Ebb Tide, Master F. and myself are joined today by Flash Drive, so called because he has the ability, unique in my experience, to start a car by causing an explosion under the bonnet.He might have a future on Foulness, which is given over to the creation of explosions, but for today, he has his walker’s feet and brand-new trekking shoes. Our route starts from the causeway to Wallasea, and for the first few hundred yards, we appear to be heading inland as the path crosses through a field of green corn. The path is actually anticipating the course of the saltmarsh, and leading us to it’s innermost point before taking us to the sea wall, where we meet a dog-walker who assures us that we can follow the wall “all the way to East Paglesham.” The tide is out, the marsh is a labyrinth of interconnected gulleys, a maze that does not necessarily have any interconnecting paths on the solid ground, and this pattern is mirrored in the thin rivulets that thread the mud at the bottom of each gulley. The best way to chart a route across saltmarsh would be at high tide, when the solid ground and water are clearly distinct, and in several places along the coast, such paths have been marked by poles that teeter in unsteady lines across the flats, runic markers from another age and culture. We tend to stick to the sea wall.
Although the tower blocks of Southend are clearly visible from Wallasea Island, standing about seven or eight kilometres away, we are going to skirt the mainland coast, the inner edge of the Southend backwaters or the Essex Archipelago, following the River Roach for at least seven or eight kilometers along Paglesham Reach to Rochford, then heading a similar distance east along the south side of the river, across Barling marshes, before turning along Potton Creek. Today, we will stop at Barling with at least another days walk before we reach the outskirts of the what a 19th c. observer called ‘the stupendous seaside metropolis’.
The Essex Archipelago is made up of six islands; Wallasea, Foulness, Potton, Havengore,New England and Rushley. The sea coast of Essex at this point is about eight miles to our east, represented by the shore of Foulness, and because the island is used to practise blowing things up for military purposes, access has become progressively more limited since 2004, in fact, apart from Wallasea, all the islands in the archipelago are more or less inaccessible because of explosive activity. We could console ourselves that we were not missing much by reading the bleak descriptions that have been bestowed on the islands over the past 150 years; Potton; “there is little worth seeing on Potton … few people even attempt to obtain permission to visit it.” “…as lonely a life as any man could live within the British Isles…”.New England; “That desolate Isle…”. Rushley Island; “Rushley lies alone, untouched, forgotten.” Havengore; “The ague hung on every bush.” I reckon these were all written by Londoners who hadn’t discovered the value of the sky and for whom the area’s apparent lack of social and material consumables, and its expanses of uninhabitable saltmarsh were perceived as an aching absence. Ian Yearsley is more measured;
Undoubtedly there are times when these islands can be immeasurably beautiful and times when they can be immeasurably depressing, and that, in a way, is what gives them a special fascination which is all their own.
It seems that the military have capitalised on the general apathy about the archipelago, and taken it as it’s own. Strictly speaking, its not the military, it’s a private company, contracted out by the military, called QinetiQ, who’s aim, according to their website, is “to provide a world-class defence and security service – wherever you are in the world.” A wonderful piece of free-market speak; if only Gaddafi had known about QinetiQ, he might be alive today: does President Assad of Syria receive the benefit of their expertise? Do the Taliban know? How different the cold war might have been if both the Soviet Union and the U.S.had signed up to QinetiQ’s lofty managerialist neutrality. I expect however, that if I include the word ‘QinetiQ’ too many times, it will be picked up by their surveillance creepers, and this may not help our chances of accessing Foulness.
We won’t suffer from wet feet today; the weather is fine, windy and the path dry. The sea wall is covered with cow parsley, hawthorn in full bloom, with rushes purple along the borrowdyke. The borrowdykes themselves, with their brackish water, are saline lagoons, harbouring a range of plant and wildlife – sea clubrush, glaucous bulrush, reedmace, reed warblers, bearded tits. The 500 kilometers of sea wall represent, according to English Nature “one of the last expanses of grassland in Essex, supporting a range of uncommon plants and insects”; and whilst, in one respect, an act of vandalism and enclosure from the middle ages, they are now, effectively, a linear nature reserve, albeit one that of necessity, will shift from time to time.
When we reach Paglesham, there is a full diversity of scrapyard, rusting hulks, boats under renovation, yachts, launching equipment for yachts, dutch barges, both smart and scruffy, lived-in houseboats, deserted and derelict houseboats, even a houseboat for sale as a ‘bird watcher’s getaway’; there is a caravan parked in among the boats bearing the legend ‘CARNIVAL INFORMATION’, and, possibly even more odd, a series of old, neglected oyster beds with a brand-new fence erected around them. We walk by, ignorant of the stories behind all these; if we were more journalistic in our intent, we could possibly have found someone who could have given an explanation, but, we are just walkers.
We turn into the Roach as it heads towards Rochford, and can see the spire of Barling Church across the water, our finishing point for the day. It is about two kilometers away, to be reached via another ten kilometers of winding sea/estuary wall. The other side of the Roach estuary, what appears on the map as Barling Marshes and Barling Ness, is obviously a landfill site, piles of bare, or rubbish-filled earth being traversed by earth moving machinery amongst clouds of dust and smoke. We stop by a convenient pillbox at Blackedge Point for lunch, and to contemplate this phenomenon. Flash Drive is having minor problems with his feet, caused, he explains, not by his new trainers, but by his old socks. The sea wall curves into a creek towards Hampton Barns, then describes a U, for about four kilometers, around fields with a large farmhouse, surrounded by trees, and all a metre or so below sea level.
You cannot scratch the surface of the history of the EssexCoast without coming across accounts of the great flood of 1953, and this whole archipelago was submerged; eleven people and 450 sheep were rescued from Potton Island, and Wallasea was completely underwater, and risk of flood is a fact of life in these parts. As recently as 2010, Rochford council produced a 78-page strategic flood risk assessment warning that;
Overtopping or a breach in the flood defences has the potential to result in flooding to depths of greater than 3m throughout Shoeburyness, Paglesham, Wallasea Island and South Fambridge putting existing development and occupants at great risk. Given the low lying nature of the coastline in this part of the district, flood waters are likely to propagate rapidly, greatly reducing the time available for warning and evacuation of residents, as was the case in the 1953 flood.
Rochford, and here I am quoting Wikipedia, was originally Rochefort, Old English for Ford of the Hunting Dogs. The River Roach was originally called the Walfleet (Creek of the foreigners). It was renamed the Roach in what is known as a ‘back formation’. This is where it is assumed that Rochford means ford over the River Roach so the river was renamed to fit the theory(when, and by whom, you may well ask). We ford the Roach and the path leads us from seawall to industrial estate in one easy step, where our rucksacks, trekking shoes, assorted all-weather clothing, plus my camera-toting, mark us out as leisured misfits in a working environment. Matchbox toys were, at one time, manufactured in Rochford, but here, the most photogenic feature is a Fender Guitar, advertising a music store, from which, coincidentally, the previous day, I had ordered guitar strings over the internet (I didn’t have a clue it was based in Rochford). Master F. and Flash Drive suggest I should go in and pick them up, but they are probably already lying on my doormat at home.
The last part of the walk is fairly quick, we follow the road (busy, and not advised) a couple of hundred yards inland from the south side of the roach, back onto footpath, through a farmyard, and back into Barling Village. My friend Van Morrison (No Relation), who lives near Brighton, and was an Essex resident for many years, has suggested that I include route maps and pub recommendations on this blog. There were no pubs on this walk. Ebb Tide is working on the route maps.