This was an interesting walk along the coast from Southend eastwards taking in a military firing range and passing by the mysterious island of Foulness ending at Landwick Cottages, just outside of the firing range.
I was once again travelling from home for this walk. Unfortunately this time the London Fenchurch Street to Southend/Shoeburyness railway line was closed for engineering works with a dreaded “rail replacement bus” service instead. Happily Southend is one of only a small number of towns served by two railway lines from London, on completely different and competing routes, one from London Fenchurch Street and another from London Liverpool Street.
Therefore I opted to use this alternative service from London Liverpool Street instead. I took the train into London Waterloo, then the Waterloo and City Line to Bank and the Central Line from there to Liverpool Street. From there I took a train to Southend Victoria, (rather than Southend Central). This was operated (at the time) by a company going by the bizarre name of “One”. Not sure what it is with Essex and odd-named train companies (the other route is run by a company that calls itself “C2C”). Unsurprisingly, this stupid name was soon dropped because of confusion as to whether a train was the “11:30 One service” or the “11:31 service” (but not until most of the trains had been re-branded).
Southend Victoria is not as convenient for the coast at Southend Central so I had to walk first through the shopping area of the town in order to reach the coast. It was a lovely sunny day but as it was also the depths of winter I was doing a shorter walk than usual today due to wanting to finish before darkness as the sunset was early.
The pedestrianised area ended at the coast and I could cross on a path over the main road leading to the pier.
The pier at Southend stretches for over a mile and I could see right to the end of the pier from here.
So long is the pier that a train runs the length of the pier. I considered going to the end but decided that I couldn’t spare the time (walking 2 miles there and back would take over half an hour and I’d have to wait a similar time if I opted for the train). So I decided to miss the pier out with the thought I might come back to do it another time (sadly, I haven’t done so).
I headed down onto the promenade and headed west along the promenade. This is another advantage of doing this walk in winter – the promenade is tarmac so it won’t suffer from mud, and it will be much less crowded than in the summer.
I passed Adventure Island – once again, closed. Soon I passed this and the promenade was then right beside the beach.
Southend has a nice sandy beach though the tide goes out a long way as it’s very flat. It was deserted on this winter morning.
I continued west soon reaching an attractive building, The Kursall. I headed over for a closer look. It was an amusement arcade and in fact built for that purpose, one of the very first such buildings, in 1901.
I continued along the promenade soon passing the derelict remains of the old Southend Corporation Loading Pier.
This was I believe originally used for freight and fell into dis-use in the 1970s. By the time I walked here it was a derelict mess and was in fact demolished less than a year after I walked past, in 2007 so it no longer exists.
I continued on the promenade past it soon reaching a small slipway where boats were presumably launched at high tide but today the slipway just finished on the mud flats! It is marked as “Marine Activity Centre” on the map, but there was not much activity today. A short distance beyond this I passed a restaurant built over the back of the beach, Ocean Beach. Despite the cold, there were quite a few people sitting out on the little terrace at the back.
I had now moved from the centre of Southend to an eastern suburb, Thorpe Bay. Now the sands were dotted with the odd boat, behind the beach the buildings were largely residential rather than commercial.
There was also now a pleasant area of hard sand so I headed down onto that, rather than the promenade.
The terrain varied between firm sand, soft sand and shells, but I still preferred it to the promenade, wanting to be nearer the sea. Sea gulls now swarmed overhead and the beach was backed by attractive beach huts and the long pier of Southend was becoming more distant.
I stopped for lunch at the back of the beach here, though I ate quickly as I soon got cold when sitting still. I liked Thorpe Bay, it was peaceful, well kept and rather more peaceful than the centre of the town.
I liked taking pictures of the various boats now marooned on the sands a long way from the sea as the tide was out. I wondered how often they were used.
The beach huts here were lovely, all painted different colours and clearly much-loved.
After all the estuary walking I had done to reach Southend, I was really enjoying being back on a sandy beach, at last. Wooden groynes however made it a bit more difficult to walk along the beach as I had to head up the beach at each one, to get around it.
Across the estuary I could make out Grain power station on the Kent side of the estuary. It is nice to see these familiar landmarks for the last time, even if a power station is not exactly pretty.
Container ships made their way up and down the estuary.
I soon reached another slipway, this one the Thorpe Bay Yacht Club.
The groynes were becoming a pain now, so I retreated to the promenade.
Soon the beach huts on the beach ended and now they were behind the promenade instead. I wouldn’t like this arrangement, with the need to get over the sea wall from the beach huts to the sea and a constant stream of people walking past, they were not very private.
Out to sea there were some people kite surfing on the sea though some had stopped on mud flats way out in the estuary.
Rain was now starting on the other side of the estuary, as the power station at Grain disappeared into the clouds, but thankfully it stayed dry on this side.
I had now reached Shoebury common and at a large slipway ahead access along the coast was prevented. Ahead was Shoreburyness Artillery Range. Here there was a fence and warning notices preventing further access along the coast. I believe the firing range has since closed (in fact I think it had when I walked here) and is gradually being re-developed and with a new path opened through to Shoeburyness. That hadn’t happened when I did this walk though, so I had to head inland along the road now.
There was a pavement with houses on the left. I soon reached a small church and just ahead the end of the A13, the main road from London. Here I could turn right along Campfield Road. It was an odd sort of place as the old garrison site was being turned into new housing. I turned right on the first road I came to, but it was not yet complete as I came to a roundabout with nothing on the road ahead, a road not built to the right and another on the left. So I turned left and followed New Garrison Road and later Chapel Road through the old Garrison site, that had been sensitively re-developed to the point I suspect little looked different from the outside from when it had been used as a Garrison.
I soon passed some buildings on the left that looked like they might have once been a railway depot, but looked disused now.
At the end I came to the shore once more, beside some rather ugly new flats. They were wood-clad but already the wood was discolouring.
It was nice to be back on the shore and I turned left soon with the beach just backed by (eroding) grass which seemed to be used as a recreation ground.
I walked along the edge of this grassed area past numerous benches and in places dunes were forming in front of the grass. It was nice to be back on a more natural stretch of coastline.
This doesn’t last long however. Soon the beach comes to an abrupt end. Chain link fences prevent further access along the grass and a huge long boom runs for almost a mile out to sea. I’ve reached the Shoeburyness New Ranges, another military firing range where access is not permitted. So here I have to turn left along a byway to a road, passing through a small car park and then crossing a railway line. I then took the first road on the right, Peel Avenue. This is a curious road. Concrete rather than tarmac, it has houses on one side a small area of grass on the other and beyond it a chain-link fence that separates it from the firing range.
Signs attached to the fence warn that the firing range is subject to the Official Secrets Act, photography is not permitted and bringing cameras into the site is also not permitted (I wonder how that works now mobile phones all have cameras?).
Fortunately I’m outside the range, which is just as well because I spot an unusual and unexpected sight.
The firing range contains numerous railway tracks (for what purpose I’m not sure). However on the tracks are numerous old trains, presumably waiting to be sent for scrap. I can see one of the old slam-door trains of what was then my local rail company, South West Trains (now South Western Railway).
These types of trains had been running to and from London Waterloo until about a year previously (and some of these trains continued to be used on the Brockenhurst to Lymington line until 2010). I suppose if there are old sidings here not needed any more and a large number of trains coming out of service to be scrapped it makes sense that they end up being held here for a while before scrapping.
I was not sad to see them go to be honest. At the time I was working in London so had been commuting to and from London on similar trains for several years previously. Though even this train was more luxurious than the usual train from my local station. Instead we used to get a variation with more cramped 3 by 2 seating that had an external door into every single bay of seats (you can see a picture further down on this page). This meant whenever someone got on, they would inevitably bang into your knees and stand on your feet. Not only that but you’d get a blast of cold air (in the winter) and often rain blowing in as they did so. The windows were single glazed so that in winter condensation would form so you couldn’t see out, and would run down the windows onto the seats.
Then to get off, on most of the trains (though oddly, not all) the internal door controls had been plated over, so you had to slide down the window, lean out of the window and use the handle on the outside to open the door to get off. This meant that many commuters would open the doors before the train had stopped (they weren’t locked) to save time, so you had to make sure you stood back from the platform edge when waiting to get on so as not to be hit by an open door. This also meant that of course people rarely closed the windows after getting off so in winter you’d have to walk through the train to close the windows after people had got off or it would get freezing cold (and the seats damp if rain was blowing in). Youths also used to think it highly amusing to get off the train at the far end of the platform and leave the doors open, leaving the guard to walk the length of the platform to close them again before the train could depart. They were in short, horrible trains to travel on.
Having said all that it is interesting to think what with all the strikes that have hit Southern trains in the last year or two, in a dispute over the role of guards, including whether it is the guard or driver that opens the doors, that until a few years ago it was the passengers that were responsible for opening and closing the doors, not the guard or the driver!
Beyond it too I even spotted an old underground train lurking in the sidings. Clearly then this firing range was also a train graveyard.
The road soon turned left, away from the range so at the T-junction at the end of this road I turned right onto Wakering Road. I continued on this road, which had houses on the left but fields to the right. Soon the speed limit increased and the houses on the left ended, just as more houses started on the right. After about half a mile I had reached the end of this road too, so I turned right along Poynters Lane.
This was an unpleasant stretch as now there was no pavement, and the traffic came quickly, although it was not that heavy. Thankfully I soon reached the small and strangely named village of Cupids Corner. The main road I had been following turned left and I could continue on a quiet residential road passed some attractive old houses.
At the end I was once again alongside the fence of the Shoeburyness Firing Range.
Here I could turn left and follow a footpath to the left, running alongside the chain link fence. A short distance ahead there is a gate into the range. When the range is not in use (no red flags flying) the gate should be unlocked as there is a public footpath through the area. As I approached it looked like the gate was locked but as I got closer I could see it was just pushed closed and I could just push it open. The usual warning signs about entering a military firing range were present, but in addition to those there were also warnings that the site is subject to the Official Secrets Act and that it is prohibited to bring “cameras or recording equipment” into the range.
I was not clear if this applied to the public using the right of way or not, but decided to to play it safe and avoid taking any photos (or publishing them) on this firing range. After all, if it did apply to the public I was already breaking the rules by taking a camera inside and I didn’t want to make it obvious I had done so and risk having it confiscated. I think that if you keep on the public right of way there is no law against photography (despite the signs), but I did not fancy explaining that to some security guard who would likely insist I was wrong.
Ahead I crossed the railway line again. I could see many more trains “stored” on the tracks along the ranges, though the ones near the footpath were covered in graffiti – I guess this is not so secure, after all if there is a public path through! The path continued over the railway line and crossed scrubland adjacent to some fields. Clearly the area had been used for something in the past as there were the remains of buildings visible.
Whatever they were used for remains a mystery. The path soon reached the sea wall which it then followed. I felt uneasy walking through this area. I hadn’t seen anyone but the numerous warning signs made me think I was probably being watched by someone, somewhere.
After about half a mile I came to something even more unusual. At a place called Wakering Stairs is a long byway, heading out onto the mudflats and sand of Maplins Sands. It runs for around 6 miles, parallel with but around 400 metres from the shore and the Ordnance Survey map warns that “Public rights of way across Maplin Sands are dangerous, seek local guidance”. This path is called the Broomway and it has a very interesting history.
I’ve now reached almost the eastern end of the mainland coast of Essex alongside the Thames estuary. But it’s not the end of Essex or land. I’ve now reached the Essex archipelago. Bounded by the rivers Thames, Crouch and Roach at the mouth of the Thames Estuary are numerous islands. Potton Island, Rushley Island, Wallasea Island, Havengore Island, New England Island and lastly Foulness Island.
All of these islands are flat low-lying marshy islands. Havengore and New England Islands are no longer islands having been joined to Foulness by the construction of several dams. So the first island ahead, Havengore Island, is now part of Foulness Island.
The path ahead, The Broomway, was once the main access to Foulness Island as the island did not have a bridge. As the tide went out large expanses of sand and mud would be exposed and a track was marked with sticks of broom (the plant) pushed two feet into the sands (with 1ft protuding from the sands) at 30 yard intervals to mark the safest route over to Foulness which is how it came to be called the Broomway. Once alongside Foulness island 5 different paths headed left onto the island. Though ferries also linked the island at certain times, the Broomway was the only low-tide route onto the island. It is still open today with parts of it a byway, meaning it is even permitted to drive on it. It is however rumoured to be incredibly dangerous. The tide comes in incredibly fast (I believe faster than you can run at times) and as the rivers Roach and Crouch fill whirlpools can form, meaning it is very easy to get cut off by the tide or drown, particularly if the weather becomes misty.
No one seems quite sure if the path is entirely man-made or whether it is a natural ridge of firmer sand. It was first marked on maps dating from 1595 so it is an ancient route. It has claimed many lives over the years. It has been recorded that 66 bodies have been recovered from the sands since 1600 though it is thought around 100 have drowned in total on the path, not all recorded.
The military first became interested in the area in 1855 when Shoebury Sands, part of Maplin Sands had been used as an artillery testing site. Later than century the War Office wanted to extend this by purchasing some of the land of Foulness. They did buy some of the land but not as much as they wanted as one of the landowners, Alan Finch refused to sell. However he died in 1914 and his half-brother than agreed to sell the land a year later, in 1915. As a result the War Office (later the Ministry of Defence) owned around 2/3rd of Foulness Island. In 1922 the military constructed a road to the island, connecting it to the mainland. However the public are not permitted to use this road. This meant that the Broomway is no longer maintained and no longer marked on the ground, because the military and residents of the island can use the bridge.
Roughly 2/3 of Foulness is still in control of the military, now under the privatised QinetiQ. Whilst they are pretty secretive about the uses, I believe it is still used for testing weapons. However the remaining area, mostly the eastern part of the island is not under military ownership and people live in the two small villages of Churchend and Courtsend. Once on the island there is a network of footpaths and bridleways including a fair amount on the coast. The residents of these villages are given permits allowing them to drive along the bridge to the island, but for everyone else the only legal way onto the island is to use the Broomway or to arrive by boat.
So history lesson over, to continue my walk, I soon reached Wakering Stairs, the start of the Broomway. Initially there was a slipway, though it was in a poor state. This soon descended onto the sand where I could see no obvious path. I walked along the slipway to the end and took a few tentative steps out onto the Broomway. I had heard that another danger is that the military often fire weapons from Foulness Island over Maplin Sands. When they explode they cause large craters that are often filled in by soft sand as the tide comes in, so if you step on one you can end up sinking right into the sand. I had no idea if the tide was coming in or going out, so I didn’t venture further out onto the Broomway as it would be too dangerous (and in any case, it would soon be dark).
I had to puzzle over whether I’d try to walk it another time and reach Foulness Island or give it up (my rules after all say that I don’t have to walk around every island). I’d like to get to the island, but I knew it would not be easy. So for now I headed back from the Broomway and back onto the footpath around the sea wall of the mainland.
I soon reached Haven Point where the path turned left to head north alongside Havengore Creek with Havengore Island, now part of Foulness, just across the creek. Ahead I could see the private Havengore Bridge. I could see the military checkpoint and barriers part way along the bridge so I knew there was no point in trying to cross. I didn’t have a permit, I would be sent back.
Soon I passed under the bridge and left the military firing range. I retrieved my camera from my bag and took a picture of the bridge in the now fading light, now I knew I was outside and allowed to take photos again.
I watched a car drive out, stop at the checkpoint, the barriers rise and the car continue. I wondered if it was a resident or the military.
My route continued alongside the creek. The tide was out so it was mostly mud with just a thin strip of water at the bottom.
I passed an area that looked as if it might have once been some sort of small harbour and then a larger area of marsh to reach the farm at Oxenham.
Here I could follow a footpath (along the farms access road) to Landwick Cottages, a small row of cottages near Great Wakering. From here, despite being just a few houses, I was pleased to find a regular bus service back to Southend, a surprise considering it was a fairly isolated place. So I took this bus back to Southend and then walked back to Southend Victoria station where I took the train back to London and onwards home.
It had been a fascinating walk. From the resort of Southend I had passed east through pretty and quieter Thorpe Bay and it was lovely to be back on sandy beaches again. After that I came to the old military town of Shoeburyness. Beyond that the military was very much still in evidence with the large firing range taking up much of the coast and land behind it. This had turned out to be more interesting than expected with path through it passing the old trains and then reaching the Broomway out to the mysteries of Foulness Island. I’ll have to decide whether to go to Foulness or not.
Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk:-
Arriva bus service 7 : Landwick Cottages – Great Wakering – North Shoebury – Thorpe Bay (railway station) – Southchurch – Southend-on-Sea – Prittlewell – Rochford – Hockley. Every 30 minutes Monday – Saturday. It takes 35 minutes to travel between Landwick Cottages and central Southend.
On Sundays Arriva service 4A : Shoeburyness (East Beach) – Great Wakering – Southchurch – Southend-on-Sea. On Sundays it is necessary to walk to Great Wakering (around half a mile) and take the bus to Southend as no busses serve Landwick Cottages on Sundays.