Estuary walk from Paglesham in Essex & the Beagle’s final resting place

by Ian Tokelove
The mudbanks and water of Paglesham Creek reflecting a blue sky

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. 

Paglesham Creek

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.

A large, rectangular metal box-like structure with a wide chimney stands upright amid the mostly rotted remnants of an old boat.
Abandoned wreck on the River Roach
A series of old, rectangular oyster beds along the edge of the creek. An abandoned boat lies alongside.
Abandoned boat and old oyster beds

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.

HMS Beagle depicted in a contemporary reproduction
HMS Beagle depicted in the Straits of Magellan at Monte Sarmiento, Chilie

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.

1898 map showing numerous oyster beds along the creeks and a dock dug into the saltmarsh
1898 map showing numerous oyster beds along the creeks and the mud dock, cut into the saltmarsh
Modern Google satellite map showing HMS Beagle's final dock
The Beagle's likely final resting place on modern Google satellite map.

Walking west

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.

Stannets Creek

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.  

Clouds glowing orange and gold over a dark landscape. Paglesham.
Sunset near Stannets Creek

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.

More information

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 

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

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