Playground for Londoners and winter home for wildfowl
Away from the modern urban sprawl of Southend and the vast oil refinery of Coryton, this coast is full of reminders of its mysterious past as the haunt of smugglers, who would steal up the creeks between the mud-flats and land their cargoes at the local ale-houses. It is not far from the holiday bustle of Southend to the quiet banks of the Roach; though defence requirements mean that the whole of Foulness is closed to the public.
The huge Shell oil refinery, one of the largest in England, sprawls for more than 3 miles along the north side of the Thames. Shell has been there since 1912; but industry arrived 40 years earlier when the brothers Cory -after whom Coryton is named – built a small refinery on the banks of the river. Now the storage tanks and tall chimneys of the processing plants form a major Thameside landmark, and the largest supertankers berth alongside the jetties. One of the inlets, Shell Haven, has nothing to do with the oil company: it already bore the name on charts of the Thames appearing in Henry Vill’s time.
A massive new concrete sea-wall, with gaps that can be closed by steel floodgates, defends Canvey against the sea. Most of the island lies below high-water level; and though flood walls and drainage works have been constructed since the 17th century, their impotence against the full force of the sea was shown on the night of January 31, 1953, when the waters swept across the island, drowning 58 people.
Most of Canvey is now covered in bungalows and holiday chalets, built behind the high sea-wall. The top of the wall has wide views across the Thames Estuary shipping lanes, to the Isle of Grain on the Kent side of the river. Below the wall, a beach of muddy sand and shingle is safe for swimming within 2 hours of high water. Volunteer lifeguards patrol the beach on Sundays in summer.
TWO TREE ISLAND
The lonely expanse of windswept grass and saltings at Two Tree Island is reached down a road beside Leigh-on-Sea station. The road ends at a long concrete ramp leading into the Hadleigh Ray, and thence into the Thames Estuary. Boats can be launched at most states of the tide; a fee is payable at the harbour master’s hut. The island is the site of a national nature reserve, providing an excellent place for watching wildfowl during the winter.
On the steep slope above the island is Hadleigh Castle, built for Edward III in the 1360s and strategically sited to guard the Thames Estuary against French retaliation after the king’s successes in France. It was constructed on the site of an earlier castle built by Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, in the 1230s. The castle is open daily.
A narrow I ligh Street of fishermen’s cottages is cut off on the landward side by the railway, and the barrier has helped Leigh keep much of its old-world character. The street has several stalls selling jellied eels, and cockles are collected on Maplin Sands and brought in every day by cockle boat.
Leigh has a small timber yard, a boat-builders, and a sailing club. At the east end of the High Street, beyond Bell Wharf, is a small sandy beach, with a slipway down on to it. The only access by road is across the railway bridge, and in summer parking becomes difficult. There is a small car park below the bridge, at the entrance to Leigh; an alternative is to leave the car north of the railway and walk to Leigh across the footbridge.
There is a continuous seafront walk of 7 miles from Leigh to Shoeburyness.
Southend is far more than a large seaside resort: it is a major residential and working town in its own right, with towering offices and an impressive civic centre set well back from the seafront. It was already becoming popular as a resort at the beginning of the 19th century, in Jane Austen’s time, and grew rapidly during Victorian times, spreading westwards to Westcliff-on-Sea and Leigh, and eastwards to Thorpe Bay and Shoeburyness. The famous pier, the longest in the world at l’/i miles when it was built in 1889, was cut in two by a ship in 1986: but communication with the end of the pier has been restored. It is popular with walkers and anglers, who can use a miniature railway connecting the land with the shops, cafe and pub at the seaward end.
As well as its seaside attractions, Southend prides itself on its 1,100 acres of parks and gardens. These range from the seafront slope, covered with trees and shrubs, below the Royal Terrace where Nelson stayed, to Priory Park ]/2 miles inland, a superb open space surrounding Prittlewell Priory.
The oldest building in Southend, Prittlewell Priory was founded by Robert of Essex in 1110. It is now a museum with exhibits dealing with local natural history, the history of the priory, and radio and television. Near the entrance is the ‘Crow Stone’ – a stone obelisk which once stood on Southend beach to mark the eastern limit of the City of London’s control over Thames river traffic. Its successor now stands on the beach at Chalkwell. Prittlewell was one of the oldest villages in Essex, and Southend takes its name from the fishermen’s cottages that stood at the village’s southern end.
The beach is a mixture of sand and shingle, becoming muddy towards low-water mark. Swimming is generally safe, but bathers should take care when the tide is on the ebb, as there is then a strong undertow down river. At low tide the sea goes out for more than a mile, and it is advisable to look at a tide table before walking far from the esplanade. Two patrol boats operate every day in summer, and volunteer lifeguards patrol on summer Sundays and Bank Holidays.
Fishermen can get plenty of sport from the pier at Southend, where flounders, bass, eels and mullet are caught, or from one of the charter boats which take anglers out into the Thames Estuary for cod of up to 30 lb and tope of up to 40 lb. Each August two sailing-barge matches are held on the river between Southend and Greenwich in which 20 or more of the magnificent brown-sailed Thames barges take part. These vessels, built around the turn of the century, make a splendid sight as they glide majestically through the water. A link with a more distant era is given by a half-size replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden H’nide in the boating pool by the pier.
A mile east of the straggling village of Great Wakering, public access ends abruptly at Samuel’s Corner, where the Ministry of Defence takes over. The Ministry’s Proof and Experimental Establishment covers the whole of Foulness and Potton islands, as the endless barbed-wire fences make clear.
However, when red flags are not flying and firing is not in progress, it is possible to drive to Wakering Stairs, and from there walk out on to the vast expanses of Maplin Sands. A short way offshore a track called The Broomway is uncovered at low tide; it gets its name from the wooden ‘brooms’ or poles which used to mark the route. The track runs parallel to the shore for about 5 miles, ending at Foulness Island.
At the eastern end of Southend, beyond Thorpe Bay, spiked railings extending into the sea mark the boundaries of the Ministry of Defence artillery range, which takes up the whole tip of Shoebury’s ‘ness’, or promontory. The railings enclose about l1/: miles of beach. An artillery barracks was first set up there in 1858, to test Armstrong guns against ironclad warships.
Round the Ness from Southend is the popular East Beach, mainly sand, shingle and low tide mud-flats sandwiched between the Ness and Wakering Stairs. Volunteer lifeguards patrol on Sundays and Bank Holidays in summer. Rampart Terrace, which runs behind the beach, gives magnificent views of the river and its shipping.
The name means ‘promontory of birds’, and the fact that Foulness Island is now closed to the public because of Ministry of Defence activities means that geese and other wildfowl flourish there relatively undisturbed. Up to 10,000 Brent geese winter on the Maplin and Foulness Sands which cover some 35 square miles. When Maplin Sands were proposed as the site of London’s third airport, the hazard posed by birds to aircraft landing and taking off was advanced as a major objection to the proposal.
This pretty little market town, still largely Georgian, stands at the first road crossing of the River Roach. The church of St Andrew is 15th centurv, and near by is the 16th-century Rochford Hall with Georgian additions. It was lived in for a while by Anne Boleyn. Though the Roach largely dries out at low-tide, coasters still unload grain at Stambridge Mills a short way downstream.
As remote as anywhere in Essex, this hamlet, reached down a maze of dog-leg roads, gives the only proper access to the Roach – and then only by a rough road, which starts from the pub. It is, however, a popular sailing centre, with a slipway closed by a strong wooden floodgate; permission to use it must be obtained from the boat-builders next to the gate. There is also a small oyster-processing plant which cleans oysters dredged from beds in the mud of the Roach. From the river-wall, the tower blocks of Southend are visible more than 5 miles away. There are good walks upstream to Rochford, and downstream along Paglesham Pool to Wallasea Island.