Foulness Island is one of the trickiest parts of the UK coast to reach. As the name suggests, it’s an island though only a tidal one (meaning you can walk to it at low tide). The primary problem that makes access difficult however is that most of the island is part of a military artillery range and hence public access is severely restricted. Despite this part of the island is outside of the control of the military and still public land on which around 150 people live. The people that live on the island are issued with permits that entitle them to drive over the bridge that links Foulness to the mainland (walking is never permitted). However those that don’t live there have no such privilege and so access for them is much harder.
The public are not generally permitted to drive over the bridge to the island. Which leaves only one other option to reach Foulness – The Broomway.
I mentioned this in my previous post but the Broomway is a public right of way across Maplin Sands to Foulness Island and is officially the only means by which the public can reach the island.
The Broomway is an ancient path over Maplin Sands, which is only passable at low tide. It runs for more than 5 miles parallel with the coast, but around 400 metres out on the sands. The route was originally marked with sticks of broom sunk into the sand to mark the safe route, which is how it acquired it’s name. However with the opening of the bridge few used the Broomway and so it is no longer marked, other than a track on the Ordnance Survey map which has the warning “Public rights of way across Maplin Sands are dangerous, seek local guidance”.
The dangers of the path are several. The first and most serious is the tide. The tide goes out more than 2 miles here, revealing a huge area of sand (Maplin Sands) at low tide. But when the tide comes in it comes in fast (I believe at times faster than a human can run) which means it is very easy to get cut off by the tide. In addition the wind can mean the tide comes in quicker and might be higher than was forecast. The second hazard are rivers. The rivers Crouch, Roach and Thames are on 3 sides of the island. As the tide comes in these rivers can fill more quickly than the sands, causing you to be cut off by the rivers and channels that feed them. Whirpools can also form because of the currents from the rivers.
The third hazard is the firing range itself. When in use access along the Broomway and the paths that approach it is not permitted. Even when not in use, the artillery that is tested on the island is fired out into the Thames estuary. It can form craters when it explodes. These craters can be filled in as the tide comes in by only soft sand washed into the whole, forming sinking sands which are not obvious to the eye. It’s not just sinking sand from artillery either. The sands have gloopy black mud beneath them which also means that there are natural areas of sinking sand, too. The Broomway is over firmer sand (though no one really seems to know why it is firmer) but it is easy to stray off the path (it is not marked) into the areas of mud.
The final hazard is the mist which can form in this wet low-lying area. This reduces visibility to just a few feet at times and means it’s incredibly easy to get disoriented and wander off the path into the various other dangerous.
So whilst I wanted to access Foulness it was clear it would not be easy. At the time I walked this stretch of the Essex coast I decided it would be too difficult. But a few years ago I decided I wanted to try to visit.
One way that it used to be possible to visit the island was to ring up the landlord of the sole remaining pub on the island, the George and Dragon and say that you wanted to visit for a meal or drink. This meant you had legitimate business on the island and so the landlord could (if so inclined, which I gather was not always the case) contact the ministry of defence (or rather QinetiQ, the private part of it) and arrange for you to be given a temporary permit to drive out to the island and the pub. Though strictly this did not entitle you to go anywhere but the pub in practice you cannot be prevented from following the rights of way (over which the public has a legal right). However the pub closed in 2007 so that is no longer an option.
Another option is that in recent years, as a result of increased interest in the island, a heritage centre has opened on the island, in the former school building. Access to the heritage centre on the island is permitted by the public on the first Sunday of the month only, between 12pm and 4pm and only in April to October inclusive, the centre is closed in winter. When the centre is open the public can gain access to and drive along the road that links the island to the mainland from 11:45am provided they state they wish to visit the heritage centre on one of the open days. If you are permitted access you can drive over to the island (but are not permitted to stop on the way) where there is free parking but (at least in theory) the access only allows you to access the heritage centre. In practice though the leaflet does suggest it is possible to walk the rights of way on the island, too.
However I wanted to walk the Broomway. Doing so alone is tricky and possibly dangerous (the path is apparently known locally as the “Doomway” due to the number of lives it has claimed). With all the hazards I did not want to risk walking there and back on the same tide. That would mean around a 12 hour stay on the island between tides which meant it was only really viable in high summer (I would not want to walk one way in the dark). There are limited facilities on the island (I think one shop, with limited opening hours) so I’d need to carry plenty to eat and drink too. It also carries with it risk in that if the tide in the evening is higher or the weather changes it might not be safe to return on the Broomway and there is nowhere to stay on the island.
The other option is to walk one way and return by bus. Surprisingly, there is a service to the island, however only 2 busses a day run on weekdays though 4 each way on Saturdays. However to use the bus service to/from Foulness Island you must have an MOD permit. I did wonder if this restriction would be enforced if you were leaving the island, but I didn’t want to risk it. If you want to follow this route independently (which I do not recommend) and at your own risk you can download a GPS track log of the walk (which I provided) here.
There was one other option. A chap called Brian Dawson runs (or at least, ran) guided walks over to the Broomway, with the return by coach (which he somehow manages to organise with the MOD), which allows time on the island to explore. This is under the name Nature Breaks, though sadly the website (http://www.wildlifetrips.org.uk/) has ceased working as of a few days ago (because the domain has expired and not been renewed). Brian also organised some trips by boat to the island and exploring the creeks and rivers around the island and the wildlife that can be seen there.
Despite the broken website I believe the organisation is still running and it’s just the website that is down. Sadly though all the rest of the Broomway walks for 2017 have been cancelled owing to “Unusual activity by the MOD”. However you could try calling the previously listed number : 01268 491540 and see if any more trips are running or if it is possible to book for 2018 (I believe the trips sell out a long way in advance).
This is the option I chose because whilst I generally prefer to avoid organised walks, this seemed the only safe and viable option to reach the island. As you have probably gathered by now I did reach the island and make it safely back. No one exploded or drowned either.
I rang the telephone number on the Nature Breaks website (not currently available) to book a trip and Brian answered. Here I managed to book trips on one of Brians’ walks out to the Broomway in May along with a friend of mine. He ran through what we would need to bring (wellies, sunscreen, etc) and took my name and telephone number to supply to “The Ministry” as he called it, presumably for the return coach trip.
Brian is frankly a brave man. Would you want to risk taking around 30 members of the public out to an area of sinking sand and subject to the tides (where they might wander off, or not follow advice) and where the authorities make clear they’d really rather no one went? Well Brian does and I’m very glad that he does so.
A week or so later, having sent a cheque to Brian a leaflet, map and details of the walk arrived in the post. The walk was around 3 months time, so I filed it away and made a note on my calendar. Spring forward 3 months and it was time for the walk. I was looking forward to it. I was fortunate that the weather for the day was just perfect, low 20s, no wind and clear sunshine for the entire day. In short, a perfect spring day. I had to make an early start though.
I had booked to join the coach at Laindon, the most westerly point it served which I think is also close to where Brian lives, which I’m sure is no coincidence. It left at 8am. Living
pretty much the exact opposite side of London, I had to travel half way round the M25 and a few miles along the A127 to get there. A check on the AA website suggested the journey would take around 90 minutes. I set off and had a fairly good journey until around the A1 junction where there were miles of roadworks and the dreaded 50mph average speed cameras which stretched for many miles. After that I made good progress
to the A127 junction and joined this heading for Southend. I was surprised just how busy the road was. It was 7:30am on a Sunday and I hadn’t expected this much traffic. I was in the left hand lane and not long before my junction, all I saw ahead was brake lights and the traffic soon came to a halt, just creeping forward now and again. I was tempted to get back into the right hand lane, but finding a large enough gap that wasn’t already taken was
hard, with the speed difference between the lanes around 60mph.
The traffic continued stop-start all the way to my sliproad and I saw then that the traffic on the sliproad was also queuing. I didn’t know the exact route and was not using a satnav so I guessed (correctly) at the correct lane to be in for the roundabout and mercifully the traffic was then clear once I got off the roundabout (I think it might have been a car boot sale close by). The coach was due to be leave Laindon in less than 10 minutes. Thankfully I managed to find the correct route to the Laindon Community Centre, where I was due to join the coach, without taking a wrong turning and pulled into the car park, relieved to see a mini coach parked there. My car clock said it was 7:58 so I had made it with 2 minutes to spare!
I parked up and ran round to the coach. There I met Brian and his wife who immediately said no need to run you’re not late. Everyone but two had turned up on time. Once we got to a few minutes past departure time Brian, tried to ring them. No answer. He decided we had to leave, so off we set. Thankfully on joining the A127 it was now clear and we headed for Southend. Brian Dawson, the guide for the day who was a lovely chap came round the coach to introduce himself and talk to the various members of his group. He showed a genuine interest for why we wanted to go to the island and seemed excited at what lay ahead. I suspect he enjoys these trips despite the obvious hassles and time he has to spend in organising them.
20 minutes later, we reached Southend, our second pick up. Here it was busy and the mini
coach was now almost full and there was plenty of chatter – the mood was good. Last stop was Great Wakering and I had expected to get off the coach here to walk through the ranges to the Broomway. But no, we continued to Landwick Gate and straight passed the barrier which was open and into the firing range. Soon we reached Wakering Stairs and there was a small parking area here. It turns out that this road is generally open to the public on Sundays and sometimes Saturday too. Rather than stop here the coach pulled up to the top of the sea wall. I almost thought we were going over, but after a quick glimpse of the Broomway, we reversed back down. I am not sure if the driver though there was more parking beyond? Or perhaps he wanted to give us (and Brian) a view of the Broomway to check conditions. Whatever he clearly though better of it. We soon parked up and got off the coach.
Brian went on a quick run through of the plan for the day and we were told to change into wellies (thankfully I had remembered to bring some). I also put on a good layer of sun cream, since the sun was strong and the weather beautiful. We were told photographs was allowed on the Broomway and rights of way but not to take photographs of the military areas we would see and pass through. Brian would be walking up front and his wife at the back and we were to keep with him at all times, because of the risk of getting stuck in the mud.
Soon wellied up, we set off along the jetty for the Broomway. A dog walker seemed surprised at our group and commented “Off on the mud are you?”.
It was not the most welcoming of paths.
Going was initially easy over the sea-weed covered concrete jetty, but soon we were onto the mud. Brian stopped to tell us about the mud flats and plant life as well as some ancient wood just under the sands he had had carbon dated and I think he said was from the
17th Century. He pointed out the boats on the Isle of Grain and Isle of Sheppey just visible
through the haze on the other bank of the river. It looked a long way away.
The previous day had also been warm, sunny and calm, probably contributing to the haze. We could see back to Southend too, some distance away.
Soon we continued out past the mud and onto the sand. Although not marked, I could make out the faint trace of the path over the sands. We followed Brian as he talked animatedly about the various sights. The wind turbines out to sea, the Isle of Sheppy and Grain and of course the vast mud flats and sand of the beach.
With the wet sand here reflecting back the blue sky you certainly feel insignificant out here and get a wonderful sense of freedom in this vast open space.
Sadly it is not quite clear enough to see Red Sands fort of the Shivering Sands forts. These
remarkable forts, abandoned after World War II still stand, some on stitls in the sea and of course became better known as a result of the pirate radio stations that set up on them in the 1960s and 1970s.
Soon we pass the wooden marker posts that mark the route of Havengore Creek. This creek drys out at low tide and hence we can safely cross it on the sands. You can see the bridge inland.
The nearest post (above) looks like the mast of a boat that has sunk, with wood nailed onto it at right angles. The wooden posts continue out to sea and it is important not to think these are markers for the Broomway itself because they will lead you out to sea.
Further out I can make something out on the horizon. I ask Brian about this and he tells us it is the wreck of a ship that run aground out here. He said that he once walked out to it and found it in remarkably good condition and that “it only needed a good
battering to get it going”, but later goes on to say it has broken it’s back (I.E. it’s broken in two).
We continue on the sandy path which by now has become indisticnt. Brian at the front and his wife at the back with us in between. The ground underfoot feels firm though and we can soon see the numerous masts and constructions on Foulness.
One is used to test airplane ejector seats, so I am told.
Brian also tells us about the security cameras on the island. He tells us that he once saw one demonstrated and was amazed to find it could be zoomed in to such detail he could read the warning notices on the firing extinguisher on a boat out in the estuary! So my suspicion on my previous tentative steps out onto the Broomway that I was likely being watched were probably true.
We run parallel for the land and soon we can see on of the low towers that looks a bit like an airport control tower. These are labelled and I think can be used to determine how far along the island you are.
Soon Brian tells us we have reached the end of our journey along the Broomway and will be heading inland to Asplins Head. He warns us of the black mud and says that no
matter how bad the condition of the jetty (and it is bad), we must stick to it as if you try to go to the left of the jetty it is even worse.
The wellies were certainly needed, not just for the wet sand for the mud as I did sink up to my ankle at one point. Soon the jetty had become broken stone and pretty soon it becomes a propery jetty, but it is covered in green seaweed, mud and lose rocks and it is difficult to see what you are standing on – there are some big gaps between rocks.
Even on the jetty there is some horrible black mud, which you sink around 1ft into. I can see footprints in it to the left of the jetty but stick to Brians advice and keep to the jetty.
Pretty soon and feeling very satisfied I am heading up onto the sea wall and onto the island
itself. We have made it and I sense everyone is feeling happy with themselves at having walked our way here along the miles of empty sand. Though the welcome is not the friendliest.
We all stop here to change from wellies back into more comfortable shoes (I change into trainers, despite instructions to bring walking boots).
In the notes Brian sent it was said that we would be walking to the village of Churchend but in fact Brian had laid on transport for us. You can see it below.
Yes, we’d be taking a tour of the island sitting on hay bails on a trailer, towed by a tractor owned by one of the farmers on the island. I am told on occasion they have used a similar contraption to take a tour of the Broomway itself and Brian says that have sometimes taken this out to Fishermans Head along the Broonway but that it is “a bit dodgy”.
It turns out there the tractor is not always available but in fact although I would like to walk some of the rights of way on the island the tractor tour works out to be a better bet. The reason is that the tractor is able to drive along the many roads and footpaths on the island, (including some that aren’t rights of way), allowing us to see pretty much every corner of the island, something that would not be the case if we were on foot due to the limited time.
There is a local guide for this part of the tour, Peter, who lives on the island and farms much of it’s land – and is also the owner of the tractor.
He is clearly enthusiastic for the place and likes the opportunity to tell others about it. I sense that over the years Brian has been running these tours he has become well known and liked by the people that live on Fouless. He tells us we can take photographs when the tractor is on a public road or right of way, but should ask at other times.
We set off along the footpath for Great Burwood Farm passing the farm buildings. We then
reach the main “spine road” onto the island and head along it towards Priestwood and then turn left to reach the sea wall on the north of the island.
The tractor pulls up by the quay and we are allowed off to see the view and take photographs.
The quay was historically the main route onto the island as before roads and railways the
Thames sailing barges head out out along the rivers Roach and Crouch to the various towns along the east coast. Many would deliver to or stop off at Foulness. So whilst the island is remote today, it was not always so.
Over the river we can see Wallasea Island. A look at the Ordnance Survey map of the area
shows this to be largely featureless. However we are told that the island is being converted into a wetland nature reserve, by breaching some of the sea walls and allowing the sea to flood in, and creating a series of board walks and bird hides.
Apparently the spoil from the Crossrail construction in London is also being dumped here. I have mixed feelings about this but I am aware that under some EU policy any wetland lost to development (for example ports) must be replaced elsewhere. With the new container port being developed at Coryton I suspect some marsh has been lost and is therefore being replaced here.
There are clearly mixed emotions about it since our guide Peter comments that it is a “waste of prime agricultural land”. After our tour of the quay we head past Monkton Barn to the main village of the island, Churchend.
Here there is the heritage centre, which is open for us and we can have lunch here.
Sadly with the pub closed, it is a picnic affair only. There are plenty of seats in the garden here and it is a beautiful day so I sit here. The heritage centre is in the old school, which is larger than I expected and despite having closed in 1988 I can still make out the feint lines of the hopscotch painted out onto the tarmac of the playground.
Brian makes us all tea (once he can get the kettle working) and we have lunch and a look around the Heritage Centre. The heritage centre has more than I expected with a large number of artefacts, an interesting display about the 1950s floods, history of the island and some beautiful photographs. Brian also shows me the line on the wall marking the height the flood water reached when the entire island flooded in the 1950s.
There are also some interesting nautical maps on the walls of this part of Essex.
After lunch Peter our guide for the island is keen to get cracking on our tractor tour of the rest of the island, and so soon we set off. It is perfect weather for it. Under the shade of the canvas roof it is warm with a gentle breeze blowing off the land and the island is, on a weekend at least, utterly peaceful.
We set off along a pleasant grassy path where there are trees and we are told and old tent based camp during World War II, when the island had many military camps. We are
heading east from Churchend, the largest village on the island.
This has the island shop and post office, which is still used along with the former church and pub, both of which are now closed and the former school (now the heritage centre).
The church tower was apparently built at the request of the military to aid with navigation, as the church was originally built without it. Sadly the church has suffered from subsidence which has now cause the tower to lean slightly and as a result it too has been closed (in 2010, I believe).
We pass Lodge Farm and also pass over the edge of some of the fields that are now farmed by our guide, Peter. We head past New House Farm and are shown some of the former sea walls. This brings home how this number of islands at the mouth of the Thames would once have been a series of marshy lands, with parts or even all of the islands being flooded under high tides. These have become islands by the construction of sea walls, which have gradually been rolled further out to sea, to create ever increasing sized islands. Now the process seems to be gradually reversing, with nearby Wallasea Island being returned to this more natural state.
Soon we reach the most eastern place where the Broomway comes ashore, Fishermans Head. Here we get off the tractor and can explore the beach and the jetty. The change in tide since we arrived is astonishing.
The sand and mud flats we were walking over earlier are now covered and the sea is lapping further up the jetty almost as we watch. The beach here is not so much a beach but masses of shells that must get washed up here.
It is not just sea shells, either. Alongside the jetty are numerous ruined army shells and various other military junk just left to rust away on either side of the jetty.
Warning notices forbid the removal of any of this.
East of here this part of the island is again “off limits” to the public, which is a shame as it would be nice to reach Foulness Point and gaze out to sea towards Belgium.
Next we head back inland to the village of Courtsend. We are told that the island did once have it’s own police force and the pubs here were notorious for bad behaviour, with this being one of the last places where bear fist fighting was carried out.
As with many other remote coastal settlements, smuggling was also a huge problem (at least if you look at it as a problem). This village is tiny but also charming with white
clapper board houses and the former pub which we pass.
Outside is still a red telephone box and I notice the telephone is still in situ. I wonder if it ever gets used now (if it even still works) and how often BT must come and empty the coins?
We now pass through the village, more a hamlet really on the narrow road and pass over Ridgemarsh and the only “hill” on the island (where the cottage is called “Hill Cottage”).
This is another area of farming. Before we reach the sea wall we turn left and pass over Nase Wick where there is a ruined farm and what is said to be the oldest house on the island. We are told it is now Grade II listed after the army wanted to knock it down. But obviously someone got as far as removing some of the roof tiles before this point. Whilst it Grade II listed it has been uninhabited for around 30 years and the neglect shows. It is difficult to see how this building will survive much longer with much of the roof missing, although the older barn nearby looks in better condition.
We continue past another derelict farm, something that is now common on the island. Brian points out the bricks are all different, something he was telling us about on the Broomway. The marshes on both the Essex and Kent side had the kind of mud that is good for making bricks. Hence many bricks were made nearby and shipped out by sea.
Sometimes these ships would run aground and the bricks would be washed up. When this happens the islanders would often take them and use them for building. Hence many of the buildings are made from different types of bricks after each ship wreck.
The island tour was excellent and I am glad that we could do it since it took in pretty much every corner of the island. Given the time we had on the island it would not have been possible to walk every path so the tractor tour means I’ve got to see pretty much everything of interest on the island in the limited time we have.
Soon we are back at the Heritage Centre for cakes and tea, which is a nice touch. We have a
bit of time before our coach is due, so I wander a little around the village and through the church yard.
It is sad to see the church is derelict but at least someone still tends to the graveyard
where the grass has been recently cut.
The pub, which closed in 2007, still looks in good condition though I’m not sure what use, if any the building is put too now.
I noticed that the rights of way marked on the map seem to exist and look to be well signed and maintained, even though this is a remote corner of Essex.
Soon our coach arrives and our day on this unique island has come to an end. We head back along the spine Road and Brian makes a point of stopping on Havengore Bridge so we can see the height of the water.
It is almost touching the bottom of the bridge, or so it seems, and it hard to imagine that a few hours earlier we walking around half a mile out to sea here, land which is
now under many metres of water.
Soon we are off the island and back out of the gates at Great Wakering. It has been a wonderful day and I’m very grateful for the time Brian takes to show us around this unique, and beautiful corner of Essex. Suddenly it comes as a rude shock to be back in the
real world of traffic and noise as we crawl through stop-start traffic around Southend – no doubt because of so many people that have spent the day on the beach and fun parks of Southend.
Once clear of Southend the traffic clears and we are then soon back at Laindon. I thank Brian very much for his time and then set off for the 90 minute drive home. Thankfully traffic is not too bad and I make pretty good time.
This has been a wonderful and very memorable day. If you get a chance to visit this place I
strongly recommend that you do. It really is like nothing else and seems strange to be
somewhere so unique and peaceful within 50 miles of London. I hope that Brian continues to do these walks because without him very few people would be able to complete the walk.