Two estuaries, the Crouch and the Roach, and barely a sight of the open sea. Five walking days totalling 57 miles, spread between 2011 and 2014, to travel roughly five straight-line miles. A couple of towns, South Woodham Ferrers and Rochford, and nothing much else really, in terms of habitation.

So yes, yet more long and lonely spaces on the sea walls of Essex, where you may see no-one for hours on end. Life can be grand (except for east of Hullbridge …).

This is as far as I’ve got on my walk round the Essex coast. I’m within sight of Foulness Island, alas pretty firmly out of sight to walkers these days as it’s effectively owned by military plc Qinetiq, that ultimate failure of the brander’s art.

Part of my plans for 2021 is to get back and at least link up with the prom at Southend, from where I have at various times walked much of the Thames estuary back towards London.

And maybe take on the Broomway too! This mediaeval track runs offshore from Foulness Island to Great Wakering, and can only be accessed at certain low tides, with a guide if you have any sense. People have died on the Broomway.

Back to Colchester

Saturday 21 May 2011. Burnham-on-Crouch to South Woodham Ferrers, 15 miles, 13 on route.

Another day just right for walking, warmer than the previous stage though with a stiffer breeze, but plenty of cotton wool cloud – more attractive than the sky-to-sky blue of March. Rejoining our finish place, the path hugged the western quayside as it turned this way and that, past yet more yacht clubs – not Royal ones here though – and the town’s recreation ground to Burnham Yacht Harbour, opened in 1989 after breaching of the sea wall and what must have been significant excavation.

Soon after a tamarisk hedge – rather a surprise that they are not more common on this coast – the little hamlet of Creeksea appeared, with a nice grouping of houses beyond a green. The surprise of tamarisk, though, is as nothing as compared to the point less than a mile further on where the sea wall and its path suddenly give out and the route heads into a meadow, above what is known locally as ‘The Cliff’. Now, as cliffs go, it’s barely even in the Naze class, but it feels good to be heading uphill for a while, and get the benefit of longer views, both across the estuary and inland. The marina at Althorne is not far away now, yet another little yachting place, though less friendly than some owing to the privacy signs. It’s not technically on the Crouch, separated by a creek from the river by Bridgemarsh island, which was abandoned to habitation after the disastrous 1953 floods; the brickworks chimney remains. As the island channel closes there’s an opportunity to encounter the elusive contour zero, and with it the Blue House Farm nature reserve, into which there is later a permissive path, but we hugged the coast into the bustling harbour at North Fambridge.

North Fambridge

North Fambridge

The duck-friendly garden of the Ferry Boat Inn, opposite a pretty pair of cottages, was an obvious place for lunch. Alas, it’s from here that one is forced inland, across the railway line and along a lane to the main road to Burnham, the B1012. It’s busy for a B road, and there is no footpath, one blind corner requiring especial care. After about half-a-mile, at Great Hayes farm, a footpath runs half-right downhill across scrub, eventually joining a lane which ends at Little Hayes farm, where the railway is crossed again. There’s now an annoying south-easterly stretch which takes one back towards North Fambridge, before the river is rejoined briefly once more, until Clementsgreen creek takes you towards the new town of South Woodham Ferrers. Technically, there is no right of way above the limit of high water at 820969, but we took it anyway, and sat for a while on the grassland buffering the coast from the town’s production-line housing, before navigating by the sun through the town centre to the station.

Saturday 3 September 2011. South Woodham Ferrers to Battlesbridge, 9 miles.

The Crouch weaves around South Woodham Ferrers like a spring, the crow-flies distance today being three times longer than the footpath route. Alas, this includes one of the rare diversions inland forced by lack of riverine access. Barbara joined Dave and me for this short day out.

The route slowly turned eastwards, and so gave us a view back down the Crouch, where Clementsgreen Creek joins the main channel. Turning westwards at the point, there is interest in the settlement of Hullbridge over the water, until we reached the slipway at Marsh Farm. Here, there is a right-of-way across the river, much as at Alresford on the Colne – and again, prudence prevents progress.

Slipway at Marsh Farm

Slipway at Marsh Farm

Soon, as we walked north up the tributary Fenn Creek, housing became closer, and stayed with us nearly to the point where a footbridge gives access to Woodham Fenn, a precious little sliver of common land for the residents of the town. But Tabrums Farm blocks access back south to the other side of the creek. We have to hug the railway line, and then cross the busy A132. (The closest access to the high-water mark is indeed the main road, but it has a negative pleasure quotient.)

From here, we crossed to slightly higher ground the other side of Rectory Lane, with decent views across the upper estuary, before descending through a little wood, braving the A road once more, and finally reaching the Crouch proper near Gosse’s Farm. This lasts only for a few hundred yards before we needed to take a lane into Battlesbridge. The old mill, and almost every other building of the village save thankfully the pub, now form a collective antiques centre, and not a bad one at that – we’ve used it several times, and encouraged Dave to return.

Monday 8 July 2013. Battlesbridge to Canewdon, 17 miles, 16 on route.

If there could be one stretch of the Essex coast that I could rip up and dump somewhere out near Dogger Bank, it would be this one. Well, nowhere’s perfect.

Things don’t start well. At Battlesbridge, the south bank of the Crouch can’t be accessed, so there’s a kilometre on a busy road with no pavement before at last a footpath sign appears. From there, things are fine to Hullbridge, indeed for most of the way it’s OK to walk on the sea-wall even though it’s not a right-of-way. And Hullbridge has benches, boats and a pub, as all the best coastal settlements do.

So I strode confidently out after a quick bite. Two guys, walking back, asked if I knew whether it was possible to get through the the Dome, a caravan park that was my next objective; sure, I said, there’s a right-of-way on the map. They weren’t convinced, and muttered something about overgrowth. Indeed there was some, but nothing insurmountable. Wimps, I thought. And then the land to my south narrowed …

Most Essex sea wall breaches, like those west of Bradwell say, are inconveniences only. This one however, without warning, severs a crucial link in the coastal walker’s chain. At TQ833956, the promised way either south or (clearly long-severed) north, is instead many yards of deep and tidal open water, utterly impassable. Retreat was the only option.

And that meant two tarmac miles on the busy road out of Battlesbridge that I had forsaken a couple of hours before. Though there was quite a nice marshland crossing immediately before South Fambridge, the sea-wall eastwards was depressing, badly overgrown though on asphalt, and without the little meanderings that made the north bank so beguiling. Views over to the Dengie peninsula were often good, though the most fun was keeping pace with a small yacht tacking against the wind in the channel.

Across the Crouch to The Cliff

Across the Crouch to The Cliff

There is some improvement at the Lion Creek nature reserve towards the end, but I was pleased to reach Lion Wharf and nip down the road to catch my bus to Rochford. On the way, an elderly cyclist passed me. “New bike,” I thought. He was waiting at the bus stop, and asked me how far I had walked. “Seventeen,” I said, which normally shuts people up. “Oh,” he said, and wondered why I did not walk into Rochford. “My wife and I, we regularly walked 20 miles out here. And on the tandem, we cycled 20,000 miles while we were married.” It turns out that she had been disabled for the last few years of her life, had recently died, and that to stave off self-pity he had bought this new bike to give his life a renewed focus. So it can be worth walking 17 dispiriting miles to find one uplifting story.

Monday 15 July 2013. Canewdon to Rochford, 12 miles, 10 on route.

Much better, thank goodness. And as it happens, I met my elderly gent again, just before I stepped onto the sea wall. Cycled too much last week, he said, but wasn’t feeling too stiff now.

This walk was mostly around the little peninsula in which the two Paglesham hamlets, Churchend and Eastend, sit. Across its two border-channels, first Paglesham Creek then the River Roach, lie two islands, Wallasea and Potton. Their uses could hardly be more different: Wallasea is being converted to nature reserve; Potton is part of the Foulness weapons testing range, from which bangs and flashes might emanate at any time.

The few hundred yards between the pillbox marking the junction of creek and river and Paglesham’s little quay are full of interest. There are many abandoned oyster beds here; like Cornish tin mines, one wonders whether this is simply a fallow few decades for them, given the success of shellfish farming elsewhere along the coast. And at a little inlet between them is the probable last resting place of HMS Beagle, the ship on which Darwin started his long journey to the incontestable evidence that finally helped consign the writings of Biblical times to story-book rather than fact. Alas, any timbers are little more than molecules now.

Paglesham Quay

Paglesham Quay

Things are a bit scruffier beyond Barton Hall, and I knew an industrial estate at the head of the navigable Roach would have to be crossed, but I hoped that ‘Stambridge Mills’ would be a beautiful old tide mill, like Battlesbridge. Alas no; it’s a derelict factory, the path skirting it with barbed-wire ten-foot fence. But enough of interest on the walk to encourage me on to the next stage, around the fractal convolutions of the channels surrounding Foulness.

Tuesday 1 April 2014. Rochford to Great Wakering, 14 miles, 12 on route.

Goodness! Nearly a year off!! And on a bright if rather hazy day, I set off with little expectation, not least from the anticipated mile of road after Sutton Bridge. My rule is ‘closest right of way to the sea’, which would mean the road, but rather than that risky trudge I decided to divert on field paths instead, even if they were just inland. Good choice too, otherwise I would never have known about the 10¼-inch gauge Sutton Hall Railway, which the path runs alongside for a good half-mile – alas though no steam today. There’s a brief coastal glimpse from here, but it’s a good hour from Sutton Bridge before the sea wall is finally regained, though from here there’s no deviation until just before the finish. First, there’s Barling Marsh to be circumnavigated – it hosts the local tip, but as at Rainham, this helps bring bird life in to scavenge. From Barling Ness, the sea wall turns inland again, first beside the intriguingly named The Violet, and past the little harbour at Barling Hall. Turning seaward again at Little Wakering, I had the advantage of a high spring tide rapidly filling the basin, covering all the marsh hereabouts except for a tiny fragment, named on the Explorer map as Brimstone Hill.

Across Brimstone Hill

Across Brimstone Hill

For nearly an hour I’m doing no more than gain a spot on the Violet opposite where I had been before. The day’s final landward turn brings a change, however; the land to the east belongs to the military, the Foulness range (here, Potton Island again) that had been in earshot from not far short of St Peter’s Chapel. Or for the military, read that insult to both morals and the English language, the privatised entity called Qinetiq. At the swingbridge to Potton Island – I could just see it opening as I neared it – it’s technically a trespass on to military land to continue on the sea wall for a few hundred yards, but the warning signs are only designed to be visible to boats, so I continued on. It’s straightforward then to Oxenham, taking its track away from the coast to the bus stop at Landwick Cottages, and the main military entrance to Foulness.