Walking the River Roach: Rochford to Barling Ness

by Ian Tokelove
A person walking along a low, grassy seawall towards the junction of two creeks, in a flat, treeless landscape.

Rochford is a small town with a long past, sited near the tidal limit of the River Roach in Essex. Southend airport is nearby but our route takes us away from the concrete and tarmac, and towards the saltmarsh and sea.

It isn’t far from the Rochford rail station to the Horse & Groom pub, where a short lane leads to the River Roach. The path traces a line of what appear to be overgrown glasshouses, and soon reaches the river, here no more than a wide stream.

The landscape soon opens out to reveal a wide wetlands, reeds gently swaying in the breeze. This is Mill Head, a former mill pond, fed by the stream and the incoming tide. The derelict grain silos of Stambridge Mills dominate the far view; two massive, box-like, concrete structures that have outlived the rest of the mill.

The path traces the reedbeds and can be followed across a footbridge to the remains of the mill. Access was easy when we visited, the wire fence missing in many places. Aside from an occasional, passing dog walker, we had the place to ourselves.

Stambridge Mills

Much of the Stambridge Mills site has been levelled, leaving only concrete and wild plants flourishing amid the broken slabs. The towering silos, and the concrete underfoot, are graffitied with the usual, colourful daubs.

Mills have stood at this spot for hundreds of years, powered first by the force of water released from the mill pond, and later by steam. Stambridge Mills, the last in a long line, closed in 2000 and was largely demolished in 2014, after fire.

The mill’s concrete wharf overlooks the upper Roach and a boatyard. A few ramshackle house boats and smaller craft were sitting firmly in the mud, waiting the tides return.

Returning across the footbridge, the path now cuts south through an industrial park, to Sutton Road. The road crosses a second tributary steam and after half a kilometer, at a junction in the road, a public footpath cuts back towards the Roach. The path is signed and would otherwise be easy to miss; it seems seldom walked.

The path follows a field edge, then meanders through some woodland, before reaching the river and another view of the boatyard. Looking downriver, the creek opens up and widens into a flat landscape.

The River Roach

Our route heads out along an old sea wall, a boundary between saltmarsh and fields. In places, there appear to be old oyster pits, rectangular cuts into the saltmarsh. Such pits were cut to store harvested oysters, ready for market.

After a while, a borrow dyke begins to run alongside the path. These inland moats are the ditches from which clay and soil was dug to create the seawall.

This is a wide landscape, flat and remote, far from other voices. The path reaches the point known as Barling Ness, where Potton Creek branches south from the Roach. The Roach flows on, between the islands of Wallasea, Potton and Foulness, before joining the River Crouch as it nears the Thames Estuary.

The Ness makes a natural spot to break. If the tide is low and the season right, samphire can be plucked from the mud near the high tide mark, juicy and salty.

Potton Creek and Barling Marsh

The path follows Potton Creek, and here we caught the attention of a seal, who watched us as we passed, before returning to the business of catching fish.

Across the creek, Potton Island is out of bounds, under the ownership of the Ministry of Defence. The island’s peaceful fields were once considered as a potential, long-term storage site for high-level nuclear waste, back in the 1980s. Thankfully that never happened.

Inland however, lies another type of waste. Our path skirts Barling Marsh, the former marshes lost below low, grassy hills of landfill. The land was first quarried for sands and gravels, and then, from 1994, used as a dumping ground for landfill. Once busy with scavenging gulls, the site is now approaching the closure phase, and appears peaceful, almost natural.

Low hills of grassy landfill, beyond a ploughed field.
Barling Marsh landfill, seen from the River Roach

The Thames Estuary is lined with sites like this; places where huge quantities of unwanted rubbish and rubble were dumped, out of sight and out of mind. Once capped and greened, these wasteland slopes reshape the landscape, their toxic hearts still beating, and waiting.

Barlinghall Creek

Potton Creek splits, the seawall path now heading east along Barlinghall Creek, towards the distant spire of All Saints Church.

Two broken wooden hulks lie on the edge of the creek, one little more than hull and ribs. Scraps of red and blue paint hint at a brighter past. Small, modern boats are dotted along the creek, served by the wharf at Barling Hall. The original Hall is long gone, believed demolished in the 1820s. The wharf here is now a repurposed WWII concrete barge, another familiar sight along these coastlines.

The footpath continues long the creek, but we cut inland here, following the lane to All Saints Church. At the church we turned right, following the quiet Mucking Hall Lane, flanked by fields of autumnal stubble.

Mucking Hall

After Barling Magna Wildlife Reserve, we took the Private Road to Mucking Hall. The signage isn’t obvious, but this is a public right-of-way. We followed an unmade lane between more fields of stubble, before encountering an unexpected roadblock, a small army of Canada geese. They stood their ground until we were close, before reluctantly allowing us to pass.

Passing Butler’s Farm, we picked up another footpath, cutting across fields towards Sutton Hall. After a while we found ourselves unexpectedly walking alongside a miniature railway track, between an avenue of trees. This surreal, little rail line belongs to the nearby Hall, and can be hired with the venue.

There’s another All Saints Church here, dating back in parts to the 12th century. The cobwebbed doors suggest disuse, but a plinth of jarringly modern concrete, poured beside one ragstone wall, implies otherwise.

Prittle Brook

From the church, another path heads east across flat, arable fields, towards Prittle Brook, a tributary of the Roach. The path then follows the stream to Sutton Road, where, in theory, a public footpath leads across a field towards Rochford. However, the field was ploughed and any path, if there ever was one, was erased.

Believing in our right of way, we clumped across the broken earth to the edge of an industrial estate. Off to one side, a cluster of low yellow pylons hinted at unseen paths above us, their lights ready to guide nighttime pilots into nearby Southend Airport.

Pushing our way through a tight, overgrown path got us back to the Roach, where we’d first encountered it as a stream, and thence to the Horse and Groom for post-walk refreshments.

More information

Thank you to Liza S for joining me on this walk in September 2022.

The walking distance is roughly 21km or 13 miles.

With hindsight, I’d probably have taken in more of the coastline on the way back, skipping the inland section. The flat, featureless fields have little to offer, other than the two churches .

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