, or come to greet us – Nan’s cat was very old when she died, I think I was in my late teens.
The following photo were taken on a very hot day in 1946, when Nan asked us to help her to spread out her recently cut grass to dry. She had a large area at the back which was just rough grass. I’ve no idea why this drying of grass was considered necessary, I was a complete ignoramus about gardens as we didn’t have one, but I just thought it was fun.
By this time, aged 8 as I was, I would have already been wandering far and wide from the bungalow, as when on holiday there I explored the streets and along the paths to the beach, all by myself. I crossed the road (Long Road), and almost opposite was a turning. This road was new, I think, as it was concrete, and like the road where we now live in Essex (when this was built it reminded me of Canvey, the whiteness of it). There was grass, and bungalows widely spaced apart; I think I turned into a road across, and then took a straight again, and then was on a field path, with a dyke beside me. This led to ThorneyBay, where there were little streams going down to the beach of mud and shells. I think there was an old hut or something, but there was definitely a sluice across a little stream where the water was regulated. I used to get into the water on the deep side of the sluice, and had many imaginary adventures around there. There were little waterways and sort of islands of mud, and lots of space. I sometimes met other children, and maybe joined in a game or two, but I don’t remember much of that, I just remember playing by myself in the creeks and in the salt flats, and on the shell beaches, and on the playing fields in the area near The Haystack pub. I was quite happy alone, and made up all sorts of games.
I walked for miles (probably not, as I was only little, but for quite long distances along the sea walls in each direction.). I had no watch – so how I remembered when to go home I have no idea now – ask grown ups I suppose, because there were no public clocks here either! Maybe I just used the feelings of hunger. I would have asked my mother how she was with all this when I grew up, if the thought had ever occurred to me! I just think people did not worry about children so much, they had to learn to cope with life and maybe the first explorations were with my mother and grandmother when I was very little, and it was a natural progression. All I know is that I remember lots of incidents, and I was alone. Being an only child, I suppose, accounted for being happy with my own company on holiday. I used to have a little leather purse on a string round my neck, that when at school carried my dinner sixpence at that time, and on holidays carried my savings that I had brought with me, and I would sometimes go down to the shops to buy some sweets. The weather could not have been idyllic, because I was in my swimming costume one day ( it was one of those made of ordinary cotton and with shirring elastic, in little squares, there was no Lycra in those days), and a lady was horrified ‘Aren’t you cold little girl?’ She said. ‘No I’m not, thank you’, said I, and went on my way. I remember, I was at the shops down by ‘The Haystack’ at the time, probably about to buy a comic with my money, as I was outside the newsagents. (Gosh, how do I remember that, it just came out!). When I was at Canvey I often wore my costume most of the time, I had no shorts, and preferred having bare legs and no skirt flapping around.
I do also have fond recollections of family picnics, and outings all together – mind you, ‘all’ was usually only Nan, Mummy and me, I don’t remember there being anyone else. One I particularly remember was when we took a meal out one Sunday. The wind was blowing hard, and there was no sun. When we stopped for our picnic, at a place I think might have been called the point or something like that, we found a place that afforded some protection from the wind, right down on the beach behind one of the groins, and I was a bit higher than the others so was still in the wind. Wow, it nearly blew me over! But Nan unwrapped the food, and got out her big carving knife to cut up the joint of mutton she had cooked. I’d never seen a whole joint like that (rationing, I suppose). Ooooh, it was lovely! Great big pieces of meat, and bread thickly buttered. That’s all I remember, and for that to stay, it must have been a rare treat!
Every evening Grandpa would come home from ‘The Office’, and I suppose they had their dinner then, but all I remember is hiding under the table with the edges of the chenille cloth dangling around me, while the grownups got the cards out for a game. The lamp would be lit, as they didn’t have electricity in the bungalow, and I loved the light from that – sort of gentle and mysterious, and I fondly imagined that they would forget about me under the table. I liked the smell, too. I would look at all the interesting things Nan had in her vast sideboard, where there were cubby-holes galore between all the drawers and cupboards at my level near the floor. As I grew older I would curl up in the big armchair by the fire, watching, and keep still as a mouse, but all too soon mummy would say ‘time for bed’, and I would be got ready, and a candle would be lit to take me to my bedroom. When I was younger, this was the little room leading from the kitchen, which was warm and cosy, and had a smaller bed. The fluffed up feather bed was so high when I climbed into it, and I sank right in – ooh, lovely. It was always warm, because Nan would put one of the copper warming pans in it before she put me in. The candle was, I think, taken away, and a night light left for me. When I woke in the morning I could usually hear sounds in the kitchen next door, where the black-leaded range took up a whole wall directly opposite my bedroom door. Then Nan would come in with the pitcher of warm water for me to have my morning wash, which as I grew up of course I attended to myself, pouring the water into the basin and taking my flannel and towel from the wash-stand. What luxury, to be able to wash in my own bedroom! There was only the one tap in the house, if I recall correctly, but now I try to remember where that was, I can’t – was it inside the house or outside? She did have a flush toilet, just outside the back door, liberally occupied by big and little spiders, but of course no one was expected to go out there very late at night. There were pots beneath every bed, which the grownups disposed of in the morning, but mummy took mine out for me if I had needed to go before others were up. A clean white cloth was laid ready with which to cover the pot and its contents if it was used.
Also outside the back door at Nan’s , which was just next to my bedroom door, was the meat safe, which was a wooden cupboard with a fine metal mesh on the door, into which Nan put her meat when she bought it from the butcher, or after she had cooked it. There were always a great many flies buzzing around it, maybe hopeful there would be a gap they could get through! I always think of buzzing flies when I think of the bungalow, and the fly paper that hung in the kitchen and over the dining table (ugh!). That was summer to me. But also, the noisy crickets in the grass, they never gave up, either, that was also a constant in our summer holiday sounds, along with the bees, and the different birds.
I loved the bungalow. To me it seemed the height of luxury to have so many rooms, and one of the front rooms led straight onto the veranda. The front door did as well, but that was permanently closed, with a sofa blocking it completely. Here was a proper room, furnished with huge settees, each covered in cushions and blanket-like covers, with a rug on the floor, a table in the centre, and a complete side missing, looking out onto the big front lawn. It was very rarely that the rain was in the direction to come into the veranda, and I would be out there on every rainy day that I did not go exploring, with books and crayons and toys. It was the general every-day room, we used it a great deal. A lot of the rooms in the bungalow had no real purpose, now I look back, and were not used at all, I just walked through them and looked at the furniture and the pictures sometimes, but even in the summer the empty rooms seemed cold.
Sometimes the fair would come to the big field opposite the shops, down past the Haystack on the corner, and I used to love the swinging boats, I always saved some of my pennies in case the fair people turned up during our stay. I liked the roundabout with the big dancing horses too, but I don’t remember going with grownups very often, I usually walked down by myself I think, I preferred it that way. It was fascinating to think how the gypsies lived, travelling from place to place all the time, such a very different lifestyle to my own, and I would sometimes chat to them.
We did do things together, my mummy and Big Nan and me, like walking along the sea wall till we got to a café -or maybe it was a pub, and we would stop for our lunch maybe, or just for a drink. Then they would settle on the beach while I would have a swim or a paddle. I always loved the water, and I had learned to swim at school. If I was with them we often went to the Monica (was that its name?-something like that) and they would have a cup of tea for a treat, rather than a drink they had carried from home.
Grandpa went to work every morning, in his dark pin-striped suit and bowler hat, walking up the garden path just in time to catch the bus to the station, and every evening at the same time he would return. He always carried a walking stick but didn’t use it, it seemed to be just a decoration. A treat for me was when he took us to his club, which was down past the Haystack, along opposite the field, by the shops, and turn right and right again, in a hall there, and we watched him play billiards. I was allowed to try with his cue, and I was told I was very good. I got quite keen to learn. We must have gone several times, because I remember the walk there, and the hall, and could probably find my way there now, if those roads even existed! The thing I did not like was when I had to kiss Grandpa ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, I could not stand his horrid prickly moustache. It was stiffened with pomade, and was slightly yellow, and smelled horrid – the tobacco he smoked, of course. He would bend down from his great height and – yuk! He always wore a gold Hunter watch, on a chain which hung across his waistcoat (and his paunch).
Our regular holidays ceased after the one in 1950 for various reasons, though we went back to visit my mother’s step-mother frequently. I believe my grandfather died in about 1948 but have no memory of this, nor found a record anywhere. I find it surprising that I remember so much from such a short, early time in my life!
You can read Audrey’s Quest here