February 27th 2012
Mistley to Harwich: the first stage of a planned walk around the whole of the Essex coast. True, Essex doesn’t start at Mistley, the border is a few miles back just north of Manningtree and it’s also true that the stretch between Mistley and Harwich is the Stour estuary rather than ‘coast’. However, I and my companion, Ebb Tide (he’s far out), scorn such purism, and we’ve mapped out a route that will end somewhere around Purfleet, sometime in the future, defining the Essex Coast as we go along, and inviting others to join us along the way.
We arrived at Mistley station, and it’s worth noting that you can’t access the coast from the town because there’s a commercial port operating, and, adjacent to that, a private marina with prominent ‘no public access’ signs. It’s a mile or so down the road before a path goes off to the left and takes you to the water side. The going is soft at this point, with a good deal of surface water, the land dissolving into mudflat. The tide is almost fully out and we follow the tideline rather than the footpath. This works well – the mud is much firmer here than in many places along the coast, and it brings us closer to the bird life – Brent Geese, Shelduck and possible Avocets in the middle distance, although our lack of binoculars keeps this last at the level of wishful thinking. I like Avocets, and if a group of birds look as if they might be Avocets, then, to my mind, they are. I’ve spotted thousands of them.
As well as birds, derelict boats provide milestones. There’s a skeleton of a Thames/Maldon barge, submerged in the mud,which must have been there for ages – any time in the last 50 years it would surely have been snapped up for restoration – as well as the remains of more modest vessels. The going alternates between sandy gravel and mud, and as we’re negotiating a particularly tricky muddy bit a coastguard helicopter flies low over, taking a look at us – a particularly incompetent pair of illegal entrants skipping and sliding between mud and reed bed.
As we approach Wrabness, the shore is sandy again, almost a beach. It’s lined with what look like plotholder-type wooden houses on stilts, some of them refurbished to luxury beach chalet standard, some derelict. There’s no one about in late February, so the place has got a ghost town feel. I imagine Essex used to be covered in places like this as people fled London during and after the war, and the likes of Wrabness and, on a much larger scale, Jaywick are the remnants.
After Wrabness the going becomes relatively manicured, and we’re in managed nature reserve. There are signs asking walkers to avoid the mudflats at this point, in order to conserve the energy of the birdlife. We’re approaching the end of the estuary path, and swing inland – the plan is to cut across the Harwich peninsular, following the Essex way, and then walk up the coast on the other side through Little Oakley and Dovercourt, to Harwich.
We stop at a pub in Ramsey. ‘No muddy boots’ says the sign on the door. I take a cursory look at the soles of my shoes and decide they’re ok. By the time I’ve been standing at the bar for five minutes, the mud on the uppers has crumbled and Ebb Tide points out that I’m standing in a cirle of dried Stour silt. I take off my shoes and leave them in the porch, and we sit in our socks and have a pint.
Across fields and down to the shoreline with views across Hamford Water to the Naze. We’re looking at the next leg of the journey here, this bit of shoreline is relatively remote (as far as Essex does remote) and Ebb Tide and I discuss whether, next time, we’ll reach Walton in one day’s walk. For now however, we do a left towards Dovercourt, along the sea wall, with some 100 metres of salt marsh between us and the North Sea, past a caravan site, and on to the beach huts of Dovercourt’s sea front. I hadn’t realised how long this front was – at least a mile until we reach Harwich, and, with very few people about. The same applies to Harwich itself, which in my experience, has always had a something of a ghost town quality. But…
…as we approach the port authority building, we pass a group of people talking and when we attempt to pass around the building, one calls after us; “You can’t get through there, it’s a dead end”. Harwich is not a ghost town and neither is it a dead end. For us, it is without doubt, a beginning.