In the notes below, ‘we’ is my walking partner Dave Travers and me, unless stated. Some years before, we had walked much of the tidal Stour from Manningtree to Harwich as part of the Essex Way; this cuts across the peninsula to finish on the coast a little south of Dovercourt. A truly ‘completist’ walk would stick as close as possible to all of both sea walls.
Saturday 23 February 2008. Dovercourt to Beaumont Quay, 9 miles.
My then mid-teenage son Matthew joined us for this short stage. We were soon looking back to the cranes of Dave’s home town of Felixstowe. From here there is our first taste of saltmarsh, the Naze peninsula with its tower dominating the horizon. All too soon you are forced away from the coast itself by the boundary of the Exchem additives plant, a major supplier of a key component in diesel fuel. Formerly the plant produced explosives, and hence the rather scary signs at the plant boundary.
The diversion to Little Oakley was no hardship, though, for it hosted the then recently-rescued Ye Olde Cherry Tree pub, where we had lunch. Indeed, we weren’t to reach the coast again until the very end of the walk at Beaumont Quay, passing a pink-painted church now a private home and the remaining attractive bits of Great Oakley en route before a little descent with the next stage in view.
Saturday 22 November 2008. Beaumont Quay to Walton-on-the-Naze, 12 miles.
What a long gap between walks; vowed never to recur. But worth waiting for. This was seriously good coastal walking, up there on a par with the best that north Norfolk can offer. Even the road deviation, forced by access problems, has its compensations.
There was immediate fascination at the start, the skeleton of an old boat laid to rest at Beaumont Quay. Next, a pretty row of pink cottages at Landermere Gard, but the interest was not so much landside as marsh side. Dave was in ornithological overload here, spotting little egret, curlew, and snow bunting in quick succession, and later redshank too. Terrestrially, two small islands bear human populations, at least transiently: Skipper’s Island, linked by rickety footbridge, and the larger Horsey Island, to which a tidal causeway runs across the mudflats of The Wade. We saw a landrover inch uncertainly along.
You can keep on the sea wall beyond Kirby Quay, as far as the Horsey causeway landfall, but not unfortunately beyond, to the Titchmarsh marina: a fence at grid ref 241229 prevents it. There are pubs in Kirby-le-Soken if you wish to drown your sorrows. We continued alongside the B1034 into Walton-on-the-Naze. This sounds unpromising, but the road bears a pavement on the north side, and with the extra height there were something like panoramic views over the estuary. Our pub stop was the very friendly Queen’s Head in Walton, but there is a wide choice, and fish-and-chips if you want it too.
The circuit of the Naze is Walk 1 in Walking in Essex. The Naze is essentially a triangle, two sides marsh and one sea. The tranquil Walton Backwaters are a maze of channels before the sea is reached, and then through bushes the path slowly rises, up to open ground beside low cliffs. Welcome to the high point of the Essex coast, a full 75 feet above sea level! Somewhere eight miles – yes eight – out to sea lies the old town of Walton, such is the pace of erosion hereabouts. The Naze tower dates from 1720, when the Trinity House erected it to help guide shipping safely, though now it houses (in season) an art gallery and tea rooms. We walked into the town, one of my favourite little resorts, taking as our finish point the pier, second-longest in England to its Essex counterpart at Southend. In dusk, it glowed.
The Naze peninsula features in my Cicerone guide ‘Walking in Essex’.
Saturday 7 February 2009. Walton-on-the-Naze to Lee-over-Sands, 12 miles.
Map not needed; simply stick to the proms. But, disbelieving readers, this is a remarkable walk. The secret is not, until the last couple of miles, in the countryside; the secret is in the people, and what they have made of this corner of Essex.
Walton, as we have found out, is a pleasing bit of a mishmash. Although small, it is bumpy – how does the railway station come to be uphill? – and has a clear sense of being shaped socially by its topography. The people, in other words, have to fit in to the place, rather than fit the place to themselves. That sets Walton apart from Frinton and Clacton, but how remarkably these three places are delineated. Frinton is famously snooty, forbidding pubs (then – it has one now) and ice cream, keeping the working classes ‘beyond the gates’ of the railway line, or as the Americans would have it, the wrong side of the tracks. Even the beach huts of Frinton are different to those of Walton. In Walton, they tumble picturesquely and busily in layers down a little hill. In Frinton, they keep space between the huts, and use the slope for the excuse of grand walkways, that make it look as if the huts are double-storey. Frinton keeps its neighbour, the Clacton suburb of Holland-on-Sea, apart by virtue of a golf course that should be a saltmarsh. Holland, by the way, is a very long suburb. Clacton pier, always visible, takes for ever to come.
I’ve always liked Clacton. Like all the best seaside resorts, it does not pretend to be anything that it is not. When my children were younger, we spent many happy sunny days here, like so many east London families do. It was sunny today too, and although cold at around 3 degrees, there was a good crowd of trippers. The Moon and Starfish opposite the pier was thriving, with a good sense of community, and though busy the manager took the time to ask me about our walk – always a good sign, a pub interested in its customers.
But Jaywick … English shanty town, Asbo signs warning the young not to gather or be dispersed, broken streets named after defunct motor manufacturers hoarding jerry-built chalets. There is these days known to be a certain type of social deprivation afflicting certain English seaside resorts; Margate, Hastings, and Blackpool are three of its victims. At Jaywick it must surely be at its most extreme. The caravan sites that follow are almost a relief, tidy and well-kept, with investment to keep facilities up-to-date.
Finally, the last couple of miles takes you back to genuine saltmarsh. Looking inland it’s not difficult to sense that St Osyth would have had a southern shoreline in days gone by, and maybe to come. The hamlet of Lee-over-Sands, reached only by a private road, looked positively Dickensian against a setting sun, awaiting its Magwitch to grab the collar. What a strange, remarkable, varied 12 miles.
Saturday 7 March 2009. Lee-over-Sands to Brightlingsea, 12 miles.
To start with, road bashing, past Lee Wick Farm and then through the uninspiring ribbon development on the way to Point Clear. Eventually you can nip behind the houses and things immediately improve, with a view over Brighlingsea Reach to Mersea Island. As you round the Point, Brightlingsea town comes into view, just a few hundred yards across the creek, with a little patch of picturesque waterfront (pictured left) sandwiched between an out-of-scale modern development and a works tip – the latter at least showing this is still a working town, not someone’s bijou second-home resort. At Point Clear, a local told us about the Brightlingsea ferry, though none is shown on the map, nor were signs to it visible: perhaps because it is seasonal, with services running from April to November. But we had planned to walk to St Osyth, so we continued beside the creeks, at first looking over to yet another caravan park, then somewhat wilder, to the jumble of boats at St Osyth. This was rather a short morning’s walk, but we took lunch at the White Hart by the harbour.
St Osyth has many interesting features, but its main claim to fame is the Abbey founded by the Augustinians, with deer park behind. There is unfortunately no right of way along the north shore of St Osyth Creek, nor along Flag Creek, so one is forced inland. Rather than walk the B1027 we cut up by Riddles Wood, which returned us mentally to the many miles of country walking we have enjoyed in East Anglia. The road though is unavoidable through Hollybush Hill, until you can turn left and head back down to the creeks. As you turn north-westwards, the creek feels out-of-place, too remote from the sea to be marine. Finally, a little rise takes you up past sand pits into Brightlingsea.