Huge skies – Bradwell St Peters on the Wall
Essex’s long coastline twists and winds through marshlands on the Blackwater estuary and at other times it glides along the sleek sandy beaches at the beach resorts of Frinton and Clacton. A county of contrasts. Today I am at Bradwell, revisiting a place I first saw when I had pigtails!
The forecast was cold and sunny in the morning then an overcast afternoon, the sun was deceptive and I am grateful for my four layers even though it is late April as I headed for St Peters on the Wall on the outskirts of the village of Bradwell. It is a hidden treasure: aim for Maldon, where the salt comes from, then Latchingdon and follow the signs to Bradwell. The sign at Latchingdon is almost overtaken by four of the largest brown signs for caravan sites that could or should be permitted in a small village.
The long road runs parallel with the River Blackwater as it heads from Maldon, past the islands of Northey and Osea, then past St Lawrence Bay a haven for caravan lovers and it widens as it reaches Bradwell before merging with the North Sea. At some points the road rises to a minor hill giving you a chance to look across the fields to masses of yachts making an early start to the sailing season. At Bradwell, after the pub on the left and just before the church on the right, turn right and take the minor road to St Peters on the Wall – there must be a sign but perhaps it is a discrete sign because I didn’t find it. Several of the country cottages have overpowering magnolia trees full of pale pink blooms in their tiny gardens. People who name paints should look at their magnolia paint again if they think it resembles the beautiful colour of the blossom.
With large farms to the right and the left, the road seems to peter outinto a lane with plenty of space to park either side. The sign asks you to park your vehicle and walk to the church, the closed five bar gate is also a hint that you need to park your vehicle. The parking area is also an opportunity to ‘people watch’ as some emerge from their cars rush up to a descriptive sign then head back to their heated cars and speed away; while others delve into the back of their cars to find walking boots, thick socks and extra layers with gloves and hats. Never being one to underdress, I don a warm coat, walking shoes and stuff gloves in my pocket and sunglasses on the nose plus a dab of suntan cream. I didn’t take an umbrella!
Advancing down a track, even one you have walked before, seems to hold an excitement – there’s a reclaimed pond with an “unweathered” fence around it, not sure why, small children could walk under the fence and it is not high enough to lean on to watch the pond life. The church is in focus and seems to draw you to it before you have time to take in the surrounding scenery. Dating from 654AD this solid structure on the edge of the North Sea has been on this site for one thousand three hundred years.
A simple structure that has survived periods of neglect, care, conservation and is now the centre of worship for the Ionian Community and a place of pilgrimage for thousands of visitors. The outer walls contain flints, pumice stone and bricks held together with a sand based mortar with occasional cockle shell, reminding us that we are close to the sea.
The ancient door opens onto a stone floor, with wooden benches facing a simple solid altar and I was lucky that a shaft of sunlight fell in giving some extra illumination. No musty smell, or icy chill just a simple place to stop and pray, to contemplate or just gaze and wonder.
The notices at the back of the church remind you of the times of service and there is a short lunch menu available Monday to Friday – no one mentions where you find the food – presumably in the Ionian community‘s buildings the other side of the field. It is worth taking a sandwich just in case this offering has changed.
Standing back to admire the grey and red building you suddenly become conscious of your surroundings, the sea wall ahead and then the nature reserve on the marshes with the grey sea in the distance. Huge skies are a joy, bright blue in parts with different layers of cloud frustrating the photographers who wait for the only dark cloud to take its time passing the sun.
Picnic or walk – walk or picnic? Save the best till last so I head off along a path to the right. I think you are supposed to follow the path behind the copse but I went the other side and found myself beside a partly hidden hut for birdwatchers, acknowledged them and walked through the long lush grass on the sea wall. Few walkers have explored this path as the grass was growing faster than feet could trample it down. Below to the left a field of sprouting peas and one of wheat with large irrigation channels, similar to those seen in the Fens or in Holland, appeared to cut the fields into neat rectangles. The wind blows from the North Sea and even below the sea wall the trees and bushes seem of restricted height. There is a magpie’s nest and that of a crow less than 10 feet from the ground, the highest point around.
The ground is damp but an old lookout bunker, of which there are several along the coast, makes a wonderful seat and a table for a picnic. The bunker has been incorporated into the sea wall so at first glance it looks as if it is two sections peering out across the marshes looking for invaders from the past. The solitude is disturbed by a young girl riding her bike down the rough grass bank from the sea wall and then braking hard as she tries not to go over the handle bars, one crash does not deter her.
Being curious (a polite word for nosey) I’m keen to see the buildings on the other side of the field beyond the Church so turn round and walk on the sea wall, this time a much trodden path, but can see little of the Ionian community buildings. I can see the practical side of living is close to the wall, a wind mill, and a suspected reed bed for sewage cleansing face the sea wall. Now, past the nature reserve, the beach is accessible, shell beach it is – in a quick search there are oyster, cockle, whelks, winkles, razor shells and some others I didn’t recognise. I find an oyster shell on the water’s edge and throw it back into the sea, a fruitless task it had probably died some time ago.
It was only last week that I found a poem we used to recite – “…The Walrus and the Carpenter with the oysters walking close at hand….. Lewis Carroll I think.
The rough path becomes a concrete utilitarian path, perhaps it was built by the power station people but it has less appeal than cinder tracks. Ahead enthusiastic walkers are marching towards the power station and yacht haven at Bradwell – why hurry, here there is peace, time to wander on the beach and wonder, for the tide is running fast as rows of timber posts are gradually revealed. As the hour goes by more posts can be seen – were they part of a defence of the coast, could they be connected to fishing, a way of encouraging shell fish, a strange structure for a track or walkway- do let me know.
Resting on a seat by the old military lookout I watch a group of people emerge from St Peters, then rather like a column of ants a trickle becomes a stream as about 50 people pass by: why were they here? Did they know each other? Where are they going?
Back to the car it must be at least half a mile, seems longer on the return as a stream of cars leave the Ionian community grounds heading back to town while on the field to the left the emerging peas are being eyed by eager pigeons who seem to alert their friends from miles away that supper is available – they ignore the people as they pluck the bright green shoots from the ground.