Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Walking the Essex Coast - Shoeburyness to Foulness Point

It’s about nine miles from the MOD site at Pig’s Bay to the mouth of the Thames Estuary at Foulness Point. However this is a walk only for the exceptionally determined. The coastline between Pig’s Bay and Haven Point is accessible when the MOD aren’t firing on their ranges. The island of Foulness is a much harder proposition.

Foulness is the fourth largest island in England, (behind Wight, Sheppey and Hayling), so it would be quite a challenging walk even if you could just turn up and go but you can’t. The island has been owned by the military since the first World War and access is severely restricted. Until 1926 the only way on or off was via the Broomway, a footpath across Maplin Sands, so called because of the broom handles that mark the way. The Broomway follows the east coast of Foulness for about six miles and should only be attempted by fit people who have good local knowledge and a tide table. Turning up unannounced on Foulness may also get you arrested, so pack a toothbrush.

Foulness has about 200 residents who don’t mind the odd loud bang but their community is in decline. They live in two small hamlets in the north of the island and on scattered farms. The pub and the church have recently closed and several houses have fallen into disrepair. The old school is now a Heritage Centre and can be visited on the first Sunday of the month (between April and October). There are warnings everywhere about not wandering off unaccompanied or taking photos. It would be possible to do a circular walk on existing footpaths that would take in the northern coast on the Crouch estuary and the eastern coastline of the Thames, but there is no public access to Foulness Point at the river's mouth. Probably the best way to see Foulness it to take an organised visit or boat trip.

I left home for my final walk along the Thames under leaden skies, but the weather improved the further east you went. I arrived at Shoeburyness in lovely sunshine and had a pleasant walk along a deserted East Beach. I then took a three mile detour to rejoin the sea wall at Morrins Point after walking across the New Ranges which were open to the public. Warning signs were everywhere forbidding photography which I ignored. It was about a mile and half to Haven Point, the last part of mainland Essex on the Thames Estuary. The sea wall was deserted apart from some hardy dog walkers. It was mostly sunny but quite breezy.

The estuary is now very wide, with the Kent coast about eight miles away. Maplin Sands are about a mile wide so ships and boats sail along the other coast. I looked out for my old friend, Hamburg Sid, but the boats were too far way. The sands are also famous for birdlife but there was no sign of the Brent Geese, which spend the winter here. It is possible to drive down to Wakering Stairs when the ranges are open to the public. This is where the Broomway starts. I walked about a hundred metres but wasn’t tempted to go further.

At Haven Point, I got my first look at Foulness Island, which is very, very flat and dotted about with mysterious military installations. It is separated from mainland Essex by Havengore Creek and there are plenty of other creeks, inlets and islands making it another Smuggler’s Haven in the past. As I turned my back on the Thames for the last time, I realised that I'd walked alongside the river all the way from Hampton Court. I must do the rest of it!

Now it’s off to pick up the coastline on the River Roach at Baling Ness a few miles to the north.

To see more pictures of Foulness and the rest of the Thames estuary coastline click here.

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