Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Foulness Island

A closer look at Foulness Island by Tony Smith

Havengore Bridge is part of the only road onto Foulness Island. Enter at your own risk
As The Tide slowly ebbs over the wide mudflats that spread east from the shore of the remote Island of Foulness, brent geese and avocet congregate. They come on mass with other wading birds to gorge undisturbed on invertebrate that enrich this quiet corner of our coastline. Saltmarsh covers many areas here to and is where sea-plants such as sea lavender, sea purslane can be found. They decorate the tide lines along with the cockle shells and bladder wrack that also proliferate. 
   The Island is bounded by a series of creeks and rivers that spread inland to encircle and isolate it from its four smaller neighbouring islands and from the mainland. Shelford and Yokesfleet Creek's with their bathing and bronzed seals is bound to the south, the River Roach flows to the west and the River Crouch to the north, with the Thames Estuary and North Sea to the east. Close by are New England, Havengore and Narrow Cuts creek’s.
The beautifully wild and captivating New England Creek
bisects Foulness's immediate neighbours Havengore and New England Island
  It wasn’t until the 1920s that the Island could be reached by a proper road after the building of its first bridge from the mainland spanning Havengore Creek to Havengore Island thus connecting the small communities of Chuchend and Courtsend. Before this access was limited to the Broomway, an ancient tidal road that crossed the fabled Maplin Sands to reach the headlands along the Islands eastern shore.     Visitors could also reach the island by boat, landing at one of the Island quays such as in the River’s Roach and Crouch, or in Shelford Creek. During this time the Thames sailing barge was also a vital link for islanders taking supplies to and from the Island.
  Due to this relative isolation the Island has had few inhabitants, but during the 15th century the handful of Sheppard’s and fishermen that chose to live here worked land and sea in harmony. Eel fishing and wildfowling also became everyday activities on the Island and while elsewhere on our coast ancient fish traps or ‘Kettles’ as they were also known date back to Saxon times, this form of kettle fishing was still in use by Foulness fishermen during the early 20th Century. These traps were built not too far from the shore, on the mudflats. Rows of stakes were driven in forming a V shape and covered by netting so that on the retreating tide fish species such as flounders, dabs and sole would be trapped.  A line of stakes were also driven in to show a safe passage across the mud back to the shore. At low tide the trapped fish would be recovered by hand by the Kettle owners. Wool and dairy farming was also an important industry on the Island too and it is known that sheep grazed the marshlands for centuries. 
The George and Dragon public house
Word spread of the Islands fertile soil and by 1871 the population had risen to 754 people living in 127 houses. Today there are less than 200 people living on the Island.  Another important aspect of Island life was the village church. St Marys Church has suffered from subsidence and has had to be abandoned as its steeple now leans dangerously to one side.  Sadly the church closed its doors for the last time in June 2010.
 The Island was known for its two public houses and although today the two pubs have been closed, due to too few inhabitants, one of these was The Kings Head,  there was a third licence granted. This pub operated for the duration of the Napoleonic wars.

  More recently the notable wooden clad two-story George and Dragon public house closed in 2007, and was a regular stop for visiting mariners who after mooring at The Quay in the River Roach would often ring ahead for the landlord to open up especially for their arrival. How’s that for service!
  The pub was built in the 17th century but it was during the early 19th century that one of its more memorable licensees kept order of the house. As well as pulling pints he was a revered bare knuckle pugilist who would take on many of his opponents, one of them described as a ‘marsh waller’, in the small garden directly in front of the pub.   The Islands only school closed in 1988 due to lack of pupils but was reopened as the Foulness Heritage Centre in 2003.
 The Island is currently owned by the MOD and forms part of the Shoeburyness Artillery Range. Public access is restricted to its empty roads and many peculiar structures that lay behind the high seawalls and fences continuing to evoke mystery and intrigue in those who pass its shores.
The slightly leaning St Marys Church

Entering the Island from The Quay in the River Roach
The Island Post Office

 By boat one can still land at The Quay and walk to Churchend but is advised to keep to the main path and roads. There are other ways to gain entry to the Island. One of them an annual bike ride, another is by visiting
The Foulness Island Heritage Centre which is open to the public on the first Sunday of the month during summertime. On these occasions special clearance is obtained from security guards to enter the Island.