When looking for beautiful locations in England, I know the Thames Estuary doesn’t usually feature in the top ten. Most likely, if you think of the Thames, you’ll think of the centre of London, or the brown water and industry of Thurrock, Dartford and Tilbury Docks. But carry on fifteen more minutes along the C2C train line, and you might be surprised. Though not a walk along Whitby Bay, the familiar White Cliffs of Dover, or the stunning Cornish sea side, the Thames Estuary is totally an ice cream sundae: a fairly long walk for people of basic fitness, coated in the gorgeous Essex landscape, with sprinkles of history, all served in a sea side cone.
Since we were bored on a warm Saturday morning, and live directly between London and Southend-on-Sea, Dan and I decided to have a mini adventure.
Benfleet and Hadleigh
Our journey began in the town of Benfleet, 30 miles east of London and rich in history. In 894, the Vikings were defeated by King Alfred and the Saxons during The Battle of Benfleet. Now, it looks nothing like a Viking base and battle field, but is a pleasant town, sporting a number of public houses near the train station, and is the link onto Canvey Island.
As lovely as the town is, Hadleigh Castle is the reason to visit. The now ruined castle, painted by the famous John Constable, stands crippled on a ridge, overlooking acres of marshland and unstable clay. This spot offers a more rural perspective of the estuary, and the surrounding parklands are the perfect place to take dogs for a long walk. On a warm summer’s day, the regular sounds of the passing trains interrupt a consistent stream of grasshopper chirps, and if you listen carefully, you might even be able to hear the flapping wings of wood pigeons as you sit beside the castle stones eating a picnic and watching children rolling down the hills.
It’s a clear vantage point for the surrounding area and you can see for miles. On our visit we noticed the tallest side of the castle is looking a bit like the Tower of Pisa, but without the scaffolding. I’m not sure it will last the next two hundred years.
Continuing east you reach Leigh-on-Sea, the home town of Dame Helen Mirren, and where the ‘coastal’ walk really begins. It’s a quaint little town that seems to have three distinct areas. You could make the climb from the station to the high street and spend your time meandering in and out of quirky, independent shops, boutiques and cafes, splashing some cash and enjoying the friendly atmosphere. It’s like a tiny Brighton in the summer (without the miles of sand, of course), and, as strange as it sounds, I personally love the street lamps!
If you don’t fancy walking the whole way to the high street, the hills up from the train station offer beautiful views across the estuary. Benches in patches of green, decorated by bright flowers, face the river. Although beside a main road, it’s uncannily peaceful. Sometimes, the colours of the land and water blend into a perfect pallet.
If you want to find a literal hidden gem, turn right out of the station and head towards Old Leigh, a historical fishing village. Fishers still scour the estuary and catch shellfish and whitebait that are sold in the small huts and restaurants there; try shellfish with vinegar! The buildings have that historical influence, the streets are cobbled, and old fishing equipment including nets, parts of boats and anchors are placed in the nooks and crannies between pubs. Of course you can find somewhere to stop off for an ice cream if you decide against a beer or cider, and it would be a good choice, because they are delicious.
Southend-on-Sea is a popular seaside town (or city) only an hour east from London, home of the country’s longest pleasure pier, Root’s Hall (League One team Southend United’s ground), and a collection of night clubs. It’s a place of significance for us, not just as a famous UK holiday destination, but as somewhere Dan and I have spent a fair portion of our lives.
An hour’s stroll from Leigh-on-Sea via Old Leigh, Chalkwell and Westcliff, gets you to Western Esplanade, the road that takes visitors along the seafront. As you approach Southend Seafront, the white painted facades directly stare out onto the estuary that glitters endlessly in a postcard-like scene. With the towering lampposts and trees that look like palm trees, it’s Los Angeles without the price tag!
Once you reach the centre, forget Adventure Island and go to the pier. It’s over a mile long, a wonderful walk in the sunshine, and totally romantic – Dan and I had one of our first dates there back in March 2016. The sights are worth the walk. On the one hand, you are faced with the bedlam of a busy summer day at the beach. On the other side of the river is Kent, which is just close enough for you to see on the horizon. Then out to sea is the endless stretch of water that laps calmly against the wooden posts of the pier. Once you have had your fill of being in the sea, check out the museum at the end, have a bite to eat in the cafe, or for a few extra pounds, you can ride the rickety old train back to dry land.
To fully immerse yourself in the wild lifestyle of Southend-on-Sea, fight your way through the flashing lights and incessant rattling of coins in the penny arcades, or have a few drinks in Chinnery’s, the famous seafront venue which houses numerous bands each month. Plus, and most excitingly, The Kuursal has been refurbished, so no longer looks and smells like a toilet!
However, having lived and worked in Southend-on-Sea for about 22 years between us, we passed on these seaside delights and continued east after picking up a spot of lunch.
The hustle and bustle of Western Esplanade suddenly disappears as you pass the shingle beaches, tiny cafes, and the homes of some really lucky people. Thorpe Bay is a coveted location, so houses are often huge and come with a hefty price tag. The air seems cleaner here, and you really have to search to spot empty soft-drink cartons and crisp packets on the floor.
Lining the beach is a collection of beach huts, most brightly painted, as if they were snatched clean from the 19th Century. Some seem a little worse for wear, but to find a well kept hut, which isn’t being used by its owners, is a cool (but slightly naughty) way to have a picnic.
You don’t need to be on the fells of the Lake District or on the cliffs of Dorset to soak in some beautiful sights on a long afternoon walk, the Thames Estuary can be just as good!