2nd April 2012
The blurb on Brightlingsea’s website is low-key;
Brightlingsea beach is suitable for you if you don’t want to go to a packed beach resort, and just want a quiet day out. There isn’t any entertainment on the beach, as it is a very small area, so you could go and enjoy a swim and sunbathe, whilst watching the boats out on the water.
It doesn’t mention that if the tide is out you’d have to walk two hundred yards to get a swim (although there is a newly-restored open-air lido), and it also doesn’t mention other fascinations of the town; the considerably less tranquil episodes of resistance to the import of coal during the 1984-5 miner’s strike, or the ‘Battle of Brightlingsea’ in 1995, the protest against the use of the port for the export of calves for veal, when protestors painted calf hoofprints on the road for two miles, all the way from the edge of town to the port. The town is also a ‘limb’ of the Cinque Ports; it has the 19th c. Bateman’s Tower built by John Bateman, who was, among many other things, deputy warden of the cinque port, as a personal sanotorium to enable his daughter to recover from consumption. John Bateman is, of course, famous for writing The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland, A list of all owners of Three thousand acres and upwards, worth £3,000 a year; Also, one thousand three hundred owners of Two thousand acres and upwards, in England, Scotland, Ireland, & Wales, their acreage and income from Land. A modern version of this would be interesting.
The railway stopped running between Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea in 1965, a victim of the Beeching Axe; the specific justification for closing this branch line was the cost of maintaining the swing bridge over Alresford Creek, and the bridge was demolished soon after the closure. The station was demolished after fire damage in 1969, and is now an apparently thriving community centre, for as we park just opposite, there are lots of people sitting outside it looking as if they might be waiting for a coach to take them to a days shopping at Lakeside followed by a Des O’ Connor concert (Please avoid snide observations like this. Ed.). Opposite the community centre is the Famous Railway Tavern and we have invited its proprietor, The Anarchist Pub Landlord, to join us for the day, but he has a beer delivery and is also about to start brewing a new batch of his own beer. Our path follows the course of the railway, past Bateman’s Tower, all the way to Wivenhoe and one of the issues on this stretch of the walk is whether or not to ford the creek (there is a ford, well-known in these parts and clearly marked on the O.S. map), or to make the four-and-a-half kilometre trip up one side and down the other. TAPL has crossed the ford and advises against unless we want mud up to our knees. His advice is borne out by this extract from a blog by someone walking from Wivenhoe to Brightlingsea;
‘We walked through the trees with occasional views along the estuary before reaching Alresford Creek, where the bridge had long since disappeared. So we came to the object of the exercise – to cross Alresford Creek at low tide!
‘We intrepid three made our way to the slipway which is marked on the OS map as a public footpath crossing the creek. Yes, the water was very low, only a few inches deep, but what about the mud? We donned our wellie boots and, apart from one of our number, made it fairly easily down the slope to the water level. Geoff Forward, in his home made garb, seemed to make fairly good progress to the opposite bank, but David Flood proceeded to get stuck in the mud on the Wivenhoe side. I tried to follow in Geoff’s footsteps, but found the going more and more difficult as I sank to top-of-wellie-boot level. Finally, I felt that I was going to topple over into the mud and not be able to get up again.. We must have looked really stupid to any passers-by – three old stick-in-the-muds, if ever there were any!
‘With visions of being stuck until high tide, I considered calling out the coastguard on my mobile phone. And time was running out to reach the pub! David was finally making some progress, and I managed to change direction to walk in what I thought to be slightly shallower mud. I gradually began to move very slowly, trying not to leave my wellies in the mud, which threatened to suck them off my feet. I really know now how it must feel to be stuck in a quicksand. Geoff had taken my bag, and I eventually joined him, and then went back to try to assist David. My dog was also having problems, but we all managed finally – covered in mud – to assemble on the Brightlingsea side of the creek.
‘After difficulty in cleaning the mud off our clothes, we legged it along the estuary path into a strong wind, stopping to view the creek from the Brightlingsea side of the former bridge, and again at a freshwater lake for the dog to wash off the drying caked mud. We then walked into Brightlingsea to reach The Railway Tavern before closing time (3 p.m.) and sample their superb ‘Crab & Winkle’ mild, which is named after the former railway. The pub also has some photos of the former station, which was situated opposite.
‘We caught the bus from outside the pub back to Wivenhoe, and just made it to the Horse & Groom, the only other mild outlet in the area. From here, we walked back to Wivenhoe station, just as the rains came down. However, mission accomplished, we had crossed Alresford Creek! Don’t you wish you had?’
Well, with massive respect to the enterprise of these three ale afficionados, my answer to this has to be ‘no’. Still scarred after last week’s encounter with The Mud at Point Clear, this sounds like a deeply uncomfortable experience, in fact, on the basis of this description, I’m not sure that the crossing even merits the label ‘Ford’. It would be more accurate if the map indicated ‘Potentially Dangerous Wade in The Mud’. Master F., I’m confident, would agree with me, however, as we walked past the ‘Ford’, trying to estimate exactly where it ran, I thought that Ebb Tide, who is more intrepid than Master F. and myself, was looking longingly towards the other bank where a parent and two children were struggling in the mud. It looked as though they’d made a start and wisely decided against continuing. A friend told me later that he had seen someone run across it in trainers with ease, but twenty years ago.
I had been confident that there was a right of way up the Brightlingsea side of the creek, but we are met with a barbed wire fence, so we have to scale a gate and continue with a degree of uncertainty about how smooth our progress would be. It’s fairly straightforward apart from a bit of a manouevre at the head of the creek, which possibly involved traversing someone’s back garden, and so we’re down the other side, which is a right of way. It’s straightforward to Wivenhoe, and we study the opposite bank closely, on the Fingringhoe side of the river, because this is the next stage of our journey; again there is no right of way on the map, but it does look as if there is a walkable sea wall.
There are different ways of defining the Essex coast; we could have taken the constituency boundary which runs across the Colne estuary from Point Clear to East Mersea, which would have meant stopping at Point Clear and then starting again at Fingringhoe Wick or East Mersea. Some people insist that it’s necessary to follow the tidal, salt-water river, which would have entailed going all the way into Colchester to East Mill. We’ve effectively taken the Wivenhoe Barrier as out marker, and this is the limit to which the Essex Shoreline Management Plan applies. We have to walk past the barrier, with the emphatically non-ivory towers of Essex University to our right, up to the bridge across the docks at The Hythe, and back down the west side of the river towards Rowhedge.
Back to Brightlingsea to pick up the car, we stop for fish and chips at what is reputed to be the best chippie in Essex, and I think they are very good. Ebb Tide insists the fish is not as good as those caught off the Aberdeen coast (Ebb Tide, purely incidentally, is from the Aberdeen coast), and I’m sure he’s right, but it’s a long way to go for Fish and Chips. Maybe an Aberdeenshire coastal walk at some stage? Master F. orders a veggie burger and receives an overt wry look and raised eyebrow from the guy serving us. Master F. has a fund of stories of vegetarianist prejudice, particularly in the Essex coastal area. Last year, he was in the Spar shop at Point Clear, asking about what they had to offer the vegetarian, and all eight people in the shop stopped what they were doing to question his deviant eccentricity; “What d’you eat on Sundays then?”.