Island hopping in Essex

Monday 25th October 2021

Following my recent outing to Sheppey and Grain on the north Kent coast, it’s time to replicate similar island exploring on the north side of the Thames Estuary along the Essex coastline – said surprisingly to be the English county with the longest coastline, mainly because of all its inlets and islands.

My first of two island visits was to Canvey Island which I’d seen across the Thames Estuary from the upper deck of my route 191 journey across Grain last month. Although I’ve been to Southend and Shoeburyness many times, my visit earlier this month to Canvey Island was my very first. And I have to say I was impressed, helped by a gloriously sunny autumnal day.

Canvey’s population is just over 38,000 making the island pretty much the size of a small town like Great Yarmouth or Newbury.

I took the train to Benfleet, the gateway to Canvey, with easy access on to the island from bus stops alongside the station exit with real time displays too. And working ones, which is a bonus.

First Essex are the main operator of bus routes on to the island with one tendered route operated by NIBS.

Routes 22 and 27 link Canvey with Basildon and Southend-on-Sea respectively both operating every fifteen minutes and together provide a coordinated 7-8 minute frequency between Benfleet and the terminus on the eastern side of the island at Leigh Beck not far to the east of Canvey’s main shopping area. Some extra peak hour journeys operate as route 27X.

Here’s a bus route map I’ve annotated taken from Open Street Maps which helped me plan a visit and cover all the island’s bus routes fairly easily.

Access to the island for most traffic is on the A120 but buses use the ‘old’ B1014 – a smaller road bridge over Benfleet Creek..

Double deck buses are the mainstay of route 27 with single decks on route 22.

Only route 27 runs into the evenings, every half an hour, and the same on Sundays together with an hourly service on route 21.

Both routes 22 and 27 serve the island’s main residential area to the west of the central shopping area and the frequency would seem to be more than appropriate for the numbers I saw travelling, if anything it’s on the generous side.

First Essex’s third route is single deck operated route 21 running half hourly from Southend-on-Sea via a slightly more circuitous route than the 27 as it does from Benfleet to Canvey’s shopping area before continuing to terminate at nearby Creek Road

The fourth route is the 21C operated by NIBS with a double decker on an hourly frequency from Hadleigh direct to Benfleet and then via a less populace route to the central shopping area, albeit operating via the large Morrisons supermarket to the west of the island (the loop bit on the map above), before heading down to the seafront road and terminating at Seaview Road.

It didn’t take me long to cover all these routes and getting a feel for the island. Timekeeping and reliability was good and passenger numbers were reasonable to a bit on the low side – especially on routes 21 and 21C.

After travelling along the seafront road on route 21C it was nice to take a break and enjoy the lovely sunshine watching a few large ships making their way up and down the River, but I was spoilt for choice on which seat to have my picnic lunch.

After that I took a stroll through to the Leigh Beck terminus of routes 22 and 27 and stumbled across the rather grand looking Transport Museum in the former premises still name checked of Canvey & District Motor Transport Co Ltd.

Built in 1934 the art-deco style building passed to Eastern National until it closed as a bus garage in 1978 and since then has housed a collection of around thirty preserrved buses looked after by the Castle Point Transport Museum. Sadly the museum is closed at the moment but does open on Sundays in normal times as well as having open days.

After Canvey, my next Essex island to check out was Mersea Island which i visited last week after my early morning shopping bus ride to Chelmsford.

Mersea is about the same size as Canvey – around three to four miles wide and two miles across from north to south and lies about seven miles due south of Colchester.

But its population is a lot less than Canvey at just over 7,000 with most living in the main town, West Mersea, which sits on the coast overlooking Bradwell on Sea on the other side of the River Blackwater.

The island is connected to the mainland by a causeway called The Strood on the B1025 which floods at very high tides cutting off the island, but fortunately was completely clear on my visit last Tuesday.

It must be one of the few places in Britain which has a note on the timetable about variations due to high tides – Holy Island’s route 477 being the other obvious one that comes to mind.

First Essex run a half hourly route 67 between Colchester and West Mersea with four single deck ADL Enviro buses providing a generous half hourly frequency for the number of passengers I saw travelling.

The bus I caught from Colchester at 11:30 on Tuesday morning last week brought about ten passengers into Colchester on its previous journey four of whom stayed on the bus and got off as it continued on its ten minute tour of the city’s one way system around the shopping area, where we also picked up six to travel south towards South Mersea. However these had all got off by the time we reached Blackheath about eighteen minutes south of Colchester leaving just me on the bus for the last eighteen minutes ride to West Mersea.

I enjoyed my walk around West Mersea and along the coastline on what was a glorious sunny day last week. it looked like a very nice place to live, albeit a bit remote.

There’s lots to see including some wonderful house boats moored close to the coast.

I returned to Colchester on the other bus route that serves Mersea, Heddingham operated route 63. This also links Colchester and West Mersea but runs less frequently – four/five journeys to West Mersea with extra journeys making for an hourly service as far as Monkwick.

It takes a more circuitous route too including the village of Peldon and then diverts through that part of Colchester dominated by barracks for the large military presence in the city. Some rather strange scheduling of the service saw the bus I was catching arrive from its previous journey into West Mersea at 12:26 and leave on its return journey at 13:37 – I assume the driver has a scheduled break for that period as otherwise it appears somewhat inefficient. A similar situation seems to exist on other journeys too – eg the 10:26 arrival departs at 11:37.

Three passengers boarded with me on the 13:37 but they all alighted ten minutes later in Peldon.

We picked up two mums with buggies from a new development on the edge of the barracks and another on the outskirts of Colchester.

Just to complicate things there’s a different pattern of service in the evenings, and on Sundays too, which makes for a rather complex timetable display at the West Mersea terminus in the High Street, for what is effectively just two bus routes.

A weekday evening route 68 (rather than a 67) takes a different route in Colchester and on Sundays a 67B does something else, including journeys which seem to run round the block in West Mersea itself. The timetable also shows three journeys which only run in summer school holidays over to East Mersea on route 63 – presumably filling in some of those long stand times.

It took me a fair time to work out what all the variations were and good luck to anyone else giving it a try.

But I thoroughly enjoyed my island hopping in Essex and recommend a visit to both Canvey and Mersea for some great bus rides and wonderful coastline.

Roger French

25 thoughts on “Island hopping in Essex

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  1. I suppose you could regard the Benfleet-Canvey run as a rail replacement service – the original public transport here having been a horse-drawn monorail!
    Canvey is still without a rail connection, thanks to the late Sir Bernard Braine MP, who I guess still holds the House of Commons record for extended speaking (“filibustering”) when he talked out a British Railways Bill in the 70s which would have permitted such.
    On Mersea, the current leader of Essex County Council (Cllr Bentley) uses the route as part of his climate change actions, and often refers to it in Council meetings..


  2. Thanks Roger. It’s a shame in this modern age that you have to go to such efforts to produce bus maps but it’s appreciated! Looks like the Costa del Essex in those pictures. Graham


  3. Holy Island’s infrequent service is now run by Borders Buses.I’ve read that year ago when the United ran it they, United,has special high clearance buses for use on the Berwick,I don’t think that they have ever come from anywhere else like say Alnwick?,Holy Island runs.Presumably this allowed the bus to travel through a lesser depth of water but it’d be unwise as you could see where the road although it has poles but still the driver couldn’t see if a part had been washed away.Others which have vehicle crossings are Burgh Island and St Michaels Mount but these are more contraptions and not normal buses and I don’t know who runs/owns them?


    1. Kevan,

      During summer 2021, Travelsure have ran a route from Belford to Holy Island when tides permit. This has connected at Belford with their Alnwick via the Coast route. It is possible that the bus does operate through at certain times.


      1. That Travelsure one from Belford to Holy Island is a seasonal one and the last service ran on the 21st of October and it seems to run April to October….a new one for me as I didn’t know about it! Another obscure one is the Woody’s service from Haggerston to Holy Island.It again it’s seasonal and runs in the morning and back to Haggerston at about 18hr.but depending on the tides.Once on the island the Woody’s service runs a shuttle throughout the day from Holy Island village to the castle so in a way the service from Haggerston is a revenue making positioning move.Travel Line shows the Borders Bus 477 from Berwick as being the main service but due to tides it’s a really complicated time table,too complicated for the Travel Line computer system and nothing comes up on any day!I think that after the Northumberland part of United became the fairly shortlived spin off company Northumbria that Northumbria may have run the Holy Island service too.As it would ,after the demise of the NBC, have been out for tender it’s possible that Lowland Scottish (ex Eastern Scottish) might have had a go from Berwick too.Perryman’s probably did it too but I don’t think Arriva North East did?


    2. To be absolutely clear, United Auto never used specialist vehicles for Holy Island. Often, it was Bristol VRs but could be REs or Leopards. It has always operated to a tide table and the premise remains unchanged.

      After United, it continued as a Northumbria throughout its existence and even into Arriva days using Olympians and Metroriders. After Arriva, it was taken on by Perrymans (now Border Buses). It has never been Eastern/Lowland/First who only ever operated Berwick to Haggerston Castle on a seasonal basis.


  4. Don’t know if Roger realises but he has inadvertently snapped the former Eastern National shed in West Mersea…. Unless it’s a a deliberate, secret “Easter Egg” for observant folk?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Shame that Borders Buses only ran an open topper on the 477 for one or two seasons, especially after special vinals were fitted for the route. A fantastic open top ride, so glad I managed to do it. My only other trip to Holy Island had been on a Northumbria VR.


  6. Shame you could not have fitted ina trip to Wallasea Island on Stephenson’s 60 from Southend (although again I querie the term Island) – a ferry also links it to Burnham On Crouch. Of course there is another nearby Island, Foulness, served these days by Stephenson’s 14 (most often on Saturdays). Unfortunately access is restricted, and now the pub has closed, there is little legitimate excuse to get permission to go there (the museum is only open on Sundays, when there is no public transport. I have visited four times, once in Southend Transport routr 18 days when you could just ask the security police, although they followed my bus there and back, just in case ! More recently I took the Stephensons bus (a Dart) after contacting the pub landlord for an invite. Following a discussion that day, I then organised a trip by RT for a party of about 50 friebds, in conjunction with the pub landlord, who arranged food for us, and tractor & trailer tours round the north of the Island. And finally on the day of the pub closure, when Bill Hiron of Stephensons very kindly, at my request, provided a double decker on the bus service specially.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you count going around all of those Essex islands like Foulness the coastline of Essex would be pretty long but then again Cornwall has a lot of coves and headlands.If you count the Isles of Scilly as Cornwall then you’d have a major increase but they have a strange status and in some ways are Cornwall and in other ways not.Pretty pointless counting anything about English counties now as nobody can, after Ted Heath’s 1974 tinkering,agree what they are or what land they cover.Some have new names like Cumbia others keep the traditional name like say Oxfordshire but take in loads of land which weren’t in the original, in Oxfordshire’s case most of north Berkshire.In Essex,or is it Greater London, people will call Romford Essex same on the other side with say Kingston…. Surrey or Greater London.And the Post Office let people in Twickenham keep using Middlesex as the county long after it ceased to exist which as a Northerner annoyed me as we had to have modern counties like Cleveland,Tyne and Wear and North Yorkshire (not to be confused with the traditional North Riding)on our postal addresses.


  7. Just to confuse things even more Southend and Thrurrock are no longer a part of Essex but are Unitary Authorties but to confuse it further are still a part of the Ceremonial county of Essex


  8. It seems odd that there are six daily arrivals into West Mersea on Hedingham route 63, but only four departures. Presumably, the other two run out of service back to Colchester or somewhere else?


  9. “The post office let people use Middlesex…”
    All the Post Office now require is the post town (eg Twickenham) and the postcode (eg TW1 1AA). Romford is eg RM1 1AA. Essex is unnecessary.


  10. Strangly I[swich buse picked up a few ECC contract routes. Given how far Clacton is from Ipswich they must have submitted a very low tender. I am supprided Heddingingham did not pick up th Clacton route the other few ere mainly few eviening sercvices running around Colchester


  11. Perhaps it would be wise to visit Canvey in the not too distant future, as older Readers may recall it quite literally disappeared in the serious flooding during the 1950s. With London protecting itself with the Thames barrier, to the disadvantage of everyone else as usual and predicted sea levels rising fast, Canvey would not be the first place I would think about moving to.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Service 63 is an Essex County Council gross contract. It was extended from Berechurch to West Mersea when First Essex stopped serving Peldon Village in 2018. The extension was little used and Essex decided to reduce the frequency from hourly to two hourly. I cannot see that this saved much given, as you say, it resulted in an hour layover on Mersea (the alternative would have been an hour layover at Berechurch).

    NIBS service 21C is also an Essex gross contract providing a service to Canvey, Eastern Esplanade after First withdrew commercial operation there. It was subsequently extended to Hadleigh to provide a direct service between South Benfleet and Hadleigh via Essex Way & Benfleet Road.

    Liked by 1 person

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