Walking the Essex Coast 14

15th May 2012

Regular readers of this blog will remember Miss Teri, competition poker player and connoisseur of fine wools, who walked the Walton-Clacton leg of our journey; and they will be pleased to welcome her son, Mister Erry, who is joining us for the Wallasea Island stage. The weather is not as good for Mister Erry as it was for his mum – back then, we were tripping les promenades fantastique in glorious early spring sunshine, now we are on the back of what seems like weeks of crap weather and the forecast is not particularly good today. However, Wallasea Island beckons optimistically. I’m particularly pleased at having managed to find my way here, because, although I’ve lived in Essex for years, I’ve never been to this part of the county, and after potholing my way  through the suburban labrynth of Raleigh and Hockley, it’s a relief to emerge onto the familiar marshy sweep of the Essex coast.

“Detailed descriptions of landscape are tedious” says J.A. Baker in The Peregrine, so I will be quick. Wallasea Island is a cluster of industry, holiday park, marina and farm buildings in one small corner; the rest is one, very large, yellow field and another, even larger, green field, all surrounded by sea wall, about 15 kilometers of it. I am grateful to Mr Baker for another writing tip, which is that common nouns don’t have capital letters; so, where I have been referring throughout this blog to  Egret and Heron, I shall now refer to egret and heron. We see two heron and lots of egret. I also realise that I’m not sure whether the plural of egret etc. is ‘egret’ or egrets’ and  would welcome  any guidance on this. On the other hand, I prefer without the ‘s’, so I might just keep doing that. Ebb tide has heard that great egret have been seen on  Wallasea, and these egret do seem rather large. I discuss this later with Secret Informant, a naturalist neighbour of mine who has read this blog, and often given tips along the way, and he thinks they are very unlikely to have been great egret, and that we were probably just closer to them than usual.

Essex coast 14, Wallasea Island 029 (1)

When you walk the Wallasea coast, the deceptive nature of this landscape is graphically illustrated. The River Crouch,  Burnham and the Dengie Peninsular are to our left; but looking ahead to the east and right to the south you could think that you were walking on an unbroken plain, bounded by the Pylons of Foulness, the north Kent Coast and the tower blocks of Southend, with no hint at the of the  amount of creek and estuary between your vantage point and the horizon.

The spectacular flatness of Wallasea is not quite the whole story, because the island is changing, and in six or seven years will be a different landscape entirely. We had noted on the previous walk, as we were coming in to Burnham, that there was large scale activity happening off the coast of Wallasea- there is a pontoon harbour with a large boat drawn up beside it, and a conveyor belt structure is being built inland. We knew that the the sea wall on the north shore of Wallasea had been breached in several places, and there is a very good overview of this from
the north wall of the crouch at high tide, but were puzzled by the signs of industry. What is  happening here is the creation of;

… the largest marine habitat  project in Europe which will transform the flooded island into a network of mudflats and salt marshes, and  will become home to thousands of birds made homeless by developments elsewhere on the east coast.

This is the result of negotiation between the conservationists, the harbour authorities and the crossrail project;

RSPB engagement officer Hilary Hunter, based at the charity’s island office at Grapnells Farm, said: “Wallasea will be transformed back into a magical, intertidal coastal marshland. The planning, the talking and the actions involved in making this project come to life demonstrate how we are helping the coast and its wildlife adapt in the face of climate change.”

At first the Crouch Harbour Authority (CHA) had severe reservations, believing that flooding a large part of the island would cause large volumes of water to run in and out of the river on spring tides. CHA chairman John Archer said: “The effects of a flood would be unpredictable and potentially harmful. The remedy was to partially fill the island before flooding it, thereby reducing the amount of additional water flow and also creating a more varied and ecologically rewarding habitat. Crossrail’s arrival on the scene, providing a very large quantity of suitable materials and the resources to provide technical infrastructure, was indeed fortuitous.”

Work began last week on the construction of a major new unloading facility at the island, capable of discharging spoil from two bulk carriers simultaneously.The new jetty will be able to handle up to 10,000 tonnes per day, but even when Crossrail, a new rail service from Shenfield to Maidenhead in Berkshire, is complete, the amount contributed will be only half of what is needed for the Wallasea project. However, hopes are high that a further five million tonnes will be brought on sea from the proposed Thames Tunnel or the controversial Sizewell C Power Station, if approved.

Essex coast 14, Wallasea Island 027 (1)

A massive crane barge is driving huge tubular piles at Ringwood Point, Wallasea Island, which will secure two large pontoons back-to-back.

The sharp increase in ship movements on the river, which at weekends attracts hundreds of pleasure craft, is a cause of concern.

However, following intense negotiations between the CHA, Crossrail and the RSPB an agreement has been reached.

The CHA chairman said: “The arrival of three or four ships per day bringing Crossrail materials will represent a major increase in the intensity of shipping movements compared to the 70-80 arrivals per year we have been used to at Baltic Wharf.”

Mr Archer emphasised that throughout the planning process the RSPB and Crossrail were “very aware” that certain measures needed to be taken to stop new traffic and existing recreational users from crashing.

He said: “Crossrail agreed a package of measures which included funding a major overhaul of buoyage in the approaches to the river, which were completed last year. Replacement and additional buoys make the River Crouch easily the best buoyed estuary in the country.”

Crossrail also agreed to replace Watchful, the CHA’s ageing former Essex Police launch, with a brand new vessel boasting a top speed of 24 knots.The new Watchful was officially named by Mr Archer’s wife Sandie, who poured champagne over her bow while it was moored beside the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club at Burnham-on-Crouch on April 17.

The new Watchful will be on the frontline of maintaining safety on the river, tasked with escorting the bulk carriers at weekends.

Thanks to The Maldon Chronicle for this information (the pictures are mine), and for other nuggets of information such as;

  • Saltmarsh is the zone      between land and saltwater. Its range of species can rival the diversity      of rainforests because daily tidal surges bring in nutrients and because      of the mixture of creeks, exposed mud and specialist plants
  • One cubic metre of mud contains enough worms and insects to match the calorie content of 16 Mars Bars. Mud and plants absorb pesticides and other pollutants

Essex coast 14, Wallasea Island 026 (1)

The last part of the walk is a bit of a slog. The rain has increased, and the sea wall is too narrow, the grass too long to  walk on easily, so we are driven down to the flat land next to the borrowdyke, periscoping up from  time to time to look at the views over Potton Island, with a dozen or so seals basking on the muddy foreshore, and Paglesham Creek. The walk also has a bit of a sting in its tail, we have been  taking our bearings from the marina at which we started, but as we approach to within a couple of hundred yards, the wall  does a devious loop, winding round another two or three kilometers before we are back to the starting point. In addition, as we approach the causeway connecting the island to the mainland, we are confronted by a seven-foot high metal gate, with barbed wire fence stretching either side of it. Using a convenient pole, found lying in the grass, we take it in turns to vault it effortlessly, landing safely on the road on the  other side, where we are able to read a sign saying there is no admittance to the land on which we have been walking for the past hour and a half. “That was a bit of an anti-climax” comments Master F. Mister Erry’s enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be dampened however, and he says he may bring a friend next time.Essex coast 14, Wallasea Island 003 (1)

Finally, a request for help; can anyone identify what these mystery blocks are? There are lots of them scattered around the north-west corner of the island, presumably, part of a pontoon structure. Any local historical knowledge appreciated.


11 thoughts on “Walking the Essex Coast 14

  1. The wooden blocks ‘Blocks’ as they as referred in your photo were the original Essex Marina floating pontoons in the 1960’s. These were replaced during the 1970’s. The Essex Marina and the Wardroom Hotel [since demolished] was then owned by the Essex Yacht Builders Ltd which was owned by Jack Chester of Tartan Arrow Ltd. Essex Yacht Builders ceased business in the mid 70’s and was taken over by Eastwood Marine. I think they went bankrupt sometime in the early 1980’s

      • They might have been constructed for floating harbors for the Normandy landing or other purposes at the Boat Yard during the war years. The Boat Yard was used for building wooden Patrol Boats during WWII…. Unfortunately, the old Boat Shed was demolished a few years ago to make way for the new slipway at the Essex Marina

        • Yep you are right. My parents had a boat in the Marina back in the 70s. I seem to remember the pontoons were indeed used during the war, but perhaps even WWI. I notice on Google Earth that these pontoons have now floated off and are littering the marsh lands in the surrounding area! I remember the pontoons were quite treacherous to walk upon, with large gaps between each one. My father had a nasty incident when he got his leg caught between them up to the knee. So much for h&s during the 70s 😉

          • Yes, they were not very stable and would move every time you walked on them. First time I can remember them was back in the early 60’s taking the ferry to Burnham-on-Crouch for Afternoon Tea at the White Hart Hotel… As for H&S there was none! … lol

  2. I have an excellent book, called “The Essex Coastline – Then and Now” by Matthew Fautley and James Garon. Their section on Wallasea mentions old oyster beds in this particular area. I wonder if those structures are cages or something else that was used in the course of the oyster farming here?

    • Thanks for this, and for the reference, which I will search out. We certainly saw old oyster beds on Wallasea. The photo is probably misleading. They’re about 6′ by 4′ length/width, 3′ deep and quite solid – what look like gratings are partially-rotted timber, something like traditional railway sleepers. I think they must be the component parts of a pontoon harbour. Since I wrote this, I’ve discovered that there was a lot of nautical military activity on W’sea during WWII, and I’m guessing these are a relic from then.

  3. abassecour.wordpress.com

    There is reference to bits of Mulberry harbour (D.Day stuff) at Burnham. The link above shows remains on the beaches in Normandy. Looks similar, but one is smaller. Or is it just further away?

  4. http://www.ebws.org.uk/ebs/search_sightings.asp?pageid=15 allows you to search for the reports of Great White Egrets in Essex. There was indeed what looks like one individual in the Crouch Estuary this last winter, last seen at Wallasea in March. (Note that I typed lower case characters into their search field. This was changed to upper case on submitting the search. Huh! What do they know.)

    Zooming in to your photo confirms this to be a little egret, plumed and with an all black bill. In this case it does look like the Father Dougal effect.

    As to the use of plurals, my rule of thumb has always been that you look at ducks and shoot, and subsequently eat, duck.

    Secret Informant.

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