Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Walk 64 -- Othona Roman Fort to St Lawrence Bay

Ages: Colin was 60 years and 350 days. Rosemary was 58 years and 127 days.
Weather: Fine and sunny, but that cool wind was still around.
Location: Othona Roman Fort to St Lawrence Bay.
Distance: 8 miles.
Total distance: 437½ miles.
Terrain: Grass-topped sea wall, except at St Lawrence Bay where the public footpath was completely obliterated by a new residential estate, and we were expected to leap over about 50 yards of ‘PRIVATE’ ‘KEEP OUT’ land to get to the road!
Tide: Out, coming in.
Rivers to cross: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: The Cricketers at Bradwell-on-Sea where we tried Tolly Cobbold Original, but much preferred Ridley’s IPA. (Colin was delighted to find this pub sold ‘real ale’ even though it wasn’t in his book – the only problem was our visit was spoilt by a family of kids who were allowed to jump all over the picnic tables and play football in the pub garden!)
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: No.21 at St Lawrence Bay where the public footpath had been built over and we had to divert to the road!
How we got there and back: We drove – with bikes on the back of the car – from Isleham to St Lawrence Bay where the car park marked on our map was, in fact, private and the only toilet was one of those ‘Dalek’ ones which are costly and we don’t trust the door to stay closed – or to open when we want it to! We parked under a tree in an un-made-up road and hoped we were inconspicuous enough. (We did not feel that St Lawrence Bay was a very friendly place.) We cycled to Othona via Bradwell-on-Sea – that is where we found the pub!
At the end, we drove straight back to Othona and had our tea and filled baguettes there. Then we loaded up the bikes and drove back to Isleham in Cambridgeshire where we were staying with Paul & Caroline.

Joy of joys! Colin found a pub to his liking on our cycle ride to the start point of today’s walk! After the fiasco of the last two walks, it was a relief to find a tavern with beer which met his criteria – and it wasn’t even in his book! In actual fact, we both felt a lot better after a day’s rest and with the knowledge that the toughest walks this session are now behind us.
The day had started with frustrations at St Lawrence Bay, where the car park turned out to be private and the Public Convenience was one of those steel boxes that charge you 20p for a pee and are so automatic that you sit in dread that the door is going to open revealing you in all your glory! (We both used a bush out in the countryside – infinitely preferable.) As we cycled through the village of Bradwell-on-Sea, Colin insisted on looking in the pub ‘just in case’ – no joy! We looked at the ancient village lock-up situated in the church wall (it was tiny!), then cycled along the Roman Road towards Othona passing another pub. That was the one!
After chatting with the landlord, we decided to take our drinks outside as it was a nice day. Then The Family arrived – spoilt brats whose idea of fun was to leap over and on to the picnic tables and play football all around them! No one told them to stop – neither the parents because they apparently didn’t care, nor the landlord because the father had ordered numerous plates of junk and chips therefore spending a lot more money than we were. So we drank up and left.
The real Walk started at Othona Roman Fort. This was built towards the end of the 3rd century AD, probably by Carausius who was known as the ‘Count of the Saxon Shore’. He ordered stone to be brought by ship from London and Kent, and built a small quay here for it to be landed. He also built a road leading inland towards London – the very road we had just cycled along. When the Romans departed, the fort became the centre of a small Saxon city called Ythancestrir. Very little of the original fort remains in the present day. Two-thirds of its area is under water at high tide, and most of the rest which remains above ground level has been looted at one time or another. There is just a small exposed section of wall which was covered in brambles when we tried to find it. The quay had been completely washed away many centuries ago.
By the 7th century, Christianity was beginning to take a hold on our pagan shores. A monk called Aidan had been training groups of missionaries at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, and he was invited by King Sigbert, monarch of the East Saxons (Es-Sex) to send some monks to Ythancestrir in order to convert the local populace – who probably had no say in what religion they followed because, in those days, you did what you were told if you wanted to survive! Aidan chose Cedd to lead this little band of holy men, and they sailed down the east coast to land at the ancient Roman quay at Othona.
Cedd did his stuff, and then needed a church for his novice Christian community. Othona, by then 400 years old, was merely a ruin, so Cedd used the stone to build a church which he dedicated to St Peter. He cleverly used the firm foundation of the old fort’s main gateway so that the church ended up straddling the original line of the wall. It became known as St Peter-on-the-Wall, a name it has retained ever since. We call it a chapel because of its small size, but for those early Saxons it was a huge building.
The year was 654 AD. That same year Cedd was consecrated Bishop of the East Saxons, and St Peter-on-the-Wall became his Cathedral! The building continued to be used as a place of Christian worship for the next thousand years, so it was always kept in a good state of repair. By the 14th century, Ythancestrir no longer existed and all trace of the hovels those early Saxons lived in had disappeared. A village grew up just over a mile further inland (Bradwell-on-Sea) around a ‘new’ medieval Parish Church, but St Peter’s was still used as a chapel-of-ease until the 17th century. When it was finally abandoned, it continued to be used as a navigational aid for ships on this treacherous coast so it was still kept in a fairly good state of repair. A local farmer used it as a barn, and although he knocked some holes in the wall to get his farmcarts in, at least he kept the roof on so that they wouldn’t get wet!
In 1920, it was handed back to the Diocese by the farmer who owned it at the time. It was restored, though the rounded apse at the eastern end had completely fallen down so that was left. It is now a place of pilgrimage, used occasionally for services ‘to bring the people of Essex together’. We marvelled that this magnificent building – one of the finest examples of Saxon architecture still standing in this country – was actually built one thousand, three hundred and forty-nine years ago, and is still in constant use!
We found a sheltered spot out of the wind by the bramble-covered Roman wall, and sat down to eat our sarnies. Then we started the actual Walk! Just north of the chapel we passed a wooded copse behind which were some buildings. A notice informed us that it was the ‘Othona Community’ and continued:
Welcome to Othona. Here we meet together to explore the joys and pitfalls of living in community – individuals and families from this country and abroad. Founded in 1946, Othona has a Christian basis but is not exclusive: among its active members are people who cannot share a traditional Christian faith.
In a simple lifestyle of Work, Worship, Study and Play we try to break down barriers of race, creed, age, gender and disability. You are welcome to visit. We invite you to enjoy and respect this peaceful environment. Please keep your dog on a lead.
Sounded a bit quirky to us, so we didn’t take them up on their invitation and moved on. From behind the trees came the sound of children playing – squabbling in the usual sort of manner. Then, not a hundred yards further on, we came face to face with The Family from the pub! Fortunately they were returning from their short walk, and after we had passed them unscathed I remarked that – with a bit of luck – we shall never ever come across them again in our lives!
All too soon our path turned westwards, and we were on a riverbank again – albeit a wide river. There is no possibility of cheating on a ferry across the River Blackwater, and it is ninety miles to walk round to the next bit of real seashore near Clacton. The Essex marshes were proving to be a tough challenge! We could hear Army explosives in the distance – was it Shoeburyness behind us or Fingringhoe ahead of us? We were about halfway, as the crow flies, between the two. Learning how to blast each other to bits – Oh! the folly of Man!
We passed Bradwell Nuclear Power Station – two reactors, each in a tower that looked like a multi-storey office block. It looked very quiet, and we found out some weeks later that this was because the station is being decommissioned. The process will take three more years to accomplish, then the reactors will have to stand idle for a further seventy years at least before it will be safe to demolish them! Oh! the folly of Man!
We came to Bradwell Waterside where we walked round a pretty marina. The road ends there by going straight into the sea. This is really to facilitate the launching of boats, but I surmised that there may once, perhaps, have been a ferry across to Mersea Island – but it was really just wishful thinking, idly discounting the many miles of Essex marshes we still have to walk. Oh well! There was also an Activity Centre through which the public footpath led. A notice warned us that the gates each side would be locked during certain activities, but fortunately they were open today. I was in no mood to go a longer way!
The second half of the walk was all marshes. In April 1995 (so a notice informed us) the footpath was diverted to a new seawall about twenty yards inland. Then the old seawall was breached in a couple of places to allow the marsh to revert to a saltwater habitat. This is because saltwater marshland is relatively rare due to massive draining of such areas for farming. We did not count this as a diversion because it was already marked on the map that we have.
We heard a cuckoo again – and saw a short-eared owl flying about which was very exciting! Colin tried very hard to photograph it, but it was just too far away. We met only one other person before we got to St Lawrence Bay, a woman out walking her dog. As we stopped to pass the time of day, she remarked on the holes we had been encountering on the path. (We had to be very careful at times not to wrick an ankle.) She told us it was ‘The Hunt’ who were responsible, and since she was a local Parish Councillor she was going to put in a complaint about them, and not for the first time either. She reckoned they ought to pay for the damage they cause to the seawall, where they shouldn’t be with their horses anyway. We agreed that the path was in a bit of a mess in places.
As we approached St Lawrence, our way came to an abrupt halt! According to all our up-to-date maps, the public right-of-way goes along the water’s edge until it comes to a place called ‘The Stone’. But no! Mr Money - In - My - Pocket - And - No - Questions - Asked had sold his piece of waterfront land (including the public footpath) to a builder who had managed to pack a record number of new houses on to it -- almost as many houses as he had erected PRIVATE KEEP OUT notices surrounding the complex! (I wonder who knew who on the local Council!) According to these notices, there was about fifty yards of private land between the abrupt end of the footpath and the public road – what were we supposed to do? Jump? We had to walk along two sides of a triangle next to the traffic to get to ‘The Stone’, and we were very annoyed!

That ended Walk no.64, we shall pick up Walk no.65 next time at ‘The Stone’ at St Lawrence Bay. I sat down in a shelter there and looked at the sea while Colin walked along the road to retrieve the car which he had parked under a tree on the edge of a private estate. We did not feel at all comfortable in St Lawrence, so we drove back to the car park near St Peter’s chapel – where we had left our bikes – before having our tea and filled baguettes which we had bought for our evening meal. Then we drove back to Isleham.

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