The Essex coast ‘does’ estuaries as much as it does open coastline, and (working from the north) it saves the grandest for the last: the Thames itself. England’s greatest river (sorry Severn) will be a companion to the very edges of the capital itself.

The constant variability of Essex that has typified so many of the miles since Manningtree remains, only more so. Marshland vies with the industrial; ports ancient and modern are interspersed with mediaeval settlements and modern estates.

There are even a couple of islands, both of them a touch schizophrenic.

The one drawback is where the past and present docks of London Gateway, Tilbury and the Royal Docks, plus industrial Dagenham, keep you too far from the Thames to be sensible, with only dull road walking an alternative.

So pretty, always? Not a bit of it. But walk the Thames estuary and you’ll even get a glimpse into how England is like it is.

Back to Burnham-on-Crouch

Thursday 13 January 2022. Benfleet to Southend-on-Sea, seven miles.

The wrong way, but it is, I think, the only time I’ve walked this stretch in one go.

It was an LDWA outing on a stunningly gorgeous winter’s day of wall-to-wall sunshine. It’s a bit short for the LDWA, natch, so we went along the pier and back and then continued to Shoeburyness.

The very wonderful Silk River project in 2017 had seen us walk from Benfleet to Leigh-on-Sea on Saturday 23 September – in the pitch black, mostly – and on to Southend the next day, but with a diversion up to Chalkwell Park.

The view from the Cliffs Pavilion, 2022

Southend Pier at twilight, 2022

I’ve walked it the right way at various times. Some of those will have been strolls along the prom; others will have been amongst my earliest toddling steps, in the early 1950s.

More formally, the Leigh-to-Benfleet stage, on Monday 25 April 2011, was the first recce for what became my Walking in Essex book.

It’s tarmacced prom all the way from Southend to Leigh, and then a wilder estuary walk to Benfleet. The first part has man-made disruptions, often in the form of the local Rossi’s ice cream. The shingly beach is there as an alternative if you want it – Leigh itself even has a bit of sand (plus ace seafood opportunities).

As an alternative start, you can take the clifftop through the Cliff Gardens all the way to Westcliff’s famous Cliffs Pavilion. I saw Tony Blackburn here once, and also the Philharmonia Orchestra playing Messiaen. Nothing wrong with being eclectic. Indeed the LDWA walk had veered up there for the mid-morning stop.

The beach at Leigh-on-Sea, 2011

One of Leigh’s seafood shacks, 2011

View of Leigh from its boatyard, 2012

From Leigh to Benfleet, the eye is drawn over to the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, a favourite subject of JMW Turner. Its environs also hosted the mountain biking at the 2012 Olympics. Maximum elevation, c 220ft!

But look the other way, and you pass the tiny Two Tree Island.

Thursday 12 August 2021. Two Tree Island circuit, 2½ miles.

The afternoon before the Tony Blackburn gig, as it happens. I’d been past the island many times, researching for Walking in Essex, but never on it. Barbara and I had some time to kill before the Blackburn and this seemed like a good opportunity.

It’s one square mile, almost exactly, and doesn’t have a resident population, but it packs a lot in. The eastern side – officially Southend – was once partly landfill, but it’s now part of the Leigh National Nature Reserve, the remainder being the mudflats of Leigh Sand.

The western part – officially not Southend, but its neighbour Castle Point – is also nature reserve, but there’s a model aircraft flying zone too.

Very well worth the little effort needed!

The lagoon in the west of the island

A path in the east of the island

Friday 7 January 2022. Canvey Island circuit, 14 miles.

Just like Two Tree, Canvey is an island of two halves, but on a far bigger scale.

Coming from London, it’s easy to use the train to Benfleet and cross over to the island from there, but for me it made sense to drive a mile onto the island and park on Kellington Road, midway along the northern sea wall.

This is a sea wall with a purpose. The island was savagely hit by the 1953 floods, in which 59 died and the whole island was devastated. Improved flood warnings as well as better-maintained defences mean that the island is safer now, but the concerns of residents will still remain.

Walking clockwise, either from Benfleet or my start point (in a district known as Sunken Marsh!), will take in the eastern, residential half of Canvey first. The very eastern tip, however, is home to a nature reserve with a tantalising path out to Canvey Point, which I didn’t take. And, as ever with maritime Essex, there’s a marina.

Turning onto the southern coast, there’s a little beach, Concord Beach, which gives its name to one of Canvey’s two semi-pro football teams, Concord Rangers.

It’s perfectly possible to stay at street level but far better to walk below, not on the beach but on the prom of the sea wall itself. It’s an art gallery like no other, a mural mile showcasing all that makes Canvey special.

Music buffs will look for its celebration of Dr Feelgood, but there’s much else to enjoy in this gleeful celebration of island life. Don’t miss also the wonderful art deco Labworth café.

Sea wall, Michelangelo-style

The town ends at Thorney Bay. The map says there are loos here, but in fact they’re in the Bay cafe. It was a friendly place, I found; maybe they get used to round-island walkers, for it’s very much a rite of passage for Essex walkers.

After the bay, and the scarily-named Deadman’s Point, is Canvey’s other half. It’s an oil terminal, to start with. Get used to it; it’s the first harbinger of the industrial Thames.

It doesn’t last long though, and there’s a welcoming pub, the Oyster Smack, to beckon you on. I was too early, alas.

You’re away from the Thames now, beside Holehaven Creek. After a flood barrier, it narrows to its tributary the East Haven Creek. Here, West Canvey Marsh is another, and far larger, nature reserve.

After dipping under the A130 – now, the main road access to the island – it’s just one sea-wall mile to the Benfleet bridge, though for me the car was a little further on.

The marina at Smallings Creek

Looking over to Benfleet

Thursday 19 January 2023. Benfleet to Stanford-le-Hope, 16 miles.

I’d advertised this as a short-notice ‘pop-up’ walk for the LDWA a few days before, hoping for some company. It attracted one fellow walker, Lou, all the way from Beckenham. Very welcome the company was too!

For either side of Pitsea station is not the finest hour (or so) of the Essex coast. It’s beside the railway, on a mucky and ill-maintained path that does the England Coast Path no favours. As it happens, we had it easy, for there was frost in the ground keeping the worst of the mud just that bit more solid.

Before then, however, I’d taken us on the easy permissive paths through Bowers Marsh. Though adding an extra mile or so, it’s well worth the diversion, past lagoons and keeping you slightly closer to the Thames.

After the railway stretch, a sheep meadow heads you towards the river. You won’t reach it though till the very end of the walk. Instead, you reach the sea wall at Vange Creek. This time of the year, signs discourage walking on it, on account of the overwintering birds.

In Bowers Marsh

Lou skips over an electric fence

Across the creek, there is a massive landfill tip. It’s thrust up 50 feet or so, creating what in this flat landscape resembles a mini-mountain. For a moment, I had myself wondering what was the best way to the top.

The route meanders around a couple of inlets – Parting Gut, the first is called – to the Fobbing Flood Barrier.

Before the ECP, there was no access from Parting Gut, and coast walkers had to divert inland to Fobbing village. I’d had to do the same with Silk River on our way to Leigh-on-Sea mentioned above, a long stage that had started at East Tilbury.

The Flood Barrier was our lunch stop. If it had been wet, there’s a little birders’ hut nearby which would have sheltered us. From here, the path cuts across the marshes again. It’s sheep meadow once more, and I was surprised to find a very substantial set of sheep pens at the buildings of Oozedam.

We’d been marching towards more industrial Essex, the Coryton oil terminal and the tall cranes of the deepwater port of London Gateway. They have the riverside access, and there is, and I venture never will be, any access for walkers.

Instead one has to keep by the terminal’s access road for a long half-hour. Part way along, a boy racer was practising wheelies. It’s an odd mixture here, the port and its long grey sheds one side, the marshes the other, the A1014 with scant traffic between them.

At last, one can cross the road to – remarkably – the first arable field since Great Wakering. Kudos to the farmer here, it’s a top-rate headland with firm track for walkers. Over the port access road, across its railway and in a few metres there is the Thames at last, the glory of the day.

It was high tide, so its waters did not lap our shore; the river was a good half-mile away, across Mucking Flats. Lou and I had our last little pause here. Soon, we cut away from the river, by Wharf Road, to Stanford-le-Hope.

The Fobbing Flood Barrier

By the A1014

Monday 24 April 2023. Stanford-le-Hope to Tilbury, 9½ miles.

This is the last hoorah of the England Coast Path in Essex, before it nips over to Kent on the Gravesend ferry.

It’s a mile back out of Stanford-le-Hope to the river. I’d decided on boots rather than trainers, as there were bits of the previous stage where mud-churn was only avoided by the frozen ground, and that wouldn’t help me today. Wending my way on firm paths round Mucking Creek, round the back of Mucking village, and the edge of Mucking Marshes, I reflected that whatever / whoever (probably a Saxon chief Mucca) Mucking was named for, it wasn’t the quality of the ground.

It was also, I thought a bit of a shame that the ECP didn’t stay by the river, via the nature park just to the left of the crossing of Mucking Creek. Maybe old industry was impassable, and the Golden Gate Lakes are pleasant enough. Still, from the link path to East Tilbury, the river was only 1km away, and what could be difficult about that.

Much of that kilometre is water. I met a booted walker who’d given up saying “it gets much worse”. Wow, this is a National Trail.

But she wasn’t wrong. It had been a wettish April, but not unduly so; but the narrow, fenced or hedged path, was for long stretches under water. If I’d had trainers, I would indeed have given up. Instead, I paddled carefully, and kept dry feet. But for a new stretch of the ECP, it really isn’t good enough. It’s so bad that stepping stones probably won’t work, merely displacing the water, but boardwalk would. Get to it, path authorities!

The Golden Gate Lakes

Flood warning!

Back at the river, the contrast couldn’t be greater, on the sea edge of the concrete sea wall. So it’s a doddle to Coalhouse Fort, a relic of the fears of Napoleonic invasion and now a bit of a visitor attraction with a very welcome café.

Again strangely, the ECP heads inland for a while, rather than taking a right-of-way past Coalhouse Point. Maybe one day the sea will be allowed in there. But the two miles by the estuary, once it is reached, are full of interest.

First there is the Beach of Broken Dreams. The term was coined by Guardian journalist Kevin Rushby when he came across it on the 2017 Silk River walks.

‘In the bleakest setting, on a grey flat day, with a muddy tide sucking on a scraggy shoreline, I came across a beach filled with marvels and treasure. It was the place where London had dumped its Blitz debris on top of a Victorian tip which was itself on top of a Georgian dump, and so on back to the Romans…

‘Gently extracting a complete 19th century glass bottle from under a broken WWII wireless set and a vicious thistle, I reflected that you just never know where joy and salvation are coming from. Beauty and hope can crop up in the unlikeliest of places.’

If you read my Beach of Dreams article, you will know that I had been there too, but that was almost literally a flying visit. This time I dipped down to the shoreline and meandered slowly across, stopping here and there to turnover a piece of crockery to its painted side, or wonder what century that flagon was from. I asked a couple of beachcombers – is there ever a daytime when there aren’t any, here? – if they had any interesting finds. “Not today,” they said. “The diggers were here yesterday.”

What remains now is industrial Thames writ large, though not as large as it was before Tilbury Power station was demolished in 2019. There’s busy wharfside activity still, and for the nervous this ducking in-and-out of gantries, ladders and graffitied sea walls, much of the time just inches above the tide line, would be a test of the nerves.

Coalhouse Fort

On the approach to Tilbury

But there’s a magic moment when you climb up steps and there are dozens of horses, mostly piebald, on the damp marshes. Tilbury Fort is close by, like Coalhouse a visitor attraction now though alas closed today.

I watched the Gravesend ferry approach the landing at Tilbury, beside the cruise terminal where a German liner was tied up. My timing was pretty good. The ferry’s link bus to Tilbury Town station was just about to set off as I reached it.

Still to come: Grays to Barking, and Barking to the Lea, missing out bits of road walking.