The Colne estuary

From Brightlingsea the River Colne stretches inland to its source near Steeple Bumpstead. In 2009-10, Dave Travers and I followed its tidal reach, to the first bridge in Colchester, England’s oldest town, then back down again towards Mersea Island.

Saturday 24 October 2009. Brightlingsea to Colchester, 12 miles.

Brightlingsea used to have a branch railway line from Wivenhoe, which ran beside the sea to the mouth of Alresford Creek; its path made an attractive and easy start. Indeed it was the cost of maintaining the swing bridge at the mouth of Alresford Creek that is said to have hastened the closure of the line, in 1964. Just inland from the creek’s mouth is a ford across the mud: to peer at rather than enjoy, for though its transit might not have been life-threatening, we felt we would have to be reasonably presentable at the pub in Wivenhoe.

The downside of the decision was an hour’s diversion, initially inland a little, past active gravel pits, but then improving past Brightlingsea’s (detached) church before a short road stretch on the busy B1029 (aided by good footway). After a little rise we dropped down to Thorrington tide mill, occasionally open though not today, from where there is a good path beside the creek once more. Beyond the ford (the official name of which is The Ford), we rejoined the old rail line. Fingringhoe Marsh is prominent to the left across the Cole; it hosts rifle ranges for the garrisons of the army town of Colchester, and on the next leg would force a wide diversion for very real safety reasons. Beyond a little patch of woods, the rail track diverges a little inland, but the path sticks to the riverside, with more gravel pits – and a very active quay serving them – apparent opposite.

Wivenhoe eventually came into view, beyond a new flood barrier, presumably to guard against storm surges drowning Colchester. The town has a pleasant old centre, and some good new development too; would have been worth spending longer, but the attractions of the Rose & Crown on the river front were enough on this grey day. From here to the outskirts of Colchester was a simple stroll, joined after some woods by the active railway line from Clacton, with the Colne now clearly narrower. The University of Essex dominated the hillside over the railway, until we reached the industrial suburbs of Colchester. Half-hearted efforts at regeneration have been made here, but did not look convincing on this day. We ended our walk at what is now the first bridge over the river, at The Hythe, a short stroll from the bus stop beside which we had parked our cars.

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.

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! (except trailman.co.uk of course).

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. Soon, you pass a path to the right that gives access to the Mersea Island vineyard and brewery: another example of the gastronomic inventiveness. Fools are they who under-rate Essex. 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.

Beach huts

Beach huts, West Mersea

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’.

The Ford

The Ford

Thorrington Tide Mill

Thorrington Tide Mill

Wivenhoe

Wivenhoe

Wivenhoe from Rowhedge

Wivenhoe from Rowhedge

Fingringhoe Ranges

Fingringhoe Ranges

Beyond Hill Farm

Beyond Hill Farm

The Strood

The Strood

Colchester Oyster Fishery

Colchester Oyster Fishery, Mersea Island

Across the Blackwater to Bradwell

Across the Blackwater to Bradwell