It’s something like 80 miles from Colchester to Burnham-on-Crouch, plus an extra 13 for the very worthwhile circumnavigation of Mersea Island – and that is despite having to miss large parts of the coast owing to the lack of rights of way.

Dave Travers and I walked this in bits from 2009 to 2011, and found it tremendously varied; two estuaries, many creeks, the fantastically intricate Tollesbury Marshes and to finish one of the remotest shoreline walks in southern Britain. In all of this, there’s just one town, Maldon, maybe three or four villages of any size, and a few smaller settlements.

You’re walking the southern bank of the Colne estuary, then all of the Blackwater estuary, and finishing up on the Dengie peninsula. No-one’s pretending that you’ll spend days swinging from cliff-top to beach and back again several times a day, but the very level-ness of the scenery lends its own intoxicating bewitchment. You will, many days, pass no-one; but look out for the wildlife – this is the setting for JA Baker’s magnificent work of English wildlife writing, The Peregrine – and realise you’re sharing a very special space.

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Back to Harwich

Friday 11 December 2009. Colchester to Salcott, 13 miles.

Dave’s retirement now permitted Fridays. Lucky man. Leaving home in mist, I wasn’t sure it was going to be a good day out, but it lifted as I neared our end-point meeting place, and we were treated to a full day of early winter sunshine. Wharves and factories, some derelict, dominated the first mile until we reached the Hythe Lagoons, a network of ditch-lands that head to the waterfront village of Rowhedge, which is pretty enough in itself, with a good prospect of Wivenhoe over the river. Surprisingly, there’s a bit of industrial attached to the end of Rowhedge – we were pointed the way by a fork-lift truck driver – though this soon passes.

The section to Fingringhoe Mill, by the here-tidal Roman River, is named for a local walker, John Brunning, and has an excellent retrospective of Wivenhoe. Here alas we had to divert inland, the military holding the marsh to the south. These are the Fingringhoe Ranges, an important training ground for those garrisoned at Colchester. Red flags were flying at the exit of Post Wood, and with machine-gun fire in the middle distance, we kept north of the hedgerow hereabouts – a minor trespass, but judging by boot-prints not an uncommon one. Near the service road to the ranges are two houses presumably used for urban-search training and, thoughtfully, an ambulance turning point. Before the lunch stop was an awkward kilometre along the fast B1025 and a final few hundred yards over a claggy ploughed field.

Fingringhoe Ranges

Fingringhoe Ranges

It had been a fair step to the pub, the Plough at Peldon, on the village’s lower road – Peldon has a hole in the middle. A nice-looking weatherboarded place it was too, and though not Good Beer Guide-rated, had top-quality Adnams. But no food, or not for us. A boisterous party of blokes, all bigger than us – rugby club? – had gathered pre-Christmas, and the chef could cater for no more than them. Not even my best plaintive “But we’ve walked all the way from Colchester” could rustle up as much as a microwaved spag bol. And probably fair enough; I research long into the night to find lunchtime pubs which aren’t food factories. Disappointing nevertheless. At least the short stop, following quick consumption of emergency flapjack, meant we were in no danger of finishing the walk after nightfall.

There was another road mile before a branch right past the county-set Moulsham’s Farm (lady apologising for boisterous dog: “He doesn’t often see walkers in our fields”) and the little rise to the church of Great Wigborough. Several villages hereabouts, this and Peldon included, are sited on local hilltops, here a giddy 40 metres, a memory of times before the taming of the marshes, and perhaps now arks of refuge in times to come. The environs of the church made for a super viewpoint, to Brightlingsea’s detached church one way, around to the Dengie peninsula another, and Abberton’s remarkably vast reservoir dominating inland. Beyond Hill Farm, a broad swath had been kept by the field-edges, making for pleasant walking before a final stretch almost direct to the hamlet of Salcott-cum-Virley. Environmental stress has been known here before; an earthquake of 1884 damaged the 13th century church, with restoration not completed for nine years.

Saturday 28 February 2010. Mersea island circuit, 13 miles.

Mersea Island, the easternmost inhabited of the British Isles, is just the right size for a day out, a counterpart to my super little half-day stroll round Thorney Island the previous summer. Like Thorney, it has wide variety, although possibly in two halves rather than three thirds. The first challenge however is to access the island. Islands typically are accessed by tunnels, bridges or ferries. Mersea is one of a few linked to the mainland by causeway, in this case The Strood, now at least 1300 years old. Causeways by definition are at sea level, and hence liable to tidal flooding – the causeway to Holy Island in Northumberland is perhaps the best-known English example. The Strood floods only at the highest tides (see webcam), but with equinox approaching, my own arrival was ‘just-in-time’, sporting enough for a six-inch splash, but not the foot or more that a few moments later would be impassible to all but 4x4s (a use at last!) and reckless white van men.

The power of the tides indeed has breached the sea wall to the east, taking the right-of-way with it, so our walk started along a second embankment which now has access rights. Rejoining the right-of-way, the walk continues by Pyefleet Channel, with eventually the broad acres of Reeveshall Marsh on the landward side. A shepherd passed us on the way to tend his flock; Essex saltmarsh lamb is highly prized, but it is not Mersea’s principal claim to culinary fame. That is oysters: Mersea Island oysters appear on the menus on many fine fish restaurants, and one of the principal oyster fisheries is the Colchester Oyster Fishery at Pyefleet Quay, just before the easternmost tip of the island. From the tip at Mersea Stone, a summer-only foot ferry runs across the Colne to Brightlingsea; rather quicker than a two-day walk or two-hour drive.

The change from riverine alluvial mud to littoral shingle is sudden. Lee-over-Sands is in clear view to the east, and ahead lies the gently-curving coastline. Beyond a little wooded patch, the right-of-way lies below the high-tide line, and although by now this was not an issue for us, we turned away inland at Cudmore Grove country park so that we could take in our lunchtime pub, the Dog & Partridge, which serves the strung-out hamlet of East Mersea. This time my web research had thrown up some unflattering comments, so we weren’t expecting anything special, but it just shows how risky the web can be. We had a very warm greeting from the barman, enjoyed prompt service, and the recommended home-battered fresh haddock was excellent. A few weeks before I had been roundly disappointed by a Sussex Border Path pub with enticing website; never trust the internet!

From the pub, we regained the sea past East Mersea church and the first of several caravan sites. Those on Mersea appear well-kept and, below eye-level from the sea wall, less intrusive than those on clifftops. Important 2019 update – the coast path south of East Mersea church heading westwards can no longer be walked as the sea wall has been breached by storms. Hence the track on the map shows the path that must be taken instead. Beach-huts appear on the entry to the island’s sole town, West Mersea. Splendidly-kept they are too, and the (belated and heartily welcome) late winter sunshine showed off their pastel colours to great effect.

As you walk westwards, you’re conscious too of a change to a new estuary system. Across the Blackwater, Bradwell nuclear power station is only three miles from the town, though for us it will be four days by foot; the town council, concerned no doubt for the risk to their very clean sea water and hence the important local fishing industry, has been a principal objector to plans for a new reactor here. Past West Mersea’s two sailing clubs and boatyard, the island circuit completes with two more miles of saltmarsh, Peldon village clearly visible to the north on its little rise.

There are two Mersea Island walks – a short one and long one – in my Cicerone guide ‘Walking in Essex’.

beach huts

Beach huts at West Mersea

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Saturday 15 May 2010. Salcott to Tollesbury, 15 miles (13 on path).

One does not move far on this stage. Salcott to Tollesbury is two miles, direct. First, we (Dave, Barbara and me in the morning, before Barbara went beachhut-spotting on Mersea Island in the afternoon) took the long spit surrounding Pennyhole Fleet, with fine views to West Mersea before after six miles it returns close to Salcott at Old Hall Farm. From here we cheated a little, taking the paths direct to the centre of Tollesbury for our lunch stop at the King’s Head, rather than taking the line closest to the the marsh-edge, though hereabouts there is no path right by the edge itself. The King’s Head was by now the only pub in this large village, and we were rather surprised that it served no food; something of a missed opportunity these days. But the landlord was helpful, and heated up a pasty from the Spar shop for us.

After passing past some rather fine sail-lofts by the marina, Dave and I spent the afternoon circumnavigating Tollesbury Wick marshes. This is reclaimed land which is now a site of special scientific interest for its saltmarsh flora and fauna and its importance for overwintering birdlife. Sea-access to some sections is now sluice-controlled, and a recent ‘counterwall’ bisects the marshes, to help protect the western section against any repeat of the devastating 1953 floods – thought to be only a matter of time. A railway once ran to the edge of these marshes, to a pier where it was hoped day-trippers and yacht-sailors would throng, but the investment never paid off and the line closed to passengers as early as 1951. To put a little more distance on our day, we continued an extra mile beyond the marshes’ end at Mill Creek to just south of Decoy Farm, then heading north back to Tollesbury.

The marshes around Tollesbury feature in my Cicerone guide ‘Walking in Essex’.

Across the Blackwater to Bradwell

Across the Blackwater to Bradwell

Saturday 3 July 2010. Tollesbury to Maldon, 13 miles (12 on path).

A warm day in a (so far) warm summer, so we didn’t take this stage quickly. We parked in a layby just before Bohuns Hall, rather than in Tollesbury square, saving us a short road walk. The tide was out, and bright green algae decorated the mudflats. First stop, just before the little inlet where Bowstead Brook enters the sea, was at a bench in memory of a young father who had died in 2006; touchingly, his children had left him a father’s day note in a plastic folder threaded through the seat back. Beyond, Joyce’s Marsh was being restored to wet grazing, here with the assistance of the Blackwater Wildfowlers’ Association. Tents were gathering here, possibly from the association, for we narrowly avoided being shot by a couple on air-rifle practice. I said ‘help’, they said ‘sorry’.

At the attractive little quay in Goldhanger we left the coast at a gravel path between hedges, which comes out to the village street, dull bungalows one side, pretty cottages the other. The village still has two pubs, but the Cricketers would have to be good to compete with the Chequers. Dave and I have had some pub disasters on route – no food in Peldon or Tollesbury – so it was good to enjoy this excellent pub, a frequent local ‘pub of the year’.

The morning stage had the remote feel very typical of much of the Essex coast – once more, we had met no-one – but the afternoon was to prove rather different. And then, beyond the now-submerged causeway to Osea island, which hosts a private addiction and mental heath rehabilitation centre, the caravan parks start, lining the narrow gap between the high-water mark and the B road out of Maldon. It was all very refreshing to see bathing families, but we still had some miles to go. Indeed, we couldn’t believe the Anquet measurements, seeing the town of Maldon so close across the estuary, but we were to find that digital mapping does not lie. First, there’s a little corner round to Heybridge Basin; a pleasant place this, with two pubs, lock gates, the former naval fast-attack vessel ‘Defender’ and the splendidly-kept barge ‘Haybay’, owned by the London Borough of Newham for school residential trips.

Maldon from Heybridge Creek

Maldon from Heybridge Creek

Things are less good beyond ‘Defender’. A long trudge past a lagoon, Maldon always receding, leads to a bus garage, recycling plant and dusty road walk until the first bridge over the Blackwater. Here interest returns, and we soon reached the hythe in Maldon, full of interest and history, and a well-deserved ice-cream.

Saturday 16 October 2010. Maldon to Steeple, 15 miles (13 on path).

The Saturday before, dank cloud had cast a pall over a keenly-anticipated cross-England stage over the Somerset levels. Today, what Dave and I had feared a prosaic stretch of creek became a hugely-enjoyable day out, blessed by dry air, long views, and enough of a NW wind to give the body something to work with.

Leaving the Hythe behind, there’s a double highlight just a mile out from Maldon, with the Blackwater’s second causewayed island, Northey Island, to the left and the site of the Battle of Maldon to the right. Northey is a National Trust property these days and visits can be made. Passing at low tide, the causeway was clearly visible, unlike at Osea. The causeway had a central role in the battle of 991AD; the Anglo-Saxons, bless them, allowed for the tide in order to ebb to allow for a fairer fight. The Vikings won.

A long stretch to Mundon Stone Point follows, with the retreat on Osea Island clearly visible. From the Point, Steeple Bay caravan site is a short mile across the water but more than seven miles by the path. But it’s a pleasant diversion, with Maylandsea in view – though, like Maldon, this is tantalisingly close but an awful long time a-coming. I wasn’t sure what we would find at Maylandsea; Essex frontier territory perhaps, one notch up from Jaywick? It certainly has some very grand houses along the front, some even in good taste, with occasional ill-tended plots as the rich await the coming-together of bungalow death and planning permission. The pub, now called Hardy’s, had recently changed hands, by all accounts from one extreme to another. Previously a bikers’ joint, it was now stripped-pine flooring and game on the menu. Very good value it is, but right for the area?

This was not though our first time in Maylandsea. In 1999 we had walked the St Peter’s Way, which takes a direct line from here to the eponymous chapel on the Dengie coast. On the Way, Maylandsea to the chapel is less than a day; by the coast, it’s a day-and-a-half. The stretch to Steeple is evidence enough: seven miles by coast, two-and-a-bit by Way. The aforementioned caravan site apart, it’s a fascinating little stretch. The sea-dyke here seems lower than most, and indeed on a couple of stretches the path dips down onto the marsh itself, giving an added frisson of remoteness. For much of the time one traces the little Mayland Creek a mile south then north, before regaining the estuary proper. It’s possible to drive out to the public end of Stansgate Road, very near the place where Steeple Creek is crossed, but it’s a lovely little path by the creek towards the village, culminating in a meadow just behind the church.

Saturday 19 February 2011. Steeple to St Peter’s Chapel, 12 miles (11 on path).

Persistent rain for Dave, Barbara and me today, which while never torrential was more than enough, for the second week in a row, to prove that my waterproofs were wetting-out and in need of revival before the Carneddau in April. Again, of course, no such peaks today, but plenty of contrast, even if one missed the views across the estuary due to the weather; a mid-channel Thames barge, making its way cautiously, looked quite ghostly. We took an initial half-mile along a non-right-of-way sea wall, before taking farm tracks back to Stansgate Abbey Farm. Somewhat ironically, there is no coastal access past this, once country home of Tony Benn.

However this is as nothing compared to the situation at the first village of the day, Ramsey Island aka The Stone or St Lawrence. Here, the clearly-marked right of way past houses at 952060 is barred by gardens, and at the high tide, the shoreline is no option. Many of the roads are marked as private too, and it took a couple of illicit forays before we finally found a way back to the coast, at the end of Moorhen Avenue. It’s a long stretch now to Bradwell Waterside, past a caravan site at first, then on a more inland route than my old map showed, the old sea wall having been allowed to breach many years ago. Bradwell Waterside has the obligatory marina, with building works meaning a claggy entrance to the village, but the Green Man was a welcoming pub, well used to wet walkers on a damp day such as this.

The four miles to the end of this stage show much variety. First, there are the great halls of Bradwell nuclear power station, which is now decommissioned, but a proposed site for future development. Beyond, alluvial mud starts to turn to shingle, marking the change from river- to sea-shore. The next stage will have sea-shore in abundance! Off Sales Point, eleven barges have been beached, to protect the coast hereabouts. At woods, a track goes half-right to the Othona community, named after the Roman fort which once protected the coast here.

Remain though a little longer on the sea wall and you come to the ancient building on its site, indeed which re-used much of its stone, the chapel of St Peter’s on the Wall, dating back to 654AD. It is, without doubt, one of the oldest buildings still used for its original purpose on this, or indeed any other shoreline. Even on a bare raw day such as today, we could have no sense of the privations of the seventh-century land of the East Saxons; Bishop Cedd, the founder, was to die of plague ten years later. The chapel remains a holy place for modern Christians, and a place of pilgrimage. When Dave and I had the St Peter’s Way from Chipping Ongar in 1997-8, we had spent quite some time at the chapel, on a bright spring day. Now, our one thought was to finish the half-mile to the car park, and unpeel the sodden outer wear.

Two walks around Bradwell feature in my Cicerone guide ‘Walking in Essex’.

St Peter's Chapel

St Peter’s Chapel

Saturday 19 March 2011. St Peter’s Chapel to Burnham-on-Crouch, 14 miles.

There’s a song, Only the Lonely … And here is the walk.

One can, just about, artificially construct day walks in southern Britain which pass no habitation – out-and-back loops in mountain and moorland areas, essentially two half-day walks stuck together. But a whole, simple, legitimate end-to-end day, following the lie of the land? In Scotland, easily – several times already on my cross-Scotland walk. Bits of mid-Wales, and upper Teesdale. And yet, here I am in Essex, at St Peter’s Chapel, turning right, to follow the coast.

We had, weather-wise, a magnificent early spring day, constant sunshine, the lightest of breezes, and that comfortable walkers’ temperature of around 10 degrees C. This walk would be another matter with hail and rain whipping in from the south-west, or in the grey dank mizzle of the previous stage. Instead, we could use the chapel as a marker for how far one mile, two miles looks like, while in the other direction, across the Thames, the North Downs and what can surely only be Margate become visisble. It’s at two miles that the St Peter’s Way turns inland, across the Bradwell marshes to Tillingham, the nearest village hereabouts. An experimental radar array has been placed here, perhaps because it is far from interference.

Soon, at Marshhouse outfall – these periodic sluicegates help mark progress – the sea starts to move away from the path, impenetrable saltmarshes a kilometre wide separating the sea-wall from high tide (with low tide 2km further out). At the southernmost end of this section, there is an extensive run of horse-gallops with training fences, used by the equestrian centre at Middlewick Farm nearby. On meeting the high-tide mark once more, the sea-wall track becomes concreted, in the section known as Deal Hall Wall. Across the peninsula, the higher buildings of Southend-on-Sea are in clear view, while seawards, there is an attractive cockle bank, terminating at Holliwell Point, where the coast starts to swing west. On the roof of an old pillbox – several around here are built through the sea-wall – we had a brew-up in lieu of a pub stop, as flocks of Brent geese flew past us at head-height, and a barn owl came to explore.

High-tide mark near Middlewick Farm

High-tide mark near Middlewick Farm

A half-mile or so from the point, there is a veritable Hilton of pillboxes. Over the estuary, the military installations of Foulness Island were apparent, as is its church, now (along with a once-famous pub) closed. Foulness is the fourth-largest English island, but access is all but impractical owing to its effective ownership by military plc Qinetiq, that ultimate failure of the brander’s art. So Foulness won’t feature on our tour, despite many rights-of-way being registered, including the offshore Broomway which served as the island’s principal access to the 1920s. To its west is the slightly-smaller Wallasea Island, with sea-wall breaches clearly visible; more about that when we get closer. Eventually Burnham-on-Crouch comes in to view; it’s one of those estuary towns that you think should be visible from further away than it is, like Padstow for example. I visited Burnham regularly when the boys were growing up; a very yachty place with two ‘Royal’ yacht clubs, and a good relaxed feel to it, plus a much-needed fish and chip shop.

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