Tuesday 6th March 2012
10 O’clock, Beaumont Quay,the next leg of the journey. There are three of us – myself and Ebb Tide have been joined by Master F. The quay is actually our finishing point – it’s a two-car job today, and we drive back to the start of the walk at Little Oakley, retracing our steps to the sea wall and, rather than turning left for Dovercourt as we had last time, we head west along the north side of Hamford Water. Master F. is concerned that his boots may leak for there has been heavy rain over the previous two days, and the drainage ditches are running full, the fields saturated and the going slippery. Although there is plenty of low cloud, watery sunshine brings a haze off the fields, and the horizon is illuminated; Ebb Tide comments that it’s disloyal of the landscape to look so Turneresque, so close to Constable country. To the south, the Naze, on the other side of the water, is invisible.
Walking the sea wall is straightforward. It stretches in an arc ahead of us, deserted except for a runner disappearing into the distance. Inland, on the low area that would be flooded if the wall wasn’t there, are large fields full of cabbage-like plants that none of us can identify; possibly something to do with cattle feed. Parts of the wall have been recently renovated, and we wonder how long a wall of this scale will be maintained. In some parts of Essex, notably Wallasea Island, they are breaching the walls both as a more effective flood defence and to provide habitat for wetland birds. The sea wall curves inland to make a bay of a large area of salt marsh, and we’re tempted to walk along the strand of dry sand that fringes the tide line of the marsh. Salt marsh is deceptive though, and what, from eye-level, looks like an expanse of reedy grassland, contains a labrynth of channels, ranging from a couple of feet to tens of yards wide, flooded at high tide, and, when the tide is out, banked with the slippery and clinging Essex mud. Probably just as well; salt marsh is a fragile environment and usually, in this area, managed, in order to encourage birdlife. The last thing that’s needed are squads of walkers in size 11 trekking shoes. A check of the map confirms that the apparently solid ground is actually divided into Pewitt Island, New Island, each inroaded and divided by rivulets, and an area called Bull’s Ooze.
If salt marsh is one feature that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to follow the exact tide line of the Essex coast, ports, such as Parkeston Quay are another, and, as we discover, chemical works are yet another, as we reach the apex of the saltmarsh bay, the way is blocked by barbed wire and a thicket of threatening signs put up by an outfit called Exchem. As we are reading them, we exchange greetings with an SUV driver wearing camouflage gear who is driving down the bridle path behind us. Time for a snack; Ebb Tide and I trade pork pie and salami sandwich, and Master F. (also wearing a camouflage jacket) has quorn scotch eggs, and exotic crisps. We have to head up the bridle path and inland.
Ian Yearsley, in his book Islands of Essex (1994), points out that the remoteness of this stretch of coast has “Unfortunately…led to some entrepreneurs considering it ideal for experimentation…”. and explains that the area at which we have arrived, Bramble Island, has been the base for an explosives manufacturer since the late 19th century. He describes a series of explosive-related mishaps that have occurred here during the past 100 years, including instances of volatile material being carried away by flooding and washed up as far away as Ramsgate, and the occasion upon which two men were killled by ‘experimental mines’ as they pursued their stray dog across the saltmarsh.
This is the last bit of coast that we actually do on this walk. The rest of it is spent avoiding as much of the B1414 as possible and then zig-zagging on footpaths back to Beaumont Quay. This part is a bit of a slog, mainly on account of the mud, although there are some great views across the water. Ebb Tide has the O.S. map on his smartphone, which means he can guide us through the footpath options with palm-held convenience. This is a great advantage over having to consult my full-size paper map every kilometre or so, but I wonder if there’s a downside to this such as having your emails targetted by adverts for salami sandwiches, or exchem’s products, or maybe even Bull’s Ooze. It turns out that however, that Ebb Tide’s map isn’t online.
It’s been a short walk, so we drive into Walton, and take a stroll down to the end of the pier. The mechanical voices from the machines vie to attract attention and the end of the pier show is a couple of fishermen and a brand-new life boat station. Adding the few fishermen strung along the pier, two pairs of ten-pin bowlers and three teenagers playing the machines, and including us, the total population of the pier is fifteen, which is not bad for early March.