On one continuous 10-day summer walk, I found that the rhythm of walking and observing peripheral details changed my sense of time and place. You begin with grand scope, but then focus on the graffiti on a river wall, a scuttling lizard, sunlight on the molten water, a piece of cork or a stone with a hole – the land shrinks as you walk.
At the same time, you become more responsive to the ebb and flow of the tides, lapping sea walls at certain times, retreating towards the horizon on mudflats at others.
Essex is a much-mocked and even forgotten county. Yet it hides some of the most evocative and wild landscapes in Britain. It’s a predominantly rural, esturine county strongly affected by proximity to London. With 1.66 million people, its economy amounts to £23bn, comparable with that of Northern Ireland, greater than Alaska, and larger than the economies of 136 countries worldwide. Yet Essex is also a county with a rich rural, coastal, urban and industrial heritage.
A dramatic backdrop
In every part of Essex, local people say their region is distinctive because of the huge skies. When dark clouds hang over the waterscape, it turns slate grey and menacing. But when the sun comes out, the waters become like shimmering mercury. As the tide recedes across the wide mudflats, distant container ships elevate as mirages, or sink into perfect reflections. It is a special part of the country, bringing space and freedom, and creating a sense of land that is both near and far.
These liminal landscapes where land and water daily intersect are full of bird life. Here curlews burble, redshanks pipe, geese clamour and wigeon whistle. All these birds were once commonly shot and eaten, but today only wigeon and some geese remain quarry for the few wildfowlers. The creeks are the reserve of oysters – once food for the masses but now unequivocally exclusive – and the sadly rare migratory eels, swimming free since tastes have changed and they no longer command a culinary audience. On the mudflats and sea walls, sea beet and purslane grow, as does glasswort (marsh samphire) – now resurgent in fish restaurants. On reclaimed grasslands, wiry marsh sheep roam and behind the dykes lie modern wheat and lucerne fields.
Here on the Essex coast, you can feel wild and remote just around the corner from civilisation. This is what characterises Essex – the wild is close by, near to the developed and industrialised, but far enough to allow a complete escape.
There’s a strong sense of swamped history along the great River Thames as well as inevitable evidence of progress and development. Signs once directed travellers to ancient village settlements such as Fobbing, Corringham and Mucking; now new road signs next to waterside developments indicate how little time it takes to drive to the shopping centres of Lakeside and Bluewater.
East of Tilbury power station is Britain’s strangest beach. It consists entirely of pieces of porcelain, pottery, bottles, bricks and other remains from more than a century ago. Where these have been smashed to pieces by the river, a sand-like bank has formed. There are slivers with exquisite blue designs, pieces of elegant pots for creams or foods, and broken glass everywhere, awaiting a careless bare foot. Bottle diggers have scored trenches up the shore in search of rare finds. Above the beach are clumps of rare stinking goosefoot, the only such specimens in all of Essex. The Essex Riviera: wild blending with industrial – and there’s no hint of it on the map at all.
There are great marshes still to the west of Canvey Island. It’s a sky made for hunting, and sparrowhawks, red kites, buzzards, harriers and hobbies take full advantage. Canvey itself is another designed community, emerging when bought by Frederick Hester at the end of the 19th century. He advertised seaside plots to Londoners, calling Canvey an extra ‘lung’ for London, and out they came. At that time, it was called a “lonely and out-of-the-world spot [that] could be discovered at a distance of 30 miles from London.” There was no bridge until the 1930s, and the impression of peaceful isolation remains even today.
Inhabitants of Canvey Island agree on its special nature – the sky, the wildness, the community spirit, the sense of separation from the mainland, yet the togetherness of the immediate place.
On a sun-washed autumn afternoon, I sat in a tiny hide on Bridgemarsh Island, on the River Crouch. The island’s old river wall is a thin, broken strip of eroding Kentish ragstone, topped with mud and grass, long-since breached. It was abandoned in the 1930s, the final occupants – the Gooches – living in the upper rooms of their lonely farmhouse as the tides washed through the ground floor twice a day. In the 1950s, this drowned island was alive with sheep and cattle, the dykes and fleets home to vast numbers of eels and ducks. But then the sea wall was breached again and all the livestock perished.
I watched the light change, the tide rise, the birds come and go, and the marshes gradually dim from dazzling daylight to bruised dusk. Eventually the dark rose and took over the world. It’s so close to the rest of civilisation, yet apart. A train to Southminster ran soundlessly along the south Dengie shore. Out here we could hear the plaintive calls of hidden waders and wildfowl and all the while the water lapped and gurgled as the fleets, creeks and rills filled with the returning tide.
A marsh harrier quartered the saltings, the predator’s dark and deadly shadow bringing temporary silence. The gleaming light faded slowly to pink and the sun boiled into the hill behind me, where the dark silhouette of Canewdon church marked the nearby site where Cnut defeated Edmund Ironside in 1016, to be declared king of all England. Where did he, known today as Canute, stand and try to hold back the sea? Perhaps here at Bridgemarsh? The light fell further, turning the saltings from pink to yellow, then to darkening green. The half moon brightened and vapour trails streak across the amethyst sky. The other world goes onward the same, as Hardy wrote, but no one would know we were down here in such acute beauty. As night fell, the cold rolled over the marshes and across the carpets of sea-blite, glasswort and sea lavender, the huge skies stretching from one era to another.
Inhabiting the estuary
Tollesbury Wick reserve is 600 acres of coastal marsh, sea walls and saltings, and an illustration of how coastal farming and grazing livestock can create an ideal environment for wildlife. These marshes were reclaimed from the sea in the 1700s, when 6 miles of sea wall were completed, leaving a snaking borrow dyke inside the wall.
Access to this Essex Wildlife Trust site is normally only around the wall because of shy grazing animals and ground-nesting birds, but today I was able to walk across the open blustery fields – past wide blue fleets fringed with reeds and echoing with the contented kronks of Brent geese, over the mid-reserve protective counterwall, to the distant rough grazing, facing West Mersea.
Flocks of waders swooped, swirled and twisted. Seen against the blue, they turned and for a second were absorbed. In a blink, the sky rippled and they were dark again, flying as one. There’s a little bit of Scotland on these Essex marshes: 600 Shetland and Ronaldsay sheep, and 60 Shetland cattle. All three are endangered breeds and ideally suited to a rough life.
Bloody battles and beach huts
Less wild is Maldon, standing at the top of the incomparable Blackwater Estuary and its sinuous land of meandering creeks, twisting rivers, curving borrow dykes and saltings. Just outside the town is the site of gory history where, in AD991, Danish ships led by a certain Olaf battled their way up from Kent and fought the Saxons, under Byrhtnoth, at Maldon. The Saxons foolishly allowed the invaders to form up on Northey Island, then march across the narrow wetroad before engaging them in battle. Byrhtnoth was killed and the Saxons routed.
At Hythe Quay, wooden Thames barges with brick-red sails still sit in readiness for travel, the busy boatyards usually resounding to hammers and drills. It’s a town that has survived development – full of tiny independent shops. Maldon is also famed for its salt-making, a process originally promoted by the Romans. There were once 45 salt pans around the town and red hills punctuate the length of this estuary – mounds made up of the briquetage of broken ceramic and terracotta pots used in salt making, some dating back long before the Romans.
Further north is Jaywick, near Clacton, bought in 1928 by Frank Steadman who dreamt of a new model village by the golden sands. By 1931, 2,000 chalets had been built behind the sea wall, supposedly only for summer daytime occupation, although many people then began to live in them year-round. This led to a long-running dispute with local planners, who did not permit Jaywick to have running water or sewerage until the 1980s.
People who live here love the skies, beach, sense of freedom, the strength of community and neighbourliness, as well as sunny weather. But the poor infrastructure creates the mistaken impression that this is an unfriendly and forgotten place.
Yet this is a contradiction. Essex is loved by its residents for its wildness and strong community, for its landscapes and sense of layered history. Like every place, its elemental character is best discovered on foot. Walk out on the land, by the sea, in the woods, by the marshes or on the islands, and you too can discover the wildness that is always nearby.
The 17th-century Old White Harte has the most serene view from any bed in the eastern region. The top-floor rooms overlook the River Crouch upon which moored yachts with hulls of many colours face the tide like geese grazing on a marsh. Across the Crouch are the green walls of Wallasea Island, part of the Essex archipelago.
The Italianate Tower Hotel sits on a rise above Dovercourt and Harwich, taking in spectacular views to Harwich harbour and distant Shotley peninsula, where the Rivers Stour and Orwell meet. The ferry from Harwich takes you across to Suffolk at Landguard Fort. From the hotel, you can visit Dovercourt’s two famous lights and the 1930s seafront.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 33 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!
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