Heybridge Basin towards Osea
Heybridge Basin in Essex is a hamlet on the edge of the Blackwater estuary where the lock gates of the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation, which was completed in 1797, allow yachts and small motor boats to enter the waters of the canal and head upstream to Chelmsford.
This is a simple walk along the sea wall for any time of the year, though wellies or boots are advisable in winter as parts may be muddy. The Maldon to Goldhanger Road has a sign to Heybridge Basin. Park in the free car park, there are some restrictions on street parking in summer months.
Walk to the far end of the car park, up a few steps, or along a ramp to the edge of the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation, which we all call the canal. Spend a moment to look beyond the far bank towards the lakes and across the estuary towards Maldon, well worth a visit another time. Face the canal and turn left along the tow path, peep down to the unusual “animals” in the first garden, they create a huge talking point for children and adults. The canal is the permanent home for boats of all shapes and sizes including houseboats and motor boats; as you get closer to the lock gates there are larger vessels and if you are lucky one of the Thames barges may be tied up just inside the gates. In summer when the seas are calmer you can spot visiting craft from other home ports and from the Netherlands, all overseen by the lock keeper whose smart black and white cottage is on the far side of the canal.
The hamlet of Heybridge Basin developed when there was a need to move building materials inland during the construction of Chelmsford and the cottages were built to house some of the workers.
With a population of only 8,000, the two pubs and tea room value the support of visiting yachtsmen and walkers or those who just want to relax and enjoy a hearty breakfast, tasty lunch or an evening drink; you can sit outside and watch the birds on the mud or the lapping high tide.
Keep to the sea wall on the left (don’t cross the canal or if you do then cross back again).
As we leave the lock we walk along the sea wall path with some upside down houses on the left, designed so that people can see over the sea wall to the islands beyond from their first floor lounges.
To our right the view varies, sometimes an old barge under covers as it is being restored, small boats tied up where until recently an outdoor retreat for youngsters from a London school was set on the edge of the water or a ramp leading down to the water edge suitable for small craft.
The playing field on the left provides space for children and dogs of the village to let off steam. Ahead the white building growing up from the crowded “yacht park” extending above the height of the sea wall, is the traditional Blackwater Sailing Club. The Club house is a patchwork of black and white buildings that has provided a centre for members with a passion for the water for over one hundred years.
The path makes a sharp turn to the left past the back of the club it skirts round the marshy part of the coast that is loved by so many birds. As the seasons change there is an opportunity to watch the sway of the grasses, the masses of snowy blossom of the hawthorn and the changing apparel of fellow walkers – from winter mufflers to skimpy shorts and a display of millinery to address all weathers. Boxing day brings out an array of Christmas presents: overpowering aftershave, jolly woolly hats with embarrassing ears (unless you are under 10) and huge colourful scarves, presumably the socks below the boots are also new and colourful.
On with the walk around the marshy inlet to an amazing building, once derelict and now converted into smart accommodation, the malthouse and salt houses. It is always fun to peep down to the gardens to see how each owner has adapted their garden to create a very individual haven, some not wishing to be as visible to nosey walkers now have greenery to create some privacy.
Sitting on the edge of the sea wall from their foundations in the caravan park are a few timber chalets that have been rescued and refurbished. The path then crosses the tarmac entrance to a small friendly Saltcote Sailing Club where in winter high tides will run across the walk way.
The high tide is one of the reasons so many of the beach huts are built on stilts with steep steps from the beach leading to the door or platform, some sensible huts also have a rear entrance so that you can enter straight into the back of the hut regardless of the height of the tide. As a child we had a family beach hut a little further along the coast at Mill Beach where you sometimes had to paddle then mount the steps to the padlocked door while carrying bags of swimsuits, towels and lunch. My mother loved swimming above and beneath the chilly water of the Blackwater, while I was encouraged to venture in so my costume became a soggy mess it was not a pleasure for me, why get cold and wet when I could sit in the warm on the sea wall. The best part of the excursion, especially when you were drying off, was Heinz tomato soup heated on some sort of methylated spirit lamp/heater and served in blue picnic bowls with a chunk of bread. As a treat I think this was followed by a piece of cake.
The traditional caravan parks with rows of tiny caravans now have much grander self-contained “mobile homes” with all mod cons though the summer residents can still enjoy the sites’ club houses for drinks and essentials.
The path is wider now with space for the winter storm barriers to be dropped in at the top of the steps to prevent flooding, or at least hinder the smashing waves.
My reward is ahead “The View” tea room on the sea wall on the edge of the Osea Leisure Park, it lives up to its name and while there is a great view from the terrace and the huge open windows on the main floor, there is an even better view from the crows nest floor above. A bacon sandwich with a hot coffee is very welcome, though if it was later in the day a scone with local Tiptree jam and cream might have been justified.
It is easy to speed along the path without really taking time to pause and appreciate the view from every angle. To watch the birds’ bills intent on finding a muddy morsel as the tide recedes, a few yachts in the distance with sails of varying colours and looking across the estuary to the two islands: Northey and Osea. Northey, now owned by the National Trust, has a plaque marking the site of the Battle of Maldon in 991AD between the Danish invaders and the Essex Army. Members of the Trust can request access to the island which is a haven for wild life.
In contrast Osea Island has a very different history – a collection of cottages and impressive houses can be accessed by boat or over an ancient causeway (avoid taking your best car). The island holds memories of an interesting history including a time when it was owned by the Charrington family who set up a centre to help people with addictions, however stories abound about local boatman dropping off elicit supplies for some of the residents! Today the contrast couldn’t be stronger. The island is now privately owned providing holiday and short stay accommodation for visitors throughout the year. I was lucky enough to be invited to stay there when the current owner had completed the first stage of the refurbishment of the house and some of the cottages; it was a wonderful escape with quiet walks along the shore and excellent hospitality that won’t be forgotten – thank you Nigel. Since my visit the small lake has become a sandy sunbathing beach, there is a pool and extensive accommodation; must be a great place for a party.
Finally, no visit to the Blackwater estuary would be complete without the site of a Thames barge gliding down the river. So many great memories of lunch with friends and supper with business colleagues on these beautiful barges, great food, good company and happy memories of glorious sunsets, though it can rain so the well-stocked bar and ample buffet is always appreciated.