It’s been a while since I wrote about our walk along the coast of Essex, but we’ve actually come quite a long way since my last post, about the miseries of redirected footpaths through endless marshes, so I thought it time to catch up. After staggering our way to Pitsea station in July 2016, we returned a few weeks later to continue our walk. This time, things went much more smoothly. Our path led alongside the railway line, through summer fields. We were aiming for Southend, or at the very least Leigh-on-Sea, on the outskirts of the town, where our estuary walk would finally meet the sea again.
Alongside the railway, already warm, but with pleasant views to compensate.
The little church of St Margaret’s, near Bowers Gifford, stands alone in the fields by the railway. Originally built to serve the local manor house, it still supports a small rural congregation. When we arrived, volunteers were mowing and cleaning and they welcomed us inside to show off their church and its history, including a lovely little sculpture of St Margaret with a dragon.
Low, softly rolling fields rise very gently from the railway–a lovely contrast to the marshes of the previous walks. From here, we made our way into the little town of South Benfleet, a peaceful little place, and out into the fields beyond. Although this was supposedly a coastal walk, we had yet to glimpse water.
Here, above Benfleet, we stopped for lunch in the shade, and found ourselves gazing down at the Thames estuary and over the housing estates of Canvey Island. Our rule is that we don’t walk around islands and cross every river at the first available crossing, whether it’s a ferry or a bridge. To see the estuary again, and the distant blur of the Isle of Sheppey, galvanised us.
Our walk then led us into the Hadleigh Country Park, a quiet place with a fascinating history. The area once belonged to the Salvation Army, who ran three farms here. They used the land to offer poor and destitute Londoners a chance to learn farming skills and then find jobs, either in the UK or in various British colonies. They also ran a huge brickworks. More recently, the country park hosted the Mountain Biking events of the 2012 Olympics, which delighted me, as I once wrote a short story about a Welsh Olympic Mountain Biker (if you’ve been to UK Meet recently, it’s on the USB. If you haven’t and you want it, email me).
Find out more about Hadleigh Colony.
On the edge of the country park stand the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, the beloved summer retreat of Edward III. Built in 1215, it was once a watchtower over the approaches to London, but declined in status over the centuries. Only a few battered walls remain, but the site was heaving with people as we passed through. Unfortunately, the last person I lent my copy of Anya Seton’s Katherine to didn’t give it back, but I’ve got a vague feeling this castle may have featured, as Katherine starts the novel by journeying from a nunnery on Canvey Island to the royal court.
On the path below the castle, we could finally see the coast again, as well as the railway line which divides the dark and light fields (we could have followed it all the way, but decided on the steeper route past country park and castle instead). This was also the hottest and most shadeless part of the walk and when we finally made it to Leigh-on-Sea station, we decided enough was enough. We finished our summer’s walking there.
We returned to the Essex coast at the end of March 2017. Without the pressure of the heat over the marshes, we had a couple of glorious days walking. From Leigh-on-Sea station, we turned down a flight of steps and found ourselves on the water’s edge.
And, oh, what a difference the season makes…
We strolled slowly along the water’s edge to the seaside resort of Southend, first past fish huts and then through the narrow lanes of Old Leigh, where the water front is crammed between the railway and the tide. We stopped for a pub lunch where I dared a bowl of superb chowder made from locally caught fish and presented in a slanting bowl, much to Mum’s fascination (she’s allergic to fish). If you look very closely at this picture, you may see some small legs extended out over the water. They belonged to an entire class from a local primary school who had been escorted down here for a art lesson drawing boats, and were having a brilliant time.
We had intended to stop in Southend to walk along the pier which, at 1.34 miles, is the longest pleasure pier in the world. We had planned our trip for the first opening day of the summer season but arrived to find it was closed for staff training. Disappointed, we trailed on along the seafront to our hotel, dropped our bags and headed inland in search of sandwiches for tea. When we came back to the seafront to eat those sandwiches, the weather had changed and the mist was rising as the sun set.
It wasn’t until August that we finally made our way along the pier. Although it’s out of sequence, I thought I’d share my pier pictures here, as the next two walks go beyond Southend.
We caught the train to the end of the pier, where there’s a cluster of brghtly painted beach huts which serve snacks and a heftier cafe right at the end by the lifeboat station. Reinforced with tea and cake, we began to walk back.
Here’s the train heading back towards land.
The view from the pier, looking back towards Leigh on Sea. Although it doesn’t show on this picture, we could just see the tiny silhouette of Hadleigh Castle in the distance.
Back on land, here’s a final glance back at the pier before we turned our back on Southend.