Tollesbury Pier, Goldhanger ,Heybridge Basin
A quick recap. Three of us are doing a series of walks around the Essex coast with others joining us along the way. We started at Mistley, on the Stour Estuary in late March. Today, we start by walking down the path towards Tollesbury Pier, past the tower which was built in the hope of blowing up radio-controlled mines in the Blackwater estuary during WWII, and then we turn west along the sea wall towards Goldhanger. There’s a lot of surface water on the paths;we’ve had heavy rains, but once we’re on the sea wall itself, the going is fine, the weather is mild and sunny. The seawall here has been reinforced with iron pilings, the salt marsh is relatively sparse, the tide is high and the water laps directly against the bank of the wall. To our right, the land is agricultural – grazing land, and fields of oil-seed rape, now in full bloom.
Essex estuaries have not been carved out by the action of the rivers that feed them; rather, they are the result of the sea encroaching over the low-lying and gently subsiding land and the Blackwater and the Colne, although they flow a fair distance across Essex, are small rivers. To our south is Osea Island, linked to the land by a snaking causeway that is submerged as the tide rises. It has a chequered history; Ebb Tide reckons the local population were persuaded to offer over-wintering accommodation to a visiting group of Vikings, who subsequently slaughtered them. More recently, the island has been a military and naval base, film location, retreat for wealthy alcoholics run by the Charrington family (apparently, at one point, the artist Walter Sickert was accommodated there), and more recently, a detox centre for people struggling with substance abuse (apparently, Amy Winehouse was there), which closed under a cloud of malpractice in 2010. The island remains a pocket of isolation and a fitting backdrop for The Woman in Black, two versions of which have been filmed on its causeway.
We have been saddened to hear of the deaths of Bert Weedon and Levon Helm today.I never knowingly heard a Bert Weedon record, but having read his credits in an obituary, I must have done; my older brother had a copy of Play in a Day so I suppose I count as one of the two million aspiring guitarists for whom that book was the gateway to the three-chord trick. Also, given that dog doo-dah is a minor sub-theme of this blog, is seems fitting to recall the Bonzo’s very wonderful We are Normal and we Like Bert Weedon. He survived to 91, so must have been doing something right. Possibly abstaining from alcohol and substance abuse. Levon Helm loomed larger for me, and many has been the time I’ve attempted to emulate his growl on Strawberry Wine. Ebb Tide had picked up on Bob Dylan’s expansive tribute; “He was one of the last true great spirits of my, or any other generation”. Fortunately, our grieving spirits are buoyed by the prospect of meeting up with both my partner in crime, Marsh Samphire, and Ebb Tide’s wife Florence, who are joining us roughly half-way through the walk, at Goldhanger.
We can see Goldhanger church across the marshes for at least an hour and a half before we get to it, as the sea wall does its usual winding, loopy business. Ebb Tide calculates that we’re walking at five-and-a-half kilometres an hour, which is quite a good pace, and could mean that we are fitter than when we started our walk eight weeks ago. On the other hand, it may be an indication that there is a very good pub at Goldhanger which we are strongly motivated to reach. An extra spring is given to our step by the forecast of rain at four in the afternoon, and we are intending to be at Heybridge before then. Marsh Samphire and Florence are already in the pub, which is busy with Friday Lunchtime diners.
Florence has a friend who is a friend of Leonard Cohen, which reminds Master F. of a friend of a friend who, in order to get tickets for a limited-attendance concert later in the year, joined several Leonard Cohen fan clubs so as to maximise his chances in a ticket lottery. He ended up with ten tickets. Never having been a huge fan of Mr Cohen, I would have considered this the short straw, but Florence patiently explains to me that that’s because I’m not a girl. If we could have engineered a meeting between the friend of Master F.’s friend, and the friend of Florence’s friend, the friend of Master F.’s friend might have got a free ticket. That is after all, what friends of friends of friends etc are for, but, as it is, we just have to make to with basking in the reflected gloom of having three degrees of seperation from Leonard Cohen.
Master F. and I are having a smoke outside the pub, waiting for the others to join us so that we can continue our walk. As soon as Marsh Samphire emerges, there is a loud roll of thunder. I have always suspected her of having control of certain elements, but, on this occasion, I feel that it is being inappropriately exerted as we still have eight kilometres to go. Sure enough, as we set off around the exotic polytunnels of Goldhanger fruit farm, the temperature drops a good few degrees, the wind becomes harsher, there is thunder and lightning in the sky to our north, and before long, we are walking through heavy rain. Marsh Samphire notes that, a couple of weeks ago, she was looking at weather-proof jackets on a web-site, and thinking how fussy they were, with weather-proof cuffs, double zips, triple linings, insulated hoods etc, but when you’re out in the elements, it seems to make sense. I’ve had my ‘weatherproof’ jacket for about twenty years, and have never known how to work it properly. The double zip never seems to fasten right, and I’m walking into the wind holding the hood on my head, as I can’t operate the ties effectively. The rain lasts for about twenty minutes, and fortunately, by the time we get to Heybridge, the wind and sun have been sufficient to dry us off.
Salt has been produced in Essex since the iron age. Our last walk started at Salcott, which name is derived from ‘Salt –Cotes’ or clay vessels that were used to process the salt; the area is dotted with ‘red hills’, marked on the map, but mostly invisible from ground level. They show up as dark circles on aerial photographs, and are the remains of salt processing works. Apparently, the area is littered with the remains of pottery vessels used in salt production, and dating from Roman times, but the sea wall is probably not the best place to find these, and we don’t. Interestingly, neither do we see the remaining working Maldon salt pans , which are somewhere near Heybridge. We do walk past one of the very early holiday camps, Mill Beach, which is still thriving there, the West Ham flag flying in the breeze clearly marking an East London encampment. The East London/ Essex divide should be spurious because, until 1965, the large section of London east of the River Lea and north of the Thames was Essex, and ethnicity is no respecter of administrative boundaries. However, on the Essex coast, the defensive aura among the London expats, overwhelmingly white, is inescapable.
Heybridge basin itself is the seaward end of the Chelmsford – Maldon canal, which ends in a double lock leading out into the estuary. It is crammed with boats of all shapes and sizes – Maldon barges, Dutch barges, cabin cruisers, yachts, and it would be interesting to know, given the time it would take to get a couple of boats through the lock, and short periods of high water, whether any of them actually go anywhere. From Heybridge, we head into Maldon and a fabulously non-reconstructed pub that has beer on gravity. We are talking about newspaper history; the demise of the Daily Herald and the history of the Daily Mirror. Conversations like this have been transformed by 3g phones, and we have soon found out that the Mirror was established, in 1903, as a paper for women, and failing to attract the female market, transformed itself into a picture paper, popular on the front in the first world war, and distinguished itself in the lead up to WWII by taking a strong anti-Hitler stance as opposed to the Mail and papers of that ilk. The pub has a well-appointed yard out back, which is also a sun trap, and from which you can lean over a fence and ponder the River Blackwater, at this point, a reed-choked ditch about six feet wide, giving away nothing of its estuarine potential.