Walking the Essex Coast 16

28th May 2012

Shoeburyness – Thorpe Bay – Southend – Westcliff – Chalkwell – Leigh – South Benfleet

This is exciting. I am standing by the gate of QinetiQ’s formidable security entrance to Foulness, on the Shoebury side, and I am about to encounter a representative of this global, humanitarian organisation in the form of the man who is sitting in the kiosk by the entrance barrier. “What can I do you for?”, he asks cheerfully as I walk in. I ask about getting permission to access Foulness for walking and birdwatching, and he tells me there is no access at all, under any circumstance. I am hugely disappointed by this, for I had understood that it was possible to access Shoebury ranges on a Sunday, and that access was granted to Foulness on the first Sunday of the month. The gateman tells me this is no longer the case, but, helpfully adds that there is a public footpath leading “from Wakering stairs” from which you can at least touch ground on Foulness. He gives me directions as if guiding me down a high street; “go out from the stairs and turn left…”. At this point, I wonder if he is taking the rise, and whether he is an entirely reliable informant, for the ‘footpath from Wakering Stairs’ he is directing me towards is the notorious ‘Broomway’, or ‘Doomway’ as it was termed by the press in the early 20th century. If you look at the ordnance survey map of the area, there is indeed a public footpath, stretching out, apparently into the sea, from Wakering Stairs; after a couple of hundred yards, it turns sharp left, and heads north for several miles, until it reaches land on Foulness. The origins of the Broomway are uncertain; it is a causeway across Maplin Sands, exposed at low tide, and no-one is sure if it is a natural or man-made phenomenon, and it seems to date at least to Roman times; what is more certain is that the churchyard on Foulness contains the graves of at least sixty people who have died trying to travel across it, for it is extremely treacherous. You have to get your timing right with regard to the tide, and even if you do, the water can come in fast, from several directions at once, and does not necessarily conform to the times on the tide tables; the path meanders and shifts, and several of the unfortunate victims have perished in quicksand. A further complication lies in the susceptibility of the area to unpredictable and quick-forming sea mists, limiting visibilty to yards, and almost guaranteeing fatal disorientation. I mentioned in my last blog that QinetiQ’s mission statement was to provide “…world class security, wherever you are in the world.”, and I feel that on this occasion, in directing me toward the Broomway, their employee was playing fast and loose with my personal security. As a British elector, whose government employs this outfit on my taxes, I feel that I am a legitimate client of QinetiQ, with a justfiable cause for complaint; however, this guy must have a boring job, and I like his sense of humour, so I would urge whoever is reading this on behalf of QinetiQ not to be too hard on him.

The ordnance survey map cautions that “Public Rights of way across Maplin Sands can be dangerous. See local guidance”, however, local guidance is quite hard to find. Essex County Council staged an exhibition walk a few years ago on which enthusiasts were corralled front, back and side by stewards, and there are people who know the walk intimately and can act as guides.

On the other hand, some appear to treat the journey across the causeway much more lightly than my description implies; I found this on the internet;

‘just a quick note to say that me and the guys have been out on the Broomway lots of times, on enduro bikes. If the M.O.D are using it for operations the road leading to it is closed off with a barrier. We normally follow the tide out about a mile off shore then just blast along following the shore line, you can come onto foulness island via the marked roads on O.S maps. The M.O.D police guys are well friendly. its a funny feeling standing a mile off shore in 6″ of water for as far as you can see!’

I’m not at all convinced by the ‘just blasting’ bit. I also discovered two clips on YouTube of a motorbike ride across the path (see ‘Essex Bikers on the Broomway’ and ‘The Broomway to Foulness Island’), posted in 2010, with the comment;

 Foulness was a blast but it is pretty dangerous – local knowledge is the way forward and quite a bit of planning. We made it the full 7 miles in the sea, onto and around the island before leaving the way we came. Riding on that sort of sand was excellent fun but the bikes really suffered in the salt water…

 So, obviously it can be done, and, interestingly, it was apparently possible to access Foulness as recently as 2010. Hmm, what’s happened in the last two years to change that? The Essex Coast is indebted to the blogger Wingclipped  for his great description of the experience of contemplating the Broomway – he is walking the entire coast of Britain with his family (Coastal Walk 1a. On WordPress) – an enterprise which dwarves our own humble project – and has provided a link to a guided tour of the path. I would be grateful if anyone  can provide current authoritative information about getting onto Foulness (are you there QinetiQ?), or, to hear from anyone who has expertise on the Broomway or who has actually walked it!

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All of which is something of a diversion, albeit a relevant one, from our actual walk. After my exchange with the security guard, it’s back to Shoeburyness station to meet Ebb Tide and Master F. Attentive and regular readers will have noticed that we have skipped the piece of coast between Barling Church and Shoeburyness, and the reason for that was to enquire about access to Shoebury ranges, with a view to doing that stage on a Sunday. If our QinetiQ informant is correct, and I’m by no means convinced that he is, we won’t be able to do this legally. We’ll go back to that stage, and do the best we can with it, but for now, on a sunny day, with temperatures skyrocketing, we’re walking from Shoebury to South Benfleet, along the legendary seafront of the Southend megalopolis. Sheerness, in Kent, is visible through the haze, and the oil tanks and chimneys of the Isle of Grain shimmer uninvitingly; whoever described Kent as ‘The Garden of England’ wasn’t looking at it from the Essex coast. The tide is fully out, and the mud, sand and shingle stretch forever before us, reviving childhood memories of wading into the sea at Southend for hundreds of yards, with the water still below knee-level. The coast at Shoebury is  a mixture of scrubby, brownfield land,  the remains of heavy duty fortifications of different periods, and a sizeable collection of what look like barracks of a Napoleonic vintage, converted into housing, as well as a new-build estate. It feels as if the military has passed this part by and moved their serious activity east to Foulness, leaving a bulwark archeology, deteriorating barbed wire fences and signs warning against unexploded ordnance lying on the foreshore. Nonetheless, There are plenty of walkers and cyclists on the front, and a handful of sunbathers and cider drinkers basking on the mud.

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We pass into Thorpe Bay. If viewed from above, Southend sea front would lie like a vernacular necklace, mounted at each end by quirky-but-interesting Shoebury and Leigh-on-Sea, with Thorpe Bay and Westcliff as the expensive but rather uninteresting twin stones set on either side of the gaudy centrepiece of Southend itself, the pier hanging like a pendant onto the decolletage of the Thames delta.  As we come into Southend, we are able to appreciate the finer points of the decorative inset – the wrecked car park with hoardings advertising planning permission to turn it into a prestige hotel development (unfortunately this entrepreneurial input is, as yet, unforthcoming);  the house decked in flags, possibly in anticipation of the royal thing coming up next weekend but, equally likely, covered in flags all the time. It is about 12.30. and hot. We stop in the Hope Hotel directly opposite the pier entrance, and, whilst our walkers attire gets us some interested glances, it is a friendly pub with a helpful landlady ( “if you leave your car on the pavement, you’ll get nicked” she tells another group of customers), and a good place to soak in the ambience. Like Clacton, Southend has had something of a facelift, and the seafront buildings look newly-painted. There is a modern, shiny glass, lift structure that will transport you from the promenade to the shopping centre, the New York, New York, amusement arcade beckons with neon promise, and the rides and amusements around the pier are all operating, although there aren’t many punters on them as yet. There are however, plenty of people around generally on this sunny late-May Monday and we have already  seen many times more than on every other stage of our walk put together.

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There is, or used to be, a degree of controversy about whether or not Southend had the right to the “on-Sea” appendage because it’s actually not on the sea at all, it’s well into the Thames estuary. If you take the start of the estuary to be Felixstowe, as the coastguards do, Southend becomes almost an  epicentre, but this is neither here nor there. How else would you get the irreverent pleasure of referring to ‘Southend-on-Mud’? If you take the train from Fenchurch Street,Liverpool Street, Ilford or Grays, when you get to Southend, you are at the seaside, no question. When I was sixteen, just a few years ago, friends of mine were in an Ilford-based band that got as far as making a demo. The track that they chose to be their ‘single’ -if things had progressed that far – had an irresistibly catchy chorus of “Good old Southend, let’s have a cup of tea/ nothing’s gonna worry us at Southend-on-Sea”. Had it been released, it might have sold tens of thousands.

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In my lifetime, piers have been places that you walked onto from the land, in order to get to the various attractions that were at the ‘end of the pier’, but the original transit was primarily in the opposite direction. They stretched out into the sea so that steamers carrying passengers from London could discharge their occupants, even at very low tide – hence Southend pier’s mile-and-a-third length. In the 19th and early twentieth century, boats used to ply from London via Tilbury and Gravesend to drop people onto the pier at Southend (and Clacton, and Walton) from where they would head for the promenades and beaches. The journey back to the end of the pier to catch the boat home must have been something of a weary, anti-climactic experience. I lived in Grays for a couple of years in the 1980’s, and I’m sure I recall an attempt to relaunch a timetabled passenger steamer along the river from somewhere like Woolwich, calling at various stops along the way, and finishing at Southend; I don’t recall the venture actually starting however, and assume it must have been an unfortunate entrepreneurial flop, however, if anyone has any knowledge, memory or experience of such a venture, or can recommend sources of information about these boat trips, Walking the Essex Coast would be grateful to hear.

Through Westcliff-on-Sea with little comment. Always the boring part of Southend, apart from the Cliffs pavilion which sits, I think, quite dramatically on the ‘cliffs’, a less-than-sheer, grass covered rise in the land, of the sort called ‘leighs’ in Frinton, the name echoed as we pass into Leigh-on-Sea. The front at Leigh is busy; it has three pubs and several restaurants along it’s short high street, as well as the famous cockle sheds. The pubs are all crowded, the sea food stalls doing a brisk trade. One of the restaurants advertises a forthcoming gig by the feted  Essex/Burmese r&b singer James Hunter (for the benefit of readers under 35, it’s not that sort of r&b), a snip at £50 a ticket, meal included. James, of course, originated from Colchester and became, effectively a London-based musician, until achieving runner-up status in the U.S.grammy awards (“I’m not the first person to be beaten by Ike Turner”); but Master F. and myself have various memories of the music scene in Southend. Master F. is a sound engineer and dub-master, and one of the less recognised aspects of the Southend scene has been, and continues to be, it’s reggae element. I was more eighties americana myself, but we both remember the Grand at Leigh, not on our route today, it’s up the hill in the town proper, and we don’t even know if it’s still open.

Past the cockle sheds and we’re out of Southend and back on the sea wall, a wide, motorway of a sea wall, and  fairly well-used stretch by walkers and cyclists. The rise in the ground to our north stretches towards Benfleet, and the ruins of Hadleigh Castle sit gracefully upon it. Built in the early 13th c, a favoured country retreat of Edward III, and susceptible to subsidence because of the unstable nature of the clay on which it stands, most of it was demolished and the stone sold off by the late 18th century.

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Arriving at South Benfleet, we reach the pub by the station just as the rain arrives, and thunder is rolling ominously in the sky. By the time we get the crowded commuter train back to Shoeburyness, it is tipping down.

For the benefit of Van Morrison (No Relation), we stopped in three pubs on this walk, due to the extremely high temperatures and the risk of dehydration. One was near Southend Pier, and was as described above. One was at Leigh-on-Sea, and was good, the final stop was near South Benfleet Station and was not very good. Walking the Essex Coast is considering the development of a finely-calibrated, non-judgemental, qualitative technology, which will assist its readers in choosing pubs along the way. What follows is a tentative first draft.

Ambience       V        Name of pub   > Hope  Hotel Crooked Billet, Leigh Nr S. Benfleet station
Sticky carpet
Non-aspirational Yes
Stick to non-beer beverages or Guinness Yes
Lovely Beer Yes
Foodie Yes
Many Good qualities Yes

However, the Benfleet pub was almost completely nondescript,  having none of these attributes; further work required here, as I’m reluctant to include ‘nondescript’ in my categories. Any suggestion on improving this technology will be considered with interest.

Finally, and by way of relief from the banalities above, Walking the Essex Coast would like to extend warmest good wishes to Ebb Tide and Florence’s daughter on her forthcoming wedding and to wish her and her husband much happiness and good fortune. I gather that rumours of the honeymoon being spent walking the Essex coast are untrue.


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