Eugene Suggett: Deceits of lapwings
Too many folks eschew the Essex coast. You can do worse than get on a train to Burnham-on-Crouch, and then walk round the Dengie peninsula, perhaps to Bradwell-on-Sea, and from there get a ’bus (check they’re running) to Southminster station.
Coastal walking need not involve the tumultuous ship-wracking waves and fearsome reefs of Cornwall’s coast, or Dorset’s ledges and coves or caves, or Devon’s sweeping sands and broad estuaries. The unadorned Essex coast may lack the huge cliffs of Cape Wrath, and the dunes of Norfok or Lincolnshire. But the sights from Dengie’s uninterrupted sea wall conjure an atmosphere of their own: landward to lowland fields with their long, straight and very ancient (pre-Roman, they think) divisions, and to compact villages, Southminster, Tillingham, Bradwell-on-Sea; seaward over flats and marsh; skyward through skeins of brent geese, and vast colonies of gulls on the wing.
It may not be Bowland’s wilderness, and it may lack the barrenness of Kinder or Dartmoor, but the magnificent desolation of Dengie Flats means a sense of remoteness is here nonetheless. Saltmarsh grasses, sea couch grass, sea purslane and sea lavender flourish. Bird-life abounds, to my eye in variety more than off Devon or Cornwall: you can see redshank, and dunlin, and pintail, and marsh-harriers, whole flights of cormorants, and deceits of lapwings, and rafts of wigeon. Adders weave their way through reed-beds and saltmarsh; by brooks and rivulets stoops the prying heron. In summer months the Essex skipper and the marbled white butterflies, prolific in this quarter, flit about.
Burnham-on-Crouch, once a port and noted for its oysters, is worth your time. I digress to notice that the late John Dowding, who did so much for rights of way in the County of Essex, was an independent (very, I should think) councillor, and once Mayor, of this attractive little town. A number of interesting buildings, not least the club-house (1931, architect Joseph Emberton) of the splendidly-named Royal Corinthian Yacht Club, are to be found. Ye Olde White Harte has a fine prospect of the Crouch from the outside (dreamily tranquil after dark, I found, with an owl hovering eerily in the moonlight), and locally-brewed ales within, and merits a visit.
The walk you might take needs no great defining. Get down to the path by the Crouch and head eastwards on the sea-wall path. You will see some of the things mentioned above; perhaps (since they go in for yachting in a big way here), you will see a fleet of yachts running before the wind, sails goosewinged and spinnakers billowing brightly. Across the Crouch, the river Roach comes in, and ahead is Foulness Island; Foulness Point juts out to sea. At Holliwell Point, where the Crouch becomes the sea, it’s north or nothing; turn left for a flat and nigh-on dead-straight stroll past Ray Sand, and Grange Outfall, and Bradwell Marshes. In front of you is the Blackwater; to the north-east can be seen Clacton, and ferries steaming to the continent from Harwich. And 12 miles on from Burnham, you reach St Peter’s Sand.
And by St Peter’s Sand you find a spectacular gem of history: the imposing little chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall. Back in the AD 600s, Aidan of Lindisfarne had been running a school at which he educated, inter alios, the brothers Chad and Cedd. Chad, as anybody knows, became abbot of Lastingham, Yorkshire and later bishop of Lichfield. In 653 the lesser-known Cedd (at the behest of Sigeberht the Good, king of the East Saxons) sailed down from Northumbria, and landed here at Bradwell-on-Sea, where he found the remains of a fort left by the Romans, and there he built, using the Roman wall as a foundation, this astounding stone chapel still standing today.
The vagaries of many centuries saw it fall into disuse; it lost its narthex and a couple of porticoes, and it seems to have served as a barn and cow-shed for part of the time; but it was restored in the 1920s, and local volunteers see to its upkeep, and maintain a level of ministry. They say it gets 1000 visitors a month, who, I should think, must be very much pleased by the starkly dramatic St Peter-on-the-Wall.
A footpath and road, East End Road, both Roman (what else: they led to that fort), take you to Bradwell-on-Sea. You can get a drink in the Cricketers, or the King’s Head, or both, if you have time before catching the ’bus (which I hope you checked out) to Southminster. As you raise your glass, you might just reflect on that walk along the maligned, ‘flat and featureless’ Essex coast, and on how, if you look for it, it has a magisterial drama to match any on our native shores.
Eugene Suggett is the Senior Policy Officer for Ramblers.