There may be people out there who do not believe that Essex has a coastline, outside perhaps of Southend and Clacton. Well, their proms make up five or six miles between them; that leaves more than 550 to discover – roughly London to Paris, then back again.

As ever with Essex, look at the map. The boundary-rivers of the county’s north and south, Stour and Thames, are two of the most-lauded in our nation. Between, the estuaries of the Colne, Blackwater and Crouch march deep inland, still unbridged until their tidal ranges cease. Vast stretches are internationally important for bird life, as migrants seek resting places after crossing the cold North Sea.

One acre in every ten of this nation’s saltmarsh is in Essex – look out for the blooming of the sea lavender in July; the tidal mudflats of the river creeks and estuaries wind for miles inland; and cockle banks arise at almost every turn from river to sea. Marshland behind the sea walls – raised mostly from around 1600, but in some areas from the passing of the ‘Law of the Marsh’ in 1210 – can hide little lagoons, and every borrow-dyke has its reed-bed.

There are even low cliffs too. Southend has a cliff funicular after all. But see also The Naze, its Red Crag crumbling speedily, but uncovering immeasurably rich fossil deposits as it does. And in the Broomway, Essex has one of the two most dangerous offshore walks in England.

Picture: the borrow-dyke looking back to Tollesbury

Tollesbury Wick marshes

Walking the Essex Coast

I’ve walked most of the Essex coast: all of it from Harwich to Benfleet, and large parts of the rest. Most of this took place between 2008 and 2014, with a recent re-start. Six of my favourite sections appear in my Cicerone guide Walking in Essex, but all of it is written up here, in three sections – see the buttons below.

There’s a full guide to walking the Essex coast written by Peter Caton and published by Troubador Press, ISBN: 9781848761162. You could buy “Essex Coast Walk” through the big faceless tax-dodging multinational Amazon or alternatively keep a local bookshop in business.

In due course a 295-mile stretch of the England Coast Path will stretch from Tilbury to Manningtree (counter-clockwise, unlike my own walk). For an update on the present position, see the gov.uk website.

Harwich to Colchester
Colchester to Burnham-on-Crouch
Burnham-on-Crouch to Southend

Practicalities

There are far fewer settlements than you might think, and outside the obvious coastal towns there is often little accommodation, or even habitation for mile after mile.

The high-tide point on the River Stour, and hence the Suffolk border, is a few yards from Manningtree station. Parts of the estuary bank downstream to Harwich are taken by the Essex Way. Beyond Harwich (or more properly Dovercourt a mile south), it’s a lonely stretch until the Naze peninsula, overtopping Walton-on-the-Naze. From here, genteel Frinton and blowsy Clacton follow quickly, but after Point Clear creeks lead to Brightlingsea. The tidal Colne takes you past Wivenhoe to Colchester, and that river’s first bridge.

Beyond, take a day to walk the most gastronomic of the Essex islands, Mersea Island. Back on the mainland, beyond the tiny hamlet of Salcott-cum-Verney long lonely marshes twist around the larger village of Tollesbury. Its marshes are perhaps the most atmospheric of all on the Essex coast. The long Blackwater estuary takes you past Goldhanger to Maldon.

After Maldon you circle the vast Dengie peninsula, hemmed in by Blackwater, Crouch and North Sea, with Burnham-on-Crouch an undoubted highlight, rather more so than the new town of South Woodham Ferrers. Battlesbridge and Paglesham follow before Rochford. I’ve passed the entrance to Foulness Island; the mediaeval Broomway to the island has a reputation as one of the two most dangerous estuarial walks in England. Indeed I was booked on a walk in July 2021 (you don’t do it alone, safely) only to be thwarted by cancellation due to thunderstorm risk.

Spurred on by Beach of Dreams (see below), I resumed my coastal walk in summer 2021. I’m now at Southend-on-Sea or in practice Benfleet as over the years I’ve walked that lowest part of the Thames estuary through friendly Leigh-on-Sea many times. Looking ahead, I’ll be walking Canvey Island and then, avoiding the occasional refinery or similar, through wild marshes past Tilbury and all the way to the historic boundary of Essex at the River Lea confluence by Canning Town. The best bit, known as Rainham Marshes, is now a nature reserve owned by the RSPB, and features in my Walking in London. Six more coastal walks feature in my Walking in Essex.

Beach of Dreams

I was route planner for this epic 500-mile Lowestoft-to-Tilbury journey to discover the hidden gems of the East Coast of England, which took place over 35 days of summer 2021.

Beach of Dreams was the inspiration of my successor as chair of London LDWA Ali Pretty, who runs the Thurrock-based arts company Kinetika. She is a brilliant and creative fabric designer, at her happiest treating the finest silks with the batik process of pattern design. And she’s a relentless, committed long-distance walker. Her schtick is to put the two together: march the silks across miles of countryside (or townscape).

Each of the 500 miles, as she saw it, would be its own mini-collaboration: it could be ‘booked’ by someone for whom it had meaning. Through words, they would tell their story, and express their hopes for the future. Through their photographs, Kinetika’s artists would create a silk pennant. So, 500 miles, 500 stories, 500 flags.

The project gave me an opportunity to revisit some stretches of the Essex coast and improve on the routes I had walked before. There are three in particular – around the Fingringhoe Ranges, North Fambridge to South Woodham Ferrers, and Hullbridge to South Fambridge – and a few more smaller ones. All are noted on the relevant pages.