The person on the end of the line is a bit vague about geography but, unfortunately, I discover the coastal path near Foulness is closed today. It will open tomorrow, we are informed, but that is too late; I need to walk today. I resign myself to an inland detour.
The weather is glorious. The sun is hot in a cloudless sky. There is a heat haze on the horizon.
I set off along a road from Samuel’s Corner and find a footpath that runs along the outside of the MoD fence. Dire warning signs forbid entry to this dangerous territory. I hear no shots and see no smoke. Whether any real shooting takes place today, I don’t know. Interestingly, the MoD territory is guarded by the private company, CinetiQ. Am I the only person to find this odd?
The footpath ends and I am forced to follow the road to Shoeburyness. Workmen are out mowing the roadside verges. I meet cyclists, walkers and the inevitable dogs.
Today I am scratching my upper arms, following the mosquito attack I suffered near Potton Island yesterday. They managed to land seven bites before I could deploy the repellent spray. I don’t mind mosquitoes biting me. I am happy to share my blood – in small amounts anyway. What I do mind is the itching they inflict.
As soon as I can, I head towards the sea, skirting round fenced off MoD property, and reach the beginning of Shoeburyness beach. There is a long breakwater, stretching out to sea, marking the barrier between prohibited, MoD beach and the beach where public access is allowed. Signs forbid entry to the public beach unless a yellow diamond sign is being displayed. I am relieved to see the yellow sign is up.
The sea is calm with long, lazy waves; just rippling the surface. The sky is blue. The sun is warm.
A young woman and child walk gingerly across the pebbly beach. They appear relaxed together but the child maintains a certain distance from the woman, who is very young. I suspect, from her age and from the child’s slight shyness, she is a nanny or au pair.
The beach is flanked by an open green space. There are people walking, cycling, jogging – and some people just sitting and enjoying the morning sun. I walk along, enjoying the weather and the pleasant, relaxed feel of this pretty, green area.
At the end of the beach is a large derelict property, in the process of being renovated and with a tall fence of boards around it. My way along the sea wall is interrupted by this building site. But after the long inland detour I have just made, I am determined to follow the coastal path.
So, I ignore “No Entry” signs, and climb over some barriers, to follow the crumbling sea wall as best I can. The wall runs along the bottom of a steep bank, with the building looming ominously above me. I have to skirt around thorny blackberry bushes – hanging over the wall in places – by clambering up and down the dangerously steep, grass bank to find a way through.
I come to a place where the wall is interrupted by a stairwell of old stone steps, leading down to the beach from the abandoned property above. Without thinking, I jump down into this stairwell and, for one awful moment, I find myself trapped.
The stairwell is dark and damp; and smells of decaying mud. I am in a narrow enclosure with tall walls on either side. There is no foothold to help me clamber up onto the opposite wall. The steps leading upwards are barred by tall, rusted gates, interwoven with barbed wire and overhung with blackberry bushes. Below the tide is in and there is no shore to walk along; the steps end in the sea.
I try to climb back up the wall I have just jumped down from. No success. Then, I try to hoist myself onto the wall by standing with my back to it and levering myself up with my arms. This does not work. I am not strong enough.
I fight back panic.
Beginning to feel desperate, I turn and face the wall. Placing my hands on the top, I force myself upwards, throwing myself up and forward onto the wall as I kick my legs up behind me. It may not be elegant, but it works. I get my chest onto the wall and, squirming like a worm, I manage to wriggle forwards until most of my torso is balanced on top. Crawling forwards, I manage to get my knees up.
Panic over. I am back up on the wall.
With thumping heart, I continue onwards. Now I reach a small section of beach, where a few people sitting on the sea wall look startled to see me emerging, somewhat disheveled and sweaty from the blackberry bushes. I stick to the proper walkway now, as it follows the sea wall. There are some old fortifications and a cycle route.
Eventually I reach the coastguard lookout point at Shoebury Ness. From here onwards, there is a wide promenade with a lovely, new, cycle route. There are beach huts, many in use, and people out enjoying the glorious sunshine.
But the beach is empty. Everyone is sitting on the promenade. There is nobody on the beach. Strange.
Then I notice warning signs. There has been an oil spill. Men in dungarees have been cleaning the beach and there is a collection of large, blue plastic bags. A local photographer has arrived (from the local paper?) and is assembling the men in order to take their photo. I use the opportunity to snap a cheeky shot. The workmen see me, behind the official photographer, and smile at me.
I continue walking and can see Southend Pier, stretching out into the sea, in the distance. It seems like an enormously long centipede. Beyond this is the far side of the Thames Estuary. I am at the mouth of this mighty river. Just visible in the milky haze on the horizon, I can see the shapes of an industrial landscape – towers, refinery tanks and cranes – pale ghosts. One day, I will be walking along that distant shore.
This walk along the promenade is hot and tiring. I want to walk on the softer sand of the beach, but the warning signs are still in place and I would regret getting oil on my boots, so I stick to the concrete path, running next to the cycle route that stretches the length of the promenade. Suddenly, I am surprised to see my husband cycling towards me. We agree we are both in need of an early lunch and he suggest a pub a short distance ahead.
The pub is Edwardian and has many of its original features. The “special” is roast beef and yorkshire pudding. But the sun is shining and we are too hot for this. I have a ploughman’s and hubby has a steak sandwich. We sit outside in the shade of an umbrella and watch the world go by.
Later, I walk along the promenade, passing the end of Southend Pier. This is the longest pleasure pier in the world and it stretches across the sea, with its far end almost lost from view in the haze. I stop to watch the small train that runs up and down. By this time, the sky has become overcast and the light has faded. This change in the weather only lasts for an hour or so, but spoils the opportunity for good photographs of the pier.
Further along is one of those wonderful cliff lifts, carrying people up and down the steep slope. I can remember seeing one in Scarborough, many years ago. Later I learn this lift was only recently re-opened, after a renovation project.
I have to confess to being very surprised by Southend. It is a beautiful place.
As I continue on my walk, Southend merges into Westcliff-on-Sea.
The tide is out. Children are digging in the mud with sticks. School is out and parents are strolling with their children in the afternoon sunshine. Sunlight reflects off the shore and the flat sea; there is light everywhere. This is beautiful.
Then the promenade ends and I follow a footpath running along the railway line. A student has decorated a boring wall with a series of graffiti images: part of a college project.
The path is narrow and occasional widens into jetties belonging to various yacht clubs. This is a busy path. People are coming home from work and school. Walkers jostle with pushchairs and cyclists.
I arrive in Leigh-on-Sea. I wasn’t expecting this – what a wonderful place! I wander down narrow streets with quaint houses and interesting shops. There are cafes with decking; and early diners are enjoying drinks in the evening sunshine, overlooking the estuary.
Then I reach the small, railway station. It is nearly five in the afternoon and commuters are arriving back, leaving the station and heading towards the town on foot, or disappearing into the car park. Here I meet my husband.
We drive back into Southend and we stop at the top of a hill to enjoy the view over the estuary. The sun is low and the light is golden. To the East is the mouth of the Thames, open to the sea, with large ships, pale in the haze, gliding across the water. Ahead of us, due South, is gleaming mud with the white shapes of moored boats. Beyond the mud is the Thames itself and, on the distant bank, we can see the ghostly outline of refineries and industrial complexes – pale and romantic in the setting sun. To the West is Two-tree Island and beyond the bright light of the sun shining on distant estuary mud and water.
A perfect end to a beautiful day……
Vital stats: miles walked = 10