Foulness Island – Churchend – Wakering Stairs
7th October 2012
Strictly speaking, not a walk at all, and only partially coastal. Probably just as well, for Ebb Tide is recovering from a mystery foot injury and we haven’t walked since August. Foulness has been owned by the Ministry of Defence since the 1920s and its remote location edging the Maplin sands apparently makes it the ideal place to fire shells across the sea to ensure that they blow up in the correct manner. The MoD delegates this responsibility to a private firm called QinetiQ and they must be very good at their job, for when the wind is in the right direction, the bangs can be heard along the whole length of the Essex coast. Access to the island is increasingly limited. Until a few years ago, it was possible to ring up the landlord of the pub, who would then pass your details to the security gate, and you could drive over for a drink or a meal. This is no longer the case, and the pub is closed.
Avid readers of Walking the Essex Coast will of course recall the incident back in May when I received short shrift from the security guard at QinetiQ’s main entrance in Shoeburyness. There is no access to Foulness at any time he told me, and directed me towards the Broomway. I am indebted to Chris H. for reaffirming that this is not true at all, and you can get on to Foulness between the hours of 12.00 and 4.00 on the first Sunday of the month from April to October providing, QinetiQ’s website instructs, “you declare your intention to visit the heritage centre”.
It is the first Sunday in October, and the last opportunity this year to get onto the island. Marsh Samphire and I turn up at the Shoeburyness gate, which is resolutely locked. We drive along, following the fence, around to Cupid’s Corner, no sign of access. We turn back, stop and ask directions, and we are directed through Great Wakering , right at the Church, and on to a second security gate. There we meet Florence, Ebb Tide, Master F., who have performed exactly the same manoeuvre. I am so excited that I park my car in the middle of the roundabout and have to be asked to move it before I can sign in. I declare my intention to visit the heritage centre. “Do you know where you’re going?” I am asked. “Not a clue.” ; I’m courteously given directions. I enter my name, ‘contact address’ and car registration. The gatekeeper solemnly informs me that as ‘lead driver’ I am responsible for the passengers in my car, and, issued with a blue A4 size laminated permit (number 14) to place on the dashboard, I dutifully caution Marsh Samphire against random acts of sabotage or sedition. I am relieved that Florence and Master F. are in Ebb Tide’s car, and therefore, his reponsibility. Signs warn us that photography is forbidden, and that we must not wander off the permitted routes. I nervously recall a scene from the film O Lucky Man, when Malcom McDowell, a coffee salesman, inadvertently strays onto military land, is first blown up, then surrounded by armed soldiers and hustled off to a hostile interrogation.
The barrier is raised for us and we head across Havengore and New England Islands, heading north up the spine road of Foulness itself. Enigmatic sheds, hangars, domes and crane-like gantries are scattered over the landscape, contrasting with old weatherboard houses. The island itself is famously fertile farmland, still worked, and fields are being ploughed, there are large flocks of sheep and a few horses, peacefully grazing in the autumn sunshine and apparently untraumatised by proximity to gunfire. To the west, the seemingly unbroken Essex tundra stretches for miles toward the faint rise in the ground upon which sits Canewdon, and, southwards, towards the distant and hazily apparent tower blocks of Southend. We drive past signs for ‘Eastwick Range’ and ‘Havengore Range’. Later, we come across ‘Bob’s Lane’, leading to ‘O’,’P’ and ‘Q’ ranges, which implies there must be at least another twenty three ranges and batteries scattered across the island. No wonder the MOD don’t like you wandering around randomly.
Foulness has a civilian population of about two hundred people these days. Probably inhabited by the Romans, it is the site of the earliest land reclamation on the Essex coast (1420); it was under the appropriation of the Boleyn family during Tudor times and reached a heyday in the nineteenth century with a population of about seven hundred. It is irresistible to romanticise the 18th and 19th century history of bare-knuckle fighting, horse thievery and smuggling. There was an annual carnival which was eventually banned in the 1850’s because it was too rowdy. Nowadays though, paradoxically because of the military presence, Foulness is probably the most peaceful place in the country. It feels as if you have been dropped into a 1950s film set, possibly for a Quatermass movie.
The heritage centre itself is the old school building ( we discover that the unfortunate schoolchildren of the island have to catch a bus at 6.30 in the morning to get to school on the mainland). Ebb Tide misses the turning, and I am mentally preparing to rescue him from hostile interrogation, but he turns back before being detained at gunpoint and we leave our cars on an improbably green lawn that is more cricket pitch than car park.
The small building is crammed with Foulness memorabilia; clothing, photographs, sailing artefacts, militaria and accounts of life on the island. It is an old-fashioned museum and there are no concessions to interactive technology, although a couple of DVDs are showing, including a documentary of life on the island – Home on the Range. Teas and homemade cakes are served, which can be taken on the lawn. Very homely, very charming. Not an explosion in sight.
Ian Yearsley, in Islands of Essex opens the chapter on Foulness with a portentous quote from James Wentworth Day who describes “…that strange island where no stranger is welcome, where all unknown faces are suspect…”.Our experience is rather the opposite, although, with a time-frame of only four hours, it would be hard to outstay your welcome. A tractor pulls up outside the centre, towing a contraption that is something between a bathing machine and a very small railway carriage, out of which about a dozen people emerge. It turns out that they have just travelled the Broomway to get here, and we submit a couple of the guys to a friendly interrogation. It has taken them about an hour to travel from Wakering Stairs, and they enthuse about the experience of travelling over the Maplin sands, a mile or so from the shoreline. They are only half the party, the other half are doing it on foot. We meet Brian and the local farmer who organise the trip, and they too are incredibly enthusiastic about their project, Foulness is, Brian asserts, his favourite place in Essex. The tractor is normally used for fishing. The farmer takes it onto the sands, sets it in a slow automatic gear so that it retreats at the same speed as the tide whilst he fishes from a trailer on the back. We talk about the dangers of walking the Broomway. Despite Robert Macfarlane describing it as a ‘cakewalk’ (retrospectively) in his book The Old Ways, I feel it needs to be approached with respect. They are more than happy to regale us with tales of the path; of the fisherman who, recently, was so intent on digging for ragworm on the sands that he didn’t notice the sea mist roll in until it was too late, and found himself in a complete white-out. Fortunately, he had followed the traditional local advice of dragging his fork behind him to leave a trail that he could follow back to safety. Then, going back some years, there was the vicar who, returning late from a visit to a colleague in London with a rucksack full of books for the island school, set out upon the path in the dark, missed his bearings, and had to summon all his knowledge of the local lights and topography to find his way back the shore, but nearly died of hypothermia. The books remained safe, but from then on, the vicar advised all travelling to Foulness to go via Burnham and catch a ferry to the north of the island. The apparent flatness of the Maplin Sand when viewed from the shore is deceptive; It can form dunes tall enough that you would lose sight of the horizon and be invisible from the shore. The pockets of quicksand that border the path are known locally as ‘coffins’; “The quicksand won’t kill you”, Brian informs us cheerfully, “you’ll only sink up to your waist, it’s the incoming tide that will get you.”
We head back to the security gate, check out and turn on to the public road that leads to Wakering Stairs, the start of the Broomway. Having looked at many photos and film clips of the Broomway, the ramp to the seawall, with an empty watchtower next to it, feels familiar. A family is picnicking on the wall and when we reach the top of the ramp, the Maplin Sands shimmer before us, stretching out to where the Thames heads for the sea a couple of miles away, and beyond that, the Kent Coast, presumably Sheppey and Whitstable Bay.
We walk over the semi-made causeway, which peters out after a hundred yards or so. There are a couple of cyclists out on the mud ahead of us, and tractor tracks, presumably left by the vehicle we had met at Churchend, so we proceed with confidence. Sound behaves oddly. The voices of the people on the shore carry clearly and invisible geese honk from a distance over the mudflats. The best account of the Broomway that I have read appears in The Old Ways in which Macfarlane describes the ‘soft lunacy’ of the walk across the ‘mirror world’ of this seascape, and the lure of the horizon, with “as potent a pull upon the mind as a mountain’s summit”. He and his companion stray from the notional safety of the path and walk two miles out across the sands. We have come barely a half mile from the stairs, although Ebb Tide appears to be in thrall to the potent pull and has struck off a couple of hundred yards ahead of the four of us. The tide is due to be flowing in: Master F. notices some of the pools covering the sand have an incoming, trickling mini-current in them, and mindful of advice that the tide here can move faster than a person can run,and not being runners, we hail Ebb Tide and head for the shore.