THE EERIE keening of a siren at Coryton oil refinery was recorded on the afternoon of Sunday the 27th of June 2010. England fans may feel a spasm of regret at the mention of this date since it marks the 4–1 defeat by Germany at the World Cup. The sounding of the siren might have been a regular test, but I like to think that the refinery workers were using it as the world's biggest air-horn to cheer on the England team.
The site of the refinery on the Essex shore immediately to the west of Canvey Island had originally been marshland. The Ordnance Survey map of 1805 shows only a couple of farms and it was most likely used for grazing, just as today a herd of cows roams alongside East Haven Creek a mile or so to the north-east. Industry arrived at the end of the 19th century with the Kynochs explosives factory. After the First World War the factory closed and an oil storage depot took its place, to be sold in 1950 to one of the forerunners of ExxonMobil. The refinery was built in 1953.
Terry Joyce's aerial photograph from 2007 gives a good view of the refinery, with an oil tanker and another vessel moored at Shellhaven and Canvey Island lying above the sinuous course of Holehaven Creek. The photo is reproduced from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons licence.
If you're hoping to go along and hear the siren for yourself, then you're out of luck. The refinery's parent company went bankrupt and production ceased in 2012. Many of the buildings and other structures were still there when I visited a few months ago, but demolition had already begun in April of last year with the levelling of one of the cracking complexes. The refinery's 850 workers have moved on to find work as far afield as the North Sea and the Gulf States.
Coryton is inaccessible to the public and the nearest you can get to it is along the Canvey Island side of Holehaven Creek. A path runs behind the flood defence wall and eventually leads south to the Lobster Smack pub, where I once saw a huge man in a boilersuit hold a workmate clear off the floor by his ankles. Loud laughter from onlookers suggested the upside-down man might have too slow getting his round in and was having the money shaken out of his pockets.
An expanse of industrial wasteland flanks the Creek, occupying a large chunk of the west side of Canvey Island. A chain-link fence surrounds it and weathered signs warn that security men with dogs are on the prowl. But these have evidently proved ineffectual at stopping generations of eager hands from tugging open large gaps in the fences and one set of gates has been stoved in completely. What's inside looks like the remains of a city razed years ago by bombing raids. A gridwork of roads marks out empty plots of land colonised by thorny bushes and buddleia plants. Here and there rusting standpipes poke up out of the ground and rows of streetlamps stand pointlessly to attention.
The afternoon of the 27th of June was hot and sunny. Birds chattered and unseen insects stridulated among the ragged straw-coloured grass. I had expected to record only the roar of the gas flares being burned from the refinery's chimneys. Then the first blast of the siren came, mournful and unsettling like whale song, painting the whole width of the estuary with its echo.