MOD Shoeburyness, a high security Ministry of Defence testing base, separates the village of Great Wakering from the Thames Estuary. The base extends from the eastern edge of Southend-on-Sea to the tip of Foulness Island, and puts 14.5 square miles largely out of reach to the public. However, when the red flags aren’t flying, public access is allowed along the public footpaths and bridleways.
We started our walk at the far end of Victoria Drive in Great Wakering. An access gate, hidden just around the corner, leads through the security fence on days when access is permitted. Crossing the MOD road, the path heads towards the coast, bordered by expansive reedbeds and thick scrubland.
After crossing an overgrown military rail line, the path steps up to the top of the seawall. When the tide is low the view is of endless mudflats, reaching out to distant water. If the tide is high, and the winter waders are present, you’ll be treated to fabulous birdlife. On our visit, uncountable oyster catcher had gathered to await the tide’s retreat. Dunlin were flocking low across the water, a flickering, shape-shifting cloud.
The footpath heads east along the seawall and soon reaches Wakering Stairs, where the infamous Broomway begins. A military watchtower gazes out at a tidal path which heads out onto the Maplin Sands. The path is thought to have claimed more than 100 lives, over its long history.
Inland, large concrete structures rise from the reeds and winding channels. Some have been hit with heavy munitions, their steel ribs exposed and rusting. This part of MOD Shoeburyness seems largely overgrown and unused, with most activity taking place on Foulness Island.
At Haven Point, Havengore Creek pushes inland, joining with other creeks to take Foulness and several other isles from the mainland. A short section of the path is composed of sheets of heavy amour plate, gouged and punctured by test fire. A circle of moss grows where a shell once punched through a couple of inches of tempered steel.
Approaching Havengore bridge, a short, rusting gangway reaches out to a concrete sluice. The gangway is marked ‘ferry’ although I’m pretty sure no ferry ever served this spot. However, there is a 1903 reference to a coastguard ship moored half-mile within the Creek. The coastguard’s main duty was to watch the creeks for smugglers, but they were also equipped for life-saving duties.
The bridge itself is the only road access to Foulness Island and is guarded to prevent unwanted visitors. Public access is occasionally permitted, for visitors to the Foulness Heritage Centre. The centre remained closed in 2021 due to the pandemic, but will hopefully reopen soon.
The landscape is one of saltmarsh and fields, with little protection from winter’s wind or summer sunshine. Approaching Wakering Boatyard, I spotted what I can only describe as a tide-dial: the rise & fall of the tides marked in Essex mud by the keel of a tethered boat, turning with the changing flow around its mooring point.
A series of large, assorted houseboats are moored at Mill Head, their designs spanning a hundred years or more. Beyond, the boatyard is a chaotic assemblage of vessels. Shiny new pleasure boats mix with rusting trawlers, lined with age. Wood smoke and epoxy fumes tinge the air. There was once a small brickworks here, typical of estuarine industry, using clay dug from the once plentiful saltmarsh.
Moving on, we passed another no-go MOD road bridge, this one crossing the creek to Potton Island. Needing lunch, we stopped where an old causeway fords Potton Creek. The metal flood gate promised shelter from the wind, but someone had also chosen this remote spot for a wilderness poo. Thankfully, the nearby causeway provided a flat and relatively sheltered picnic spot, away from the scat.
Maps show a private ferry operating here from at least 1873, serving the small community which farmed the island. More recently, in the 1980s, Potton Island was considered as a potential site for long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste. Thankfully, that plan was abandoned following the sweeping defeat of the Conservative government in 1997.
The path continues to the confluence of Potton and Barlinghall Creeks, where the route curves west. Across the creek, Barling Marsh was once quarried for sands and gravels and then used for domestic and industrial landfill. Once a mecca for hungry gulls, the landfill site is now nearing closure. On our side of the creek, flocks of brent geese were grazing the wet, inland pasture.
As Barlinghall Creek turns to the south a small flotilla of boats huddle around the old wharf at Barling Hall. A grounded, disused barge now serves the fleet as a quayside.
As we approached the head of the creek, the falling tide had revealed expanses of silvery mud, reflecting the low sun and wintery sky. Here we broke away from the creek, to follow the footpath past Halfway House Farm and back towards our starting place.
A rough, pitted farm track leads through arable fields to a narrow country road. Distant shouts of encouragement suggested that Great Wakering Rovers were playing at home, their floodlights twinkling beyond bare fields and a darkening treeline.
On the edge of Great Wakering, we left the road by taking an eastwards path through Wakering Common. This path leads to Stairs Road, where a public footpath parallels the fenced MOD road back to Victoria Drive, our starting point.
My thanks to Aisling, Kate and Liza for joining me for this one, which we walked on New Year’s Day 2022. Our route covered about eight miles, or 13km.
Buses 4A and 14 from Southend-on-Sea stop at the top of Victoria Drive.
More information on MOD Shoeburyness including visitor information.