I start Day 6 of my coastal odyssey from Harwich, near to where the Royal Research Ship Sir David Attenborough is preparing for a greater adventure to the southern hemisphere. Huge container ships are unloading in the port of Felixstowe opposite until I turn the headland to face into a strong southerly wind and start another section of the England Coast Path. I have a few awkward road miles to reach Beaumont Quay and follow a sea wall to Walton-on-the-Naze. Numerous wintering birds are arriving. It is a challenge to find camping locations at this time of year (wild or otherwise), which has me cursing at the acres of static caravans lying idle. I find a good B&B and vow to plan ahead more carefully.
I join workmen for a full breakfast near Clacton pier and pound the promenade towards Brightlingsea, passing the shanty-like village of Jaywick. I catch my first glimpse of Bradwell nuclear power station: two sugar cubes lit by the occasional break in the clouds and then disappearing. A call the harbour master brings news that the ferry has closed for the season, resulting in a tortuous 5-hour navigation of the River Colne by public transport to Mersea island via Colchester to a very welcoming campsite. A taxi would have been money well spent and recovered half-a-days walking around the island completely. It is isolated from the mainland at spring high tide and has a reputation for fine oysters, sold from the shacks in West Mersea.
Another irritating road walk brings me to Salcott and a spanking new ECP signpost, which hints at the mileage I now have to cover to reach the Travelodge in Maldon. The estuary sea wall is easy walking, overlooking fields full of wintering Brent and Canada geese. I hunker down into my thoughts and keep up a steady rhythm along the River Blackwater. It is a long day, with one last difficult navigation to a McDonald’s which has no access for starving walkers on foot.
The Essex coastline is reputed to be the longest county coastline in England. The next section around the Dengie peninsula is a delight: remote, peaceful and alive with birdlife in each estuary as it winds towards Bradwell power station. This facility is now decommissioned, but await news of a further extension. It lies silent as I walk out to the headland and see West Mersea just across the bay.
A Thames barge tacks up the river towards Maldon, to join many others that berth there. A lone shorted eared owl hunts in the fields and I frequently disturb buzzards hidden behind the bushes. A wild camp beyond St Peter’s Chapel is quiet, but I decamp before dawn, using a head torch to navigate along the sea wall. A tractor is already tilling the fields, its headlights scanning the landscape like a lighthouse as it turns. I meet no other walkers but have the company of a kestrel for several miles as it scans the path for food. The Burnham-on-Crouch ferry has stopped for the season, and I find it cheaper to return home for a few days before returning to Wallasea island and picking up the ECP signs into Southend-on-Sea via Rochford and the Little and Great Wakering, guided by their church spires that stand sentinel above the flat marshlands.
I now join the Thames Estuary Path at Leigh, after a noisy night in a seafront hotel in Southend, fueled by a vegetarian breakfast for a change. A new signposted path leads around the London Gateway port and Thurrock Thames Nature Park. It is not marked on the OS Maps, but the ranger at the visitors centre explains the route to the north of Mucking Marshes to Coalhouse Fort. It is now a simple cycle path route to Tilbury and the ferry to Gravesend, following coastal shipping on the incoming flow.
The Thames is powerful and moody, and sections of the path would be overwhelmed by spring high tides. I am in Kent now, having achieved the unexpected goal of walking from Cromer to London in 11-days. This journey would take much longer if you followed each estuary route and every island circumference, but the use of ferries (or public transport when they did not run) to keep the essence of the walk coastal. I will return to Essex in the future to complete a few sections of interest, notably The Broomway, alongside Foulness island – a notorious low-tide walking needing perfect tidal conditions and a guide.
I now set a new goal for 2021 of walking to Dover.
Read about my other adventures along the National Trails.
Tales from the Big Trails, in print on 2nd September 2021, available now for pre-order from Vertebrate Publishing. Featuring all 15 National Trails in England and Wales, and the 4 designated long-distance Scotland’s Great Trails. This is the story of the people I meet, the landscapes and coastal scenery and the sheer joy of walking these iconic long-distance routes in the UK. Click on a link below for a copy.