A Walk From Shoeburyness to Chalkwell
At the end of August, I always feel the need to leave the city and go to the sea, taking advantage of the last days of sunshine before the season changes. Admitting that I have spent too much of these last months at my desk in neglect of summer, I found myself on the train out of Fenchurch St Station with the East End receding like a dream.
At Shoeburyness, the ocean lay before me gleaming like a tin roof beneath a flawless azure sky. Surely no-one fails to be surprised by the sea, always more expansive than the image you carry in your mind. I sat upon the warm buttery-yellow sand of East Beach to assimilate this vast landscape before me, humbled by the open space after too long in narrow streets.
Military fences obstructed my intention of walking east across open land towards the River Roach, so instead I turned west, following the coast path through a wildlife reserve embellished with abandoned structures of warfare now being appropriated by nature. Local myth speaks of an ancient settlement lost beneath the sands and archaeology has revealed an Iron Age camp, confirming the strategic importance of this site overlooking the estuary where Shoebury Garrison was established in 1854. Wild fennel, sea holly, coltstfoot and stonecrop grow freely upon the sea wall, where the works of man are sublimated by greater forces. It came as no surprise to encounter a religious service enacted upon the shingle here, with priests in white robes and red sashes presiding, like their Celtic predecessors, upon unyielding waves lapping at the beach.
Then, in a sudden change of atmosphere, leaving the reserve and crossing a road brought me to Thorpe Bay with its regimented lines of cabins that serve to domesticate the shoreline. Yet even on this baking Saturday in August, just a few lone sun worshippers were setting out their deck chairs and upholding their secular rituals beneath the glassy sky. Meanwhile, an equal languor prevailed below the tideline where yachts sat marooned and inert upon the glistening mud.
The long pier and white towers upon the horizon led me on, absorbed now in walking, even if the featureless esplanade offered no sense of progress until, turning a shallow corner, I found myself in the midst of the throng of Southend with its endless diversions and hullabaloo. Extended family groups clung together, laden with bags and babies, and huddling as if they were refugees caught in the middle of a battle, while my own attention danced and darted, drawn by amusement arcades, crazy golf, souvenir and novelty shops, and pleasure parks. In the event, I took a nap in the shade of a pine tree upon the cliff overlooking Adventure Island, where fellow day-trippers were screaming in terror while being flung around on white-knuckle rides that looped and twisted for their enjoyment.
Walking on, the frenzied action relented as the sedate charms of Westcliff made themselves apparent in the form of elaborate nineteenth-century balconied villas. The tide had retreated still further and the declining sun reflected golden off the pools where lonely beach-comers strayed. A stone obelisk upon the strand indicated the boundary of the Thames and its estuary, and beyond lay a causeway across the mud banks where a long procession of curious ramblers were walking out to the horizon.
In overt contrast to the demonstrative thrill-seekers of Southend, I spied bowls played upon lawns discreetly screened by well-kept privet hedges in Chalkwell. Here my walk ended and I took the opportunity of reflection upon the day’s journey, stringing together the disparate locations that comprise this stretch of coast. Dozing on the train, I awoke in Fenchurch St Station and as I wandered back through the familiar deserted City, it could have been as if my adventure had been but a fantasy – if it were not for the residual sensation of sunshine and wind upon my skin that was evidence I had been somewhere else.
You may like to read about my previous trips beyond Spitalfields at this time of year