Wrestling mud to the Thames

Stage 229, 16th November: Hullbridge to Shoeburyness

Ian and I arrived in Hullbridge to be greeted by an old friend of Cousin Mike, Graham, who strangely wanted to meet up with me, the nutter who had completed nearly 4,700 miles but still wanted to do 350 more. It was a quick but much appreciated greeting and as he wished me well I made my way back to the sea-wall.

The sea-wall walk wasn’t as long-lived as expected. The Environment Agency had closed it half a mile further along due to a collapse. It wasn’t a good start to the day. I doubled back to find a route through to the road so that I could continue my journey East and back down the River Crouch. It was also a huge frustration that the EA couldn’t be bothered to warn me about the closure at Hullbridge. It was by no means the first time I’d come across closed paths with no forewarning or diversion in place and I put it down to laziness.

The road walk wasn’t much fun either. It was another one of those narrow winding Essex lanes which had become overrun with fast-moving traffic and more of it than was ever intended. Thus I tried to cut back to the sea-wall a few times, but to no avail. A plethora of ‘Keep Out’ signs kept me well back and the English land privacy disease was on full show.

I stayed on the road to Canewdon where I stopped to check if I could find another way back towards my planned route. I met up with a speedy woman who had been walking behind me for a while. She introduced herself as Jacquie and pointed me a mile further up the road.  We took the option to walk together for 15 minutes and as two keen hikers we compared notes with a degree of mutually agreed nerdiness. Conversation was easy and welcome as I hadn’t walked with anyone for a while and sometimes, not always, it’s a real treat.

I cut off and down the Roach Valley Way as Jackie continued towards the marina at a noticeably quicker pace than me. Via deep trouser spattering mud I made my way to pretty Paglesham and after some more deep mud I met up for a quick chat with Leah, Simon and Merlin their golden retriever, who clearly enjoyed the gooey mess and whose bottom half was black with the stuff. Rather than having to bath a dog the rest of the afternoon was, for me, a series of wet muddy lanes and, yes, muddy paths and exceptionally muddy fields to Little Wakering. The rain which had started as drizzle gradually bulked itself up to become steady and heavy for the last two hours of a grim afternoon. A dark pavement walk straight into the warmth of Paul’s house in Shoeburyness to find dinner waiting and a hot shower was a big hit. Ian pointed out how this part of Essex was apparently the driest part of Britain and almost formally qualified as a desert. Alas, this fact was lost on me.

Stage 230, 17th November: Shoeburyness to Stanford-Le-Hope

I left Paul’s front door and made for the sea-front. With the recent number of estuaries and marshes a sea-front walk was almost a welcome novelty. The front at Southend-on-Sea wasn’t quite the usual tacky seaside town I was expecting. Yes it had the usual array of amusement arcades, cafes and trinket shops but in this instance they all seemed to sparkle and gleam with brightly coloured signs, fully functional lights and a pavement devoid of chip wrappers, empty coffee cups and fag ends. “Sowfend” seemed wealthier than most of the seaside towns I had seen and the surrounding housing seemed to attract prices only suited to a town within easy commuting distance of London.

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At Leigh-on-Sea I met up with Woody again who had driven Snickers back into England just over six weeks ago. He pounded a few miles out with me, giving me a fully guided tour of Hadleigh Country Park, his work place. It was a brief but lovely meeting and grand to have some company again if only for a short distance. We shook hands at Benfleet and he returned home to construct a potting shed.

I quickly suspected that the potting shed was an excuse and that Woody knew something I didn’t as I joined the Thames Estuary Way and rediscovered the statutory thick and very wet mud edging the marshes on my side with heavy industry edging it on the other.  The pathway wasn’t fully marked on my map but it was waymarked on the ground so I took a gamble and followed the finger-posts across muddy fields, along mucky tracks, down soaked paths and flooded lanes. I finally emerged at Fobbing to cross a brand new road into the new London Gateway Port and make my way to meet Ian waiting nervously in a less than salubrious car park, which looked as if it doubled as the local drug dealers hang out. We left the car park with the haste of a US Vietnam War helicopter pilot evacuating troops from a landing zone and made our way to the safety of Paul’s place back in Shoeburyness.

Stage 231, 18th November:  Stanford-Le-Hope to Hoo St Werburgh

We returned to Stanford and I was hastily dropped at the landing zone to disappear into the drenched wilderness of Essex once again. The pylons crackled and fizzed loudly above my head in the misty morning air as the former Coryton oil refinery and the new London Gateway port disappeared into the murk over my left shoulder.

Over the entire walk I had passed so many former industrial complexes. It was ex this, closed that and decommissioned others seemingly telling a sad British industrial tale. The port of London Gateway was a refreshing development on a very grand scale and one that was seemingly moving apace as opposed to the empty promises of a new energy park (wind-farm construction site) I’d seen at many barren and dormant former industrial yards.

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I made it to a treacherous lane into East Tilbury and found the sea-wall to follow-up river via the fittingly closed Tilbury power station. I made my last few Essex steps passing Tilbury Fort, supposedly the best preserved 17th century fortification in the country. A sparsely populated passenger ferry took me over to Gravesend and Kent took a bow.

Though another significant milestone had been passed, my entrance into Kent soon became all too familiar. Once out of the Dickensian back alleys Gravesend, I was soon on very familiar, very muddy ground of a sopping sea-wall.

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If it wasn’t for a brief meeting and affable moving chat with Chris and Anthony, walking the Kent county coastline, I probably would have sulked away the entire afternoon as I slipped and slid my way around to Cliffe Fort.  I then kept to my brief and stuck to the formal mainland by skirting the Isle of Grain and crossed more exceptionally muddy fields as I zipped from one village to the next.  The muddy clay soil cloyed to my boots until they were heavy with freshly thrown dinner plates stuck to their soles. They were washed clean in the flooded sections and recoated several times before I met up with Ian at Hoo St Werburgh sporting a thick layer of brown goo from the knees down.

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