Saturday 9th July 2022
I took a ride with my friend Ray on Stephensons’ bus route 14 between Southend-on-Sea and Foulness recently. But we needed special permission to travel on it.
That’s because it serves Foulness Island which is owned by the Ministry of Defence with a foreboding checkpoint and barrier manned by security personnel 24 hours a day to ensure no unauthorised visitors pass through.
I’m not aware of any other local bus route that operates in this way so it seemed too good an opportunity to miss to take a ride and have a unique travel experience.
Although route 14 serves the Unitary Authority of the newly designated city of Southend-on-Sea it’s a tendered route funded by Essex County Council as it serves the villages of Little Wakering and Great Wakering lying north of Shoeburyness which are in Essex, as is Foulness Island.
Most journeys on the infrequent route 14 terminate in Shoeburyness after serving the Wakerings but the first (07:23) and last (17:50) are diverted to serve Foulness instead. There’s also a school bus (route 807) at 06:50 from the island to King Edmund School, Rochford which returns from the school at 14:20. So there’s not many bus travel options for the 100 or so residents who live on the island in rented homes from the MOD.
However on Saturdays they’re spoilt for choice with two extra daytime departures from Foulness at 11:15 and 14:17 (as well as 07:28 and 18:45). Return journeys leave Southend-on-Sea at 10:33 and 13:33 (as well as 06:43 and 18:00).
Ray and I had special permission to travel on the 10:33 from Southend-on-Sea one Saturday last month but had to return straight away on the 11:15 from the hamlet called Courtsend at the extreme north east of Foulness island. We were forbidden to leave the bus and walk on the island. That privilege is strictly limited to residents who live there and only then when MOD exercises are not taking place.
Denise was our driver, who reassuringly was expecting us, and with eight passengers on board, we left Southend-on-Sea’s Travel Centre (aka bus station) to begin our adventure spot on time at 10:33.
Five of the passengers alighted as we made our way out of Southend with the other three getting off in Little Wakering which just left the two of us on board as we approached the security checkpoint with some trepidation whether we’d be allowed through.
The security guard employed by the MOD came out and thankfully all was in order for us to proceed …
….and on we continued and were soon passing over the bridge which connects the mainland with Foulness island.
It’s a five mile journey to reach the island’s main hamlet at Churchend where most of the population live.
There’s an abandoned church….
…. an abandoned pub – the George & Dragon ….
…. and an abandoned village shop and post office…
… which are next door to each other in the centre of the hamlet.
It has a bit of an “Imber” feel about it except there are people still living here and there is a bus service, albeit a very limited one.
Sadly the timetable displays in the timetable cases on the bus stops have been inserted so you can’t read the time of the first journey, but as it’s the school bus I guess the children know the times. At least timetable departures are displayed.
After Churchend the route continues for another couple of miles to the terminus at what’s called Courtsend which comprises a few isolated houses, a farmyard (in front of which the bus turns) …
…. and a bus stop and shelter.
It must rank as a strong contender for being Britain’s remotest bus terminus.
We quickly jumped off the bus for a couple of photographs as Denise changed the blind for the return journey and hopped back on before any MOD or security personnel pounced and we were soon heading back to Southend-on-Sea on the return journey.
None of the residents on Foulness boarded but once back through security we picked up passengers in Great Wakering and Little Wakering and at other stops within the city boundary.
You might be wondering how I came to be able to take photographs of the bus stops, church, pub and shop. That’s thanks to the Foulness Conservation and Archaeological Society who run the Foulness Heritage Centre which, with permission from the MOD, hold an open afternoon between midday and 16:00 on the first Sunday of each month between April and October.
After registering your details including name, mobile phone number and car registration plate at the security barrier you’re allowed to drive (or cycle) the five miles to Churchend and visit the Heritage Centre housed in the former school.
The Centre offers some lovely home made cakes with tea and coffee in the garden which were proving popular with visitors.
Ray and I ventured back last Sunday afternoon (it being the first Sunday in July) and had a great time looking at the exhibition and taking a walk to the River Couch from where you can see the adjacent Wallasea Island from what’s called The Quay.
You’re not allowed to walk anywhere else ….
….. but the Heritage museum’s volunteers arrange for a tractor and trailer to operate tours of the far end of the island.
There are three tours departing every hour while the Island is “open” which you can book at the Heritage Centre …
…. and we were lucky to get booked on the 14:00 tour as places were selling fast.
The tour has a very knowledgeable guide who lives on the island and explains the history and the sites to look out for, including the varieties of wildfowl and wildlife which inhabit the island.
At the far end of the island – at Fisherman’s Point – we were allowed off the trailer to see the path out to The Broomway which is a dangerous public right of way off the shoreline. Dangerous not only because of the shelling from the MOD (!) but because it’s covered over by the sea for four hours on each tide with “swift and very dangerous currents” and also because when you arrive at the track pictured below, you’re then not allowed on to Foulness Island by order of the MOD (see map below).
It must be the least used public right of way in the country (shown in red on the sea on the map).
It was this area that for some years was earmarked for a third London Airport following the ‘Roskill Commission’ in 1971 and thanks to Colin Buchanan who identified Maplin Sands at Foulness as a suitable site.
Wikipedia states “in 1973 a Special Development Order was made under the Town and Country Planning Acts granting planning permission for the project, and the Maplin Development Authority was constituted and began its work. The project would have included not just a major airport, but a deep-water harbour suitable for the container ships then coming into use, a high-speed rail link together with the M12 and M13 motorways to London, and a new town for the accommodation of the thousands of workers who would be required. The new town would eventually cover 82 square miles, with a population of 600,000 people, while the surface route to the airport would require a corridor 100 yards wide and over 30 miles long. The cost would be a then-astronomical £825 million (£8,448 million today), which many – particularly in the Labour Party, which was in opposition at the time – regarded as unacceptable. The Maplin airport project was abandoned in July 1974 when Labour came to power”.
And to this day the island has continued in the hands of the MOD and the hundred or so people and wildlife who live there and their rather restricted, but personal, bus service.
A visit to Foulness is a truly fascinating experience and certainly worth a visit – but what a shame it’s impossible to do so by bus on Sundays, when the island is actually open.
Maybe there’s an opportunity for an enterprising Essex based bus company to consider running a service from one of Southend-on-Sea’s rail stations out to Foulness on the first Sunday of summer months, with a combined tractor and trailer tour ticket.
Now that really would be integrated transport.
My thanks to “bigbri107” who commented on my “Island Hopping in Essex” blog last October regaling his travel experiences to Foulness which inspired this trip.
What an interesting and fascinating article!
Definitely on my bucket list.
Fascinating. More rural and leafy than I imagined, and thank goodness photographs were allowed. As a leading Luddite, and one who has not flown since 1967 (too terrified!). (Tin hat on) Personally, and certainly a minority view if the scenes at most airports are anything to go by, I would like to see air travel restricted not least of all for the pollution it creates. But, if we must have Airports, this would have been an ideal place to concentrate the entire host of “London” airports.
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To many problems to have an Airport at Foulness. Manston would be a good location. One runway already there and most flights would take off and land over the sea minimize the noise. It could b e slowly expanded to ultimately replace Heathrow
It could be connected up to HS1 which could be upgraded to run at upto 200mph
The rail Hub at Old Oak Common would connect it to most of the UK rail network
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Birmingham Airport is about the same distance from Old Oak Common as Manston, and will be a lot faster to reach for more people than Manston ever would. Anywhere with three-quarters of its catchment area out to sea is going to struggle – and if Manston was such a good location, then the Development Consent Order to enlarge it would not have been turned down.
I believe that the bus route serving Thorney Island (the one in West Sussex, not the one on which the Houses of Parliament are built!) used to operate through a security gate – I don’t think there’s a service there any more, but one used to be operated by Emsworth and District.
Also I’m sure there are or were a couple of bus routes where a soldier boards the bus at a checkpoint and rides the bus to the other end of the site for security but I can’t remember where.
Blandford Camp, on the former Wilts and Dorset Route 183, used to have a guard board for the circuit round the camp. The replacement Route 20 no longer diverts around the camp.
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I’ve been on a New Jersey Transit bus in the States that went through a military base. I had to have my passport with me to be allowed through.
I once went on an overnight bus from Dubrovnik to Zagreb Croatia and it cut across 8km of Bosnia Herzegovina at Neum and everyone had to get their passport out.Nobody bothered to tell you this when you bought your ticket at the bus station so some people had to get their passports out of their luggage in the hold.Like Kaliningrad and Alaska the Dubrovnik part of Croatia,Ragusa,is an exclave.
The bridge avoiding Bosnia has opened today, so it is no longer necessary to go through two passport checks between Dubrovnik and the rest of Croatia.
The Weston-Wells bus (126) went into an MOD estate (RAF Locking? I can’t remember!) back in Badgerline days around deregulation. I remember the gate guard going round the outside of the bus using a mirror to check underneath for suspect objects – this of course being when the IRA were still active.
There was,it may still run?,one run by Whites which ran through Windsor Great Park but I think that anyone could use it?
Stephen has just reminded me of a hair-raising incident in my days as a part-time Kent County Council bus surveyor. I had to check one of the works buses serving the very top secret Fort Halstead establishment, which sits hidden beside Polhill overlooking Dunton Green and Sevenoaks. Having alighted from a 402 at Polhill Arms, I made my way up the short walk to the FH Car Park and my Leyland National on a 431D awaited. It so happened the Driver, whom I had actually worked an RF on a 227 duty at Bromley on his very first day as a Bus Driver sometime in 1969 and had now transferred to Dunton Green was in charge that day.
We happily chatted until departure time, and around five had boarded. Standing beside him, I braced myself for the right turn back down to the Polhill Arms, but Doug swung the National to the left, sailed unhindered into this most secret of all secret places in the UK, driving right through to the far gates on Star Hill. I watched with horror as each building had a machine gun carrying (!) guard (I don’t think they were Army), quite convinced that I would be spotted and shot, questions asked later.
When I had finally recovered sufficiently to speak once more and asked Doug, “what the hell….”, he happily replied that “we always go this way on a Friday as it cuts out the traffic on Polhill”! So much for security!
If only they had known that in Moscow at the time.
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Fascinating stuff, Roger. Thanks to you, I intend to go on 4th September.
As intended, visited Foulness today. Very interesting but was unable to get a ticket for a tractor tour. All 90 tickets (30 each for the three departures) were bought before I arrived. Will definitely return though.
Indeed it’s a shame that there’s no Sunday service as,as you say,the first Sunday of the month is when the public can visit to go walking on the island.That right of way is,as a recall a public byway, the double standard that lets motorists off road drive/ride of these but people can’t walk on motorways, and a bridleway and it has claimed a lot of lives so similar to the Morecambe Bay rights of way.
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Excellent story Roger, many thanks. I was Stephensons’ Planning Manager at the time that we won this Essex CC contract, starting in November 2005. It was all very last minute as Arriva decided to withdraw their previously commercial service. As well as the usual tasks of registering the service, programming the Wayfarer ticket machines, writing the duties and driver instructions, etc, I went to see the Qinetiq Security Manager at their offices in Shoebury to explain that we were taking over and to agree the procedures. That duly done, I went to the checkpoint at the entry to the island, explained again and was told “we don’t take any notice of him, this is what to do . . .”!
Essex didn’t do roadside publicity at the time so I prepared something and was allowed onto the island in my car to post it at the various stops, as well as along the route via Barling (the other community that the 14 is designed to serve).
Then to add insult to injury, the depot manager told me they were very short that morning so I ended up driving the very first trip.
As you and Ray will have discovered, the island is huge and it takes over 10 minutes to drive across, remembering to observe the speed limit which is hard on a straight and deserted road (security staff use speed guns and in the early days, a number of bus drivers were warned).
I’ve also been over there a couple of times when the island is opened one day a year for a charity cycle ride.
I’m now retired but am pleased to see that Stephensons have just won renewal of the contract again in the latest Essex CC tender round.
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Terence’s comment reminds me of my Year Out (aged 38!) in Asia, 1991-92.
Peshawar, Pakistan, appeared to have about 3 frequent town services. Having been on the first two, which were indeed town services, I went on the third, which ran every few minutes, with normal-control Bedford chassis and flamboyant Pakistani bodywork
I got on, the conductor accepted my fare without demur, and off we went. Not long after we reached a checkpoint, where the security guard started checking permits. I didn’t have one, so he took me into his hut. “You have been caught attempting to enter a tribal area without a permit.” he said. “You are therefore under arrest. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Just then, a Peshawar-bound bus drew up. “Er, can I get that bus back to Peshawar?” I asked. ” Yes. Go! ” he said, shoving me out of the door. Phew!
The oddest thing is that I didn’t have to bribe him to let me go!
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I think until about 2008(?) when the pub closed, you could ring up the friendly landlord of the George and Dragon to obtain an invitation, which could be used as a permit to take the bus past the checkpoint to the pub, though nowhere else. Still that was OK, when I visited.
The adjacent Wallasea Island is now an RSPB reserve and worth a visit, though a bit of a walk from another Stephensons route. No tea, cakes or tours though! So it’s BYO.
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Some years ago Midland Red’s Banbury – Leamington service operated via CAD Kineton where the armed guard (a military police red cap) would travel on the bus through the camp and you were only allowed to board or alight if holding the necessary pass. I doubt if the service still runs these days and not even sure if the CAD still exists but there were lots of houses on the camp and the service was certainly used by residents but other passengers were allowed to travel through the camp provided they remained seated!
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Sadly this is one Essex bus route that I have never sampled so my only connection to Foulness Island is that my great uncle Ernest was recorded living there with his family in the 1921 census. . Unfortunately he died long before I was born so I never had the opportunity to ask him what the island was like.
Used to be one of my routes when I ran Southend Transport. The pub was open in those days, and you could get an invitation from the landlord that got you through the checkpoint.
A relative taught in a school on Sheppey where the windows would rattle when they fired really big stuff from Foulness.
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Plymouth Joint Services 61 served the gunnery school at Wembury Point (HMS Cambridge) and had to pass through a guarded entrance. If I recall correctly, you were not permitted to leave the bus unless you had authorisation. The establishment closed in 2002 but note that Tally Ho! of Kingsbridge service 49 continues to serve the site twice a day Mondays to Saturdays.
Here in Victoria, Australia we have a service which runs from Seymour Station to Puckapunyal. Operates similar to this route where regular passengers can board and alight, but when the bus arrives at the Army Base it’s strictly defence personnel only. Checks are done at the security gate.
There is a tank museum on the base operating, but you must pre book.
A fascinating article, thanks Roger.
I grew up in the Medway towns and remember the plans for an airport over there in Foulness and the general relief when the plans were dropped.
In 1984-86 I lived in Bedford. I had a few trips on the United Counties bus from Bedford to Hitchin, which passed through RAF Chicksands (just west of Shefford). RAF guards boarded at the entrance and left at the exit, to ensure that no unauthorised persons alighted inside (only residents and authorised visitors). I had no idea this was going to happen, so was somewhat alarmed the first time.
Responses show that in times past there was quite a number of these routes entering military premises. Another, near to the Wembury Point example quoted, was RAF Mountbatten, served by PJS route 7. When i was working as an MOD official, many years ago, I had to attend a meeting there. Nobody had expected me to arrive by bus, and it caused great consternation at the guard house, although they eventually let me in, thus shortening the bus crew’s layover time at the Breakwater house terminus!
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There are ”no” lawful restrictions on passengers using the bus to the civil parish of Foulness Island. Only drivers require a pass, as do the drivers of any mechanically propelled vehicle using that road. Passengers, pedestrians, cyclists and horse traffic do not require passes.
See paras 17 to 21 Shoeburyness and District, Military Lands bylaws SR and O 1189 of 1935.
Also ”The Road to Foulness Island” by Patrick Arnold, copies from the Foulness Island Heritage Centre