Sea kayaking around Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary

by Ian Tokelove
Kayaking along a flat Benfleet Creek past Canvey Island and towards a distant broken wharf

A circumnavigation of Canvey Island by sea kayak, enjoying a contrasting landscape of wildlife, boatyards & oil refineries.

Kayaking along a flat Benfleet Creek past Canvey Island and towards a distant broken wharf

Canvey Island lays to the east of London, separated from the Essex mainland by tidal creeks. Low-lying and walled against tidal surges, much of the island is divorced from the waters which flow around it. The seawalls of the wilder, western edges are great for remote walking, but I also enjoy kayaking here, using the tidal flows of the Thames to circumnavigate the island.

Two Tree Island, just past the railway station at Leigh-on-Sea, provides easy access to the water. The car park is free but expect to pay a launching fee during the summer months (currently £4 per kayak). On warm weekends the car park resounds to the huffing and puffing of foot pumps, as inflatable paddle boards stiffen and swell across the rough concrete parking bays. Model aircraft buzz the air above, launching from a field behind the car park.

Canvey Point

A slipway leads into the shallow and relatively sheltered waters of Hadleigh Ray, from where we paddled out to Canvey Point. Flocks of brent geese, recently flown in from the Arctic tundra, were gathering in elongated rafts offshore.

My friend Karina spotted an exhausted oystercatcher and picked the unresisting bird from the water. With no visible injuries or entanglements there was nothing we could do, so she carefully placed it on the shoreline, from where it stumbled a few paces inland and hunkered down.

Kayaker holding an injured oyster catcher on the deck of her kayak

Oystercatchers can be long-lived birds, if given the chance

The estuary here can be rather exposed, with winds and tides creating a confusing chop, but we’d lucked out with calm waters. Across the Thames, the dark, industrial infrastructure of the Isle of Grain and Sheerness squatted low on the horizon.

Kayakers on the Thames Estuary, with a ribbon of land in the far distance. The sea is flat and the kayakers are smiling

North Kent on the horizon, across the Thames Estuary

The blue, boundary walls of Canvey Island lead to the jetties of an oil storage depot. This facility imports diesel and aviation fuel, the latter feeding major airports such as Stansted, Heathrow and Gatwick. There’s a 60m exclusion zone here, to protect the depot. Back in 1979 the IRA did attempt to blow up a nearby Texaco tank full of aviation fuel, damaging the tank but not igniting it.

Holehaven Creek & Coryton

Turning from the Thames, Holehaven Creek takes us between the western edges of Canvey and the remains of Coryton, a former oil refinery. Lines of empty storage tanks face the creek, dominated by one last standing chimney. Such chimney stacks are now rare along the estuary, most having being demolished with the disused power stations they served. This chimney at least will remain as a landmark, although the refinery will be consumed as a new ‘enterprise centre’ grows across the site.

Kayakers paddle past a distant landscape of oil storage tanks, behind a sea wall

Kayaking along Holehaven Creek and past Coryton. We often see seals here

At the head of Holehaven Creek we spotted, as we always do, several jet skies racing across the tide-swollen waters. There is a strict 8 knot speed limit in these waters, to protect wildlife and reduce bank erosion, but these jet skiers go full throttle. The noise of their machines tears the air and must be unbearable to sensitive marine life. As we got closer, they roared away behind plumes of spray, retreating to their roost at Wat Tyler Marina, where they throttle back and meld with the sailboats and little motorboats.

Flood defence barriers

Two flood defence barriers bridge the headwaters of Holehaven Creek. These had closed behind the jet skiers and were now holding back an unusually high spring tide. Unable to paddle under the East Haven Barrier, we carried our boats over the seawall and down to the creek beyond.

The inland side of the East Haven Barrier. Kayakers stand by the boats they've carried over the sea wall, next to a wide creek that is already flooded with water.

East Haven Creek, inland of the barrier

We paddled on, the channel edged with strands of saltmarsh, mostly submerged in the high tide. A marsh harrier flew overhead, slow but powerful, aiming for the mazed water channels of the neighbouring Bowers Marsh.

Having passed below the Canvey Way road bridge, the rough high tidal mark, we grabbed a quick break on a spit of saltmarsh. The inland shore along this stretch is lined with ramshackle wooden jetties and boats of all descriptions. Many seem abandoned at their moorings, decaying with the passing seasons. Wood smoke rose from a cabin stove but there was no movement, other than the lap of water against the tideline.

An old pleasure boat on East Haven Creek, the windows have no glass and the paint has peeled from its hull

Work in progress or abandoned to decay? 

Salvation Army Wharf

Returning to the water, a fast, falling tide took us below the main Canvey Road bridge and through another flood barrier, now open to Benfleet Creek. In the distance, beyond the creek-side moorings, the black timbers of Salvation Army Wharf rose from the calm, mirror-like water.

Salvation Army Wharf on Benfleet Creek. About 20 squared timber posts rise from the creek by the shoreline. They are reflected in the still water.

Salvation Army Wharf had fallen into disuse by 1920, one hundred years ago

In the early 1900s a rail line ran from here to the Salvation Army Colony & Brickworks, based inland at Hadleigh. Outgoing barges were laden with the locally made bricks, while others brought in cargoes of London waste, to fuel the brickwork fires and fertilise the colony fields. These were genuine colonists undertaking training, supported by the Salvation Army, to learn farming and other skills, before emigrating to British colonies.

Beyond the disused wharf, we returned to Two Tree Island. As with so much of the Thames Estuary coastline, much of the island has risen from landfill, dumped across what was then Leigh Marsh. We kayaked slowly to the slipway, bathing in the low autumnal light, relishing one last warm day before the sharp bite of coming winter.

Kayakers gliding across flat water towards two moored boats, with golden light in the background reflecting from the water

Calm waters nearing dusk at Hadleigh Ray

At the car park, a new audience gathers as the daylight fades. Cars and young people knot in small groups of music and laughter. A strong tang of marijuana doses the air. We’re here for different reasons but we’re all having fun.

More information

We undertook this trip as experienced, well-equipped paddlers in sea kayaks in October 2020. We set off roughly three hours before high tide and took about five hours to complete this unrushed circumnavigation. Thanks to Barbara, Karina and Carolyn for kayaking alongside me and to Andy for kindly lending me his boat.

Please note that strong tidal flows, wind, waves and river traffic can present significant hazards to paddlers. This is only intended as a rough guide for experienced kayakers. Canvey Island can also be circumnavigated on foot, an equally rewarding experience.

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