Land, Sea and Sky
Discovering Britain (RGS) Essex Estuary Walk
Essex Estuary Walk, from South Benfleet to Leigh-on-Sea, is one of the Discovering Britain walks created by the Royal Geographical Society. The walk, along Benfleet Creek and Hadleigh Ray, was suggested by writer and environmentalist Ken Worpole, who grew up hereabouts. Written and audio guides for the walk may be downloaded from a summary page entitled ‘Neither Land Nor Sea’. Some of the text on that page may be slightly depressing but Ken’s commentary on the audio guide is much more interesting, His first contribution, in which he mentions his connection with this area, is attached.
Discovering Britain offers downloadable content here… e.g. “the Thames Estuary is home to a diversity of specially adapted wildlife. Three important stops on the trail, as shown on the maps, are summarised here:
Pause at Stop #9 “Second chance” This area played a unique part in the history of the UK’s welfare and social reform movement. To the left (West) of the castle ruins was the site of Home Farm, Hadleigh’s Salvation Army Colony. Established in 1891 by William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, it was a colony for men from London’s East End who had hit hard times. Their lives were transformed through agricultural and industrial work, producing bricks for London; fruit and vegetables for Southend and rearing poultry. Thousands benefitted at no cost to the tax-payer; many men were trained and emigrated to set up farms and businesses in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. For a comparison in a different era, the difficulties of transforming land and people are examined in the 2021 book by Ken Worpole “No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen” about the Frating Hall community formed in the 1940s.
Hadleigh Country Park hosted the 2012 Olympic Games events for Mountain-bike racing in the same area made famous by the ups and downs of motorbike scrambling in the 1970s. The refreshment facility at The Hub is also in that area, on the footpath North from Stop point #9.
Pause at Stop #10 “A romantic ruin” On the ridge to the North of the embankment / sea wall are the ruins of Hadleigh Castle; completed in 1232 in the reign of Henry III when he was rightly concerned about the threat of French attack. The site was chosen to command this part of the Thames estuary, when water reached the base of the hill. The picture of the Castle was painted by John Constable. Ken Worpole comments: “I have heard that Constable completed it after his wife died. He was obviously very much in love with his wife – his earlier paintings are full of life and images of serenity, like church towers and lush vegetation. But this painting of Hadleigh Castle is of a ruin, of emptiness and with bleak skies beyond it. You can say that it represents a change in his mind because of circumstances that happened in his personal life.”
Pause at Stop #11 “Working the land”
Embankments are built to reclaim land from sea. On our left hand (North) side between this embankment and the hills is Hadleigh Marsh. In the sixteenth century much of this land would have been saltmarsh and mudflats. Once defended from the sea and drained, the land was farmed. This environment is often called a working landscape as it has been shaped over hundreds of years by people working the land. Hadleigh Marsh is still a working arable farm.