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A walk on the perilous side

Travel | August 2016

Wear wellies not walking boots: the Broomway starts off as a rough causeway which soon gives way to sand and surface water

The Broomway is a Thames estuary path that makes for a magical day out. But don’t attempt it alone, warns Phil Harding

The Broomway is a Thames estuary path that makes for a magical day out. But don’t attempt it alone, warns Phil Harding

The wording on the website was stark: ‘Danger of death by drowning or exposure – do not do this walk without understanding the very real dangers! There is quicksand, and the sea comes in faster than you can run … There is no official “safe” time of the tide when it is safe to walk the Broomway.’

This was my introduction to the Broomway: the most dangerous path in Britain, sometimes known as the Doomway. In the past century more than a hundred people have died on it. The figures have to be approximate because not all the bodies have been found. Running six miles off the coast of Essex, the Broomway connects the mainland with the island of Foulness on the edge of the Thames estuary. 

Now, with more than a little trepidation, I was going to walk it. My mood was made even more uncertain by discovering that the path also lies on the edge of a Ministry of Defence firing range at Shoeburyness. Access is allowed only on certain days when there isn’t firing. If the tide doesn’t get you, the mortar shells will. 

Can it really be an authorised footpath? Yes, there it is on the Ordnance Survey map, a dotted line marked out on the blue. On Google Earth it just goes straight out into the murky grey green waves of the North Sea. 

The Broomway has started to become popular as a path to walk thanks to Robert Macfarlane’s vivid description of its mysteries in his book The Old Ways. He had described walking the Broomway as a cakewalk. Judging from some of his other exploits in the book, I wasn’t convinced and decided to seek an expert guide. A quick search of the websites revealed that a small non-profit outfit called Nature Break ran organised walks. Beware however that their walks get booked up very quickly and I had been frustrated in previous attempts to join them. This year I was more efficient and emailed them in January. And so it was that one day in late April, along with my pal Mike, I drove east past Southend and reached a sign that read: ‘DANGER MOD FIRING RANGE. This site is prohibited under the Official Secrets Act 1911–1939. Do not approach or touch any debris it may explode and kill you.’ 

Despite his sign, the security guard in the hut waved us through cheerily and we carried on across the flat landscape until we reached a barrier and the sea wall by Wakering Stairs, where, along with another dozen brave souls, we met our amiable and reassuring guide, Brian Dawson. 

We climbed up and over the sea wall to stare out to a horizon seemingly stretching out for ever beyond a sheet of shallow water and mud. It was a near perfect day for walking; sunny with some clouds and a brisk breeze off the North Sea. We set off more or less at ninety degrees to the sea wall along a rough causeway about three yards wide of paving stones, rubble and hardcore. About 200 yards out this gave way to sand, mud and surface water about six inches deep. I saw why we had been instructed to wear wellingtons rather than walking boots. 

We asked Brian whether the stories about quicksand hereabouts were       true. No, he replied, the greater danger is the risk of falling into a shell hole which you won’t spot because it’s full of sea water. Fall in one of those up to your chest and it’s difficult to climb out, at least on your own. I had no intention of going anywhere out of his sight. 

The first mention of the Broomway as a path is in parish records of 1419. Many think the path dates back to Roman times. Until 1922, when a bridge was built, it was the only way of getting from the mainland to Foulness. The postman arrived this way, as did stagecoaches with full sets of horses. Careful navigation was needed because a thick mist often closes in very quickly and you can lose all sense of direction. Victims have thought they were walking in to the shore when in fact they were walking out to meet the onrushing tide. In its heyday, the path was marked out on either side by a series of tall staves stuck in the mud, to the tops of which were attached bundles of sticks like witches’ brooms, hence its name.  

After about a mile we reached the only distinguishing feature, the Maypole, a tall mast-like structure sticking up twelve metres high out of the mud. It marks the point where you have to turn left toward the island. From here you can appreciate the real beauty and other-worldliness of this landscape. It is completely flat and apart from the screech of the odd seabird it is completely silent. Without any distinguishing features all sense of perspective and distance is lost. There is nothing but a sheet of water stretching out to an almost infinite, slightly curving horizon. It is a strange and magical mirror-world where the brilliant blue and clouds of the sky are reflected back at your feet. It feels as if you are walking on water, as if you are on the edge of the world. Go far enough and you will fall off. 

This is the Maplin Sands. If our country’s politics had taken a different turn, this wilderness would have been unrecognisable. In the 1970s, as now, London was looking to increase its airport capacity. There were a series of politically charged planning inquiries before the government of Edward Heath settled on Maplin as the site for a new third London airport. The Broomway would have become a runway. The project would have included not only an airport with high-speed transport links but also a deep-water harbour for container ships and a new town of 600,000 people. The soaring cost of the project scared off the incoming Labour government and the project was killed off in favour of enlarging Stansted airport instead. 

Past what could have been the duty free shops we walked on for another forty minutes until we reached Foulness. The island has been owned by the Ministry of Defence for the past century for weapons testing; 150 people still live there but the numbers are declining: a few farmers, mostly commuters. 

There was no time to explore: at the start of the walk, Brian had asked us to keep an eye on a distant container ship moored in the Thames estuary. If that ship turns round please tell me, he said, it means the tide has turned. An alert member of our party spotted that it had begun to swing round. It was time to turn back and retrace our steps. We reached the safety of Wakering Stairs a couple of hours later, tired but beguiled by the magical world we had walked across. A pint in the village pub, then a quick check on our starting point confirmed that the reports of the speed of the tide were not an exaggeration. The Broomway had disap-peared beneath a foaming North Sea. 

For guided Broomway walks contact Nature Break Wildlife Trips: wildlifetrips.org.uk; tel 01268 491540.


This story was from August 2016 issue. Subscribe Now