The Broomway is an ancient bridleway in Essex, an offshore path which is swallowed each day by Thames Estuary tides. The path serves Foulness Island and for many hundreds of years was the only way to reach the island. The sea around here is shallow, retreating up to 5km offshore, before sweeping back across the Maplin Sands.
The Broomway tracks across an almost featureless landscape, an offshore path some 400m from the nearest land. Between the path and the island, the Black Grounds wait patiently. Their soft, dark mud ready to embrace and hold another victim.
It is estimated that more than 100 have drowned out here, caught by the rising tide. Some will have been snared by the mud, others confused by falling darkness or thick fog, floundering in the rising water. The Foulness Burial Register records 66 bodies recovered from the sands since 1600.
Foulness and the Ministry of Defence
The Broomway is a public right-of-way, but access to the path, and the entire island, is guarded by QinetiQ, a private defence contractor working for the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Foulness Island is owned by the MOD and supports a population of about 150, but is largely used for secretive testing and research. QinetiQ don’t like unannounced visitors.
We walked the Broomway with a local guide, Tom Bennett, who had arranged to meet us at Wakering Stairs, where the path heads out into the estuary. The road to Wakering Stairs is barred and guarded by QinetiQ’s entry control point, where I’ve had mixed experiences. On this occasion, my request for access was simply met with a slightly contemptuous stare, the guard unwilling to even vocalise a response. I drove to the barrier and the gate lifted, either automatically or because a button was pushed.
Fortunately, Tom is much friendlier, keen and enthusiastic. Having explained the dangers and a few dos-and-don’ts, he escorted us out and into our intertidal adventure.
Water, mud and bombs
Tom reminded us that the tides and mud aren’t the only dangers awaiting the unwary explorer. The Maplin Sands are part of an active firing range, in use since at least the First World War. As well as unexploded ordnance there are hidden shell craters,.
Guns once fired on the Sands from a firing point on the Isle of Grain, on the other side of the estuary. This battery tested artillery pieces, manufactured upriver at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, lobbing long-range shells into the Sands.
We set off, walking almost directly away from the land, splashing through shallow saltwater pools and puddles. The sand beneath our feet was reassuringly firm, occasionally giving way to darker mud below.
Small, scattered mounds of wave-washed cordgrass have dug their roots deep into the mud, and at one of these we gathered, then turned to the north east.
The Broomway and the Maypole
Our goal was a distant wooden pole, a navigational marker for Havengore Creek. Boards of wood have been nailed across this marker pole, creating a primitive, shamanic-like ladder, known as the Maypole.
The Broomway’s path was once marked with sticks and branches, bare twigs raised above the mud like inverted witches’ brooms. Now, only occasional clues remain. Our next mark was another navigational pole, tall but distant, little more than a shimmer on the horizon.
Tom pointed the way, but even in fine weather the Broomway is a disorientating place, with distances impossible to judge. Other poles and beacons can be seen further out, at least one guarding a wreck, but few mark the Broomway.
Far out in the estuary, two groups of stilted Maunsell Forts can be seen. These are Red Sands and Shivering Sands army forts, onetime guardians of the wartime estuary. Container ships seem to float above a distant horizon, echoed by their own reflections. Offshore wind turbines catch the sun, and lines of white gulls stripe the remote water’s edge.
Reaching the next marker pole, we hit light mud and a crumbling ankle-breaker of a causeway, leading in to Asplins Head. This was apparently built to enable the mainland doctor to access the island. Next to the causeway, a low and wide, semi-circular structure resembles a shallow reservoir. This was reputably once filled with fuel, which was then burnt in experiments. Growing environmental awareness seems to have put a stop to such activities in the 1970s.
Following the causeway in, we stopped for a snack on the sea wall. Access further inland is forbidden, although a public footpath follows the sea wall. On this group walk, this was as far as we got. The Broomway continues along the coastline for another 4km, ending at Fisherman’s Head, where another causeway allows safe passage to the island.
Carefully returning to our path across the mud, Tom explained how to find the Maypole, the marker to guide us home. By looking for three gas silos in the far distance, across the estuary on the Isle of Grain, we could just make out the Maypole to the right. It was a tiny dark sliver, hardly visible. With even a little rain or fog, such remote landmarks would vanish.
On this summer day there was little birdlife out on the sandy flats, other than the distant gulls, but these are important feeding grounds for winter waders and wildfowl. The mud is rippled by the tide, dotted with worm-cast coils and punctured by the holes of razor clams. Small green crabs scurry from pool to pool. The only other movement seems to be water rippling in the breeze and the track of clouds across the sky; it’s almost like another planet.
Tom Bennet’s Broomway walks can be booked on his website.
Walking the Broomway without a guide is not recommended. The tides are unpredictable, and the route is not always accessible for the amount of time that the tide tables suggest. The intertidal time can be shortened by an onshore wind and/or the tide height.
My thanks to Liza, Christine, Carolyn and Matthew for joining me on this walk, in June 2021.