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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Another Sanity Test

Stage 226, 12th November: Heybridge Basin to Bradwell Waterside

It was a brief mile or so up the River Blackwater to Maldon and then a sharp turn to head back down it again, giving me a whole day in the company of a wide and muddy tidal river. I spent the next couple of hours dodging showers as I managed to walk East across the front of the first big black cloud approaching from the Southwest, which dropped its contents on Maldon now some distance behind me. The next two smaller ones hit me, but not enough to dampen my spirit and barely enough to really need the waterproofs I had put on in readiness.

It was very much an iPod day and any thoughts of a river being soothing company were lost as the monotony of the flat landscape became a soporific reality. A brief rainbow across St Lawrence Bay and Maylandsea woke me and an adder was the most sociable of creatures I saw all day, though I wouldn’t say that the hiss it gave me was a friendly greeting. I was amused by the sight of a riverside pool with a dozen plastic duck decoys bobbing around like corks. As I approached these were supplemented by two flapping and equally plastic ducks mounted on poles at the water’s edge. Finally I came across some camouflage netting and the barrel of a gun as a duck shooter scowled a begrudged greeting my way. I think I’d just ruined his day. He even had one of those plastic whistles that sound like a mumbling Donald Duck. I thought I looked ridiculous.

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Maylandsea, Mayland and The Stone were places which offered little of interest other than the odd boatyard and a few nondescript houses for me to throw a passing glance towards.  However, the light of the now rapidly setting sun cast a shallow winter warmth across the water to the nuclear power station a few miles away at Bradwell. The marina near Bradwell Waterside looked as if it might have given me some smart or antique boats to look at but sadly the sun had long gone by the time I got there and all I wanted to do was have a shower and get something to eat.

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Stage 227, 13th November: Bradwell Waterside to Creeksea

I was immediately back on the sea-bank again and started the day listening to the Anglo-Saxon shouts of the workers decommissioning the nuclear power station. Their words were soon silenced as distance grew and a cold wind blew in making me pull my woolly hat down low. The sea-bank and occasional stretches of concrete topped sea-wall continued in long straight sections interspersed with gentle curving ones and occasional sharp detours around a small inlet or sluice.

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To break the tedium a lovely golden retriever bounded up to me from distance with two terriers trailing behind. After a barked greeting we were best of pals in seconds as Lennon stood on my foot and leant against my thigh slobbering as I compared ailments and doggy traits with his owner, Pam.

A few miles of real seaside didn’t last as I took a turn up the River Crouch. It brought little change to the terrain or the scenery and only a few huge thudding explosions from the range over the estuary at Foulness gave me any interest. I had a passing thought that I might have just seen a large chemical incident and briefly worried as a heavy rusty coloured smoke cloud skimmed across the bay in my direction. The cordite smell reassured me as the rest of the day sunk into obscurity.

By the time I arrived in Burnham-on-Crouch the cold wind had brought in some rain and I counted four sailing / yacht clubs along a clearly prosperous but short waterfront. The large marina half a mile further on was full of brash displays of wealth but with summer long gone I barely noticed any activity. The only noise was a strangely comforting one and I liken the sound of the wind drumming the rigging against the yacht masts to that of alpine cow-bells.

Stage 228, 14th November: Creeksea to Hullbridge

Heavy rain had been forecast from home and it arrived early morning to wake me and drip into Snickers bathroom a little too easily. Paul and I checked the skylight for leaks. What skylight? Was this another case of “It just fell off”?

With Snickers now an open-topped vehicle, Paul had a job on his hands looking for an urgent replacement and I headed out into the rain hoping his plastic bag patch wasn’t a long-term fix.

I continued up the River Crouch following yet more sea-bank and wall. The rain on my back wasn’t too much of a problem but the thick gooey mud underfoot was and every step seemed to make my feet slip away in random directions. Progression was slow.  By late morning the rain had eased, but I knew the mud would stay with me till Southampton now that the sun was weak and grass growth had slowed. It was the first time that I had really thought of the end. My family and friends had been mentioning it for a while, but I saw that as a minor irritation and had been in denial, trying to concentrate on one day or, at the outside, one week at a time. With over 90% of the walk complete I had entered the nervous nineties and the slow muddy progression would probably be mirrored in the clock ticking away in my head. I was preparing myself for a few mentally testing weeks. It really didn’t help that the whole walk up river via South Woodham Ferrers and back down again via the antique traders kingdom of Battlebridge was a featureless walk.

I ended the week with the sun going down over the pylons and yet more sea-wall to Hullbridge. Paul cheered my mood considerably with a newly fitted second-hand skylight. By the sound of his day it was entirely possible that his blood pressure had been tested a smidge. In my eyes he was a star for getting it fixed so quickly.

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Rest Day, 15th November: Shoeburyness

With the salubrious nature of our campsite, the slug populated showers and cold damp toilets by torchlight encouraged an early start. I dropped Paul off at Wickford station and I said my heart-felt thanks as he boarded a train for London with, I suspect, some relief to escape my slightly surreal, cold and muddy world. It had been a tough week for finding stopovers open to receive a motorhome and for driving the lanes of Essex with impatient drivers pushing their way through. The behaviour of drivers had changed hugely over the last few weeks and with every step closer to London the driving was undoubtedly getting faster, more aggressive and less courteous. It’s not a trait I like of the Southeast but it is a comment on how busy this part of Britain is and how overcrowding breeds an uncaring selfishness.

I picked up old uni pal Ian a couple of hours later and we headed over to stay with his brother Paul in Shoeburyness. An afternoon watching England lose to South Africa at Twickenham was a rare treat and looking at a large television screen was an alien experience with the colours and camera work almost hypnotising me into a restful doze on the sofa.

Miles to date: 4,678.2   Ascent to date: 519,282 ft