Egypt Bay looks different this morning. The gulls have gone.
Large freight ships pass up and down, carrying containers.
I walk along the endless river wall. To my right is marsh and farmland, stretching inland to where the land rises into a gentle ridge.
I see nobody.
I walk, making good progress and following the raised bank, around another inlet, called St Mary’s Bay. Now I am in the area called St Mary’s Marshes.
The tide is coming in. The river wall disappears and becomes a simple raised bank. The shore is free of litter but is rough, with seaweed strewn rocks. The river widens and the far bank looks, well – far.
I look back along the River Thames to Canvey Island, disappearing behind me. I am beginning to feel I am making good progress and will soon be near the open sea; something to look forward to after days of river walking.
Rounding a curve in the river bank I see, across marshland, Allhallows-on-Sea ahead of me. This is where I am meeting my husband for lunch. There is a little bay between. The tide is in and, although there is an area of sand bank running just off shore, I can see no easy, dry, route across the bay.
I consult my map. The official footpath runs parallel to the river, round the bay, but keeping just inland, along a bank that runs along the edge the marsh. As I search for the footpath, I come across a wide track and am tempted to follow it, but this would lead me too far inland. Allhallows is my destination and that is ahead of me, across the bay.
Then I spot the footpath through the marsh, following the top of one of the many banks running between waterways. The path is not signposted, but other people have trodden the long grass down, creating a visible track. I follow the path with confidence, but it soon becomes lost in a maze of bramble and hawthorn bushes. Sticking to the beaten route as best I can, I bend down to crawl through clumps of hawthorn and I constantly fight off the thorny embrace of bramble branches.
Looking back, I see two young walkers have crossed the bay, using the sandbank as a path. They have come from the direction of Allhallows. There must be a way across the bay, avoiding the marshes and keeping close to the water. I am tempted to go back and retrace their steps, but I have come so far along here now, and the route back is through thorny brambles. So I decide to continue my trek through the marsh.
In retrospect, this was a mistake.
But for the moment, it seems like the right decision. The path becomes clearer and leads along the edge of a farmers field. Here the ground is very muddy, churned up by cattle, and I am glad to come across a style, leading back over into the marsh.
Where to go now? I see some planks of wood lying in a line across the ground. Everywhere else is mud and bog. This must be the path.
Now I reach a bank, slightly higher than the surrounding bog. It looks like people have walked along here. But, as I follow it, the bank meanders, taking right-angled turns, so that I am constantly doubling back on my route and making slow progress. The path becomes less obvious and the tracks disappear. Now the top of the bank is narrow and obscured by long grass. There are no thorny bushes but the ground is rough and uneven. I am grateful for my poles. Progress is painfully slow.
As I jump across a ditch, landing on a bed of flattened grass and reeds, something long and thick slithers away from close to my left foot.
It is a snake.
The colour of the snake was a uniform, dull brownish green colour. I know this means it was a grass snake and, although I am no longer fearful of grass snakes, I do worry about something worse – adders. I would like to put my gaiters on for protection, but the ground is too uneven for me to balance while I do this and I can’t bring myself to sit down in this damp, muddy, snake-infested bog.
My meanderings have brought me closer to the shore and I see there is a narrow, shingle “beach” by the water. I abandon the path, if it was a path, and stumble across spongy, wet vegetation to reach the shore. Now I walk on shingle and am grateful to be off the marsh.
But ahead I see a bank of soft earth. The tide is in and the beach is covered with water up to the bank. The bank is boggy with water trickling down it and marshy plants visible on top. Although it is not very high, I realise I can’t climb up easily. I would have to scramble up on hands and knees and, even then, may not be able to make it up the soft, slippery surface. And I have no idea what sort of foothold there is at the top.
Reluctantly, I turn back and, where the ground is flatter, make my way back onto the wet marshland.
Following a raised bank, I come to a dead-end. The bank ends and there are water-filled ditches on every side.
I am faced with the awful prospect of walking back the way I came, or trying to find another way across the marsh.
Then I see a plank across one of the dykes. Is this a proper path? Or has someone just put it here to get access to an area for fishing or hunting?
I don’t know and I don’t care. I am running out of choices. I walk the plank.
The bank stretches ahead from this point, one of a number of banks, all running parallel and separated by stretches of green water and mud. I have no idea whether I am on the right bank and I worry that I will come to a dead-end and have to retrace my steps back through this boggy marshland.
All thought of following the official footpath has long since gone. I just want to get to the other side of the marsh; in one piece and before the end of the day. So I continue, balancing on the top of the bank, using my poles to support me and praying I don’t twist an ankle or meet an adder.
After some time, and to my surprise, I see people walking in the distance. I am approaching Allhallows. In my world of water, mud and bogs, I had forgotten another world existed. The people ahead are walking in a line that takes them across the end of my bank, far ahead of me. Even at this distance, I can see there are children in the group. So there must be a dry route ahead and it must be relatively safe.
The bank continues straight and, eventually, ends when it meets a flowing waterway; a narrow river. By the time I reach this point, the group of people have long since gone. I realise they weren’t on this bank, but on a far bank, on the other side of the waterway. My forward progress, once so hopeful, is now halted. Luckily, there is a bank along my side of the waterway, and I follow this towards the shore.
My bank dips sharply downwards, towards the beach and I head downwards at a run. Now there is a shallow stream of water separating me from the shore. Compared to the watery wastes behind me, this barrier is a trivial inconvenience. I splash across it.
From here the going is easy, with the narrow beach taking me up to a wall with a promenade. There is a holiday park here. People are out with their families.
The promenade is being eroded by the sea. This end is narrow with signs warning the route may be impassable at high tide. But I am just grateful for solid concrete beneath my feet, albeit cracked and broken.
After my lonely trek across the marsh, it is strange to be here, with people.
Around a corner of the promenade and I come across a slipway where a large car is unloading a jet ski into the water. The skier sits astride the machine, shooting water up into the air, before he sets off in a bouncy ride across the waves.
It is windy. There are people fishing off the promenade and, further along there is a wide green spaces with benches. I am feeling very tired and sit on one of the benches for a while.
I am hungry and need my lunch.
The last mile of the walk is hard going. My legs ache from the strain of my journey across the marshes and I am still feeling the effects of yesterday’s 15 mile hike.
As I leave the shore, heading inland towards the pub, I walk between static caravans and holiday cottages, past a fishing lake.
From the door of one of the cottages, an elderly lady calls out to me. Would I like some mushrooms? No, thank you, is my first reaction. I am tired and groceries are the last thing on my mind. But she has picked them today, far more than she needs and, if I don’t take some, they will be wasted. She had a huge plate for breakfast and can’t face anymore.
I take the proffered plastic bag. The mushrooms do look lovely. All different sizes and with creamy, pale tops and warm, brown gills.
My husband is waiting in the pub and Paolo Nutini is playing through the speaker system. We have a large roast dinner, with cider, and talk about ways to cook mushrooms. I have another cider. My aches and pains begin to fade but are replaced with a wonderful feeling of sleepy relaxation. I tell my husband I will walk no further today.
I have another cider while he fetches the car and fall asleep on the way home.
Miles travelled = 7 as crow flies, but considerably more in reality.
Snakes seen = 1
Low point: getting lost in the marshes
High point: a bag of fresh mushrooms