Barling Church – Little Wakering – Great Wakering – Shoeburyness.
23rd July 2012
In a sense, it is the creeks that define this landscape, for if the land and water had been left to their own devices, they would merge and re-emerge in a permanently shifting marshland, and on occasion, as in 1953, be completely inundated. Land and water are however, rigorously segregated, and this coast now stands as a cluster of walled enclosures, all below sea level: the ‘islands’ of the Essex archipelago, Havengore, Potton, Foulness et al, actively channeling the water into a series of creeks, which divide and multiply into the diminishing saltmarsh. We walk round Barling Hall Creek, Little Wakering Creek, Fleethead Creek, and along Potton Creek and Havengore Creek. We take a short cut across the Fleethead itself and as we scale the sea wall opposite Potton Island, Florence exclaims, with mock surprise, “Blimey! It’s another creek!”.
Although we are following the line of the Essex mainland, it does not feel like a coastal experience. The horizon appears as dry land for 360 degrees around us. We are at the centre of a wide, shallow saucer, and if there is any faint thickening of land to the west, it is rendered insignificant beneath a monstrous blue sky, which has shown no trace of a cloud all morning, and will continue to show no trace of a cloud for the rest of the day. We can see across to Canewdon, Wallasea and Burnham, but from the middle of the Fleethead, the dividing waterways are invisible, and It feels as though we are crossing the Texas panhandle rather than the Essex coast. Or perhaps tundra would be a better comparison, because the skeletal radar masts, enigmatic buildings and sheds, the shallow white dome, all scattered across the landscape to the east, resemble nothing so much as a scientific research station, isolated in the arctic. This land is controlled by the private company QuinetiQ, and we are skirting a ‘danger zone’, marked on the map by ominous red arrows. QuinetiQ blow things up, on our behalf, and I sincerely hope that their procedures and practices are more robust than those employed by G4S or that other shady bunch of crooks who were supposed to be running the back-to-work programme. They seem to be however, if anything, over – cautious, for the red flags are flying even though there is no hint of an explosion. Perhaps they are experimenting with chemical weapons. We hear a few pops of gunfire, but Ebb Tide identifies them as shotguns or bird scarers. In any case, this land, and therefore, the sea coast, these days, is largely inaccessible.
I am running ahead of myself, for we haven’t walked for about six weeks and today, we’re retracing our steps, and filling in the missing bit of coast between Barling Church and Shoebury. We are hoping to get to Wakering stairs and get sight at least, of the fabled Broomway. Brimming with enthusiasm, we set off like four greyhounds from their traps: four mature and experienced greyhounds, that is, who have realised that the hare is merely a mechanical device to keep us in the thrall of financially incontinent gamblers, and not worth chasing, and who are happy to proceed at a relaxed lope. (Greyhounds like that get put down. Ed).
We are privileged, and relieved, to be joined by Florence today, for she is the first person who has walked with us for more than one stage, and Ebb Tide, Master F. and myself were beginning to wonder if we were putting people off in any way (Comparing your companions to superannuated greyhounds probably doesn’t help. Ed.). Florence, as well as being great company, is no slouch as a naturalist, and having her with us exponentially increases our capacity to identify flora and fauna. Despite the complete absence of anything recognisable as summer weather during the preceding weeks, the grass on the sea wall is beginning to brown and turn to seed, the wheat is ripe in the fields, hay is being turned and the saltmarsh is covered with purple flowers that Florence identifies as sea lavender.
If the natural elements of the Essex coast intermingle – the land being undecided whether or not it is solid or liquid; the sea sometimes indistinguishable from the sky – its social components are even more unruly; it is agricultural, nautical, suburban, rural, remote, accessible, lo-tec, hi-tec. Simultaneously. Looping round the creek towards Little Wakering, the landscape is a bewildering kaleidoscope: crooked telegraph poles; piles of tarmac; entrances to fields with gates reinforced by concrete blocks; flimsy, makeshift gates made from pallets; random lagoons; abandoned fishing nets; a concrete barge pressed into service as a jetty; old tyres; brand new S.U.Vs; pristine boats; derelict boats; boats in all stages between; working boats; leisure boats; house boats; canal boats (canal boats?); hayfields; cornfields; nondescript fields; caravan -wonky shed – basketball hoop – ruined car – child’s swing – old trampoline fields. A woman is training a horse (which Florence identifies as a cob) in a field on a smallholding which sits behind a row of suburban villas, which, in turn, nestle next to a mud-filled quay. All this cheek-by-jowl to the cutting edge military technology with which Foulness must bristle, and fortified bridges that have all the ambience of an East European border crossing in the cold war era. Signs help us navigate this amalgam; “Do not feed the horses they bite”; “Three Year Old Rich Black Stable Compost”; “Danger. Deep Water”; “MOD Property. Authorised Personnel Only”; “Danger. Keep Out. Firing Range”. Master F. and myself are talking about walking the Suffolk coast at some time in the future, but I don’t expect we will meet this kind of diversity up there.
Thoroughly disorientated, we sit down for lunch by a hand – painted sign warning us to “Beware Adders”. Ebb Tide and Florence, having been to Scotland many times, are experienced in the ways of adders; Master F. and myself less confident. We are reassured that the bite is rarely fatal, and speculate whether, if bitten whilst eating our sandwiches, we will be able to hobble to the nearest point of assistance. Wakering Stairs is looking unlikely as a destination, as we can see the red flags flying in the distance. As we approach the heavily secured bridge over to Havengore Island, it is clear that the path is blocked by a padlocked gate with barbed wire on top, and that the fence extends over the saltmarsh to our left. We have encountered more difficult obstacles, but not under the shadow of an observation tower and guard post. To our right, an eight foot fence, also topped with barbed wire, stretches into the distance. We have to retrace our steps along the sea wall and cut through Oxenham farm, and from there, work our way around the ranges. At one point, we are squeezed onto a footpath that is bordered by high stinging nettles between the back fences of gardens, all apparently inhabited by barking dogs, and the security fence itself.
Fortunately, coming towards us, is a man mowing the path. He is using a device that I have never seen before – a heavy-duty lawn mower, on caterpillar tracks, that he is controlling using a remote, walking about three feet behind it. Ebb tide is amused that the machine is called ‘Robocut’, and I wonder if this is a piece of military equipment that is being tested; a kind of terrestrial drone, perhaps intended for the poppy fields of Afghanistan. A few yards later, we encounter another man engaged in clearing the path, this time using a more orthodox heavy-duty strimmer. He has his back to us, and is blocking the way, and there is no way of attracting his attention. Ebb Tide and myself try shouting, but he has ear protectors on. I try waving a map to attract his peripheral vision, but he has a mask on. He turns around and gives a start when he sees us, recovering control of the strimmer just in time to avert a potentially nasty accident, smiles and waves us past.
The path crosses a residential street and we stop to orient ourselves. We are next to a gate in the fence which indicates a public right of way into the ranges, but it is locked. A man working in his garden comes over to offer assistance. He points the way to the Stairs for us, but there is no way in. “They should be open” he says “they finished shooting hours ago”. We have to make do with his reassurance that we are on the right track for Shoeburyness station.
It has been a relatively short walk, but the temperature must be close to thirty degrees, and we are flagging. Hot sunshine is not necessarily the walker’s best friend, and having to retrace your steps is always a bit of an anti climax. Our spirits are revived however, when we come across ‘Cupid’s Country Club'; how comforting to know that romance can flourish in such close proximity to the barbed wire, firing ranges and exploding artillery shells of Foulness, almost like ‘Heroes‘ by David Bowie. The club, which resembles a large sports pavilion, with an empty car park and untidy garden appears to be closed. There is a sign half hidden in the hedge…
…which, I guess, rules out us greyhounds.