I last wrote about our long walk along the British coast in February, when I wrote about a very urban walk along the south bank of the tidal Thames. Now the longer days have returned, we’ve resumed the summer section of the walk. We ended last summer at the Gravesend to Tilbury ferry, the first link between Kent and Essex over the mouth of the Thames. Our winter walks for the next few years will continue through Kent, following the river to the heart of London, simply because long walks across the Essex marshes in winter are potentially tricky.
Tricky in winter, did I say? Well…
We tackled our first section of the Essex coast on a grey day in April. We started from Gravesend, crossing the river to restart the walk from the ferry landing at Tilbury on the north bank, and were heading for the village of Mucking.
The ferry at Gravesend, looking towards Tilbury power station, which we would have to pass later in the walk.
When we reached Tilbury, this vast cruise ship was in dock. She was gone by the time we returned to Gravesend that evening, though we missed the exact moment she passed us. Tilbury is still a major deep water port, and has been since Roman times. It has also long been an unhealthy place, with the marshy, mosquito-ridden surroundings giving rise to all manner of illnesses. These days, malaria is no longer a risk, but it’s one of those places with a long, not always happy, history.
A few minutes later, we passed the World’s End pub, tucked into the shadow of the sea wall. The building was previously the ferry house and is supposedly haunted.
Near the pub is the huge complex of Tilbury Fort. This was one of the most significant forts defending London in the Napoleonic Wars. The fort is now owned by English Heritage. It was closed on the day we were there, but this is the main gate. The stone memorial in the foreground is to over 200 Scottish survivors of the Battle of Culloden, who were transported here in 1746. Many died here, horribly far from home.
Tilbury’s history goes back much further. As we picked our way along the stinking path between the power station and the river, I spotted these familiar words under the graffiti. This is the most famous part of the speech Queen Elizabeth I gave to the soldiers gathered at Tilbury in readiness for the arrival of the Spanish Armada:
I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.
A few miles further on, we found a remnant of a more recent war. This radar station dates from 1941, when it overlooked a field of mines laid across the river.
This is Coalhouse Fort, the last fort built along the Thames. It dates from the 1860s, and within a few years of its completion, its array of mounted guns were obsolete. It is now managed by a group of volunteer groups, who run regular open days. When we got there, all that was open was the cafe, but we had a much-needed cup of tea, and were impressed by the block of clean, modern unisex loos (it’s not hard to get right, people).
This bit of graffiti on another corner of the fort was somewhat more creepy.
Continuing along the sea wall, we discovered a succession of duck ramps allowing access to the marshes beyond 😀
And this is where it all went wrong. This innocuous looking track was actually deep, slimy mud, deep enough to sink into to our knees. It took a while to wade and slither our way through it and out the other side.
We eventually made it out to the nature reserve on Mucking Marsh, where this little visitor’s centre was full of people who were considerably less mud-streaked than we were. We had a cup of tea, scrubbed off some mud, and took the slanting walkway up to enjoy the view from the roof. The rest of the walk took us back inland to seek out the nearest station.
We made it back to the ferry just as the light began to fade over the river.
We returned to Essex on a very warm day in mid-July. The forecast was for an overcast day, and we were hoping to get a good few miles in.
The walk started pleasantly enough, with this path through the fields. It was stickily warm, and I was glad to have brought my walking pole, as I’d pulled a muscle a few weeks earlier and my knee was still complaining a little. We lost our path and were helped out by a couple of local walkers. This became the pattern for the day–everyone we met helped us in some way. They led us through an almost hidden trail to the edge of a playing field.
A kids’ football tournament was going on, and since we were already starting to feel the sun and neither of us had packed suncream, we asked one of the spectators if there was anywhere in the village where we could buy some. She not only gave us directions but handed over her own bottle of suncream and insisted we use some. We thanked her and followed her directions into the centre of the village of Corringham.
Back on our path, we found the lovely old church of St Mary’s, where a couple of volunteers working in the churchyard wandered over to chat to us about the history of the village.
From the church, we followed a path along the edge of the houses towards the village of Fobbing, where the churchtower sits on the hilltop and is a landmark from all directions. It was still warm and horribly muggy, but we were making good progress.
At the top of the hill, we found a patch of shade in the local recreational ground and had a look at the map for the next part of the walk. We also found this memorial to the village’s involvement in the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. Fobbing and Corringham were two of the villages that refused to pay the high taxes that were being levied to pay for the Hundred Years’ War. The resulting crackdown sparked a violent revolution which embroiled the counties of Kent and Essex and led to an armed mob marching on London, demanding reduced taxation, an end to forced serfdom, and the removal of corrupt officials. The motto on the memorial reads ‘The strong shall help the weak.’
Then things started to go wrong. Our map showed a choice of paths across Fobbing marsh. We decided to take the shortest one, partly because of the oppressive weather and partly because we’d read accounts of people getting horribly lost on this marsk (should have paid attention). When we reached the marsh, the direct path didn’t exist. We started following the longer one, as it was the only option. It was quite overgrown, with no shade, and we slogged along, looking out across the marsh. We knew that white building on the horizon was part of the Wat Tyler Country Park, on the other side of the creek which marked the far edge of the marsh, but the only other landmark was the tower of Fobbing church behind us. Shade was also somewhat lacking.
Eventually, we came to the horrible realisation that the paths had all been rerouted since the map was published. The direct paths had been closed, and replaced with a new long-distance footpath which went all the way around the edge of the marsh. It added an extra five miles to the walk, with no shade, and was so new that nobody had cleared a path through the tangled knee-high clover. We fought our way through it for hours, and my strained knee soon became legs that locked up every hundred steps. So we walked it a hundred steps at a time, chewed on by insects and carefully rationing our water. It might look pretty, but it was the worst coastal walk we’ve ever done.
This is the view from the first piece of shade we found, still half a mile from where the direct path should have come out. We spent a good half an hour sitting under that tree before we heaved into motion again. Once we did finally come out on the road at Pitsea, we staggered into the nearest supermarket in search of water. We must have looked as bad as we felt, because they let us off the 5p charge for a carrier bag.
We’ll be heading back to do the next stretch of the walk on Saturday. Hopefully it will break the trend and be a good one (it has a castle, so I’m hopeful).