Island Adventures on Tomahawks

Pre-teenagers need space for exploration and risk-taking, which shapes our social skills. I had a whole island to explore.

Canvey qualifies as an Island, separated from the Essex County mainland by creeks spilling out into the Thames Estuary.

Canvey Island is a flat landscape close to sea level, of seaside holidays, petrochemical storage and today, more pleasingly, nature reserves. Canvey was also the location of my Grandparents timber framed bungalow in the 1970s. Next door to the more prosperous Southend-on-Sea, Canvey Island is the Deep South of England, a Blues Delta next to the North Sea – as described by Wilko Johnson in Oil City Confidential, a 2009 Julian Temple film about Canvey’s renegade rockers Dr Feelgood.

I felt a buzz of excitement when, at the end of the school week (or term), my Dad would be picking me up and driving us down to Canvey for the weekend. There’d be a nervy, anticipated knock at the door, then I’d slip out with a few packed things, my Dad waiting by the elevator. My Mother preferred not to greet my Dad, these were awkward moments for them, long since separated. However, as an 8 year old my thoughts were focused solely on the adventures ahead, riding a Tomahawk with stop-offs at Canvey Casino amusements.

My Grandparents kept a room for me, that I shared with cousins who visited at different times. On arrival at their bungalow I’d find a tobacco tin on the dressing table, filled with loose change, a few pounds, but a fortune.

Canvey Island

My Raleigh Tomahawk, ideal transport for island adventures. Canvey Casino amusements arcade next to Crazy Golf course and Canvey Promenade.

Parents today would go crazy at the thought of their children roaming free, often a mile or two from home. It’s even harder for single-parent families, like my own, to control the movements of their offspring, particularly when they can’t afford child minders. I was not a difficult child, but I was eager to explore and hated being cooped up for too long in a council flat. My Dad’s parents were more liberal than my Mother’s. I could get away with more so naturally I pushed my luck. The Canvey Island adventures became evermore risky. I had also befriended a local boy and we became a pint-sized Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper from Easy Rider on Raleigh Tomahawks.

We did all kinds of mischief, everything you are instructed not to do in the public information films of the mid-1970s. Throwing a frisbee over electricity pylons, climbing into disused military bunkers and talking to strangers. However, we became street wise, could smell trouble and had bikes to escape. My friend on Canvey had a solid family unit while I was tougher from living on a London council estate. Canvey Island became our adventure park with few dangers from speeding traffic.

This was an age of climate change ignorance. A significant part of the island housed fossil fuel storage, the entire region a ticking time bomb. However, the oil and gas giants were still highly secretive about long-term damage.

Austin Healey, Canvey Island

An Austin Healey Sprite like my Dad’s, holiday homes near oil and gas tankers and a loose change booth for Canvey Casino’s penny machines.

Our first bike stop on Saturday mornings, after watching Sesame Street and reruns of the George Reeves’s 1950s Superman, was the amusement arcade. Popular music of the day like Rock Your Baby by George McCrae, echoed loudly around the interior as fairground workers switched on the dodgem cars. We were mainly interested in the Penny Falls machines. By the time Canvey Casino had filled up with holidaymakers or clubbers later in the day, we were homeward bound for tea.

Pre-teenagers inhabit a unique world of innocence, without judgement and adult fears (or alcohol problems). Sunday afternoon signalled home-time, a return to school life with my Mum and council estate buddies. My Grandad would hand me a fifty-pence piece, as my Dad ran me home in his Austin Healey Sprite.

That my Dad had moved back with his parents on Canvey Island in the mid-1970s proved a bonus for me. The break from home life widened my social circle, I experienced a foreign adventure, as wealthier kids would do on holidays abroad. My Grandad had long since stopped driving and also owned a bicycle for trips to the library. He bought me the second-hand Tomahawk, then my Dad splashed out on a cutting edge Raleigh Grifter, forerunner to the BMX design. The Grifter was to be ridden into the ground, well into my teenage years, around the streets and fields of my hometown Hornchurch. Strangely I have not owned a bicycle since then. I lost the habit very quickly, it was easier to catch a tube or bus when carrying a guitar case around London.

Eastbourne Coast

Coastal erosion near Pevensey Bay with footpath and cycle lanes providing a healthier, scenic route towards Eastbourne Pier and the Town Centre.

I hope to cycle again. It’s about habit forming, but I love the simplicity of walking. Roads are more dangerous today, even for adults. There’s a cycle lane and footpath along the seafront, stretching right up to Eastbourne Pier, a posher version of Canvey Island. Including Brighton, I’ve now lived next to the ocean for nearly ten years, the seaside reminds me of trips to Canvey. There is a skate park nearby where kids now ride scooters, though it’s noticeable that the parents are always watching on. Why?

Kids need space to explore, take a few risks even, because it’s experience that helps you develop social skills. For all the negatives of having divorced parents, I can draw some positive outcomes from being less fussed over.

I returned to Canvey Island briefly in the mid-1990s to claim a modest amount of inheritance money from my late Grandmother. By then I was completely broke. I spent most of the money on a Marshall JCM900 guitar amplifier. Any change leftover went on a stack of vinyl albums I had not been able to afford. My Grandparents were always practical in what they gave me, even in death. They and my Dad bought me the bicycles, with the foresight that I’d use them for exploration and adventure. And later, with their help from afar, I owned a powerful piece of musical equipment that took me on new adventures around the music venues of London and the South East.

What were your own childhood adventures that shaped your outlook on life, did you take risks? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

I recommend the website, packed full of social history and music connections including Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac) and Dr Feelgood.