Essex has the longest coastline of any English county. Essex Ramblers, frustrated at the lack of open country in the county, have long campaigned for access to the county’s sea walls.
In 2004, Essex Ramblers proposed a motion to the Ramblers’ AGM (general council), which was carried: This general council calls on the government to take such action as is necessary under section 3 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to amend the definition of ‘open country’ contained in section 1 (2) of the act to include a reference to coastal land as defined in section 3 (3); and calls on staff to prepare and implement a campaign with this action as its desired outcome.
Ramblers’ staff did indeed campaign for access to be extended to the coast, resulting in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and the England Coast Path and adjoining ‘spreading room’. Thus, in the next year or so, the England Coast Path will give people the right to walk around every bit of Essex’s coast, with freedom to roam on some land alongside it.
I sampled some of the emerging route last week on a walk around Canvey Island in the Thames estuary, led by Simon Swanson of the Ramblers’ South-East Essex Group. This was part of the Essex Ramblers’ walking festival, which ran from 26 October to 2 November, to encourage its 4,000 members, and the public, to enjoy some walking in Essex. They put on 34 walks, all with a water theme.
Ten of us met at Benfleet Station, a busy commuter hub. I arrived early and had time to walk up the hill to South Benfleet twelfth-century church (locked) and wander around the churchyard.
We set off along the causeway and, once we reached the island, turned off to the right, to walk anti-clockwise.
Around us were marshes, the only high point being the hill behind Benfleet and the Hadleigh country park.
Once we had gone under the A130 road it all became much quieter, and very flat, the marshes are below sea level. West Canvey Marshes are an RSPB reserve. I caught a glimpse of a cattle egret flying across.
We stopped for coffee at the moveable flood barrier at the juncion of East Haven Creek (which we had been following) and Holehaven Creek, and here we turned south-east to follow the latter. Now the land was muddy and good for waders: lapwing, black-tailed godwit, curlew, redshank and shelduck.
It is very much an industrial landscape, and it was pleasing to see the waders there.
To our left was the Canvey Wick reserve, with lovely autumn colours, the only brownfield site managed by Buglife and a home of the rare Shrill Carder Bee, a species of bumblebee.
We rounded the corner of the island and came to the Lobster Smack pub, a lovely clapboard building just south of Canvey village.
After an excellent lunch we continued along the sea wall on the south side of the island, looking across the Thames to north Kent.
Ahead of us was Southend pier, at 1.3 miles the longest pleasure-pier in the world (Essex is good at ‘longests’—although Southend is now a unitary authority and not officially Essex).
There is a lot of new development taking place on the south side of the island. We came to Thorney Beach, which has been renovated by local volunteers and now looks splendid, with benches and murals.
The new development just behind is called Sandy Bay rather than Thorney Bay, presumably to make it sound more attractive.
For nearly two miles the sea wall continues with a blue wall on the landward side, much of which is covered in murals. There is a series which tell the story of Canvey Island (which was originally five islands before the Dutch came and built sea walls and reclaimed the land). In 1953 there was a devastating flood and many lives were lost. People climbed onto the roofs.
There are murals of local features, and of birds.
We passed the elegant Labworth café and restaurant, a grade II listed building which resembles the Queen Mary; made of reinforced concrete it was opened in 1933 and is the only building to be solely designed by Ove Arup.
We rounded another corner of the island and came to a park, where we posed for a goup shot.
We were next to the memorial to the tragic collision between two American planes in the Thames estuary on 19 June 1944: there was only one survivor.
We passed Smallgains Creek which was full of boats though it all seemed very quiet.
Simon pointed out the football pitch on the south side of the track which had been reclaimed from the creek by building a sea wall.
We then rounded Canvey Heights country park, a former landfill site which is now a wood.
Our last, long, stretch was along the sea wall on the north side of the island, beside Hadleigh Ray with views across to Leigh-on-Sea and Southend.
There were houses on the south side, some of it behind locked gates to which residents had keys. From humble beginnings, Canvey Island has become quite upmarket, although it still has an aura of gritty industrialism.
We returned to the station as it was getting dark, seven hours after we started and having walked 14.65 miles. It was an interesting and varied walk, made even better by Simon’s local knowledge and stories.