Day out: Tollesbury Wick, Essex

Essex has one of the longest county coastlines in England, home to haunting marsh harriers, majestic winter wildfowl and Britain’s smallest mammal

Coastal landscape

At the mouth of the wide Blackwater Estuary lies a lonely peninsula almost as flat as the North Sea itself.

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Now a 243-hectare reserve, the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Tollesbury Wick marshes is a rich medley of reed beds, salt marsh and mudflats. It is also a hauntingly beautiful place that really comes into its own in winter.

Coastal marshes
The main sluice in Tollesbury Wick Marshes in Essex/Credit: Alamy

Tollesbury Wick wildlife

One notable avian resident to look for when the nights draw in is the marsh harrier. Once a rarity in Britain during winter, growing numbers (especially females) now forgo their annual flight to Africa, preferring to hunker down in refuges such as Tollesbury Wick. With a wingspan of 1.2m, it is the largest of Britain’s harriers and is identifiable by the shallow ‘V’ shape of its wings when soaring.

Females harriers are a dark brown with a creamy-golden crown and forewing. The male is more of a patchwork creation, with a striking chestnut belly, brown back and black tips to grey wings.

The reserve also attracts its fair share of migrant birds. From a hide by a lagoon you can watch the thousands of wildfowl and waders that arrive every winter, including flocks of golden plovers, lapwings, wigeon and Brent geese. 

And don’t forget to look down – field voles and pygmy shrews (Britain’s smallest mammal) are numerous here. At dusk or dawn you may even spot a badger or two as well. Their burrowing has thrown up interesting archaeological finds including earthenware used by Iron Age and Roman settlers.

Colourful bird in water
Common reed, sea club rush and fennel pondweed grow among the brackish waters of Tollesbury Wick/Credit: Getty

Tollesbury Wick walk

Often swept by a bracing sea breeze, the marshes are ideal for blowing off the cobwebs and getting in some winter exercise. From the nearby village of Tollesbury, a flat, five-mile circular walk sticking almost entirely to footpaths takes visitors out along the sea wall, passing close to the hide en route.

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It is remarkable that this landscape, so apparently wild and remote, is on the doorstep of so many people – it is less than 20 miles from Colchester, Chelmsford, Braintree and around 30 miles from Ipswich. The marshes even make for an easy day trip out of London, providing a welcome escape from urban life in the depths of winter.