An early morning bus takes me back to Tollesbury where I push an envelope containing £10 through the door of the closed teashop. On the other side of a gate is a board with information about Tollesbury Wick Marshes, the first part of today’s walk. The sky is grey but some weak winter sunshine lights up the far side of the marina, and walking on for a few more miles I come across an area of dead trees not unlike the ones on Southwold beach: in the same way they lift their branches in a silent entreaty to the heavens.
A little later an information board points out the sight of the disused railway that was planned to take holidaymakers down to the pier, blown up as a security precaution during the second world war.
Leaving Tollesbury Wick Marshes I follow the coast passing Mill Point and on to Goldhanger. The weather has brightened and it is easy walking although hunger starts to become an issue – I must learn to be a bit more organized about provisions.
As the sun is setting I walk into Heybridge Basin and stop to talk to a man working on his boat shed, eager to fill me in on the local history. Knowing I had to get back to London that evening I was forced to cut him short and hobble to the pub on the front where I am lucky enough to catch a taxi to Maldon. After a pint in Maldon I catch the bus to Chelmsford and the train back to London.
Returning to the Peldon Rose, I find myself alone in the breakfast room. Heading out into narrow lanes that take me through the Wigboroughs, dodging traffic and finding nowhere for a late morning cup of tea.
A left turn across a field leads me to Salcott Cum Virley and the tip of the creek I am to follow out to Old Hall Marshes. Walking past the village church I notice an invitation on the noticeboard to visit the church where tea and coffee facilities are available – I jump. Inside a familiar name catches my eye but one which i had never expected to see in a church. i later discover that Rev. EP Starbuck had been the rector of the parish in 1878 – a long way from Seattle.
Refreshed I turn left out of the church, over a gate and onto the sea wall where a familiar sight greets me – a long grassy path snaking its way into the distance, acres of mud and choppy grey sea. Head down I follow the right hand bank of Salcott Channel and as I turn the blunt end of the peninsular I get a better look at the grey hulking shape of Bradwell Power Station, now decommissioned.
I continue, through intermittent bursts of rain, with Old Hall Marshes on the right, the grey landscape occasionally broken by the delightful colour of wild mushrooms and the cries from a flock of soggy sheep.
A little later I pass a few drenched photographers with their eye on the sea birds and turning inland, past stables, i head out towards Tollesbury Fleet and finally to the charming Marina at Tollesbury. I am drenched, cold and hungry but am about to meet the kindest tea shop ladies in the World. Not only do they let me owe them a meal. (I only had a plastic card) they also point me in the right direction of a B&B for the night. That evening, having finally found somewhere to rest my head I venture out into the ghoulish Halloween night to find something to eat. I find the Indian restaurant and as at breakfast, sit alone watching the young indian waiter, who has never been to India, fold napkins obsessively with his fine elegant fingers.
Coming out of the station a bright green flag with the words “Freshly Ground Coffee” calls to me from the bustling boot sale but I am late starting so I walk on. Twenty minutes later, after sighting a beautiful German gundog and the ruins of a castle on the hill to the right, I discover I have forgotten my camera – I will have to use the iphone.
Walking in the bright October sunshine up the side of Benfleet Creek I am slightly irritated by the drone of a model aeroplane being flown from Two Tree Island and the loud commentary from a mountain bike competition up on the hill. I soon have to leave the bank to follow the railway line on its northern edge, skirting fields full of horses and then stopping for a break in the peaceful graveyard of St. Margaret’s church. Following the railway line I am soon pitched into the noise and confusion of a very busy motoway junction, housing a monumental Tesco’s. Disorientated I wander around underneath the massive concrete structures of the A130 trying to find the path that will get me closer to Fobbing. Opposite Pitsea Station I walk through a builders yard and under the rumble of the road above, striding purposefully to ward off the furtive glances of a bunch of hooded youths standing in my path.
From there on I make my own way – the paths are not clearly marked and overgrown, so after a while I take to the road, stopping to look inside the pretty church at Vange.
Walking the verges for a few more miles, the oil refinery hazy in the distance, I finally arrive at Fobbing Church where I find a bench to air my aching feet.
Heading down the hill on the road to Stanford Le Hope I turn off onto a track through a very muddy field, my right foot sinks above the laces but my foot stays dry. Then on through Corringham, lanes bordering municipal playing fields, more farmers fields until I hit the road down to the station at Stanford Le Hope.
The track beside the river from Wivenhoe to the Quays at Colchester is an old friend, from the two summers I spent working at Essex University; the track on the other side of the Colne is not. Coming off the roadbridge I walk through an area of deserted warehouses but walking out of a bend I find myself facing a clutch of soldiers in desert fatigues. They smile as I walk slightly nervously through the middle of them but twenty five metres on I catch sight of a scene that stops me in my tracks.
Two men dressed in shabby djellabahs and Palestinian scarves are crouching over a small bonfire – a woman in a long skirt and shawl leaning against a wall behind them. In front I see the back of a man in western dress bent over the small party shouting and gesticulating at them to stand up. I am shocked, I stop, what is happening? Are these illegal immigrants in for a beating? Should I take a photo?
Two seconds later I realise it is a film set and my indignation recedes, I continue along the grassy track to a Sunday boot sale in Rowhedge. Flying ducks are being painted on the pub wall, all is well in the world. Over the fields to Fingringhoe Church and over more fields to the Stepford Wives of Abberton locked up in their neat little bungalows. From now on it is road walking, the monotony broken only once by the sight of a horse and cart tripping gaily past on the other side of the road. At the Peldon Rose I call it a day and celebrate with an extremely good skate wing and a half of local bitter.
Trying to shake off the indigestible breakfast at the guest house I walk quickly away from the dubious pleasures of Clacton Pier, past the ubiquitous acres of caravans and bouncy castles, to the neglected house fronts of Jaywick. Scuttling past ferocious Pitbulls and Alastians, straining on their leashes, I keep my head down, ignoring the violent domestics going on behind not so closed doors. With relief I move into quieter tracks through lonely stretches of marshland on the way to Point Clear. A majestic boat with red sails accompanies me in the distance and after a few miles of twisting and turning the path turns into the concrete sea wall of Point Clear. Not knowing where to get the ferry across to Brightlingsea I stop and ask a local builder with more than a few stories to tell. Eventually I am directed to a patch of sand and after 10 minutes the charmless outboard lumbers up onto the beach and three minutes later I am dropped off on the other side.
Late afternoon and I now face a long but beautifully serene walk on the east bank of the River Colne. Two hours later and my sore feet are forgotten as I sit watching the sunset, downing a cold Stella in the Rose and Crown in Wivenhoe.
Distance: 14 miles
Kemsley to Teynham 10.09.12
The plan is to take advantage of a new bridge bypassing Sittingbourne and its arid industrial landscapes. I walk puposefully down the road from Kemsley Station only to spend 10 minutes going round in circles in a playing field looking for an exit. Advice from a local brings me back to the road where a church marks the entrance to a newly landscaped “nature reserve”. The grasses are dry and brown, the paths lead nowhere I want to go. To calm my agitation I stop to look at water lilies. Clambering through large tussocks of grass and over a fence bordering a miniature railway, I find myself staring at the spanking new main road which will take me across Kemsley Bridge.
A vast featureless wall of alluminium keeps me from the water until I find a narrow lane next to a huge depot which leads down to the muddy water under the bridge. Brambles snare my ankles, piles of empty beer cans litter the path at regular intervals. These sorry signs of human despondancy, make me scurry on up the side of the sluggish water, past the massive inert paper mill and finally out to the banks of the Swale. Here a familiar grassy sea wall winds off into the distance, slabs of dark shining mud on my left hand side, whispering rushes to my right. Far out a lone swan glides parallel to my route and cabbage white butterflies accompany every step I take. After a day of not seeing a soul I recognise the pleasure boat masts of the marina in Conyer and after an apple juice in the pub I walk through the fields of conference pears to the station at Teynham.
From Teynham station past fields of fruit trees laden with fruit and on to the sailing boats of Conyer. From there I walk along a wide grassy track with mud flats on the one side and rows of whispering bullrushes on the other.
Carcasses of sailing boats and other debris litter the banks.
In Faversham I try to visit a friend of a friend who lives in this wonderful tin church but no-one home.
Distance: 12 miles
Faversham to Whitstable 19.08.12
An early start in Faversham, down to the Creek in sunshine already hot. The path is easy to find through a boat yard strung with drying washing and out on to marshes and mud. A deviation from the cycle path takes us inland through acres of strawberry fields, juicy temptations, an easy pick. Later, thwarted by sluggish streams too wide to jump, the hole in the hedge appears and takes us through corn fields to the gentle lapping waves of Seasalter with its run down seaside shacks and ancient groynes.
After a horrible cheese and ham sandwich I swim in the salty green weeds and accidentally leave my drying swimsuit to its fate.
On red and white gingham tablecloths we eat squeaky fresh seafood and glasses of white wine in the friendly noisy oyster store in Whitstable.
I have a companion today, Sharon, a friend I’ve known from primary school in Wales. Out of touch for 20 years and now together again in London. Out of the station we hit the sea front earlier than I remembered from my walk to Birchington and before us are high chalky cliffs sweeping down to the familiar concrete promenade meandering into the distance.
Following the sea wall we reach Margate quickly and wincing at the gaudy shop fronts we duck into Tracy Emin’s ugly gallery for a cup of tea. Whisking past her ineffectual drawings we stand for a while and take in Rodin’s The Kiss – such passion – it all seems so long ago!
After tea we head up a main road out of Margate and at the first opportunity down to the beach.
The tide is out, sand becomes rock, which is gradually covered with soft springy layers of dark green seaweed – clouds of flies with every sloshy footstep. Progress is difficult but rounding a corner we are rewarded with the sight of Kingsgate Castle spread out on the clifftop.
A couple of soggy tuna sandwiches later and we find ourselves in a very lively Broadstairs, our arrival marked by a sober plaque on the wall of Bleak House.
Unbeknown to me my watch has stopped and is registering 3.30pm, so we dawdle a little among the beery folk festival crowds. Later I realise that we are running three hours early and that my slight disapproval of heavy early afternoon drinking was totally unjustified. It was a good day.
Distance: 16 miles
The foot ferry to Harwich fights its way across the choppy water, the dark cranes of Felixstowe silhouetted against the grey sky. Narrow alleys lead to the deserted station of Harwich Town and a convoluted journey to Kirby. On the tarmac to Walton on the Naze and its pier snaking out to sea.Miles and miles of beach huts through Frinton, easy sand walking at low tide, groups of children screaming at crabs and then the long concrete sea wall to Clacton.
Astonished I catch sight of something moving towards me up ahead – the toy train duts its horn to greet me.
Distance: 8 miles