Exploring Upper Horse Island
No-one visits Upper Horse Island. To the uninitiated, walking along the banks of Holehaven Creek, it appears to be just another nondescript mud bank. Yet local legend states there was once a Roman fort here and satellite imagery clearly shows rectangular earthworks, encompassing a pattern of shallow symmetrical channels.
Holehaven Creek features in the tales of Pepys, Dickens and Conrad and has a rich history of smugglers, explosive hulks and quarantined plague ships. But it was the stories of the Roman fort that drew the attention of Liam and Joe, who run popular website Beyond the Point, dedicated to exploring local history. So they dug out old maps, consulted archaeologists and reached out to their large readership to see if anyone knew more. Someone sent them drone footage of the island. And yet, as far as we could tell, no one had gone ashore to explore and look for traces of Romans habitation. So we hatched a plan to paddle there in packrafts, which are easily carried in rucksacks and have a shallow draft ideal for exploring muddy inlets, only accessible at certain states of the tide.
On a cold, but sunny, January morning we met at the Lobster Smack pub and then hiked a couple of kilometres up the creek, until we were opposite the island. A few minutes later we had unrolled the packrafts, inflated them and had started to paddle towards Upper Horse (apparently horse is a local name for an island or mud bank).
With only half an hour before the tide turned, we waded through the shallows, clambered up onto the banks, and began a casual search for anything that might give us clues. Unsurprisingly, we didn't stumble across Roman gold, but did find old bottles and bricks, which indicated the island had been inhabited at some stage. The bricks were in the south corner near a smudge on an ancient map that could have once been a building. As we walked the rectangular grassy bank, Liam noticed it was constructed of chalk, in a similar manner to the dykes that the Dutch had built across Canvey Island.
This potentially dated the banks to around 1600. So they weren’t Roman, but it raised the question, why would someone employ Dutch engineers and expend such effort, to raise a small rectangular parcel of land out of the the sea, in a quiet isolated creek? It’s possible there was some form of raised island or earthworks that the Dutch built upon, but until archaeologists examine the site, we will probably never know.
A seal shadowed Liam and Joe as we caught the ebb tide away from the island, paddling under disused oil jetties that crisscrossed the creek.
Corytown Oil Refinery, which hems the western side of the creek, occupies the site of a former explosives factory called Kynoch Town named after its owner. A hundred years ago, the land was still marshy and uninhabited which made it ideal for the manufacture of unstable dynamite. Explosives were stored in rotting hulks with names like the Swift, Amy, Mineroa and Pilgrim, that were in such disrepair that questions were asked in parliament and the factory was eventually shut down. Over time the name was corrupted from Kynoch Town to Coryton and oil replaced explosives.
Samuel Pepys mentions the creek in a diary entry from November 1663. He describes a plague sweeping through Amsterdam and ships from Holland being quarantined here in the creek for 30 days. The dead and the dying, tucked just out of sight of London.
We paddled on past murmurations of migrating birds, eventually returning to the Lobster Smack pub at the mouth, which is the oldest building on Canvey Island and the confluence of many tales.
Charles Dickens has Magwitch and Pip row out to the pub, to wait surreptitiously for a ship to carry Magwitch out of the country. Smugglers over the years have also used the pub and creek. As ships sailed or steamed past, a small cutter could row out, take on a cargo under cover of darkness and be back within the shelter of the creek in no time. Comparative isolation amongst the marshes, yet proximity to great ships plying their trade in and out of London, has clearly been formative in the history of the creek.
Conrad lived nearby for a time and knew the area well. The Lobster Smack was a favourite of his and he often sailed his friend’s yacht, called the Nellie, around the creek and estuary. Indeed the opening scene of Heart of Darkness is largely based on his time on this yacht, with his friends yarning and telling tales as they waited for the tide to turn.
The book begins with Marlow telling a story to his friends as they wait on the Nellie, anchored within sight of both Gravesend and Chapman's Lighthouse and watching the mist drift over the Essex Marshes.
'And this also' said Marlow suddenly, 'has been one of the dark places of the earth.
'I was thinking of the old times when the Romans first came here... Imagine the feeling of a fine commander of a trireme, imagine him here at the very end of the world. A sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke and sandbanks, marshes, forest and savages.
'Here and there a military camp lost in the wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay.’