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Blackwater Estuary Walk

Away from the bustling areas of Essex that lie close to London is the contrasting landscape of sandy beaches, country rambles along leafy lanes and bracing walks on the edge of the Blackwater estuary.

Late Autumn, a perfect time to explore contrasting waterways but each season brings its own special interest. Just 20 minutes from the busy A12, Heybridge Basin lies beside the lock of the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation (known as the canal) that drops into the Blackwater estuary and heads out towards the North Sea. There is a large free car park and street parking but check the restrictions.

From the car park the tops of masts tantalise the walker to discover what lies above the steep bank. For here at Heybridge Basin you climb up the steps to reach the water’s edge where boats of all shapes and sizes lie at rest on the canal.

We walk to our left along the towpath to the waterfront and the lock gates manned by the lock keeper. “The Old Ship” and “The Jolly Sailor” are the focus of much attention; but we will look forward to their hospitality when we return.

The narrow footbridge leads to the far side of the canal and up to the sea wall. From here we look across to Northey Island and as the tide is low we can make out the edge of the causeway that links the island to the mainland near Maldon. Today, mud has taken over from sea water but that encourages the marsh birds to search for food and brings pleasure to those with binoculars. The pathway is wide and dry despite the storm of the previous day and to the right the lake and waterways are sometimes fenced for in the summer and dog walkers are warned of harmful algae.

The views are amazing as the Essex marshes race to meet each other across the main Blackwater channel at Maldon.

A few people pass with a morning nod or a smile, or perhaps a quiet good morning as groups of two or four advance from the headland. The sun is struggling to show its face on this late summer day and the sudden squalls of yesterday seem long forgotten. The path takes a sharp right turn, (otherwise we would be in the water!), taking us on a much narrower track through angry brambles that are trying to barricade our progress by linking arms across the path. The brave wearers of shorts and sleeveless tops move with caution past the blackberries. To our left beyond the muddy river is the “prom” of the ancient town of Maldon and the quay with the gentle giants of the Blackwater, the Thames barges. Originally used to transport hay to London they are now a popular treat for visitors and the corporate hospitality market. A glance at the barges brings back happy memories of evenings on the Blackwater and afternoons on the Orwell in Suffolk beneath the huge billowing brown sails.

Back to the walk – away from the briars. In summer the path is busy with flowers – cushions of cream heather, bright yellow thistles and graceful wands of tiny pink petals that in a cottage garden might no longer be called a weed, just a wild flower. The gentle sound of the lark hovering above the path is shattered by squawking sea gulls competing for the best position on a mud mound in the lake. The path continues behind an industrial area, so we follow the track through a sheltered area towards Heybridge where the blackberries here ripen weeks ahead of their sea wall cousins. Remembering how that first blackberry of summer picked straight from the bush is a refreshing treat, we glean some extra sweet berries that stain the fingers – it is like a half way treat to give us the extra momentum. As we head into Heybridge we pass a row of neat cottages and clinically tidy modern housing that give way to a couple of small industrial units before we reach the warm smell of a local pub, I hope it is still there.

Right at the end of the Hall Road takes us out to the bustling highway called The Street, past a converted warehouse, over the canal bridge and quickly down the rough grass to the peace of the towpath. The contrast between the water in the lake, the muddy river and now the reed-lined canal is remarkable, for here there are different plants and wildlife. Huge clumps of snow white water lilies show off their best flowers while their smaller cousins in yellow and pink add a touch of unexpected colour to the green and cream theme. Ahead a group of walkers stop to study the other bank where a lone swan has the company of a group of ducks, it always seems so sad to see swans without a mate – strange how we believe we can be happy walking solo yet expect the swan to need a partner!

Striding along the path our gentle rhythm is broken as we stand aside to let the wobbling cyclists pass – it irritates, I wonder why, but I wanted to keep my momentum going; the irritation soon passes for there are those who wish they could be irritated as to the left the ancient railings and chained gate protect those at rest in the tidy cemetery – no way for us to enter and say a few quiet prayers for those at peace.

Autumn harvest of rose hips close to the haven for winter birds

Nettles and grasses have taken over from flowers and thorns as we head towards Heybridge Basin. To the left the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation Canal Trust’s sign giving the history of the canal first started in 1793; and to the right men “puggle” about on boats. What gives us this fascination with boats and waterways? Psychologists would probably proclaim an over indulgence of Ratty Mole and Mr Toad but not everyone involved with boats remembers “Wind in the Willows”. If we keep very still we may spot one of Ratty’s relatives scampering back to his riverbank home. By now we have reached the grander boats and visiting yachts at Heybridge Basin where people have time to sit and admire their craft.A quick check of the time – a minute over the hour for this circular walk – although some can complete in 10 less than the hour. A chance to enjoy a drink in the sun and a welcome bite from the old inns beside the Essex waters.

Sally Carpenter – ClientAct PR – details on www.clientact.co.uk
September 2002.

Heybridge Basin is signed off the B1026 between Heybridge and Goldhanger