20th March 2015
It is a dark, cloudy morning, and the darkness is deepened by the solar eclipse that peaks as we pass through Hanningfield. We drive along the southern side of the Crouch estuary. Battlesbridge, Hullbridge, Canewdon. A few days later, I’m telling my neighbour, The Warden, about our trip to Wallasea. ‘I haven’t been to Wallasea for years’ he says, ‘it’s a bit out of the way.’ And he is not wrong. Ebb Tide texts us to say where he is parked on the island whilst I, with Secret Informant in the passenger seat, am floundering down a narrow lane with only the vaguest sense of direction. There is a small direction sign for Wallasea outside Canewdon and I believe this may be the only one in existence anywhere. The problem being first, to find Canewdon.
All this could be about to change, for Wallasea Island is being re-branded ‘The Wallasea Wild Coast Project’. The Essex coast has a reputation for being inhospitable to migrants, after all it includes Clacton-on-Sea, the first place in the country to have been misguided enough to vote in a UKPC M.P. If the migrants have feathers and wings however and perhaps a penchant for wading in muddy estuaries, it is a different thing entirely and the Essex coast welcomes them with open arms, not to mention high spec binoculars, zoom lenses and tick charts. Wallasea is being developed into an avian hotspot and we have come here to have a nose at what they are doing
We last came here almost three years ago. At the car park the sea wall is about twenty feet high. As we walk the couple of miles along the wall it changes to about two foot high on the landward side. This is because the entire east end of the island, an acreage that I couldn’t begin to estimate, is being filled in with spoil from the Crossrail project, the railway line linking east and west London.
The earth makes its way from the cutting head of the drilling machine along a conveyor belt to a boat which comes to Wallasea where London is unloaded onto another conveyor belt, tipped into a pile and spread over the island by fleets of earth-moving behemoths. So as we walk, we are looking at the subsoil of Whitechapel and Farringdon. There is promotional footage of large drilling machines and enthusiastic engineers here.
But what of the birds? Another neighbour, Millwall Montague, had told us that there were plenty of short-eared owls to be seen. As we walk the two or three miles along the sea wall, we do not spot any. Four egrets, looking supremely indifferent to all the activity that is being carried out on their behalf, and puzzlingly, at the far end of the sea wall, a kite-style bird scarer. To stop them nesting while the work is being carried out, opines Secret Informant.
No short-eared owls on the walk but as we return to the car, there is one flying over the fields fifty yards away. As we leave the island, another comes across the sea wall and swoops over the car.