diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 17, 2014

You probably didn't notice, but a brand new long distance path opened to the east of London earlier this year. The Thames Estuary Path runs for 29 miles through the South Essex Marshes, from Tilbury Town all the way to Leigh-on-Sea, and is a proper waymarked trail. Don't expect hills, expect flat walking through an eerie riverside landscape scattered with power stations, winding creeks, container ports and remote marshland. It could be misery itself in the wrong weather, or else a glorious opportunity to get away from it all and watch shipping sail down the Thames. Download the free app before you go and you get not only a map but an audio-visual presentation which pops up automatically at various points along the way to tell you what you could be looking at. One day all walking trails will be made this way.

For convenience the path has been split into five sections, each starting and finishing at stations on the Fenchurch Street to Southend line, which makes it really easy to get to from London. If you can manage 10 miles in one go you can split the walk in three - sections 1&2, 3 and 4&5. I thought I'd have a go at 1&2, with varying degrees of success, but blimey what a bleakly interesting way to spend a day. And if you'd care to follow along, I've uploaded 50 photos to Flickr to let you see what you're missing.

The Thames Estuary Path
[section 1]
Tilbury Town to East Tilbury (7 miles)

Oxford, Windsor and Westminster have prettier Thames stretches, it has to be said, but maritime Tilbury has a certain downcast character of its own. From the station take the road along the dockside, away from the semi-boarded-up town centre, taking care not to get run down by the procession of container lorries thundering past. The app comes into its own here, feeding stories of past glories (a hairpin bridge, a hospital, a hotel) on the long trudge to the water's edge. Here you'll find the London International Cruise Terminal, once the embarkation point for many an ocean-going voyage, and the building where the Empire Windrush's advance guard first stepped onto British soil. There's more information here, if you're interested. The ferry to Gravesend departs regularly from the end of the pier, but taking that would be copping out when there's proper loneliness ahead.

At the end of the road is the appropriately named World's End pub. It looks welcoming enough, but beyond the car park the marshes begin, and beyond that the twin towers of Tilbury Power Station loom down. You'll be seeing a lot of this over the next half hour, possibly even too much. A very muddy beach makes way for a high sea wall, leading before long to the entrance to Tilbury Fort. This is the famous spot where Elizabeth I addressed her fleet before the Spanish Armada, although the pentagonal defences behind the arched gate date back to the time of Charles II. English Heritage run the place now, and it's well worth a look if you could ever be tempted to visit. There's more information here, if you're interested. Anyone walking further than this is either out with their dog and intending to turn round soon, or in it for the long haul... the next link to civilisation is miles away.

A metal staircase leads up and over the sea wall, and the path now hugs the edge of the power station's concrete defences. Best avoid high tide if you're coming this way, else the Thames may be lapping at plimsoll height. Below the jetty the path is still regularly flooded, so you may be forced to take one of the weirdest diversions I've ever followed, through undergrowth and up and over a caged set of metal steps, always on the outside of the power station's security perimeter. And then the wall continues, now more exposed, and at one point with a run of 1970s graffiti still clearly visible. The Merton Parkas and "Julie the Modette" get a namecheck, along with the miners strike and a particularly badly punctuated Torie's Out!

Last time I walked this way, in the spring of 2008, the next mile of riverbank path threaded freely through golden rape dotted with tiny newts and butterflies. That beauty was deceptive, covering a vast expanse of landfill, and overshadowed by several lines of pylons. Alas diggers have long since scraped the earth clean of vegetation, indeed are still doing so, and I passed a cluster of hi-vis chaps sat high in their cabs behind the fence waiting to scrape some more. It'd been a very long time since my app had stirred, but suddenly it awoke to tell me about The Clinking Beach, a shoreline composed entirely of Victorian waste. Stepping to the riverside I discovered chunks of glass and quarters of willow pattern plate, not quite as attractive as the commentary had made out, but an unexpected survivor all the same.

So very remote, even the view across the river had passed from urban Gravesend to low empty Kentish marshland. Eventually the path widened and the occasional family appeared, which meant the car park at Coalhouse Fort couldn't be far ahead. On the bend in the river at Coalhouse Point an experimental radar tower from the early 1940s still stands, on the site of a fifteen cannon Tudor blockhouse. I watched as various very large ships passed down the Thames to and from Tilbury, their stately progress visible for miles thanks to the low-lying landscape. And then I missed the path which was supposed to take me past the front of Coalhouse Fort, instead walking around its vast horseshoe moat for what was probably a better view. This Victorian defence was meant to deter invasion of the capital up the Thames, and is open on the last Sunday of the month should you fancy a look inside. There's more information here, if you're interested.

There follows a mile and a half along the sea wall, unless you choose to wimp out and take the direct route to East Tilbury station. With ex-landfill on one side and mudflats on the other, the most striking sights are the disused Bata shoe factory inland and the huge cranes of London Gateway Port on the far shore. This is the southeast's newest and largest container terminal, built on the site of the former Shell Haven oil refinery, and far enough out that most Londoners have absolutely no clue of its existence. Meanwhile the sea wall wiggles on, with concrete slopes at regular intervals each labelled 'Duck Ramp', though all I saw using it were snails. And on past agricultural marshland, and on past strengthened foreshore, to the point where the Thames Estuary Path suddenly goes very wrong.

It looks like the path continues along the river, edging past the end of the sea wall towards a distant set of jetties. But that's a lengthy dead end, a proper timewaster, and there should instead be a sign directing you inland along the edge of fenced-off landfill. Not so, and the path's well-enough concealed you'd probably not spot it without help, so do check your phone/app/map carefully at this point. The true path follows not a stream but a drain in the marshes, past an embarrassingly rich crop of blackberries that very few have reached to harvest. And on past reeds and rushes, and on past echoing silence, to the point where the Thames Estuary Path used to go very wrong indeed.

The Thames Estuary Path
[section 2]
East Tilbury to Stanford-le-Hope (3½ miles)

It's here that Section 2 of the path breaks off, or rather should have done, because the next lengthy stretch across Mucking Marshes was firmly sealed when I arrived. A small sign apologised that the opening of this section of the Path had been delayed, and recommended instead that I take the train from East Tilbury to Stanford-le-Hope to avoid a mile on pavement-less roads. Stuff that, I thought, and grudgingly took the long diversion from one level crossing to the next, avoiding the oncoming traffic as appropriate. I was planning to advise you to give Section 2 a miss, but the official Thames Estuary Path Twitter feed finally chirruped over the weekend that the crucial footpath link is now open. They've not updated their website yet, where the previous closure is badly concealed within a pdf, but I think you might now risk visiting and taking the shortcut.

The village of Mucking is tiny but historic, one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon sites in the country. A vast excavation took place here, revealing a settlement of over 100 souls and the burial site of 800 more. On this walk there's no sign, nor will you see the parish church, now a private residence hidden behind a shield of trees. Section 2 then heads across the fields towards the outskirts of Stanford-le-Hope, a none too inspirational route unless you're keen to catch the train home. But if you've time you should deviate in Mucking to visit a landmark project based on reclaimed landfill - the Thurrock Thameside Nature Park - which opened to the public only last year. This route's also the first part of Section 3, should you be continuing that way.

The northern end of Mucking Marshes is now landscaped and grassed over and is becoming an Attenborough-approved haven for wildlife. Bees and birds and reptiles live across its umpteen acres, and twitchers with binoculars are a common sight during migration-friendly months. Back by the riverside, overlooking another bend in the Thames, is a squat cylindrical visitor centre designed to resemble a Martello Tower. Behind the ribbed wooden exterior are a gift shop and a cafe - the latter served me a fine cream tea which I ate staring out towards the industrialised estuary. Best of all you can climb a spiral ramp to the roof and train your binoculars across the whole site, down the Thames and across to the Hoo peninsula where Boris Airport isn't going to be. Most visitors drive out here, then let their offspring run amok across the adjacent adventure playground. But why not walk, indeed why not give the Thames Estuary Path a try, someday, maybe, when you fancy an utterly atypical experience.

» Thames Estuary Path: website, Twitter, app, app, full map, map of section 1, map of section 2, 50 photos, 50 photo slideshow

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