FOULNESS Island is Essex’s best kept secret. A 6,000-acre nature magnet of scrub and marshland, which is only a short range rocket launch from the hustle and bustle of Southend. But for most of us, it doesn’t even register as a blip on the radar.

This is for a very good reason, as the island’s Ministry of Defence owners, who don’t welcome casual visitors, would have us believe.

For nearly a century, the MoD has used Foulness as a testing centre for military weapons, propelling all manner of deadly devices into the Maplin Sands.

Killer grenades, explosive shells and guided missile systems all have their destructive capabilities assessed here by clipboard clutching boffins, ahead of rubberstamping and delivery to global war zones. Atomic weapons were also on the agenda in the Fifties.

In the middle of this mayhem lives a small, but proud community, which is slowly sliding towards extinction.

Not MoD employees, but 156 bona fide islanders, who rent their homes and farms from military landlords.

This uneasy arrangement is totally unique, breaks all the rules and is ultimately a paradox.

Surrounded by the Rivers Crouch and Roach, plus the North Sea, Foulness may be out of bounds to most civilians, but it has five working farms, producing wheat, barley, peas and linseed.

It is a haven of wildlife, with food-seeking waders frequent visitors to its muddy banks, wiry rook’s nests clinging to a scarce population of naked trees and barn owls taking refuge in crumbling agricultural outhouses.

But there isn’t much here for the human inhabitants, which explains why the island’s population has nosedived by three quarters since the middle of the 19th century.

After passing numerous red danger signs, barbed wire fences and a security checkpoint at Landwick, just outside Great Wakering, a military built main road takes you over the bridge and on to the island.

Launching towers, satellite dish-topped weather stations, bubble-shaped buildings, old air raid shelters, rusting warehouses and the odd cow are the only things visible on the pancake-flat greenery of this wide open vista.

The nearest thing to a capital on Foulness is Churchend, which also boasts its only shop, a tiny village store. There is a pub, the shabby, white wooden George and Dragon, plus a classic 19th century Gothic church, St Mary’s, built from Kentish ragstone.

But both focal points of the community are closed after their congregations went awol two years ago.

A pub without punters and a church needing a £250,000 makeover to pass a safety check.

Sadly, this structural decay paints a depressing picture, which is a recurring theme around the fourth biggest island on the English coastline.

The MoD would never admit to it, but its inherited tenants are left feeling anything but wanted. Given the very evident lack of commitment to structural maintenance, it would be hard to disagree with whispered conspiracy theories about a silent shut-down, and peaceful long-term removal of the islanders.

Quaint weatherboard and brick houses are dotted across this bleak, but beautiful wilderness.

Many of them are falling into terminally poor repair, left to shiver unprotected against the chill of the unforgiving easterly winds, which blast across this open landscape.

Foulness has 84 houses, but 18 of them remain empty, despite a housing shortage on the island.

“The houses are supposed to be available for rent, but nobody has moved into a house here for nearly three years,” a third generation islander told me.

“It is a long process, which includes stringent and costly security checks. But who’s going to go through all that for a property which is falling apart? The last person to move here from the mainland was nearly 10 years ago.

“There are island families who really need these houses. There is a long waiting list and the fact these homes are sitting empty and just being allowed to fall apart is criminal.”

Foulness’s main attraction is the old school house.

It closed in 1988, when just 11 pupils turned up for classes, but has been transformed into the island’s heritage centre, offering a restricted visiting window to non-islanders on the first Sunday of every month, between April and October.

“Do not stray off the main road to the populated village of Churchend,” warns the centre leaflet.

This two-roomed building, originally built in 1846, is packed full of glass display cases, showing off archaeological finds dating back to the Roman era, unearthed by Foulness’s volunteer answer to Time Team.

Cracked urns, mole traps, tools, wedding gowns, gas masks, bone buttons and musket lead shots from the Napoleonic period fill the cabinets.

Black and white snaps of former residents, photos of the great flood of 1953, which claimed two lives on the island, plus old football and cricket line-ups also adorn the walls. “We haven’t got enough people here for a football team now,” smiled a resident.

A living history lesson is the school’s last headmistress, who still lives in the house next door and walks around happily chatting to visitors.

Despite all the destruction which goes on here, the locals ensure me everything is carried out very safely, with testing taking place Monday to Friday, not affecting their lives.

“We don’t have to keep ducking down in our back gardens,” one of them laughs.

On a tranquil spring morning, it is impossible to imagine such operations taking place as bumble bees gently swim around the white flowers of the “slow gin factories”.

In some ways, it is a perfect, and unpolluted utopia. There is not one crisp packet or takeaway wrapper to be seen.

“It’s a great place to raise kids,” I’m told. “You’ve got all this beautiful countryside they can ramble around in freely, without having to worry about anything bad happening to them.

“Everybody knows everybody else and we’re surrounded by security guards. All of the military stuff is shut away safe, so you don’t have to worry about that either.

“The only problem is when they get older. There’s nothing here for them. They get bored and want to leave the island for discos and shops in town. But it’s not a problem, as they will let taxis through the security gates at night to drop the kids off.

“It is a great quality of life here. But I sometimes wonder if any of us will be left in another 50 years.”

One of the islanders takes me over to his wide open workshop, packed full of tools, and points to his car across the road, window open, with the keys sitting in the ignition. “That’s what Foulness is all about,” he smiles. “We’ve probably got the lowest crime rate in the world.”

For information on visiting Foulness Heritage Centre, call 01702 217836.