Age: Two millennia. The first settlement on the island was somewhere between a misty-eyed AD 50 and AD 250. Fast forward a few hundred years and the area gets a massive PR plug in the Domesday Book. And by the 17th century, canny Dutch workers are starting to settle, after being gifted land as payment for the building of dykes and other sea defences (fascinating fact: even now a third of Canvey’s streets have Dutch origin).
When did it become a resort? By Victorian times, inevitably rechristened Canvey-on-sea, with the briny air promoted for its healing properties, while a smart new seafront was developed in the 1930s. Like Margate or Broadstairs, the island soared in popularity until the decline of the package holiday in the 1970s.
Where exactly is it? It lies a handy 30 miles east of London and 15 miles west of Southend, separated from the mainland by various scenic creeks (nearest station: Benfleet).
So what goes on there? In brief, incredible views: if time is of the essence, as it was on our Saturday visit, walk the length of the Eastern Esplanade on sandy Concord Beach, with its long colourful, evocative mural depicting the devastating 1953 floods. Then enjoy more industrial vistas in the wilder west of the island, where the sea meets the boggy marshes.
I need refreshments. Of course you do: for a pot of coffee with a dazzling aspect, head to the modernist Labworth Café, a 1932 art deco building (see main pic, above) designed by Ave Orup, whose other works include the famous Penguin Pool at London Zoo. The menu offers breakfast, sandwiches and typical seaside fare, plus a changing chalked-up specials board, which we had our eye on for next time. It’s fully licensed too for a glass of vino to sip as you watch the elements. There’s also an evenings-only smarter restaurant upstairs, where two courses cost £25.
What about a pub? Well then, a ten-minute drive around the coast brings you to the ancient Lobster Smack, at the southwest corner of the island. Dating back to the 17th century, it’s a weatherboarded gem, mentioned by Dickens in Great Expectations, with low ceilings and cosy corners, although we were disappointed that the inglenook wasn’t lit on our frosty blue-sky visit. The food is well-priced pub grub: our mains cost less than a tenner, a chicken and bacon pie with mash and greens proving a better bet than scampi and chips. Outside the terrace is a proper sun trap, although you have to climb the grassy bank and hop over the sea wall to get the atmospheric view of the flats.
Heck, there must be a story or two there. Yep, it was a haunt for smugglers who would wait for the boats, then slip out of the back door directly onto the sea wall. With no coast guards to detain them, they’d hurry their booty onto the mainland to the south. Scamps.
What else can I do? The Canvey Island Heritage centre is a small arts centre and folk museum in the centre of the village housed in the former St Katherine’s Church, which dates back to 1874, while the extremely photogenic 17th century Dutch Cottage, at Canvey Road, is home to a museum. Both have sporadic opening hours so check before you visit (they were closed on Saturday afternoon in late Jan).
There are also windswept walks at Canvey Wick Nature Reserve and the Country Park, plus all the fun of the fair at Leisure Island Amusement Park (closed for winter).
Where can I stay? We did a day trip, but your best bet for an overnighter on the island may be the Oysterfleet Hotel, which has a restaurant overlooking the lake in the centre of Canvey. Failing that, Southend and Leigh-on-Sea are moments away (read our guide to the latter here)..