Many years ago, when a young lad, South Benfleet was no more than a small hamlet that appeared more farming community than railway suburb. It became a destination of fascination for our small gang, we would regularly trudge the four miles from Leighbeck Canvey to St Mary’s Church, Benfleet, not for the service, but to marvel at the Medieval High Street and buildings that comprised South Benfleet mark one. Memories of a day exploring remain embedded in the depths of consciousness, the hospitality of pub landlords with their abundant sandwiches and pop for us urchins became legendary.
I recall one day being startled and fascinated by a farmers loaded haywain drawn by four bullocks wading through the river that gushed across the road from Essex Way to the creek behind the church. This the first time I had seen working farm animals, to say it was a surprising sight, especially in a town setting would be an understatement. It was like something from a story book, yet in living memory.
Even to a youngster the contrast with the modern railway and 17-18th century technology was a memorable experience. In those days every six hours South Benfleet was regularly isolated from the rest of Essex by the tide that surged across the High Street from the Anchor pub gardens to behind the Church. Traffic achieves much the same affect in modern Benfleet.
My next experience of Benfleet happened at the station level-crossing. One day our gang were playing on the railway line (as you did in those days), do you remember laying pennies on the line to be flattened (Steam trains were much heavier than diesel). No ‘Elf & Safety’ in those days. One day we cadged a ride on the crossing gate when it opened. Suddenly the gates stuck straddling the lines blocking trains. My memories have become selective over time but expletives appear to have persisted. We decided to run but were caught, my first experience of hard-labour, under threat of the policeman we were used as ballast to bounce the gates open before a train hurtled through. Unlike today, passengers helped and at the end of the day all was forgiven. The simple threat of a policeman was all that was needed to convince us it was a bad idea to go back. Ah! Memories.