The Blackwater estuary

The broad Blackwater estuary, around which Dave Travers and I walked in 2010-11, is dominated by the old town of Maldon at its head.

The two coastlines, before and after Maldon, are highly contrasted: basically nothing on the north, human intervention-wise, while the south has a couple of unlovely twentieth-century developments before Bradwell power station is reached. But even here, long lonely miles separate the outposts of, ahem, civilisation.

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’.

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. 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 riche 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 (see picture 3), but right for the area? Time will tell, but it was still going strong in 2013.

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 (pictured left) 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, 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 continually 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’.

Pennyhole Fleet

Pennyhole Fleet, looking across to West Mersea

Tollesbury Wick Marina

Tollesbury Wick Marina

Tollesbury sail-lofts

Tollesbury sail-lofts

Looking out to Gore Saltings

Looking out to Gore Saltings

The Chequers at Goldhanger

The Chequers at Goldhanger

Maldon from Heybridge Creek

Maldon from Heybridge Creek

Maldon Hythe

Maldon Hythe

The sea-dyke near Steeple

The sea-dyke near Steeple

Thames barge on the Blackwater

Thames barge on the Blackwater

Sea-wall breach

Sea-wall breach near Bradwell Waterside

Bradwell power station

Bradwell power station

Lookout at St Peter's Chapel

Lookout at St Peter’s Chapel