Sunday, 8 July 2012

Foulness Island, Essex

Wakering Steps

Along with a handful of other anorak clad hikers, we were picked up by coach outside the church at Great Wakering in Essex. It was 10:15 in the morning and all 30 passengers were about to be delivered to Wakering Steps. The tide was out, and we were here to walk The Broomway to Foulness Island. The Broomway is an old footpath across Maplin Sands. It is boldly marked on the OS map, but complications arise from an equally bold warning box urging potential visitors to "Seek local guidance" and to telephone the MOD regarding the Foulness Danger Area. Basically visitors are not welcome, except on the first Sunday of each month from April to October, when you can drive over to the Heritage Centre.

Brian Dawson

Fortunately I had come across Brian's website ( when looking for ways to get onto Foulness Island and he happens to organise walks across The Broomway (£29 each) a few times a year. By the time I got round to booking the trip, it was full – some people had booked before Christmas, and since Robert McFarlane's Old Ways has been published, walkers are already booking up for next year. But, happily for us, a couple dropped out at the last minute enabling T and I to go.

John, The Broomway guide

John is a farmer on Foulness Island and he was the man to supply the local guidance, safely leading our ragged troop across the sands, with the aid of a stick and his two kids.

Walking The Broomway

And so we set off, beneath a glowering sky and through standing water dotted with lugworm casts. It was three miles to Asplins Head, our entry point to the island.

We passed Havengore Bridge, joining the mainland to Havengore Island and then carrying the road onto Foulness Island. The bridge opens to let boats through.

John and his children learning the mysteries of The Broomway.

Walking The Broomway was reminiscent of the pilgrims path to Lindisfarne, except for the surrounding landscape being much flatter, and there being no posts to show the route.

Maplin Sands, Essex

Apparently, the tide comes in at walking pace, but apart from that, the Broomway's threats seemed gentle as long as you knew the correct path. The sand was always firm, and there was no deep lying water to contend with. But maybe this was down to the expertise of our guides.

Asplins Head, Foulness Island, Essex

After a few hours of gentle walking, taking pictures and easy chatting we reached Asplins Head without any mishaps.

Observation towers rise up sporadically around Foulness Island, reminding you of the military prescence among the fields and farms.

Wheat fields and rapeseed fields seemed to be the two main crops as we walked another two miles following the footpath to Churchend.

Great Burwood Farm, Foulness Island

We joined the main road from the mainland for the final stretch into Churchend. Every so often a barrier would be present to halt traffic during test firing.

Churchend Battery, Foulness Island

Churchend houses sport the traditional Essex timber cladding, but curiously have a combination of white and black sides. House martins are plentiful here, with each house having dozens of nests under the eaves. Top windows tended to have a plastic bag trapped in them to try and deter the birds from nesting above them.

Churchend street

Churchend open garden

Churchend pub and church

The pub and church at Churchend are both currently out of action. Visitors used to be able to get a pass onto the island if they were visiting the pub, but that's sadly finished now. The church has been bought to be turned into a community centre.

Foulness Heritage Centre

The group had split into lots of smaller groups but we all eventually made it to Foulness Heritage Centre and the end of our walk. We had just enough time to scoff a sandwich and have a sit down before boarding the tractor trailer for the farm tour.

The straw bale seating was comfortably hollowed and we would be grateful later for the roof.

Peter was our next guide – he owns a farm on the island and is head of the Foulness Archaeological Society. Peter talked eloquently and amusingly about both topics. As we drove along one inland track, Peter mentioned that it used to be a sea wall, confirming that the island has grown over the years with successive sea walls and an ever-changing location for The Broomway. He also pointed out the margins of his crops, which were sown with a winter seed mix for birds, offering borage, sunflowers and kale among other plants. Rectangular pockets in the middle of his crops were for skylarks to land in, but his biggest smile of the day was reserved for the current price of rapeseed (around £350/tonne), ensuring he'd be planting much more next year.

The tractor pulled up at Fisherman's Head, the final entry point to the island from The Broomway. The trench that runs around the edge of the island was created by the removal of the earth to build the sea wall next to it.

Fisherman's Head, Foulness Island, Essex

We drove back to the Heritage Centre, where tea and cakes were awaiting our arrival, as well as all the museum exhibits relating to the island.

Crossing onto New England Island, Essex

The coach drove us off the island, across two others, through the military checkpoint and back to Great Wakering just in time to catch the disappointing end to the Wimbledon final on the car radio.

Moving from New England Island to Havengore Island

Crossing Havengore Bridge, looking over to Rushley Island

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