Come for a day at the coast. Our remotest wildside walk will offer you the chance to take in the sea air with hardly a deckchair in sight! This part of the Dengie evokes a feeling of space and peace, especially around St Peter’s Chapel. Don’t forget your binoculars.
The nature reserve includes 30 acres of shell bank and extensive mudflats (saltings). It was established to help shore nesting birds, especially the little tern. A rare British breeding sea bird, the little tern suffers from ‘people pressure’ on shingle beaches where they nest.
The Essex coast is internationally important for wildlife, combining habitats which, in particular, provide breeding and feeding grounds for many species of birds. Over 15,000 geese, ducks and waders take a winter break in the county, including a quarter of the world’s Brent goose population. Not welcomed by Essex farmers whose crops suffer goose damage each winter, they arrive in October after a summer breeding in Siberia.
Special winter visitors to the Dengie coast are knot, sanderling and grey plover. These waders have long beaks to feed on the many creatures living in the slimy mud.
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Wildside walk plaques are bright green and unique to Wildside walks in Essex.
Yellow ‘Directional Arrows’ usually on circular disks indicate the direction you should follow. (Path junctions are more complicated! Each arrow indicates an alternative route, so use the map to make your choice.)
Three different types of directional arrow are used:
Plain Yellow: used on ‘official’ public footpaths
Yellow Arrow with Courtesy Footpath: A small number of paths are not ‘official’ public rights of way. Most courtesy paths are in Nature Reserves and are generally provided courtesy of the landowner.
Plain Blue: Used on ‘official’ bridleways. Only found on the Bicknacre walk – look out for horses and cyclists.
It was almost the end of October (2008), but nonetheless we were treated to clear blue skies and very little wind, so we decided to do the Bradwell Cockle Spit walk. We would be unlikely to get another Saturday as good as this for months and we had been advised that this walk is best done in reasonable weather: this remote stretch of Essex coastline is wild and windy at the best of times!
We began our walk from Eastlands, having parked the car in the designated area just past Eastlands Farm, the closest public parking spot to St. Peters on the Wall. As we walked anti-clockwise along the sea wall we had an expanse of sea to our left and large areas of East Hall Farm to our right.
East Hall Farm is operated under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) which aims to promote modern farming in harmony with the environment. The farm is 1800 acres of which 750 acres is below sea level. This land is protected from flooding by the sea walls which, together with the dyke behind them, are important conservation habitats. The main drainage ditches which flow into the dyke have grass wildlife corridors planted beside them. Rich flora includes yellow-horned poppy, slender birdsfoot trefoil, grass-leaved orache and marram grass. Natural predators such as sparrowhawk and hen harriers reduce pests without the need for bait, and thick hedgerows reduce wind speed across the fields and reduce soil erosion.
We very quickly reached St Peters on the Wall, a delightful little chapel made even more welcoming with fresh flowers and lit candles.
Close to the chapel is the Bradwell Bird Observatory which is operated by the Essex Birdwatching Society. The latter, together with Essex Wildlife Trust, jointly run the adjacent Bradwell Cockle Spit Reserve from which this walk takes its name. The reserve is 30 acres of shell bank together with extensive salt marsh. The shell bank is continuous between Tip Head and Gunners Creek but further south consists of a series of small cockle spits, many of which are separated by deep creeks and gullies. Care should be taken to stay to marked areas at all times. Mudflats and sandflats to the east of the reserve are part of the Dengie National Nature Reserve and are internationally important for a wide variety of over wintering waders. A longer walk beckoned, but we shall no doubt return to the Bradwell Cockle Spit reserve itself another time.
As we walked past the observation tower we noticed a thicket of trees behind which a trail led to Othona. We were warmly welcomed by the centre managers who told us about the work they do: they have a totally inclusive policy and welcome people from all over the world, of all ages and abilities, of all faiths and none, to share their simple community values of respect and love for others. Many schools use the facilities as there is much to study in the area including the rich wildlife and the Saxon history of the area. It is also particularly good as a centre for self-discovery!
And then our blustery walk began in earnest. We mostly stayed on the sea wall, enjoying the contrast of the vast blue skies and emerald green farmland. The wildlife corridors were very lush and still decorated with wild flowers, which looked extremely pretty in their natural habitat! Wading birds including a cormorant could be seen feeding on the mud flats, but not in the numbers we would have hoped for. A lone heron circled overhead. There were many plants to be found both on the shore and along the sea wall, including the locally common but generally rather rare Shrubby Seablite. The shore, sea wall and borrow dyke are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and are also part of the Dengie National Nature Reserve. By law, nothing can be removed from here!
Coming to the end of the nature reserve there were a row of barges sunk just offshore to protect the saltmarsh and seawall from erosion. At the northernmost top of the walk is right at the mouth of the Blackwater Estuary as the river joins the North Sea. Even on this fairly calm day the waters were choppy and only a few yachts were bravely bobbing about in the waters.
Continuing along the sea wall towards Bradwell Nuclear Power Station, an unfortunate blot on the landscape, the sea shore turned to a black mass of kelp, no doubt home to a great variety of sea life.
Past the power station and along to the marina: quiet today but no doubt bustling during the summer months, we were pleased to see “The Green Man” pub and stopped briefly for refreshments. A short way along from the pub the road turns a sharp right. But cross over and you will see a footpath with a waymark sign (not clearly visible unless you cross over) at the side of the old post office. A short walk along a lane takes you to a field which you need to cross diagonally. This is not very clearly marked, nor blatantly obvious that you need to walk across a newly sown field! We hesitated briefly but our route was confirmed by a local coming in the opposite direction. Turn left at the road and walk about 50 yards to see the RAF Bradwell Bay war memorial in the form of a sculpture of a ‘Mosquito’ aircraft.
At this point, we have to admit to leaving the marked Wildside walk! We should have turned back and taken the main road into the village, continuing through Bradwell village and along the East End Road (a Roman Road about a mile long) back to the car. But, having an aversion to walking along main roads, we looked for an alternative. The answer came courtesy of a friendly octogenarian cyclist who, he assured us, cycled the sea wall every single day. Definitely a role model! He advised us to take the airfield path (the no-through road at the side of the memorial) and follow it round past the buildings on the left then taking the first big path on the right (“Sandy Path”). Following this path all the way back to East End Road, then turning left along the road back to Eastlands Farm and the car
By the time we reached the car it was beginning to get dark. Definitely time to go home and rest our weary legs!
St Peter’s on the Wall & Othona
St Peter’s on the Wall is probably the oldest surviving church in England. It is also the sole monument to Celtic Christianity in Essex (the former kingdom of the East Saxons). The chapel was built by Bishop Cedd around 654AD, almost entirely of Roman material from the fort of Othona (a small display inside explains its history). Othona was one of the nine Roman forts built along the south east coast to repel Saxon invaders. The fort has long since been eroded by the sea and buried inland.. Further ‘Healthy Life Essex’ reading on St Peter’s on the Wall and Othona
Linnet’s Cottage was once home to Walter Linnet, a professional wildfowler, but nowadays you’ll need a licence to hunt the ducks and geese. Next door is the more modern bird observatory.
Salt marshes provide a habitat for a number of salt tolerant plants. Shrubby sea blight is widespread and an important stabiliser of shingle banks. Other plants of interest include sea holly, reputed to be an aphrodisiac for older men, when dipped in sugar. Please don’t try this at home! Sea lavender colours large areas purple in July and August.
The Dengie Marshes have a long history of reclamation, with the line of the sea wall changing over the centuries. Walkers of 200 years past would have needed more than wellies to keep their feet dry.
Bradwell War Memorial
During World War 2 Bradwell was home to an active airfield. Now all that remains is the control tower, some runway and a memorial to pilots who never returned.
The growth in demand for marinas presents one of the most serious threats to coastal marshes, especially on our estuaries. The 14th century parish church of St Thomas
The village of Bradwell-on-Sea boasts some fine buildings, including the 14th century parish church of St Thomas (inside is a model of St Peter’s Chapel as it originally looked). By the south gate are stone mounting blocks and in the south east corner, the ‘cage’ and whipping post, formerly used to hold local drunks. The King’s Head has many old pictures of village life inside and unusual Dengie wildlife in the garden.
Distance and time taken
Ordnance Survey Map
© Photographs by Mike Wilson 2008
Except parish church of St Thomas
Courtesy of Public Rights of Way Dept, Essex County Council
Produced in conjunction with Essex County Council
Maps reproduced by kind permission of
the Public Rights of Way Dept, Essex County Council