North of the Crouch

This section – which Dave Travers and I walked in 2011 – starts, not with estuary, but with the longest littoral section of the walk.

It’s easy to see the Crouch estuary as a poor relation to the Blackwater: narrower, with fewer deep inlets, and boasting only the new town of South Woodham Ferrers near its navigable head, compared to the fine old town of Maldon. But as you will see, there’s much to enjoy.

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.

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.

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

This day shows that the Crouch estuary does match the Blackwater, though an awkward deviation after North Fambridge detracts. With the rail line linking start and finish, no car was necessary.

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. 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. 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.

Radar array at Sandbeach outfall

Radar array at Sandbeach outfall

High-tide mark near Middlewick Farm

High-tide mark near Middlewick Farm

Burnham-on-Crouch

Burnham-on-Crouch

Bridgemarsh creek

Bridgemarsh creek

North Fambridge

North Fambridge

Slipway at Marsh Farm

Slipway at Marsh Farm

Battlesbridge

Battlesbridge