Walking the Vange and Fobbing Marshes, from Stanford-le-Hope to Pitsea

by Ian Tokelove
A battered signpost in the marshes

The Vange and Fobbing Marshes are an area of low-lying wetlands in Essex, to the east of London. They are a rare example of Thameside grazing marshes, most of which have been lost to landfill, drainage, and development.

From Stanford-le-Hope, Wharf Road leads out to the Thurrock Thameside Nature Park, overlooking the Mucking Flats, where a low tide reveals a wide expanse of mudflats. Thurrock Thameside is run by Essex Wildlife Trust; the nature reserve created on top of a huge landfill site. The visitor centre is a good spot for a cup of coffee, with extensive views of the estuary.

The Mucking Flats
The Mucking Flats, Thames Estuary. London Gateway on the horizon.

The river path heads eastwards, past Mucking Flats. The river embankment used to be considerably farther out here, but the reason for its retreat is unclear. This area, like many others, was greatly affected by the devasting North Sea Flood of 1953, and it is possible the river simply reclaimed what was once its own. The land is held in place by ugly, heavy-duty plastic mesh, eroded by the elements and clipped by mowers and strimmers.

Stanford-le-Hope marshes

The path comes to a railway line, overlooking Stanford-le-Hope marshes. Along with the Mucking Flats and Marshes, these are part of a SSSI, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, protected for their value to wildlife. My map shows a footpath bisecting this small sea marsh and cutting across to the London Gateway deep-sea container terminal, but you’ll need a low tide to walk this one-way route.

Standing on the edge of Stanford-le-Hope marshes, looking at the 'footpath' which leads to London Gateway.

Crossing the rail tracks, follow Rainbow Lane and take a right at the substation. Cross the dual-carriageway serving London Gateway and continue past a couple of farm buildings. The public footpath continues straight on where the road curves to the left. The track here may be gated and there is no footpath sign, but this is a public right-of-way.

The track curves to the right, and the public footpath carries straight on, through a hedgerow gap and then alongside playing fields. Crossing the A1014, pass Corringham church and pick up the footpath at the end of the school car park.

Vange and Fobbing Marshes

The paths here can be tangled, overgrown and confusing. But getting lost is part of the fun. Old river embankments lead out to Holehaven Creek and the imposing flood barrier. To the south, the horizon is dominated by the massive cranes of London Gateway and the Coryton Refinery.

Looking south towards London Gateway and the Coryton Refinery
Looking south towards the Thames, London Gateway and the Coryton Refinery
Fobbing Marshes, south of Fobbing Creek. It's easy to get a little lost here, and you're unlikely to see another soul.

A curious bunker and other concrete structures hint at a wartime past to the marshes. Huge decoy fires could be lit here during WW2, to attract enemy bombers seeking to bomb the Thameside oil installations.

An online leaflet describes this “paraphernalia of night-time bombing deception. On the approach of German aircraft massive fires would be lit using petrol, paraffin, and kerosene. Steel chutes would splash water onto the conflagration to create the effect of explosions. Rings of oil were lit to look like blazing oil tanks. Basket fires, boiler fires, grids and arrays all contributed to give the effect of Shell Haven oil installation being devastated by successful bombing. Hopefully, this deception would divert some of the attackers to the dummy.”

WW2 structure on Fobbing Marshes
WW2 structure on Fobbing Marshes

The marshes are now a quiet place, home to rare wildlife and sturdy cattle. I’ve yet to meet anyone else out here. You can walk out as far as the Fobbing Creek Flood Barrier. This is typical of the guillotine-like barriers which protect other Thames tributaries, the gates dropping to protect upstream property from high tidal surges. 

The Fobbing Flood Barrier, a large squat concrete structure on the horizon
The Fobbing Flood Barrier protects Vange Creek from tidal surges

Skylarks and hares

You have to retrace your steps to pick up the path to Pitsea, skirting the edge of Fobbing village. The right-of-way again passes through a gate into what seems to be private property, but you are quickly back into fields.

There is a direct path, heading north to Pitsea, but the path that heads east into the marshes is of much more interest. Skylarks sing overhead, and wary hares sprint, zigzag, stall then bolt, as if under sniper fire.

Walking out towards the Vange Marshes on a stormy winter day. Skylarks still sang overhead.

The two paths meet, and the route continues past Marsh Farm and towards the railway tracks. An unpromising, narrow pathway bypasses Vange Wharf and leads to a nature reserve. From here, it is a short walk to Pitsea Railway Station. Sadly, there’s no pub to welcome the weary walker; this is a long walk, deserving of a celebratory pint.

You may also like