Walking the River Crouch: Burnham on Crouch to North Fambridge

by Ian Tokelove
A row of short black posts stretches out towards the River Crouch. A thin, tall pole marks the end.

Burnham on Crouch sits on the northern bank of the River Crouch in Essex. It’s a small, historic town with a lot of pubs. It’s locally regarded as being rather up-market, well known for its yachting scene. On a summer’s day this can be a busy place, but on a cold winter’s morning we mostly had the streets to ourselves.

We were walking west, following the River Crouch upriver to North Fambridge and a waiting pub. I’d expected a flat, perhaps disappointing walk, but I’d not counted on the rich wildlife we’d encounter, which elevated our walk beyond all expectations.

Walking along the quay we passed a short line of houseboats, in varying degrees of repair. The aroma of chips tempted us into a local chippie, but the rank odour of burnt vegetable oil pushed us back out again. A nearby Tesco Express provided the sustenance we needed.

The Saltmarsh Coast Trail

The coastal path quickly leaves Burnham on Crouch and curves around Burnham Yacht Harbour. The path takes you right through the boatyard, past yachts parked up on trailers, before re-joining the Crouch. The tide was high, submerging the river’s saltmarsh border beneath a calm, reflective sheen.

The path meets Ferry Road just before Creeksea Sailing Club, but we found our way blocked by the high tide. A man watched us from the near but inaccessible club, keeping any advice he had to himself. Fortunately, a public footpath leads inland here, crossing a private lane which led us back to the coastal path.

For a while the path is edged inland by low shrubs and bushes, the bare branches coated in luxuriant growths of lichen. The footpath then reaches The Cliff, a short, unexpected gradient in the flat landscape.

The Cliff

The Cliff is composed of London Clay and is rich in fossils, dating back some 50 million years. The fossils drop from the eroding cliff face and include sharks’ teeth, shells, bird bones and pyritised fossil wood. However, many are small, so don’t expect easy finds. And don’t go digging into the cliff, it’s a protected SSSI.

I’d have liked to have explored the beach, but the tide was high, and we still had a long way to walk. We dangled our legs over the broken beach and grabbed a quick snack, our backs to the biting wind, before pushing on.

Flocks of dark-bellied brent geese were flying in, constantly chattering to each other as they picked out splashdown spots on the river, where they floated in loose, noisy rafts. Inland, uncountable lapwing were feeding on the wet fields, along with other, smaller waterfowl.

River Crouch oysters

As we approached Althorne we skirted a winding creek, then passed through a small marina. The sun was low, and we could have ended our walk here, catching a train from Althorne’s railway station. But we wanted to carry on, this walk was too good to cut short.

The path follows Althorne Creek, which winds past Bridgemarsh Island. The island was once home to a small farm and a brick and tile works, served by a ford and ferry at Althorne. The land was eventually surrendered to the tides, and while there is a glimpse or two of remnant structures amid the marsh, no buildings remain.

Ahead, rows of stubbed, blackened posts delineate old oyster beds in the silvery salt-mud. Like fences around fields, the posts once marked and protected a precious crop.

The dredging and farming of oysters from the River Crouch dates back to at least the 17th century, and once employed hundreds of men and boys. The practice continued until the 1990s, when pollution finally reduced the oysters to unprofitable levels. The oyster beds now lie silent below a blanket of silt and the daily tides. Maybe, one day, they’ll return.

With the sun now butting the horizon, our path rejoined the main channel. The footpath threads along the sea wall, separating the Crouch from low-lying, wet pasture. Much of this is Blue House Farm Nature Reserve, managed by Essex Wildlife Trust.

Incoming wildlife

As darkness fell, squads of brent geese began to leave their inland grazing fields for the safety of the water. They flew in low v-formations, dropping over the sea wall towards the water. Some groups came right at us, only spotting us when close. Breaking formation, they honked noisy proximity alerts as they veered past us, before closing rank and heading on towards the water. In the fading light it was an electrifying, slightly unnerving experience.

Heading on, a distant glimmer of scattered lights marked South Fambridge on the southern bank. As we approached our path’s end, the dark masts of moored boats broke across the last coral glow of the sunset, and occasional voices drifted across the water.

Leaving the river and quay we headed through a cold and silent boat yard to a warm welcome at the Ferry Boat Inn, moving from one world to the next.

This coastal path along the River Crouch is about nine miles long, or 14.5km. The rail stations at Burnham on Crouch and North Fambridge are further inland, extending the distance by another 1.5 miles.

My thanks to Liza S for her company on this one, which we walked on 5th December 2021.

The path is just one section of Maldon’s 75 mile Saltmarsh Coast Path

Burnham on Crouch on the map

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