The East Anglian coast is a beautiful part of the country. Unspoilt sandy beaches, big skies, infinite networks of creeks stretching out and over seemingly endless tracts of salt marsh. It is categorically not, as Amanda insists, in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, ‘flat’, but it does have a undulating beauty about it that is utterly captivating. Norfolk (the focus of Amanda’s ignorant derision) and Suffolk steal the hearts and headlines for the most part yet Essex has its fair share of beguiling beaches. Thorpe Bay, Martello Beach and Walton-on-the-Naze, to name but three.
And then there is Foulness Island. It’s one of those places that you may well have heard of, but are not quite sure why. It sits, a little over ten miles to the north east of the cheeky hustle and bustle of Southend-on-Sea, a few thousand acres of rambler friendly marshland, a destination that should, even in this bird rich part of the country, be an absolute mecca for twitchers and dog walkers alike. Yet, for all of that, it’s not a place where casual visits are encouraged or even, at times, welcomed. Indeed, it’s one that the MoD would rather (in the same way the USAF regards Area 51) you never knew was there at all. They’ve long used it as their veritable playground for testing a whole array of weapons-rockets, missiles (surface to air or anti-tank, Sir?) grenades and other instruments of death including, in all likelihood, things we don’t even think have been invented yet. Which, of course, is why they’d rather we all kept away from the place.
The trouble with that is the island is home to around 150 residents who, despite the MoD’s best efforts, aren’t that keen on leaving the place and are continuing to rent their homes and farms from their military landlords. They’ll be more than familiar with the island and the idiosyncrasies of life there but not so the casual traveller. The approach to Foulness from nearby Great Wakering involves myriad red danger signs, forbidding barbed wire fences and a security checkpoint before you join a military road that takes you over a bridge and onto the island itself. Luckily for both parties, they seem, for the most part, to get on with one another. They have had, after all, many years of practice. It’s folk like you and me, outsiders (and, as far as the MoD is concerned, potential spies) that have to keep our wits about us.
If you’re lucky enough to arrive on the island un-impeded by men with guns, you’ll begin to notice that things are beginning to get a bit scary. For, instead of all the normal accoutrements of the seaside, you will now find yourself confronted by old air raid shelters, weirdly shaped buildings, some of which are topped with satellite dishes and numerous old warehouses, all of which look like they might, they just might have been the secret hideaway for a flying saucer at some point in the past. At this point, you wouldn’t be blamed for wanting to take your windbreak and egg mayonnaise sandwiches somewhere else.
Public access to Foulness is restricted although members of the public are welcome to visit the island by means of a formal invitation. However, even this glimmer of light is partially dulled by a warning that persons accessing the island who are not familiar with it might quite easily find themselves in trouble due to the strong and unpredictable (presumably one of the reasons the MoD are there?) tidal flows that surround the island. And that’s before you even take into consideration stumbling across something that is covered by the Official Secrets Act.
So yes, you can visit Foulness Island if you really, really want to. But be prepared to be treated like a visiting Aunt or Uncle at Christmas if you do, in that everyone will make you feel more than welcome but they’ll hide all the good food and drink from you and, in reality, don’t want you there at all and can’t wait for you to leave.