Saturday, July 05, 2003

Walk 71 -- West Mersea to the Strood, a circuit of Mersea Island

Ages: Colin was 61 years and 58 days. Rosemary was 58 years and 200 days.
Weather: Thick cloud, but dry and warm.
Location: West Mersea to the Strood. Distance: 9½ miles.
Total distance: 499½ miles.
Terrain: Beach at first, then the sea wall which was paved a little way but mostly grass. This got very rough until it was almost impossible to walk, and we ended up scrabbling through a ditch. It turned out it was no path at all because it had been deemed too dangerous and it was closed!
Tide: Out, beginning to come in later.
Rivers to cross: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: None, but we did call in to our tent for lunch and had a beer each!
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: No.23 at the end of the walk where the path completely disappeared so we made our way, with difficulty, alongside fields and through a ditch.
How we got there and back: We camped the night before on Mersea Island. We drove, with bikes on the back of the car, to the Strood where we parked in a lay-by. We cycled the short distance across the island to the pleasant car park where we were yesterday, and chained our bikes to a tree.
At lunchtime we passed our campsite, so we called in to our tent where I had left a cold lunch set out on the table! We had a beer each, and a cup of tea before continuing. Very civilised!
At the end, we drank a cup of tea each. We picked up the bikes and returned to the campsite which had really filled up because it was the weekend. We had a quick bite to eat, then packed everything up and were on the road before 8 o’clock. Then our problems started, because our bike rack broke! First one of the vertical poles sheared right off, then the other started to bend. We were in real trouble because there was nothing to strap the bikes to! We stopped several times to readjust, and ended up strapping them to the boot of the car, using a blanket to protect the paintwork. We eventually got home at midnight – and we still had our bikes!

We started today’s Walk on the beach, stomping along in front of the rows of beach huts from where we left them yesterday. The tide was right out, and lying on the beach were several polished wooden platforms (about 6'x3' in size) each attached to a long chain so that they would float, but not float away, when the tide came in. We puzzled about them, but could not think what they were for.
As we left West Mersea, we went up on to the top of the beach and walked through the edge of a caravan site. Now on the sea wall we passed another campsite, and then a youth camp. Now this is what I like to see – young people taken away from their videos and computer screens so that they can be taught to appreciate the outdoors. (Twenty years or so ago, both Colin and I were involved in that sort of youth work – running expeditions and camps for Cubs and Scouts, and then there were the school camps I used to do. We gave those kids experiences they have probably never had before or since – like canoeing to Climping for a campfire on the beach and paddling back to Bognor in the dark, constructing rafts from wooden pallets and polythene drums on which they were supposed to float fifty yards along the River Cuckmere without falling off, or a fire-lighting competition – all safely extinguished before we left – at midnight in the old sand quarry at The Spur!) The children here on Mersea Island were experiencing archery, obviously for the first time, then we were passed by a group on their mountain bikes cycling along the sea wall – tame stuff compared with the kind of activities we used to do!
A bit further on we were hailed by a couple of runners accompanied by a woman on a bike. We had met them earlier that morning at The Strood when we were parking the car. The man and one of the women told us that they intended to run round the perimeter of the island accompanied by the man’s wife on her bike. They said they often did it to keep up their training for marathons – and here they were apparently already three-quarters of the way round running in the opposite direction to us! We greeted them, and on they raced. We realised later that there was no way they could have run the complete perimeter path because it simply didn’t exist in some places, and there were far too many bumps, long grass and stiles to accommodate the bicycle. They must have taken enormous short cuts to get where they were in the time looking relatively unharassed. We concluded that they had ‘exaggerated the truth’ – in other words, they had told us ‘porkies’!
Then we saw a green woodpecker, flying along the top of the beach. We passed one more caravan site, then we came to the one we were still camped at! That morning, instead of making up sandwiches, I had prepared a cold lunch and left it on the table in our tent. We partook of this, along with a beer each, and then made some tea. In all we rested for about an hour before we returned to the beach to resume our walk. It was all very civilised!
There didn’t seem to be a sea wall any more, so we walked along the beach under soft cliffs. They were very eroded, and reminded us of the sand cliffs along the north coast of the Isle of Sheppey. There had been attempts to keep the beach in place with what looked like rows of chestnut palings stretching from high to low water mark – I don’t know how successful it is. There was a lot of concrete scattered on the shore – most of it was from pill-boxes – Second World War era – which had tumbled down the cliffs and disintegrated. We stopped to talk to a couple of ladies who were sitting on a log. One of them said she had lived in the area for years, and remembers all the pill-boxes being on top of the cliffs as late as the 1960s. I don’t think any of them are still up there, or whole anymore.
We came to the easternmost point of the island and were once more on the seawall. There was a spit of land – mostly sand and mud with tussocky grass – stretching out for about a hundred yards towards Brightlingsea on the other side of the River Colne. There was a notice by the path leading on to it warning us that we go on there at our own risk, it is often slippery and that we may get cut off by the tide. How ridiculous! As if anyone couldn’t use their common sense to see that it may occasionally get a bit boggy (certainly not today) and if you don’t like it then don’t go! That’s the trouble with the Nanny-State, people rely on it, then when they do get into trouble through their own stupidity they blame the authorities for not warning them. They sue, and there are far too many lawyers offering to fight their cases ‘for FREE if you lose’. What these sharks don’t tell the pimple-brains is that they don’t actually fight a case for them unless they know they have a ninety-nine percent chance of winning compensation – which the client is entitled to anyway – and then they take a hefty whack for their ‘services’. This compensation-culture has spread from America and has been sweeping the country in recent years, completely putting the kibosh on anything even remotely adventurous – like walking out on to a sand spit for about a hundred yards. So we were very ‘brave’ and did it, as had loads of other people. Some fishermen were sitting peacefully at the other end overlooking lovely views of Brightlingsea and St Osyth. (Colin was relieved that the nuclear power station at Bradwell was now well behind us.) Walking round the sandy humps, we saw a heron by the river.
Regaining the sea wall (without getting cut off by the tide, nor slipping in the muddy patches!) we left the seaside behind once more and, in order to complete our circuit of Mersea Island, set off northwest towards The Strood,. The north coast of the island is somewhat marshy, and we were relieved to be able to take a short cut where a new bit of seawall had been constructed.
Then we saw a seal! This was a definite sighting – we thought we may have seen one near Conyer in north Kent all those miles back, but then we weren’t sure. This time we were! It was swimming along some fishing nets which were stretched out in the river, its head bobbing up and down. Then it dived, but further on we saw another swimming in the opposite direction. Neither of them were close enough to photograph, but it was a real thrill to see them! Further on we met a man who told us he regularly walks his dogs along there, and he has often seen seals – once he saw eight of them at once! He showed us a place in the marshes where they like to haul themselves out to sunbathe, though none of them were there today. We could see that the mud had been rubbed bare, but we just had to believe our new friend that the marks were caused by seals.
This gentleman also told us that we would have difficulty completing our walk back to The Strood because the path is overgrown and has been washed away in places. “It is just possible to get through if you are determined,” he said, “but you may have to scramble through ditches or go into the fields!” We thanked him, saying that it wasn’t the first time we had come across this situation in the Essex marshes and that we would go on and see what we found. In actual fact, he was the third person to tell us much the same thing – the male runner had told us when we had first met him that morning, then proceeded to boast that he ‘often’ ran through it (which we did not believe after we had struggled through ourselves); and a man we had met near the heron had the same sort of tale to tell – he turned back after about a mile.
After we had left the eastern sand spit, the seawall path was short grass which was actively being grazed by sheep and cows. This made for pleasant walking on an even surface. After a few stiles, the grass was no longer grazed but the path was still wide and uniform despite the tall weeds, so it wasn’t too bad. As we left the ‘seal man’ we had to turn sharp left, and that is where the surface deteriorated markedly. We were no longer walking alongside the river channel, but twisting and turning through the marshes. The path narrowed, the weeds got taller and the surface was lumpy. We couldn’t actually see the ground through the undergrowth, so we never knew if we were stepping into a hole whenever we put a foot forward. Our pace slowed, and it was very tiring with all the concentration and slipping feet, etc.
Sometimes we walked down next to the bank whenever the ‘path’ on top got too impossible, but then we would turn a corner and that track too would disappear. All we could do then was clamber up to the top once more and battle through. At one point we came to a deep ditch full of water! Momentarily we thought we were stuck, but then we noticed that the bank went along sharp left to a little wooded dell. We fought our way through, and found a wooden plank which enabled us to cross said ditch without getting our feet wet. Returning on the opposite bank we carried on, but the path and bank seemed to disappear altogether. (What we hadn’t noticed was that the ‘path’ turned a sharp right hand bend into the marshes, but it was so overgrown and underused that it was completely camouflaged and invisible – we must have walked right past it!) We could see the traffic crossing The Strood in the distance, so we knew we weren’t too far away from the end of our Walk – but how could we get there? We struggled alongside fields in what we hoped was the right direction, and eventually scrambled down into a deep ditch – fortunately dry at that point, well almost! – and up the other side to spill out on to the road about a hundred yards from our car. There, half hidden behind bushes, was a PUBLIC FOOTPATH finger-post pointing across the marshes in quite a different direction to the way we had come. Attached to it was the following faded notice – DANGER : FOOTPATH IMPASSABLE : SEA-WALL BREACHED.
Now they tell us!
That ended Walk no.71, we shall pick up Walk no.72 next time at The Strood on Mersea Island.We drank a cup of tea each, and then picked up the bikes from the pleasant grassy car park in West Mersea. We returned speedily to the campsite which had really filled up because it was the weekend – there was a particularly nauseating child from the next tent who constantly kicked a football into tents, cars, whatever without a word of apology nor reprimand from his parents. How glad we were that we had made the decision to return home! We had a quick bite to eat, packed everything up and were on the road before 8 o’clock.
Then our problems started, because our bike rack broke! First one of the vertical poles sheared right off, then the other started to bend. We were in real trouble because there was nothing to strap the bikes to! We stopped several times to readjust, and ended up strapping them to the boot of the car, using a blanket to protect the paintwork. We eventually got home at midnight – and we still had our bikes!
We have only had the bike rack for two years and so we were very disappointed that it broke so quickly. It was quite expensive, but worth it (we thought) because of its brilliant design. It sits on the towbar, not strapped to the back of the car, and is so easy to assemble that it takes less than ten minutes to slip on, secure and strap two bikes to. It has its own lighting system and number plate like a trailer, but it is not a trailer because it doesn’t have wheels. It fits across the back seat of the car when not in use, so when we cycle off it is safely locked inside our alarmed vehicle. We have found it invaluable for our Round-Britain walking – it doesn’t matter if we pick up the bikes in the dark when we are exhausted because it is so easy to assemble. We do not have to strap on a complicated rack, nor lift heavy bikes on to a roof rack. It is immaterial that the bikes obscure the number plate and lights because it takes a mere twenty seconds to plug it in the trailer socket, and it is as easy to drive as if we only had the car – our vehicle is no taller and only fractionally longer. We can even open the boot if we stop on a journey – we just loosen the bike straps and lean them away, not forgetting to secure them again before we drive off! We have found it indispensable – and now it was broken!
As soon as we got home, Colin e-mailed the company that made it. They wrote back asking us to parcel up the broken pole and send it to them. By return of post came a new pole, along with a spare strap and a recommendation that we strap the bikes to each other on the rack so they are ‘one’. We were impressed with their ‘after-sales’ service, especially as it had been over two years since we bought the thing.
Then we had an attack of ‘the guilts’! Our car’s suspension was at fault. Paul had commented on it six months previously when he had sat in the back for a short journey, and we had dismissed it as ‘those lumpy shrunken roads you have across the Fens’. Recently, though, we had been feeling the bumps ourselves, and especially on this latest trip. Every pebble we ran over sent shudders up our spines, and we realised something was seriously wrong. Colin took the car into the Garage, and they said the whole back suspension had gone! That was an expensive repair, but afterwards it was like driving on air cushions!
We now know that the reason the bike rack broke was nothing to do with the design or quality of materials used – it was due to the constant shuddering and vibration as we drove up and down the motorways with naff suspension!
(Ssh! Don’t tell the bike rack manufacturer!)

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