Thursday, April 17, 2003

Walk 60 -- Shoeburyness to Barling Marsh

Ages: Colin was 60 years and 344 days. Rosemary was 58 years and 121 days.
Weather: Sunny, but still a cold wind.
Location: Shoeburyness to Barling Marsh.
Distance: 10½ miles.
Total distance: 396 miles.
Terrain: Some roads. Well-signposted grass path through an army range, then grass river banks.
Tide: In.
Rivers to cross: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: ‘Angel Inn’ at North Shoebury where we tried Maldon’s ‘Mole Trap’ and Vale Edgar’s Golden Ale, and found them both disappointing.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None, because we phoned up the Army and asked them to unlock a gate allowing us to walk on a right of way through MOD land.
How we got there and back: We drove – with bikes on the back of the car – from Isleham to Barling where we parked in a cul-de-sac at the end of the creek. We cycled to Shoeburyness, walked with our bikes from the street where we ended the last walk to a seaside parking area and chained the bikes to a tree.
At the end, we had a cup of tea, then drove to Shoeburyness where our bikes were parked. Before leaving there, we ate our filled baguettes – which we had bought that morning – and drank more tea. Feeling somewhat refreshed, we drove back to Isleham in Cambridgeshire where we were staying with Paul & Caroline.

We had digressed to the ‘real ale’ pub on the cycle ride while setting up this walk because we ‘almost’ passed it, and knew it would involve a long diversion if we tried to incorporate it in the actual walk. We called at the ‘Angel Inn’ in North Shoebury – a beautiful timbered 17th century building which has been lovingly restored. The trouble was – we didn’t much like the beer there!
The first hundred yards or so we walked pushing our bikes from the cross roads where we ended the last walk down to the seafront. A spiky fence continued across the beach and into the water to stop anybody ‘trespassing’ on the beach by Shoeburyness barracks – even though it wasn’t clear whether they were already converting the area into a housing estate. We were now facing east instead of south. Thanks to the Army, we had missed the actual Shoebury Ness where the Thames Estuary finishes.
We chained our bikes to a tree by the car park, and sat on a nearby bench to eat our lunch. We didn’t stay long because, despite the bright Spring sunshine, it was very cold in the wind if you were just sitting about. A lot of people were enjoying the seaside, some sparsely dressed – bet their midriffs were freezing! However, our enjoyment of the beach was short-lived because, within half a mile, we were forced to turn inland again by the Army! (Another spiky fence stretched across the beach and into the water to stop you going any further.)
This time it was the infamous Shoeburyness firing range from which the local residents for miles around are forced to listen to constant explosions day and night, year in year out. We, too, had been listening to them all the morning whilst setting up this walk. We walked along by a high fence and crossed a railway track which led from Shoeburyness station, the end of the line as far as passengers are concerned, to gates in the Army fence. Behind those gates there seemed to be rather a lot of railway carriages – ordinary passenger carriages but a little on the old side. Then we passed an open gate with a road going in, a lifting barrier, guards and requests to show your pass. Looking on the map, this proved to be the only road that leads to Foulness Island, and since it is entirely on military land it is marked in white so it is not very conspicuous. There was quite a lot of traffic going in and out, each driver having to show his/her credentials before proceeding.
We had a very dull walk on roads round three sides of the Army range. As we approached the village of Great Wakering, a man and his dog emerged from the footpath between the houses and the Army fence. He looked like a local, so I asked him if it was possible to walk at all on the public footpath inside the Army range. He replied that they usually opened the gate at about 3 o’clock (it was then half past two), but if we lifted the phone that was by the gate we could ask them if they would open it any earlier. Sure enough, as we rounded the corner behind the houses, there was a narrow gate in the Army fence. It was locked and, like the fence all along, had strands of barbed wire at the top. Two notices were displayed on it – the red and white one said – DANGER Firing Range No unauthorised entry. The less conspicuous black and white one read – RIGHT OF WAY STRAIGHT AHEAD BEWARE OF TRAFFIC
Colin picked up the phone and told them where we were and where we wished to walk. He was told that they “only have one mobile, and that is ‘on the island dealing with an incident’ but we will see what we can do.” We waited about ten minutes. Colin whiled away the time trying to photograph butterflies, and I chatted to two little girls who came round on their bikes. Suddenly a vehicle pulled up on the road which ran along the other side of the fence. Two military policemen got out – one to unlock the gate and the other to watch! I asked how we would get out of the gate at the other end, and he said it would be unlocked by the time we got there.
I also took the opportunity to ask about the footpath across Maplin Sands. It must be the most extraordinary public footpath in this country. It leads from four access points on Foulness Island and runs parallel to the shore a quarter of a mile out to sea for six miles to a place called Wakering Stairs where it links up with a track to Great Wakering. All of it is at least a bridleway, and most of it is classed as a byway open to all traffic – hence you have the legal right to drive your car along it if you are crazy enough! It is only accessible at very low tide, and its course used to be marked with broomsticks – hence its name, ‘The Broomway’. It was built by farmers of yesteryear to allow them a level run to market – apparently they preferred to dice with the mists and the tides rather than negotiate numerous steep-sided creeks which cut into Foulness Island. It fell into disuse after the First World War, about the time the Army bought Foulness.
I asked our policeman friend if anyone in recent years has tried to use it – to which he replied, “Only if they have a death wish!” He explained that so much ordnance has been thrown in the sea along its course over the last eighty years that it would be suicide to even attempt to approach it. If you were lucky enough to escape being blown up, you would probably get caught in the quicksands and whirlpools caused by the meeting tides, and die that way! He said it is still possible, at very low tide, to see some of the marker broomsticks still in place, but most of them are gone now and the way is by no means clear. As to whether it will ever be open again, he said the Army can’t afford to clear away the explosives and make the area safe, and neither can Essex County Council. Each thinks the other should be responsible for it, and there you have stalemate.
We crossed the road carefully – it was really quite busy – and followed the marker signs (tall sticks with a dash of yellow paint at the top) through some bushes, the other side of which was a level crossing. There was an old-fashioned road sign depicting a steam train, and behind the high barbed wire topped fence to our right were redundant train carriages as far as the eye could see! Further on we could see the full curve of the line to our left, and Colin counted sixty-five carriages until they disappeared behind some bushes. Then we crossed another line, and they were nose to tail on parallel sidings – there must have been hundreds of them. So this is where old trains go to die! They were from different train companies all over the country, including 'Intercity' which we actually thought were quite modern. What distressed us most was the fact that many of these ‘old’ trains were in better nick than the slam-door trains still in daily use between Bognor Regis and London!
We passed a number of modern notices warning us not to stray from the public footpath, and then I found an old rusty notice half hidden in a bush telling us it was forbidden to take photographs. We had already taken quite a few by then, so we continued to ignore the request when we saw photogenic items of interest. We turned left on to the sea wall, and walked along to Wakering Stairs. At the end of the road landward side was parked a car with a man supposedly asleep in it. However, when we got back up on the sea wall after looking at the seaward start of the road, he had driven off. We were positive he had been sent to spy on us, making sure we really were walking the public footpath as we had said we would. We were sure our progress was being noted all the way round – it was quite spooky!
Unfortunately the tide was in, so we couldn’t see more than the very beginning of the track across Maplin Sands. We were amazed to find that it was concrete, as if in present-day use! We must return someday at low tide to find out how far the concrete goes, because it was quite contrary to what we had been told by the policeman on the gate. Tom King says in his hilarious book The Thames Estuary Trail that he observed several army amphibious DUKW vehicles (whatever they are) using the Broomway when he visited Foulness to research his book – and that was within the last decade.
So, had we been spun a load of eyewash by the policeman on the gate? Does the Army use the Broomway now for the same reason the farmers built it in the first place? What are they up to on Foulness? As we approached the bridge, we noticed the traffic was quite heavy in both directions. Why don’t they consider Foulness as the site of London’s fourth airport? It is certainly big enough, and would upset no one except the Army. It was considered briefly thirty years ago, but plans were almost immediately ditched because they said it was ‘too far from London’. The subsequent expansion of Stansted, which is perhaps twice as far from London, laid bare their hypocrisy over that matter. Is Foulness any further from London than Cliffe in Kent, a proposal for the airport site that is currently upsetting an enormous number of people?
My 1970s Encyclopaedia Britannica says the tip of Foulness is the site of a research laboratory of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. My ‘up-to-date’ Ordnance Survey map shows lots of dotted black lines and blue drainage ditches and the words The Drift (disused). The even more up-to-date internet map just shows the dotted black lines and drainage ditches. However, having been born and brought up in Farnborough within sight and sound of the Royal Aircraft Establishment where my father worked for forty years and which NEVER appeared on the local maps in any way, shape or form – I am very cynical about the veracity of maps. When walking further north, we could see the tip of Foulness in the distance, and there are certainly a lot of industrial-type buildings and chimneys which do not appear on any maps. It is all very intriguing.
We turned the corner at Haven Point, leaving behind the sea once again to walk alongside Havengore Creek which separates Foulness from the rest of the world. Before we reached the bridge, we passed through a tall barbed wire topped gate (which was unlocked as promised) to take us out of the restricted area. Even then, we had to walk inside a kind of cage for about fifty yards before going through a tunnel under the road which was up on unclimbable pillars with razor wire for added effect. Only then did we feel we were no longer being spied on! We walked off into more normal countryside.
It is possible to walk on Foulness Island – really just a swamp drained into several islands – because there are a number of public footpaths (which begin and end in the middle of nowhere) on it so we all have an ancient legal right to walk there. All you have to do is apply in advance for a permit which will be sent to you by post. You may then walk on the Island, BUT – only on their conditions. They tell you when you may walk. Binoculars, cameras and other ‘optical instruments’ are forbidden. You must keep strictly to the sea wall and not stray an inch either side. You may report on any animals or plants you encounter, but must not say a word about any buildings, man-made structures or vehicles you see. You must not speak to any military personnel. All these constrictions convinced us that it was permissible to save ourselves about fifteen miles of walking by not applying for a permit and walking straight past! (No! You didn’t hear a quiet sigh of relief – it was all your imagination!)
We had completed less than half the walk, but nothing really interesting happened from thereon. We had to walk along a river bank far away from the sea, with mud to our right and marshes to our left. We passed a muddy ford across to Rushley Island and another restricted road bridge across to Potton Island (both part of the Foulness complex), then the path twisted and turned along several tidal creeks – almost coming back to where it started at one point. Colin commented that it was like walking round a jigsaw puzzle and, looking at the map, he was quite right! It was very disheartening, walking for miles and miles but seeming not to make any progress along the coast. Most of Essex will be like this – it boasts that it has the longest coastline in Britain. Oh dear!
So there we were, trudging along this boring river bank feeling very tired and fed up, when suddenly – we saw an owl! There it was, ahead of us but we could never quite catch it up. Then it flew away. Colin thought it was a short-eared owl, but he wasn’t absolutely sure. A fleeting glimpse, but it cheered us up no end. Other birds of note we saw were oystercatchers and redshanks prodding the mud flats as the tide receded. At last we reached the hamlet of Barling where the river bank touched on the road and our car was parked there with flasks of tea in the boot!

That ended Walk no.60, we shall pick up Walk no.61 next time at Barling and continue walking the ‘jigsaw’ of tidal creeks. We had a cup of tea straightaway, then drove to Shoeburyness where our bikes were parked. It was quite pleasant in the car park there, so we ate our filled baguettes – which we had bought that morning – and drank more tea. We felt a lot better then, so we strapped up the bikes and drove back to Isleham in Cambridgeshire where we were staying with Paul & Caroline.


Delc said...

Hi Rosemary, Just popped in to say hello and good luck with the rest of your walk.

Derek & Catherine
(Portnadoran campsite arisaig)

Rosemary Fretwell said...

Thanks Derek & Catherine
We are currently at Glenuig, but will be returning to Scotland in a few weeks to carry on
Posts are way behind, but I hope to add one a week, when I'm home