Paglesham is a small, low-lying village in south east Essex. Beyond the village, heading seawards, the land is parcelled into half-a-dozen, sizable islands, divided by tidal creeks. This was once classic smuggling territory, and it retains a lonely, windswept ambience.
We set out from the old Punch Bowl pub, now sadly closed. A paved path leads out to the head of Paglesham Creek. Across the fields, a line of black trees silhouette the eastern horizon.
The low tide reveals saltmarsh and mudflats. Squads of waders patrol the autumnal shoreline, their bills busy in the ooze, watched over by a silent WW2 pillbox. Across the creek, Wallasea Island is now a huge RSPB nature reserve, a haven for wildlife.
The paint-stripped carcasses of abandoned sailboats lie high on the saltmarsh; empty fibreglass husks deposited by winter storms.
Paglesham Creek curves down towards the River Roach, where another pillbox guards the confluence. Much of the saltmarsh bears the impression of former oyster beds, revealed in lines and rectangular pool-like depressions.
Downstream, a large box-like structure draws the eye, the rusting metal heart of a broken wooden vessel. A few more abandoned boats lie off the oyster beds and immediately after, hidden below the salty marsh, lies an unseen treasure.
HMS Beagle and Charles Darwin
Just beyond the old oyster beds and abandoned boats, the river wall kinks inwards. The mud here is believed to contain the remains of HMS Beagle, the ship in which Charles Darwin famously circumnavigated the world.
Built in 1820, the Beagle sailed the world under Captain Robert Fitzroy between 1831 and 1836, before being laid up in 1840. The boat was then transferred to the coastguard service.
The Beagle was moored in Paglesham Reach, guarding the local waters from smugglers. Old census records reveal that the ship accommodated seven coastguard officers and their families. In 1851, oyster companies and traders petitioned for the Customs Service to remove the ship, as it was obstructing the river and access to the oyster beds
The Beagle was moved to a purpose-cut dock, located next to our river path. In 1870, by now leaking, rotting and beyond repair, the boat was sold and broken up where she stood. While most of the wooden structure would have been removed and recycled, it’s likely that the keel remains beneath the mud.
Continuing along the path, we passed a boat yard and more abandoned oyster beds. We followed the Roach west, towards the lowering sun. Migratory swans flew in overhead, perhaps new arrivals from Iceland or Siberia, arriving to overwinter in our relatively temperate climate. The ‘whoop-whoop’ of their wingbeats a reminder of their ocean-crossing stamina and power.
Beyond another pillbox, the path detours inland, past more saltmarsh and Bartonhall Creek. At Barton Hall, we passed huge mounds of empty, pungent cockleshells, awaiting reuse, perhaps to surface footpaths or coastal car parks.
With the sun drawing low, we approached the head of Stannets Creek. This was formerly a tidal inlet, until flood defence measures sealed it off from the River Roach. Now, it’s an important roosting and feeding spot for numerous waterfowl, included the swans we’d seen earlier. As the birds settled for the night, quietly clucking and occasionally stretching their wings, a deep sense of peaceful calm flowed from the lake.
In the fading light, we missed the unmarked path leading back to our cars, and struck out along a deeply rutted, muddy path towards South Hall Farm. From there we walked a short stretch of road to East Hall, marvelling at the brilliance of Mars in the eastern sky, shining brighter than the aircraft descending towards Southend Airport.
A final, moonlit push across the churned fields got us back to our starting point by the old pub. We took six hours on this one, but we were walking unrushed, soaking up the birdlife through our binoculars and enjoying the landscape.
Walk undertaken in October 2020. Thanks to Liza S for the company. On this walk I used Ordnance Survey (OS) Explorer Map 176, Blackwater Estuary.
For other estuary walks see www.remotelondon.com/?s=estuary
1898 map credit: Map of Essex LXXI.SW (includes: Barling Magna; Canewdon; Paglesham) Published: 1898. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland