Walking from Allhallows towards the Isle of Grain, exploring the Thames Estuary edges

by Ian Tokelove
Flat marshland, a water channel with two white swans. Huge gas storage tanks line the distant horizon

The holiday park at Allhallows looks across the Thames towards the distant, cluttered shoreline of Southend-on-Sea. A narrow beach of family-friendly sand and shell leads to an expanse of thick, dark mud, swept regularly by powerful tides.

In June 2020, with camping sites still under coronavirus lockdown, the beach is almost deserted. The holiday homes stand empty and quiet.

A deserted beach, sand piled against groynes, under a dark cloudy sky.
The beach at Allhallows, looking west.

A public footpath leads from Allhallows into the holiday park, passing the gated security post, and down to the shoreline. I headed east, away from the land and towards the sea. The path follows the ridge of the river embankment, thickly lined with cranesbill and nodding florets of wild carrot.

Looking down at pretty pink flowers and larger white flowers, amid green foliage
Wildflowers line the Allhallows coastal path

Yantlet Creek

At Yantlet Creek, the path turns inland, following the waterway. Across the narrow channel lies a disused naval firing range, off-limits to the public. This used to be a testing ground for large weapons, lobbing long-range shells out to sea, to be swallowed by the Maplin Sands.

A weathered monument stands where Yantlet Creek meets the Thames. These sad stones once held a copper plaque commemorating the drowning of a young boy in the bay. The boy’s memory is now lost, the plaque stolen & presumably melted down for scrap. 

A forgotten monument to a forgotten child

Nearby, another monument leans at an angle, commemorating the construction of the Thames Flood Defence system. In the distance, beyond a navigational marker in the creek, the London Stone stands tall, to the north of the firing range.

A dark square pillar rises higher than a man, with faded writing on it. Behind it, the estuary landscape is one of water and low marsh.
Thames Flood Defence monument at Yantlet Creek

The London Stone

The London Stone was erected in 1856 to mark the eastern boundary of the City of London’s jurisdiction over the River Thames. The Stone is one of several which asserted the City’s ownership of the Thames and the river’s valuable fisheries and tolls. The stone’s purpose was short-lived, with the City losing control to the Crown in 1857 under The Thames Conservancy Act.

The London Stone is twinned with another boundary marker on the other side of the estuary, the Crow Stone at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. The London Stone can be reached at low tide if you’re prepared to risk mud, water and trespass.

The Thames Estuary off Yantlet Creek. The London Stone is a mere speck beyond the navigational marker.
The Thames Estuary off Yantlet Creek. The London Stone is a mere speck beyond the navigational marker.

The lost coastguard station

An eroding layer of yellow brick, topped with pitch, marks the remains of a small coastguard station, landing stage and lane which once stood here. Yantlet Creek was once a navigable waterway, a tidal watercourse which joined with Colemouth Creek, a tributary of the Medway.

Regular dredging allowed boats to take the creek shortcut between the Medway and Thames estuaries. In the 19th century, the Isle of Grain really was an island.

This remote location was ideal for smuggling, which led to the establishment of the coastguard station. At first, the station was probably based in a moored hulk on the riverside. The station was swept away in 1897 and a new station established in Allhallows.

An eroded bank of dark soil, topped with a single layer of yellow brick, capped with a thin layer of tar, with a thin layer of vegetation on top.
An old landing stage erodes into the creek

The path follows the creek inland. This is remote land, the wildlife cautious of movement. I flushed a mixed flock of little egret and herons, pure white and charcoal grey against the clouded, windy sky.

Started little egret and herons take to the air over Yantlet Creek
Started little egret and herons take to the air over Yantlet Creek

Across the creek, the Isle of Grain oil terminal once boasted a huge refinery and around 100 oil tanks, but most have now been removed. The huge storage tanks which now dominate the horizon contain Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

Half-a-dozen LNG storage tanks on the horizon, across marshland and a creek
Gas storage tanks on the Isle of Grain

With the wind blowing hard across the marshes, I ducked down from the embankment path and into the edges of the fen. Others were also seeking shelter here; small, bright dragonflies clinging to the swaying sedge. I think these are red-veined darters, the mature males a deep red, while the females and younger males are ochre-yellow.

Decoy fires and WW2 bombing raids

At the heart of the Allhallows Marshes, on the edge of a few farmed fields and the path to Binney Farm, a curious concrete structure draws the eye. This is a Second World War ‘night shelter’, a reinforced unit of two rooms and part of an ‘Oil QF’ decoy site.

Small, concrete, single-storey building, with a slim entrance protected by sloping walls. Flat grassland all around.
WW2 night-shelter on Allhallows Marshes

In order to protect the oil terminal on the Isle of Grain, burning rings and crescents of fuel could be ignited here. The fires would give the impression of burning oil drums & storage tanks, luring enemy night bombers away from their real targets.

The night-shelter may have been further protected by mounds of earth. The square block at the top is an escape hatch.
The Interior of the night-shelter, with light shining in from the escape hatch.
The Interior of the night-shelter, with light shining in from the escape hatch.

About 25m from the night-shelter, a series of concrete supports once held a large oil tank, fuel for the decoy fires. Similar structures still stand on the Fobbing Marshes across the Thames, built as a decoy for the oil refinery at Shell Haven.

A series of rounded concrete supports which would have held a long, circular oil tank.
Supporting foundations for a fuel tank

The path that cuts east here, away from the farm and back towards Yantlet Creek, passes the shadow of a decoy tank, still visible amid the wild grassland.

A shallow, wide circle amid grassland, with storage tanks on the horizon
The circular foundation of a decoy oil tank, designed to lure night bombers away from the Isle of the Grain, seen in the background

If the burning decoys did their job and attracted enemy bombing, the marshes show little trace, but this crater suggests at least one bomb fell here during WW2.

In a wet landscape like this there is no need to dig water holes. This is probably a WW2 bomb crater.

The path home

I took the embankment path back to Allhallows. A young family had set up a crooked tent and were exploring the foreshore, slipping and sliding as they turned rocks and seaweed in search of crabs. Rather than head back to the holiday park I took another short path, leading from the Thames to The British Pilot pub on the edge of the village.

A herd of young steers quit their grazing to regard me with curiosity. Starlings rose and fell around them, catching insects drawn by their dung and disturbed by their hooves. I left the marsh and followed the quiet lane back to my car, and the fast road to London. 

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