From the Pencils of Babes and Innocents.

Reminiscence by Bernard White.

As I press on into my dotage, events from the early nineteen-seventies, nearly fifty years ago, keep floating to the surface of my memory bank. Many years ago we kept our modest family sloop Growler, at Burnham-on-Crouch. The majority of our summer weekends were spent pottering seawards with our two young daughters, Clare and Lucy who, at the time I am recalling, would have been around seven and five years old respectively.

I’m not sure that the girls entirely shared our enthusiasm for sailing so we had to find ways of keeping them amused and stave off boredom. One such scheme which carried with it a frisson of forbidden naughtiness was to visit Foulness Island which lies at the mouth of the River Crouch. The island is separated from the mainland by the Rivers Thames, Roach and Crouch to the south, west and north respectively: to the east is the North Sea. Being barely above sea level, at certain states of the tide the island is fragmented into several smaller islands by a proliferation of natural creeks and maintained drainage ditches.

Foulness is predominantly farmland with a diminishing resident civilian
population of only around 150 souls in its 9 square miles. It’s the largest of the Essex islands and the fourth largest island off the coast of England, The island’s sparse human population allows a wide range of wildlife to flourish and together with the adjoining Foulness and Maplin Sands is an internationally important site for migrating and breeding birds: interestingly the name Foulness is derived from old English fugla næsse meaning ‘bird headland’. Foulness is certainly not an ordinary island.

But, what made our (and many other naughty yachtsmen from Burnham) visits to Foulness a mini-adventure? It was because we knew that although not actually breaking the law, we shouldn’t be there. Foulness Island is owned by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and used for testing a variety of armaments, missiles, torpedoes and ballistics which can be discharged out to sea.

The sole road access to Foulness Island is strictly controlled by Ministry of Defence (MOD) security police, via a bridge from the mainland, situated several miles south of where we would anchor Growler after entering the River Roach. We then rowed ashore in our dinghy and set foot on Foulness feeling very ‘cloak and dagger’. Visiting Foulness Island provoked a feeling of visiting another country without needing to produce a passport.

For us adults however there was another more esoteric reason for our Sunday visits. Around a mile inland from where we had left Growler, was the small settlement of Churchend where the majority of the local population lived. But as I have already said, we adults had another, less obvious reason for our visits.

Not only did Churchend have a church (now closed and falling into disrepair) and a Post Office but it also had the magnet for our visit – the George and Dragon, a pubic house of immense character, whose primitive facilities truly belonged in another century. Sadly, the George and Dragon closed in 2007, most likely due to the combined effect of a dwindling resident population and increased island surveillance by the MOD.

In those days pub opening times were strictly controlled by law and licensees could lose their license if found guilty of contravention. On Sundays, pub closing times for morning sessions was 2pm with evening sessions from 7 to 10.30pm. However, enforcing opening times on Foulness was not within the remit of the MOD police; who should perhaps be more accurately described as MOD security guards. Since Foulness Island did not have a resident civil police presence, it was as if opening and closing times did not apply to the George and Dragon: this provided a secret pleasure for the few yachtsmen who were wise to this fact. Nonetheless, most of us considered it to be taking unfair advantage and ‘bad form’ to arrive after 2pm although the elderly landlord, Alec (who also enjoyed a serious tipple) was not unhappy to see trade boosted by his ‘out-of-hours regulars' in his normally very quiet tavern. Closing time was usually when the last customer left the premises.

As I recall, Alec had no formal bar staff and when he left the bar (usually to have a rest or because he had consumed too much of his own stock) we, his customers, were permitted to help ourselves and honestly operate the till. Such was the relaxed atmosphere and goodwill among his customers. I’m sure Alec’s trust was never knowingly abused.

Also, in those days children were not allowed to enter licensed premises but again, this regulation was not applied at the George and Dragon. Although, dear reader, you might criticise my judgement for bringing our two young daughters into a den of iniquity, it has to be seen in context. Although the atmosphere was distinctly convivial, it was civilised and never bawdy. The experience certainly did our daughters no transitory or lasting damage  however, on one notable occasion it did result in a modicum of embarrassment to their parents. Read on.

In one corner of the bar there stood a ‘fruit’ (betting) slot machine and a vending machine selling a variety of bagged snacks and sweets. Our girls found these fascinating and soon worked out how to operate them. The latter machine dispensed bags of crisps, and Mars bars etcetera; these were allowed in moderation. On the occasion I am about to describe, both children having had their permitted ration were gazing longingly at the goods on display in the cabinet when a suitably oiled and elderly customer, who was in the process of ‘buying a round’, asked them to point at what they would like. They got their wish, hopefully gave their thanks to their benefactor then showed us what they had been given. Inexplicably Clare had selected a sachet of tomato ketchup and Lucy a sachet of brown sauce!

Another unusual feature of the George and Dragon which provided particular fascination to our impressionable daughters, was the customer lavatories which, I’m sure were unique and arguably a legacy from, or before, the nineteenth century. They were in a building adjoining the pub and constructed with wooden ‘seats’ over a tidal ditch; the ditch therefore was flushed naturally, twice daily, by the flooding and ebbing tides. Unfortunately the ‘flushing’ was not 100% efficient thus allowing a noisome pile of waste matter, resembling a stalagmite, to build up below the seat. Presumably at some point and before the ‘stalagmite’ reached threatening levels, some hapless individual had to dislodge it and encourage the subsequent tidal flows to carry it away. Doesn’t it make one feel thankful for modern sanitation?

Now to reveal the reason for our embarrassment from all those years ago. Actually, it’s my underlying motive for writing this piece. Both Clare’s and Lucy’s primary education was at St Cedd’s School in Chelmsford which we had chosen for its reputation for instilling in its pupils an ethos of academic achievement, discipline, good manners, honesty and correctness; I suppose many would consider St Cedd’s to be old fashioned and rather ‘straight-laced’. But we were not disappointed: the girls turned out to be a credit to us but the honesty contained in one of Clare’s school exercise books, which was on open display at a parents’ evening, did cause our faces to redden.

On the Monday following the visit to Foulness described in this piece, Mrs. Lloyd, Clare’s teacher had asked the children to write an account of their weekend activity. There it was for all to see. Clare’s attention to detail did her credit but provided unintentional opprobrium for us her parents. She had written: “…..we landed on Foulness Island ……… saw hares and herons…………… then we went to the pub where we played on the slot machine and were given chocolate by old men and a man who was drunk bought me some tomato ketchup ..……….. The toilet was…………………..”

Hopefully the staff at St Cedd’s and anyone else, who read Clare’s essay, has now forgotten all about it.

Footnote: After verifying a draft of this article Lucy sent me an email saying that two years later she joined Mrs Lloyd’s class and remembers telling Mrs. Lloyd that we’d just got Sam, a bucking pony - and wondered why Mrs. Lloyd twice asked her to repeat herself. Poor Mrs Lloyd: I hate to think what sort of family she thought we were!

This page was added by Mike Westley on 27/09/2020.
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