Monday, July 21, 2003

Walk 74 -- Brightlingsea to Clacton-on-Sea

Ages: Colin was 61 years and 74 days. Rosemary was 58 years and 216 days.
Weather: A bit more cloudy and windy, but still hot and sunny.
Location: Brightlingsea to Clacton-on-Sea pier.
Distance: 9 miles.
Total distance: 526 miles.
Terrain: Mostly on a grassy sea wall. Then it was gravel followed by tarmac, then we had to walk along a narrow road. Finally, a bit of prom.
Tide: Out, coming in later.
Rivers to cross: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None. (We were short of time, so decided to save Clacton Pier for the beginning of the next Walk.)
Kissing gates: No.78 at St Osyth Stone Point.
Pubs: None.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.
How we got there and back: We camped the night before at Elmstead Market. We drove, with bikes on the back of the car, to Clacton where the car park would have cost us £4.50 – so we parked on the road just outside it for free like everyone else! Then we cycled to St Osyth Stone Point, and left our bikes locked to a post on the beach where the ferry from Brightlingsea, had there been one, would have docked. The tide was out, and we did vaguely wonder if we had left them too far out!
At the end, we drank tea and went back to St Osyth Stone Point to collect the bikes which, thankfully, were still on dry land despite the tide being right in. We returned to the campsite, had a quick meal which was already mostly prepared, then packed up the tent. We left just as it was getting dark, and had an uneventful drive home this time. We arrived in Bognor at 12.45AM tomorrow!

Our third consecutive day hiking! Usually we like to pace ourselves by having a rest every third day, but we have to get home in order to look after the grandchildren while Annalise and Mark go off on their delayed honeymoon.
At St Osyth Stone Point there is a large swathe of sand beyond the seawall. We left our bikes on the far side of it padlocked to a post, and I did vaguely wonder if they would be under water by the time we returned. I daren’t say anything to Colin because he can be so sarcastic, but the high tide mark was well below where we had left them so I just hoped it would be all right. Bet spring tides come right up and over to the seawall! We walked down to the water’s edge where the ferry would have come in, had there been one. With the tide out, it looked such a short distance across to Brightlingsea.
We returned to the seawall, and found there was a footpath just inside it. We passed numerous prefabricated bungalows – they looked like tarted up beach huts really, but people were living in them! I wonder how many of them stay there through the winter. We thought they were horrible! As we rounded the bend we could see, less than a mile away across the river, the western tip of Mersea Island – but we had walked thirty-two miles since we were there! Then, just beyond it, Colin noted with horror that we could still catch sight of the nuclear power station at Bradwell-on-Sea. It was a mere five miles away as the crow flies, but we had walked ninety-four miles since passing it! It really brought home to us how tough the Essex marshes have been. Through our binoculars/telescope we could just make out the Saxon chapel at Othona, and we realised why the Romans had built a fort in such a position – it must have been pretty impressive in its day.
When the beach huts/bungalows came to an end, the footpath led up the cliff behind some houses and away to the village. We didn’t want to go that way because it would have meant a lot of road walking and added two miles to our hike. We were hoping to walk along the beach for about half a mile, cross a little bit of marsh if it wasn’t too muddy, get up on to the seawall where it was not a legal path, and walk nonchalantly down to where the public footpath comes in. (Earlier that day we had recced out an alternative shortcut through Lee Wick Farm which would have saved us one of the extra two miles, but we were met with a plethora of PRIVATE PROPERTY NO ACCESS notices, so we knew that was no-go.)
There was a fence from the top of the beach down to below high water mark, and attached to it was an amateurish notice warning us of a ‘fierce dog’ or some such. It was a bit squidgy underfoot to get round the end of the fence, but we coped without getting too messy. The houses up on the cliff were mostly hidden behind bushes and trees, so we hoped that no one would see us skitter along that half mile of beach – but alas! one old gent was pottering about with his boats. “Can’t you read the notice?” he called, “this is a private beach!” We were very polite, and explained that we just wanted to walk about half a mile to where we could climb up on to the seawall and continue on our way to Clacton. He said there were lots of fences like the one we had just come round (there weren’t!) and his neighbours didn’t like it, and that if we continued “there will sure to be trouble!”
Still very polite, I explained that we were below high water mark, and intended to remain that far down the beach until we were well past his property. “But I own this beach!” he replied, “I bought the house and grounds along with the beach all the way down to low water mark!” At the time we weren’t very sure of the legality of this, but we have since found out that you can own a beach down to low water mark, but everyone has legal access to all beaches – except on MOD land – in this country up to high water mark. “Anyway,” he continued before we had time to continue our argument, “this isn’t a proper beach because it is by the river, not the sea!” (Looking at the map, that argument would keep the average lawyer in caviar and champagne for about ten years!)
The man had verbal diarrhoea, he hardly paused for breath and didn’t listen to a word we had to say. He suggested we walk all over the marshes towards the nature reserve (we had no intention of doing so) but warned us to keep a low profile because the warden doesn’t like it and he is a big chap and “can get nasty!” In amongst his rhetoric, he actually told us of a better route that we could use which didn’t involve clambering across the marshes. “Take the path into the village, turn right at the Post Office, turn right again, then take the first turning on the left. This brings you to a field, but I don’t suppose the farmer will mind you walking through his field! If you follow the fences at the back of the houses, you will come to the seawall – it’s as easy as that!” We were amazed that he was actually telling us to trespass on someone else’s land when he had been so adamant that we were not going to walk on his beach, but we were relieved that he had told us of an easier route that would not involve us getting muddy.
We tried to thank him and turned to go, but he just would not stop talking! He told us all about his bad back, and some bait-diggers who had threatened him and tried to set fire to his boat. He told us that the people who lived in the beach huts/bungalows were the ‘low-life’ – pardon? “You know, got their money through dirty dealings!” He reckoned the infamous Kray brothers had an interest in the properties. He then started on the owners of Lee Wick Farm who, according to him, lost all their money at cards and so didn’t really own the property – their creditors did – but they gave them back-handers and did them favours so they were still there. “For all their PRIVATE notices, they have no right to stop you walking through if you want to!” We were open-mouthed!
Then his talk got really silly. He must have thought we still wanted to walk along his beach. “There are adders in the grass up by the seawall!” he said, threateningly. “Oh, are there?” Colin replied, his wildlife instinct aroused, “that’s interesting, it’s a long time since we’ve seen an adder!” Well, that wasn’t the reaction the old man was expecting, and for a moment he was non-plussed. “B..b..but they are big ones round here!” he continued, and they are quite aggressive!” Colin patiently explained that adders are not aggressive, in fact they are more afraid of humans than we are of them. They usually slither away as soon as anyone approaches them, and the only time someone is likely to get bitten is if they accidentally tread on one in the undergrowth. “But these don’t go away!” he countered, “and there are lots of them! When the local farmers bale hay, they have terrible trouble because there are two or three snakes in every bale! They are huge, and they won’t move out of the way!”
We had had enough of his stupid talk and he had wasted too much of our valuable time. So we very firmly thanked him for telling us of the new route, and turned back. We squidged round the end of the fence again, laughing at the thought of giant adders which rear up and attack hapless hikers – do the wildlife societies know about them? Two women were sunning themselves on their lawn just up on the cliff which wasn’t very high. One of them called out, “So he wouldn’t let you walk along his precious beach then! We thought you wouldn’t get through!” The other woman chimed in, “He’s a nutter, that man! You should have asked to see his bit of paper saying the beach is private! He had no right to put up that fence!” When we said he had told us there were lots of fences, and none of his neighbours would like it either, she said, “That’s a load of rubbish, and he knows it! You should have demanded to see his bit of paper, that would’ve done ’im!”
Our way led up a footpath right next to their garden, so we stopped to talk. These ladies obviously didn’t like their eccentric neighbour, and had no problem with people wanting to walk along the beach in front of their houses. We told them we had voluntarily turned back because he had told us of an alternative way without wading through mud. They were obviously not walkers, and didn’t know whether we could get through behind the Post Office or not, but wished us luck. They were very interested in our project of walking the whole coastline of Britain, but were concerned that it was “quite a step to Clacton, surely?” One of the women said she used to work at the holiday camp there, “You know, the old Butlin’s camp. It’s closed now, of course. Pity, I really liked it there and it was a good job! I suppose they all go to Majorca these days!”
We bid them ‘Goodbye!’ and they wished us luck again – a pleasant down-to-earth couple. We were running late and, yes, it was ‘quite a step’ to Clacton. Then we had to retrieve our bikes, return to the campsite, take the tent down, pack everything in the car and drive home! With this in mind we quickened our pace.
We followed the directions – turn right at the Post Office, turn right again and then take the first left. At the end of this road we came to a hay field which we could walk straight in to – no gate, no stile. A narrow path, hidden in the long grass, seemed to run along the backs of gardens. There was a plank across a dyke and then we were on the seawall which looked as if it had been mown. The old man had been correct in his directions. The field and the seawall were on private land, according to our maps, but we have walked on far worse public footpaths. We didn’t see any adders, giant or otherwise, but we did see a hare! It was loping along the seawall ahead of us, off one side, then over and off the other. Eventually it disappeared, but it had been a good sighting. We came to the junction where the public footpath joins the seawall (after its two mile deviation) and we were surprised to see a ‘PUBLIC FOOTPATH’ finger-post pointing back the way we had come! Looking over the marshes, we were glad we hadn’t tried to find our way across them from the beach. Despite the hot weather, lack of rain and low tide, we would have had mud up to the eyeballs! YOU CAN KEEP YOUR ‘PRIVATE’ BEACH, YOU MISERABLE OLD GIT! (Sorry? Did I say that? Never!)
Now we were on public footpaths all the way to Clacton, so we could relax. Shortly, the path turned very definitely east with the real sea to our right, and we turned our backs on the nuclear power station at Bradwell-on-Sea for the very last time. We could see it shimmering in the sun a mere five miles away across the water, but we had conquered the Essex Marshes and we would never see it again – I promised Colin!
Almost immediately we came upon a scattering of dilapidated houses and the end of a track which led into a Nature Reserve car park by the marshes. This was the end of the road which led through Lee Wick Farm, yet we had come across a plethora of PRIVATE PROPERTY and NO ACCESS notices at the Farm when we had recced out the route earlier in the day.
The seawall swung inland a bit, and we were behind some marshes which we couldn’t cross to the true beach because of several deep dykes. Yet there were cars on the other side, parked on the shoreline! They had, of course, come in from the other end – paying £1.50 each to drive along a dodgy road in order to get to this nudist beach. There were a lot of customers on this hot and sticky summer’s afternoon, but they were too far away for us to see anything clearly through our optical instruments!
They had accessed the beach at a place called Seawick which was a mass of caravans, many for sale and being advertised as a pleasant place to live – not for me, thank you! I did wonder, vaguely, if this was the site of the old Butlin’s ‘luxury’ holiday camp, but I found out later that it wasn’t. We used their loo and carried on.
We sat on the seawall – a proper wall by now – to eat a snack, and got talking to a group of people from the caravans who had hired bikes to ride along the prom. (Take note, Bognor Council, that it is a much narrower prom than ours, and no incidents of running down disabled pensioners or similar occurred! In fact, a lot more people were able to enjoy themselves in safety because riding a bicycle along the prom is allowed!) One woman told us she hadn’t ridden a bike in forty years. We left them chatting to some friends, and further on they passed us. Colin asked the lady if she was enjoying her ride, to which she replied ‘Yes’. Colin told her she would enjoy it a lot better if her saddle was raised, but she rode off with her knees rising up to her chin saying it was ‘all right’!
After passing a Martello tower, we came to more permanent accommodation that was all squashed together. The seawall was very narrow, there was no prom and the tide was coming in fast. Colin managed to walk along the top of the wall, but I couldn’t balance up there and so had to walk along a narrow road which was surprisingly busy – I didn’t enjoy it. Then a prom materialised, and that was a lot more comfortable. Colin whispered to me, “See that woman in the buggy, don’t look at her legs – unless you want to be sick!” They were, indeed, enormous and repulsive. I wonder how much obesity and a sedentary life contributes to such disabilities in the elderly. We are both very determined to go to great lengths (like all the way round mainland Britain!) to avoid it happening to us.
A short while further on, this lady and her gentleman friend passed us. I joked with her that it was like the Grand Prix, and she joked back that he was Schumacher and she was Button – the new young British contender. I expressed envy at their buggies which can go faster than we can walk, and she suddenly became very serious. “Don’t!” she said, “just be grateful that you can walk! I’d do anything to be able to walk again!” I thought of my arthritic feet and my thrice broken legs along with all the metal that is in them, and I was glad that I had done everything so that I am able to walk again!
The beach was very nice with beautiful golden sand – and crowded this hot summer’s afternoon. There were a number of stone sea defences which were quite new. We passed a second Martello tower by a golf course, and when we came to the third one we were very near our parked car – so we stopped for a cup of tea.
I had no idea that the small estate on which we were parked was the site of the original Butlin’s holiday camp at Clacton! It was only after some clever detective work on my part (and a bit of luck!) that I found this out on the internet. Even then, I was not convinced until I had downloaded some old photographs and brought them back in August to compare with the real thing. It was the Martello tower, which featured in several of the pictures, that gave it away. I still find it difficult to believe that the camp was so small – it must have been claustrophobic! No wonder it closed when people found it just as cheap to fly to Spain with its guaranteed sunshine. With the golf course and a small airfield next door (probably all the local Councillors were either golfers or owned private planes, or both – this is the cynic in me talking!) they would have found it impossible to enlarge. The Butlin’s camp in Bognor (not built until1959) was already on a site at least twice the size, so it didn’t need to expand – but it did need to modernise. One Autumn, about twenty years ago, they demolished practically the whole site in Bognor and rebuilt it by the following Spring. They replaced the famous glass-sided swimming pool with a magnificent new ‘Waterworld’ including wave machines, jacuzzis and every conceivable type of chute – great fun! Then, in 1999, they erected a big white tent over a large area of the site so that more activities could take place indoors. This came in for a lot of criticism locally – and still does. It is an eyesore which can be seen all the way from the South Downs, and has been likened to an inverted cow’s udder!
The Butlin’s ‘luxury’ holiday camp in Clacton-on-Sea was only the second to be built by Billy Butlin – an entrepreneur who, in the 1930s, saw a market in the newly-won right of factory workers to a paid holiday in the summer of each year. He attracted them with ‘wall-to-wall’ entertainment, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a choice of activities under cover so that the weather was irrelevant, basic but comfortable accommodation and tasty meals cooked for them – no washing up! He even employed the famous ‘Redcoats’ to patrol the camp making sure everyone was having fun – this was compulsory! All this for one price – no hidden extras! The working classes loved it – they were introduced to a style of living that they had never experienced before. Many of the ‘Redcoats’ went on to become famous entertainers, and were grateful to Butlin’s where they had learned the grass-roots of their craft.
The camp at Clacton opened with great pizzazz in June 1938, and was an instant success. At the outbreak of War, fifteen months later, it was summarily closed along with all places of entertainment. Theatres and cinemas soon reopened because it was realised such places were essential to keep up morale, but no one was allowed to travel around the country without permission so there was no place for holiday camps. (My parents had to apply to the Police every summer for permission to visit my grandfather in Arundel, which they counted as their annual holiday. They were given a certificate with all the family’s names on it, reason for visit –(visiting relatives)– and dates of their stay.) Clacton was taken over by the Army. First it became a home for the survivors of Dunkirk, then it was used as a training centre by the Pioneer Corps. They didn’t maintain the buildings – which were only made cheaply from wood – so that by the time hostilities ceased in 1945 and the camp was handed back, it was almost derelict.
Undeterred, Billy Butlin rebuilt and refurbished so that he could reopen as early as April 1946 – less than a year after the end of the War. He was right in his surmise that there was still a need for his type of relaxation. The people flocked to his camps! In 1955 – the height of their popularity – he refurbished and expanded Clacton. A number of famous entertainers began their careers at Clacton, including Cliff Richard who made his debut there in 1958.
In 1959, my elder sister got married in the October. She hadn’t much money, and wanted to save up a deposit for her first house. She had been a teacher for five years but teachers’ pay was pretty poor in those days, so she applied to spend her summer holidays washing up at Clacton. She was paid £5 a week for four weeks, and an extra £5 if she stuck it for the four weeks – that was riches! But it was also a real eye-opener. She was told that theft was rife, not to take anything valuable with her and she was advised not to wear her shiny diamond engagement ring unless she strung it on a piece of thread round her neck. She couldn’t believe that people enjoyed being woken up each morning with a Tannoy message “Good morning, campers!” and that they loved being told how to enjoy themselves every minute of the day. She found that ‘campers’ were actively discouraged from leaving the site, and there was a saying doing the rounds which went, “Once you’re in, you’re in!” Looking at the old photographs, and seeing how close the ‘happy campers’ were to that lovely sandy beach and the sea, I can’t understand either how people could stay within the confines of that tiny camp. My sister likened it to a concentration camp, and lost quite a bit of weight during her four weeks there – yes, she did stick it out!
Twenty years or so later, people were more fickle. The working classes had discovered cheap package holidays to Spain where they were guaranteed hot sunshine and cheap booze. Butlin’s holiday centres (no longer called camps) had to change their image or close. Amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth – for hundreds of people had nostalgic memories of the place – Clacton closed in 1983. Surrounded by the sea, a golf course and an airfield, it went the way of dozens of smaller such camps at the time. It was sold intact, and its new owner re-opened it the following year cheaply refurbished as a ‘Disney-style’ theme park. Four months later it went into receivership, and in 1987 the camp was totally demolished so that the site could be sold as building land. Only the NapolĂ©onic Martello tower remained.
The new housing development is described in its sales’ literature as follows: ‘…built on the positive features of the original cabins, with prefabricated timber construction, opportunities for sea views from upper floor living areas, and orientation to catch the sun and cheat the winds. The result is a relaxed, intimate pattern of chalets and gardens which responds to the grain of the original layout.’ What piffle! Just a load of prefabs built on the cheap – they couldn’t even be bothered to design a new road plan!
Our walk was not finished, for I was determined to get to Clacton Pier before we went home. After refreshing ourselves, we continued along the lower prom which widened at that point and began to feel like a ‘real’ prom! We had left marshland behind, and there was a concrete cliff to our left with gardens and pathways on top – civilisation! Halfway to the pier, we passed a raised terrace with picnic tables and a lovely painted mural of steam trains full of people – now that’s the way to arrive at the seaside! Very soon we were at the pier itself, with a fish ’n’ chip shop one side and an eel pie ’n’ mash cafĂ© the other. It was all very brash and colourful – wonderful! I asked a passing tourist to take a photograph of us with our heads stuck through a screen on which there was a cartoon-type painting of two people at the seaside, saucy postcard style. I felt it was a fitting end to three days of hard walking! That ended Walk no.74, we shall pick up Walk no.75 next time at the entrance to Clacton Pier which we didn’t have time to walk down on this occasion. We returned to our car where we drank another cup of tea. Colin drove us back to St Osyth Stone Point to collect the bikes which, thankfully, were still on dry land despite the tide being right in. (He actually admitted that he had wondered whether they would be under water, but hadn’t said anything to me!) We returned to the campsite where we had a quick meal which I had prepared earlier. It seemed to take ages to pack up the tent, other people were arriving and setting up. We managed to leave just as it was getting dark, and had an uneventful drive home this time. We arrived in Bognor at 12.45AM tomorrow! We were exhausted, but had achieved our aims and were home in time to do our grandparental duty!We feel a great sense of satisfaction. Although we are not quite out of Essex, and still have a little bit of marshland to negotiate, we are happy that we are back at the real seaside! We have hardly touched it since Whitstable, 326 miles back, and at times it has been difficult to remember that we are on a coastal walk. We have conquered the jigsaw of the Essex Marshes. From now on, when we do a ten mile walk, it will mean we have progressed approximately ten miles along the coast, not just crossed a river from a point half a mile away!

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