Two estuaries, the Crouch and the Roach, and barely a sight of the open sea. Five walking days totalling 57 miles from Burnham to Great Wakering, 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 …).

Until 2014, that was as far as I had got on my walk round the Essex coast. I was within sight of Foulness Island, alas all but out of bounds to walkers these days as it’s effectively owned by military plc Qinetiq, that ultimate failure of the brander’s art.

But in 2021 I resumed the walk, spurred on by Beach of Dreams. Not only have I reached the prom at Southend, I’ve walked the Broomway too. It’s how walkers have reached Foulness for centuries – only it runs offshore across the mud flats, and can only be accessed at certain low tides, with a guide if you have any sense. Totally worth the experience, as you will see below.

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.

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.

In 2021, rather than take Beach of Dreams along the B1012, I sent them further north, to the old railway at Stow Maries. A bit longer, but much safer and nicer! See the map below.

North Fambridge

North Fambridge

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.

In 2021, I knew I could not send Beach of Dreams along the road, so I engineered a great loop south instead. It’s really rather nice. There’s a good green lane to usher you south, then before long you’ll be at the hilltop Hockley church. Pleasant field paths follow, with wide views across the Crouch; then, slip through a hedgerow into the public open space that surrounds Plumberow Mount, a Roman-era barrow. A rough lane takes you past a bewildering selection of Essex homes before Beckney Wood takes you to the road you has avoided for so long, for about a quarter-mile. See the map below.

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

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 19 July 2021. Wallasea Island circuit, eight miles.

‘Unique’ is a pretty overworked word these days, barely a lazier adjective than the dreadful ‘iconic’, but Wallasea almost deserves it. There are few places partly created by spoil from the excavation of underground railways. Of course, I can immediately think of one other, Samphire Hoe on the Kent coast, courtesy of the Channel Tunnel, so no, Wallasea is not unique, but …

What Samphire Hoe does not have is deliberate breaching of the sea wall. It hasn’t got one. Sea walls are essential in Essex of course, but often they are breached by storms – see Mersea Island, for example. Here on Wallasea Island they were breached deliberately, in an RSPB master plan to transform arable farmland into saltmarsh, mudflats, lagoons and grazing marsh.

A range of walking trails came with the project, and this walk – part of the Beach of Dreams festival – encompassed four of them. The party had reached the island by the ferry from Burnham-on-Crouch, which runs to the marina at the far west of the island, but I’d driven to the RSPB’s car park and saved a good mile and quite a lot of time.

We made the fullest possible circumnavigation of the island, joining together the Allfleets Marsh trail, the Jubilee Marsh trail, the South trail and the Marsh Flats trail. The first of these leads out to a viewpoint, and there a couple of others further round.

The viewpoints are useful resting places and one served for lunch. More properly of course they serve as hides for the birders, but there were few about today, and in all honesty a bunch of walkers parading flags around the sea walls wasn’t going to encourage the avocets to hang around. But all in all, an excellent day out around another of Essex’s quirky little islands.

Beach of Dreams on Wallasea Island

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

Much better than the walk to Canewdon the week before, 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.

Wednesday 4 August 2021. Great Wakering to Southend, seven miles.

Another day out with Barbara. I wasn’t expecting much, scenery-wise, but it’s much more interesting than it sounds, despite an early start hemmed in by a high fence that guards the MoD site. And then there is about a mile of road walking, before you can cut down to the sea wall at Shoeburyness. You reach it beside the boom, a mile-long structure which once held a cold war anti-submarine trap.

The fence

Shoeburyness Boom

It’s now prom all the way to Southend, with the occasional twiddle around former military garrison which gives so much interest to this area. The mid-19th century Crimean War led to calls for better artillery training, and the then temporary base at Shoeburyness – essentially, an offshoot of Woolwich – was selected for the new, permanent, extended centre. The bulk of its buildings, from drill shed to powder store and officers’ mess, are still extant, albeit repurposed for modern uses, following the closure of the base in the 1970s. There are still some prehistoric fortifications too. Many of the Victorian buildings have an elegance that belies their purpose, but the one that struck me most was the massive quick-fire battery of World War II.

The World War II quick-fire battery

Though Shoeburyness has a nice enough beach side, especially the East Beach up by the boom, it’s only when you pass the ness proper, at the southernmost point, that Southend-on-Sea comes into view. You’re now on the Thorpe Esplanade, with a nice bit of greensward a mile from the Ness if you can’t find an unoccupied seaside bench for sandwiches. Plenty of beach huts too.

Beach huts on the Thorpe Esplanade

Southend-on-Sea is in sight from the Ness, but distances can be misleading – we found ourselves hurrying up to the bus station to catch the hourly bus back to Great Wakering, having spent far too much dawdling with an ice cream earlier on. But if you can’t dawdle along the prom on a sunny day, when can you?

No walk along the Essex coast would be complete without a stroll along Southend’s world-record pier and back. My first trip was probably in my pram in the 1950s, and though that might not count, I’ve been back many times since, not always catching the little train both ways.

Monday 3 January 2021. Wakering Stairs circuit, 5½ miles.

After diverting away from the sea wall at Oxenham, I’d given no thought to the bit I had missed, passing Wakering Stairs. It’s a right of way, but as it’s within the military area access will often be withheld. After walking the Broomway (see below), that clearly needed to be put right.

But bank holiday Mondays are exempt from firing, so when Barbara and I were looking for a short walk to help burn off the New Year calories, this seemed like a good opportunity.

We set off through Great Wakering Common, a sliver of access land that starts off unpromisingly but includes a sweet little track through a wood planted only in 2002 by the local Friends group and decorated with all manner of (mostly wooden) paraphernalia.

The sea wall was soon gained and for half a mile I was back on my route from 2014, before striding off into the unknown past Oxenham Farm. There are signs of dire warning that it was good, today, to be able to ignore.

After passing below Havengore Bridge, the open sea is not far, at Haven Point, and soon we made our lunch stop at Wakering Stairs. High tide today, so not even a thought of ushering Barbara onto the sands! There was a family of four, mum (bird watching), dad and two daughters, and I was well impressed when dad got out a litter picker and big black bag and set about tidying the site up with the aid of younger daughter. I told him I was surprised that people who had the wit to come out here – access rarely available, after all – would be so unconcerned as to dump their rubbish; he told me, “It’s because it’s so isolated people feel they can do anything.” Alas.

It’s another half mile before the sea wall is blocked by a barbed wire fence and the right of way turns inland, on a scruffy path known rather inconruously as Cupid’s Chase. It meanders this way and that and a couple of times crosses the abandoned railway that once served the furthest recesses of the munitions site. Finally, there’s a brief heart-stopping moment as you approach the gate through the barbed wire fence we’d walked beside to Shoeburyness back in August. Safely unlocked today. Phew.

Be careful out there!

Abandoned tracks on Cupid’s Chase

Saturday 11 December 2021: The Broomway from Wakering Stairs, six miles

There has long been a farming community on the eastern tip of Foulness Island, and it’s long been isolated, with no simple harbour. Once, it was isolated by the shifting marshland of the west of the island, and to take their produce to market, or for visitors such as medics and posties to deliver what was needed, the only access was across the tidal Maplin Sands. The islanders developed a system whereby stakes – often broomsticks, hence the name – at regular intervals gave a safe line of sight, backed up by hand-carried ropes for use in mist. But even so, dozens died, caught unwary by the tides.

The mirror-land of the sands

So the Broomway now, still a right of way, has a certain, and deserved reputation. It has the potential to kill to this day. The tides do not come in predictably, but scurry and eddy round, advancing faster than a human can run. Mist can, by all accounts, disorientate the walker; or the lights of Kent beckon out to sea like a siren. Head direct to the island or Essex mainland, and there’s a further hazard: the Black Grounds, impenetrable quicksand and mud, ready to trap the unwary within yards of terra firma. And yet, the prize is there: to walk in the estuary, far from land, with high skies, long views, and a frisson of danger. In his celebrated account of walking the Broomway (in The Old Ways (2012)), Robert Macfarlane quoted Foulness native Patrick Arnold:

“It’s a weird world out there on the flats … Nothing looks the same as normal. Gulls can seem as big as eagles. Scale and distance change. It’s very easy to lose your bearings, especially in dusk or dark.”

No walk of the Essex coast is complete without a walk on the Broomway. But I give the warnings above for a reason. It is not, safely, a route for the uninitiated. Go with an experienced guide, as I did. These days, there’s only one regular guide, the estimable Tom Bennett, and I’d heartily recommend that you seek him out.

My chance to walk the Broomway came courtesy of Beach of Dreams. Ali Pretty had been keen to include the Broomway on her 500-mile walk along the Suffolk and Essex coasts in summer 2021, and set up for a small group of BoD people to walk the Broomway with Tom on her one free day, in July. Alas, there was a chance of lightning and so he had to cancel. As he explained, if you’re out on the estuary, you’re the tallest thing in the landscape, and that’s what the lightning heads for.

It was a long delay to our December date, but we had a peach of a morning. Some cloud, but high, with an impressionist painter’s sun peeping through from time to time. Little wind. We all gathered at the point of access, Wakering Stairs. Although the sea wall carries a right of way, and the private road (marked by green dots on the map) is surfaced, there’s no access if there is firing or bombing on the range. In general, weekends are OK.

The slipway at Wakering Stairs

Tom gathered us for our safety briefing and we set off. There are three key markers, each visible from the other (in perfect conditions like today), but I’ll not explain them here, lest someone set off with too much bravado.

The texture of the sands is ever-varying, sometimes a little firmer, sometimes less so, always ridged, often with streaks of black showing carbon-richness that is a boon for bird life, ragworms and crustaceans; sometimes a little splash through puddles, other times a few yards through water as the undulations of the sands provoked little rivulets into dropping water from ground a few inches higher. Never were we more than ankle deep. Tom and I were in wellies, and I had barely a splash above the boots. He cautions though against barefoot, for there can be little shards of shrapnel or worse. At one point we found what seemed like a ring embedded in the sands. Anything unexplained could be ordnance and should not be touched, or approached. It happens that one of our party had an earlier life in the bomb disposal squad of the Greek army, but we did not wish to put his experience to the test.

Tom and Ali at the head of the group

At length we reached the extremity of a rubble spit that extends from Asplin’s Head. It’s the second of five points at which the Broomway made landfall, and the one almost exclusively used today, for the rubble spit makes access through the Black Grounds less of a problem here – although we stayed just off shore, where the rubble made it easier for us to prop rucksacks and so forth.

For return, conditions were so benign that Tom took us on a slight banana bend a little further out to sea. Nothing too dramatic, but it made us feel something like explorers, treading where others did not. Only gently mind; there’s another three miles beyond, a land with no return.

Across the sands

If there’s a fault with this entrancing walk, through a mirror-land with a high sky, it’s that it’s over too quickly. I don’t know if I will ever return but in the right conditions, and the right partner or two, I’d love to try. I know the bearings, the waymarks now. To accomplish the Broomway walk self-guided would perhaps be more of an accomplishment than reaching Cape Wrath.