South Benfleet – Pitsea Marsh – Vange Marsh – Fobbing Marsh – Fobbing – Corringham – Stanford-Le-Hope
The enigmatic walker Robinson, whose journeys are only known through records found in a deserted caravan in Oxfordshire, identified southern England as “The location of a great malady” that he set out to dispel “…in the manner of Turner, by making picturesque views, on journeys to sites of historical and scientific interest.” I have succumbed to a bit of a malady myself, and forgotten my camera, so any dispelling that is done today will be in the more capable hands of Master F. As we meet, Master F. is using his capable hands to eat an egg roll in the Station Sandwich Bar at South Benfleet. The owner remembers us from last time and we chat about our circular walk around Canvey Island. He is a cyclist who has covered the local area and recommends some attractions for the walk today. Wat Tyler country park, Mucking Flats. We are still undecided about the route to take and wondering whether it is possible to cross Vange Creek at the Fobbing Horse barrier. The owner suggests that we ‘might be able to shimmy across the concrete’, but he isn’t sure, and neither is the other customer in the cafe. We decide to follow the railway line to Pitsea, around the top of Bowers Marsh and then cut across Vange Marsh and Fobbing Marsh towards Fobbing and Corringham.
This means that, strictly speaking, we are not doing a coastal walk today. To follow the coast would mean to loop around the landfill site on Bowers Marsh, possibly cross Vange Creek, or, if that were not possible, follow the creek up its 5 kilometer length, and then back down again, taking us around the refinery at Coryton, and then onto the vast building site that is the ‘London Gateway’ project. There is no right of way and no guarantee that it is all walkable, so we set off to the west through the edgelands of Benfleet, with the towers and tanks of Coryton gleaming in the sunshine.
The path takes us past a cluster of well-established houseboats moored along Benfleet Creek. One of them, a long, low-slung black hull with the superstructure removed, has a garden shed on the bank with a ride-on lawn mower parked outside. The bank has been neatly mown into a garden and paths cut so that the boat-dwellers have access through the scrub to their jetties. We are walking along a grey metal security fence with notices warning ‘Danger. Hazardous Area. Do Not Enter.’ The path however, passes through an opening in the fence, and we continue along what looks like a cyclo-cross circuit, fortunately, not being used. We cross underneath the Canvey Island Way, a permanently busy dual carriageway, close to the church of St Margaret at Bowers Gifford, which, if it were not for the road, would be in the middle of nowhere, as it appears to have no supporting village of any sort. Parts of the church date back to 1320, and it has a distinctive wooden tower which is Tudor. The church website says that it is maintained by a team of volunteers who control the ‘ever growing grass’ in the churchyard. The path does a loop before we reach the church however, and there is an abundance of butterflies on this section; golden – brown ones, that might well be Essex skippers, and a distinctive black-and white variety which Ebb Tide tries to photograph in order to send a picture to Florence for identification, but they keep flying off. Having checked it out, I think it could be a marbled white which apparently frequents unimproved grasslands and whose most active flying time is July and August.
I think ‘unimproved’ is a very good description of the terrain we are passing through; scrubby fields with nothing particular growing in them, the hump of the landfill site to the south. Strangely, we come across a newly-made, surfaced road which we follow past a barn, and which leads to a car park. Laid out with marked spaces and planters. Obviously new, but unused as there are weeds growing through the surface of the parking bays. We are at a loss for reasons as to why there should be a car park when there is nothing to park for. A branch of Tesco’s that failed to get planning permission? Master F. has a suggestion that is far too rude to reproduce in the chaste pages of Walking the Essex Coast. As we walk up to the entrance however, past the brand-new entrance barriers, there is a notice explaining that a wetland is being constructed on Bowers Marsh, due for completion in March 2012, and obviously the car park is for visitors to this. How, I wonder, do you construct a ‘wetland’ on an already-existing marsh, and exactly what does ‘completion’ meant in those circumstances. The car park certainly had a complete absence of cars, and I hope they get some visitors soon.
The path takes a sharp right at St Margaret’s church and we follow the railway track towards Pitsea. A tower block peeping up at the side of One Tree Hill indicates the presence of Basildon behind the raise in the land to our north. Past Pitsea station, along the side of the flyover that carries the A13, across the line, through a depot of empty flat bed trucks with canopies advertising Magnum Logistics, we emerge onto Vange Marsh. We stride confidently through a herd of large brown cows, who observe us with more interest than we are accustomed to. The last cow of the herd is a large bull with a statement head of curly hair, looking like a Roman emperor in a 1950s Hollywood epic. I mentally trace an escape route across a water-filled ditch, twenty yards to our left, in case his interest becomes too active, but he remains content to watch us.
Usually, in our experience, footpaths in Essex have been very clearly marked, with arrow posts at regular intervals. Vange Marsh has a right of way across it, but no marker posts indicating which line it takes. Fortunately, Ebb Tide has the ordnance survey map on his smartphone, complete with GPS, and leads us confidently through the field. Halfway across we realise we are surrounded by water-filled gulleys and pools – we are, after all, in the middle of a marsh. Master F. and I faint-heartedly retrace our steps and walk around the edge of the field. Ebb Tide, more persistently finds a way through the marsh, and we meet up on the other side. The path is much easier as we head towards Fobbing church tower to the south west. It takes us straight across the middle of a large field, where, about three hundred yards away, there is another herd of cows clustered around the gate we are heading for. When we are about halfway across the field, the cows notice us, and head towards us at an enthusiastic trot. I am less than happy about this, for there are about fifty bullocks, in close formation. There is no escape route, just a couple of hundred yards of open field to either side, and stories of dog walkers being trampled underfoot by fractious livestock come to mind. Master F. seems unperturbed and is cool-headedly taking photos. As the cows trot to within a few yards of us, Ebb Tide raises both arms horizontally, which has the effect of causing the herd to veer off to one side. I’m moving off in the other direction, but the herd turns and heads back towards us. More arm-raising seems to do the trick, and the cows retreat. However, we are now in danger of coralling them into the corner of the field, which does not seem a good idea. We move to one side to leave a wide escape route, which the cattle, fortunately, make use of.
Again, the footpath becomes indistinct, and we are beginning to reach the conclusion that not many people walk in this part of the world. Passing a style bearing the legend ‘no cycling’, we find ourselves trekking on a narrow trail through a chest-high field of bone-dry oilseed rape. At the side of the field, the path runs out entirely, so we are forced to follow tractor tracks through the rape until we emerge in the garden of Fobbing Hall. We seem to have rejoined the footpath however, which passes through the grounds of the hall, and at this point, is signed.
We head up the hill towards the White Lion pub, with a sign outside celebrating the Peasant’s Revolt, for it was the citizens of Fobbing, Corringham and Stanford-Le-Hope – by no means all peasants – who travelled to Brentwood on 30th May 1381, to resist an attempt to implement the latest in a series of Poll Taxes imposed by Edward III to finance war with France. The fourteenth century saw a string of legislation devised by the ruling classes to prevent the lower orders taking advantage of the fact that the black death, by virtually halving the population of the country, had raised the market value of labour. Attempts were made to hold down wages by statute, to define what clothes the labouring classes could and couldn’t wear, and determine what foods they could eat, whilst the only purposes of taxation were to maintain the lifestyles of the royal family and to finance the wars that were waged between the deluded megalomaniacs sometimes referred to as the crowned heads of Europe. The third poll tax represented a tipping point in this cycle of repression and exploitation. The Essex uprising sparked a country – wide series of bloody revolts targetting lawyers, tax collectors, clerics, landowners and agents of unpopular policy, although, interestingly, not the monarchy itself. Richard II famously conceded to many of the rebels demands, and then reneged, personally attending the execution of ringleaders at Chelmsford, where he is reputed to have said; “Rustics you were and rustics you are still; you will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher.” When Rowan Atkinson devised Blackadder, he wasn’t making it up. It’s interesting to speculate whether, should there ever again be circumstances in which the country is dominated by a rapacious elite that rigidly enforces divisions of wealth and status, the citizens of Fobbing would once more rise in rebellion.
From Fobbing we take a footpath towards Corringham which passes between a very well-appointed sports ground and some fishing lakes with chalets around them. All of a sudden the atmosphere is more home counties than unimproved pasture. A country lane takes us around the south of Corringham towards Stanford-Le-Hope, and we have a view of the ‘London Gateway’ building site spreading across the north bank of the Thames on the site of the former Shellhaven refinery. This links us right back to the start of our walk, in February and March, when the cranes of Felixstowe docks were the dominant feature of the landscape. The ‘London Gateway’, designed to become a major deep-water port and ‘logistics centre’, will be in direct competition with Felixstowe to import Ipads from China. It is being built by a Dubai-owned company called DP World, and they are dredging the bed of the Thames to create the deep water, and depositing the contents onto the bank to extend the shoreline. Critics believe that the project, due to open next year (although it looks a long way from completion), will struggle because of the ‘downturn’ in the economy since it was conceived. Two mega container ports within 70 miles of each other could be construed as carelessness, although Felixstowe remain confident that they can compete, maintaining that they have the better geographic location. “We’re the port for Britain” claim its owners. As we come into Stanford-Le-Hope, there is a plaque commemorating the site of a house in which Joseph Conrad had lived, and he would surely have had an opinion on the ‘London Gateway’. Perhaps;
“… the tranquil waterway leading from the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness”
Fortunately, we have master F.’s picturesque images to help dispel the gloom.