It is hot today. The weather forecast says it will get even hotter – maybe reaching 32 degrees. I have lathered on the sun block cream in anticipation. This gives me a white and slightly greasy appearance.
The Felixstowe to Harwich ferry crosses Harwich Harbour and arrives at the Halfpenny pier. We arrive by car, having decided to drive there directly. The pier is quaint but I unable to take a good photograph due to the cars parked around it.
The sea front of Harwich is pleasant, with an old lighthouse and a promenade with strollers and beach huts. Bright coloured dinghies sail across the harbour, with the cranes and container ships of Felixstowe as a backdrop. A long breakwater marks the entrance to the harbour area. Despite signs that forbid this, there are fishermen out.
Further along are some interesting, old, renovated lighthouses; one on the shore and one rising out of the sea a few hundred feet offshore. They were restored in the 1980s.
Past this is “beach hut land” – mile after mile of beach huts. Unlike my previous walks past huts, and perhaps due to the wonderful weather, many of these huts are in use today.
Some distance along the coast and I reach a marshy area. The path follows the sea defence wall around the edge of the marsh and the way ahead is long, flat and straight. I meet a few dog walkers and some cyclists, but no serious walkers.
The path stretches ahead. The sun shines down. I am sweating. I get out my hat, which shades my face, and take frequent sips from the water bottles I am carrying. My face begins to take on the texture of sandpaper. Momentarily worried, I realise this is due to the wind-borne sand, sticking to my coating of sunblock. To be honest, I am a little bored after 10 mins of this walk – in the heat and with the monotonous landscape as my only company. I am reminded of my very first walk along the, seemingly, endless sea wall to the east of Kings Lynn.
I walk fairly quickly. Mindful of the advice of John Merrill I concentrate on finding a natural rhythm. Having worn MBT footwear (Masai Barefoot Technology) in the past, I try to emulate the natural bushmen walking style that forms the basis of the MBT product. This involves allowing my foot to strike the ground beneath my body – rather than in front – with each stride. Rather surprisingly, I notice that this is now my normal walking pattern.
The main coastal path heads back inland, but I walk ahead along the footpath at the top of the sea bank, now running along the shoreline again. Here there is a small beach – pleasantly isolated due to its inaccessibility – with only a couple of fishermen. The sea bank curves round and heads inland again, skirting the marshes. This is the beginning of Hamford Water estuary. I will be seeing more of this estuary later today, as I need to detour around its mud flats and marshland in order to pick up the shore line again at Walton-on-the-Naze.
A couple of cyclists pass me, bouncing uncomfortably over the uneven terrain of the bank pathway. They look hot and sweaty. A few minutes later they return – looking even hotter.
David Cotton recounts how he was unable to follow the sea bank around this section of the estuary – because of the barrier warning you must detour around an explosives factory. Sure enough, I come to some fierce warning signs threatening prosecution under the Explosives Acts. I am not usually deterred by “Private Property” signs, but this is the strongest warning sign I have met up till now.
So, leaving the sea bank, I follow a track leading up a hill towards the B1414. Away from the sea breeze, the heat is relentless – more like Spain than England – and the air is hot and close around my face. My chest feels tight and I am having trouble breathing – the air feels heavy. I am relieved to get to the top of the hill and I rest for a few minutes in the shade of some trees by the roadside.
I was hoping to pick up a footpath here, or a cycle route, but there is no sign of either. Now, I turn left and am forced to follow the road into Great Oakley. There is no footpath. The road is busy with traffic heading to the coast. Cars travel past me at high-speed, some giving me wide berth but some passing within a foot of my body. I marvel at how inconsiderate car drivers can be. Do they expect me to jump into the ditch? I pass a driveway leading to, I presume, the explosives factory. There is no sign to indicate what the factory is, or, indeed, where the drive leads to, but there is a sign saying all matches, cigarettes and other inflammable materials must be left at the guard-house.
The pub is a welcome sight, just off the main road and near to the war memorial. It is very stuffy – and a little old-fashioned – within. The publican is sweaty and finding the heat trying. I order a cider, taking it outside to drink in the breeze. My husband, on his brand new racing bike, joins me. The food is very good – although our meals arrive at different times as my order is somehow lost.
After lunch, I head downhill towards the estuary again. I follow a shady lane and then take a footpath across fields. The first section of the footpath is very badly maintained – being marked by a ridge of tall grass between two corn fields. I am sure this is the correct route and spot some flattened areas where other people have walked. It is hard going. The grass is even higher than the corn and the ends of the grass whip around my face. I develop a grass rash on my arms – the first time this has ever happened to me. I am hoping that there is no pollen left in the grass heads, dreading the onset of severe hay fever. I cannot see where I am walking. The ground is very uneven and I am fearful of stumbling and twisting an ankle.
Across another road and into different farmland. Here the footpath is well maintained – the farmer has cleared tracts of land – and the going is much easier. I mentally thank this farmer for his kindness and common sense.
My thanksgiving is abruptly ended when I find myself in a fields of horses. Horses are marginally less fearsome than cows – but only marginally less. One of them snorts and comes towards me with a determined look in her eyes. Her two companions now begin harumphing and start a slow canter towards us. Oh dear. I am hot, tired and unlikely to be able to outrun these creatures. I stand still, heart pounding, then deciding to be firm, I say – in what I hope is a clear, strong voice – “I am not afraid of you.” The lead horse stops a few yards away. Her companions stop behind her.
I continue following the path towards a style on the far side of the field. I hear the sound of horse hooves behind me and have to force myself not to stop. There is horsey breath coming over my shoulder. From the side of my eyes, I see the long nose of the first horse, perhaps a foot behind my shoulder. She stays there, walking behind me, all the way across the field. When I climb, somewhat triumphantly onto the style, she gives me a disappointed, accusatory look.
Later, I realise she probably thought I was coming to ride her, trotting meekly behind me as though she was on a long rein and hoping for an outing. How silly of me – to be frightened of a friendly horse.
I pass down tracks that run past some buildings. This must be Beaumont Quay – a mixture of farm buildings and small low-tech industrial units. There are trees and I enjoy walking in the shade.
I reach the marshy edge of Hamford Water. This is, apparently, Swallow and Amazon country. Arthur Ransome lived around here and based his stories on these watery marshlands. I was excited about this but am strangely disappointed.
The tide is out. The marsh is flat, empty, muddy and – (well, what else did I expect?) – fairly marshy.
After a short distance, I find the decaying shell of an old boat, quite a large boat, in an area where the sea no longer reaches. This area must have silted up. This is a change from the Norfolk and Suffolk coast line, where the sea is eroding the land. Here in Essex, the sea is being forced to retreat.
I pass through a butterfly sanctuary.
The path runs along the top of a bank, skirting and overlooking the marshes. In the distance I can see the sea and the cranes of Felixstowe. Not many people walk here. The path is overgrown and I cannot see my feet. I am grateful the grasses are dry. The walk twists and turns, following the edge of the marsh.
As the sun sinks, I become concerned about making my rendezvous in time. The meandering of the marsh bank creates a longer route than the map suggests. I quicken my pace to jogging rate; and I pray that I wont twist an ankle on the uneven, and still obscured, path. I feel surprisingly fit and well.
Meeting a farmer, I stop to talk to him. He is interested in my coastal walk and tells me Essex has a lot of shoreline because of all the twists and bends of the coast. After I leave him, I find it hard to get going again. My pace drops. My legs feel wobbly. My feet ache. This is hard work. My husband texts me – he has already reached our meeting place and is waiting for me.
Finally, I arrive at a place where the footpath is well trodden. There are people here, standing on the bank and looking across the marsh towards the sea and distant boats. A family is on the bank, enjoying the evening sunshine and having a picnic tea.
I leave the marsh bank wall and head down a track towards Kirby-le-Soken. The track is longer than I expected and I find this last 1/2 mile really hard work. When I reach the main road I look anxiously up and down. I don’t want to walk the wrong way – my legs are too tired for mistakes – and I can’t see a pub. I decide to turn right and, luckily, this is the right decision. Around a bend I see a pub sign and a man waiting for me. So nice to see my husband and I am very grateful for the comfort of the car.
Miles walked = 15
Av speed = 3 miles an hour
Blisters = only one!