Heybridge to Goldhanger

February 2014

Essex coast, Heybridge, Goldhanger, birds,clouds 002 (1)

‘’You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’’ sang Bob Dylan, famously, and I believe he might have been walking the coast of Essex when he conceived that immortal line. Secret Informant and I are pointing our cameras at the weathervane on the tower of St Peter’s church, Goldhanger. It has a handsome, possibly verdigris-coated, cockerel (the subject of the newly-instituted Essex Coast Annual Quiz. See previous post), sitting above a directional piece wrought of delicate metalwork tracery. We are comparing the relative power of the zoom function on our almost identical cameras (his is bigger than mine, which galls me because when it comes to zoom capacity, there is no question that size matters). Later, looking at the Goldhanger village website I see that we have missed an opportunity for, with remarkable serendipity, the website is hosting a photographic competition. The subject? St Peter’s church. I shan’t be entering my pictures of the weathervane. The cockerel shows the wind to be coming from the south west and  having, over the past couple of hours, experienced the various assistances and impediments that the wind offers whilst walking along the zig-zag sea wall between the Heybridge Basin and Goldhanger, we know this.

 The weathervane itself is a relatively recent accessory, being donated and installed in the 1960s, approximately one-and-a-half minutes to midnight in relation to the church’s known history. This information comes from a book called Goldhanger –an Estuary Village by Maura Benham. Reading further, I come across Frederick Gardner, Rector of Goldhanger from 1897 until his death in 1936,  I was struck both by his professional longevity and by his medical acuity, as expressed in the following, rather windy, passage;

Morbus Sabbaticus, or Sunday sickness, is a disease peculiar to non-Churchgoers. The disease comes on suddenly every Sunday; no symptoms are felt on Saturday night, the patient sleeps well, eats a hearty breakfast, but about church-time the attack comes on, and continues till the services are over for the morning, then the patient feels easy and eats a hearty dinner.

 New Year, new trekking shoes. Well, the year is no longer new, but my shoes, despite having been optimistically purchased two months ago, remain virtually pristine. Ebb Tide (also resplendent in new footwear) and Master F., travelling from points west, turn up at the Silver Mud hacienda, and with them is Thoroughly Modern Millie, well-known for hosting bohemian soirees and for being a radical baker. Thoroughly Modern declines the invitation to walk with us, although she and Marsh Samphire will meet us at the inn at which we aim to terminate. Before we set out we eat treacle tart, brought by Thoroughly Modern Millie, and made, especially for us, by Claire Balding (most promising newcomer). (regular readers will of course remember that Claire Balding has had nothing to do with us since we lied to him about the distance around Mersea Island the year before last. We take the treacle tart to be a peace offering).

 We had talked about walking locally, but inland Essex is  sodden. Not sodden in the way that the Somerset levels and the Thames Valley are sodden, but the local flood plains are flooded, the footpaths are muddied, and the ditchwater overflows the lanes.  There has been no rain for a couple of days, so we are heading for the sea wall in the hope that wind and sun will have made for a  dry walking surface. As we drive out of the picturesque village of Readymix, we spot Secret Informant by the side of the road, nonchalantly spraying graffiti on estate agent’s signs. We hail him, and  he joins us with alacrity. As Ebb Tide drives us, I am contemplating my imminent grandparenthood and I ask Master F., a seasoned adept in this field, for his advice. ”Houseproofing.” he replies unhesitatingly and emphatically, before launching into a cautionary tale about small children and concealed cakes in bedroom drawers.

 We are heading for the Heybridge Basin, lying at the seaward end of the Chelmer navigation, a waterway  connected to no other part of the English Canal system. The canal was opened in 1797, and the story of its gestation is one of conflicting vested interests, with the town of Maldon resolutely opposing its construction for fear of loss of income to its own port, which would be bypassed if boats could go straight to Chelmsford from Heybridge, and conversely, once the canal was built, the canal company opposing Maldon’s proposed development of a separate link to the Chelmer, which they feared would make the Heybridge cut redundant. However, shortly before the waterway was opened, William Bentall, a local farmer, had developed his prototype ‘Goldhanger’ plough, and the canal later became the site of Bentall’s works, manufacturing increasingly sophisticated ploughs and agricultural  equipment, a prototype motorcar, and military hardware for nearly 200 years. The  waterway was not nationalised with the rest of the canals in 1948 and remained operating in tawdry isolation as a dwindling commercial enterprise until the 1970’s when it effectively closed, to re-emerge into applicability with the renaissance of the canals as a leisure industry in the 1980s and 90s.

 At the basin, on the upper reaches of the Blackwater Estuary, there is a sea lock connecting the canal to the open water.  Every time I  come to this place, I am struck by the large number of boats moored  in relation to the small potential to get anywhere. Some are residential, most not, but  the lock can surely allow only a maximum of two boats through at a time. Each passage must take up to half an hour and there is a limited tidal window, about an hour and a half, to get in or out  (as we pass, the exit from the lock is a narrow channel in the mud marked by  withies, with a forlorn trickle of water – barely enough to carry a plastic duck, let alone an eighty-foot Dutch barge). I am obviously missing a point about boat ownership here.

 Thoroughly Modern Millie had asked us to look for a barge moored at Heybridge,, the Trevor Brooking (possibly the Sir Trevor Brooking?), which at one time had been run by Newham Council and with which she had had a connection, and we are seeking to photograph it for her. We fail to find it however, and I wonder if anyone can give any information on its whereabouts. Are local authorities still able to run barges in these straitened times? The sun is shining, the wind is sharp  and the sky enormous. In the distance, as we leave the the canal basin, Bradwell power station gleams an unearthly white on the horizon, like a massive block ziggurat. This is unusual, for Bradwell usually maintains its resolute grey inscrutability no matter what the weather, however, as we get closer, it looks as though parts of it are draped with white sheeting or tarpaulin. Does any one know  if that is correct, and if so, what the sheeting is there for? (25th March. I’ve heard from local correspondent Ming Dynasty that this is standing sheet aluminium cladding).

The sea wall is busy with families out, for it is half term. A young boy is riding a bicycle precariously along the concrete top of the wall. There is a bench with a few faded bunches of flowers laid upon it in the manner of remembrance, as might be seen at the site of a roadside fatality or an untimely death. Ebb Tide hopes that it does not commemorate an erstwhile sea wall cyclist. We wonder how Heybridge fared during the December storms, during which sea levels along the East coast rose higher in some places than they had during the storms of 1953. West Mersea was the only place locally where households were flooded, and there is little evidence of flood damage here, although earth moving equipment is shifting gravel along the shoreline in a couple of places, it’s not immediately clear whether this is to bolster defences or simply preparation for the coming  sailing season. The only direct evidence of the storms comes much further along the sea wall where a shed (bird hide?) has been blown off its concrete base and lies neatly stacked on the borrowdyke.

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As we start the wind is behind us, however this stretch of path is more than usually anfractuous – look at it on a map – north east along the sea wall from the basin, a sharp left turn westward, into the wind, northeast again, circling the ruins of a motor torpedo boat in the mud, west again, around the north side of Colliers reach, and a long south easterly stretch with a cross wind, past Barrow Marsh to Decoy Point, and then a sawtooth section of wall, due north, south east then a gentle north eastern  stretch with a sharp turn north west along Goldhanger Creek.

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Birdlife appears to cluster in large numbers in the lee of the seawall, where some shelter from the wind is afforded. Just past Decoy Point, where the  causeway to Osea Island is in the process of being submerged by the tide, there are large flocks of birds, indeed the birds are out in strength for the whole length of this walk, there are redshank and oystercatchers at Heybridge, and here, at the causeway, huge numbers of black headed gulls interspersed with  more redshanks. The next point of the sawtooth, as we skirt Gardener’s Farm  (prominent, but unnamed on the map), is fringed by saltmarsh inhabited by scores of dunlin and brent geese, and as we traverse this stretch large flocks of brent circle low above our heads. (Traverse?? Horrible.Ed.)

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Secret Informant has a highly refined bird-spotting capacity.  Where I see redshanks or mallards, he will point out that there are two pin-tailed ducks in their midst. He is also able to point out the plastic bag fields where Maldon Council grow  refuse sacks for use by  the ratepayers to deposit their non-recyclable rubbish.

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A recent throat infection left me bed-bound for a few days, listening to endless quantities of Radio 4 and I couldn’t help but notice that Essex seems to loom quite large in its content. There was a report on toxic waste disposal from Bradwell, another featured an Essex-born writer revisiting the county and focusing mostly on on the TOWIE phenomenon, but my favourite came at the end of a show called Dilemma, a sort of comedy Moral Maze, in which the presenter wrapped things up by declaring; ‘’A code of ethics for the winner, the coast of Essex for the rest’’. All power to the rest.