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.