There are always going to be a few bad apples on a long trek like this one. And we’ve landed with a couple of real stinkers on this epic odyssey, true dyed-in-the-wool monsters: always trying to trip me up, always nagging away in the background. I have nick names for them: Slasher and Slicer, also known as my two big toes.
On the way past Clacton, a couple of days ago, we were joined by a walker who told me her job and I seized on it, exclaiming: “My God, we need you! Can you just join for the duration? Please take a look at my feet!” She looked a bit baffled and then I realised she had said paediatrician, not podiatrist. I was thankful I hadn’t ripped my boots off and begged for a professional opinion. She edged away nervously and struck up a conversation with other people.
Actually a podiatrist would struggle: my toenails need taking out with an angle grinder in one of the boatyards we are coming across. They have slashed my guaranteed-chain-mail-strength socks to shreds and started chewing into the boot leather like enthusiastic little Rottweiler puppies. This morning, like every morning now, they fight tooth and claw – well, mainly claw – not to be incarcerated in their woollen cases, then spend the day moaning about it.
We stop on the way down to the harbour in Brightlingsea for me to leap out and inspect All Saints Church. Sheila the church warden, neatly dressed in red overalls, is strimming the graveyard weeds. I choke back the urge to ask her to cut my nails and instead she gets the key and lets me in the side door. This church has a unique feature: 213 square tiles that each commemorate a death at sea between 1872 and 1973. Among them is a crew member on the Titanic, and lots of fishermen. The English East coast in the late 19th century was the most deadly coast on earth and one terrible night in December 1883, 19 Brightlingsea fishermen were drowned in a storm, prompting the vicar to start this unique memorial.
Down at the harbour we are joined by Colin, our esteemed guide, and his friend, Dave, who is hobbling painfully, suffering from what Colin calls, a ‘deep-seated thrump’. Since Colin led us to safety through the reedbeds of doom around Blythburgh where the Black Shuck monster is known to reside, he has achieved almost mystical status and anything he says is gospel, so I assume this is a well-known condition.
We take the seasonal small ferry over to Mersea Island and beach, like a landing craft, on the shingle spit that projects from the east side of the island. Sand martens explode from the shoreline in great clouds, chasing flushes of insects, and we walk clockwise around the coast. At the village of East Mersea we are forced inland by a massive breach of the sea defences which happened in 2014 which suggests that there are no plans to rebuild. Like so many diversions on walks, this one leads, serendipitously, to something wonderful: a farm where a clutch of rusting steam traction engines sit under a barn roof. Everyone takes pictures and move on, but I linger with fellow walker Steve, hoping someone will appear.
It is the flags that work the trick. A man in blue overalls comes out of another barn. “What’s all this about flags then?”
We explain. I admire the engines. “Want to see more?” He leads us into a third huge barn and I gasp in astonishment. It’s full of gleaming, perfect, antique machines. There’s a motorbike, two massive traction engines, a bus, a truck and a 1923 Dodge car, looking ready for Al Capone to drive off in. “It’s a bit of a hobby,” says the man, Duncan. “I got carried away. That traction engine came from Argentina – with a couple more. I got six from sugar cane plantations in Chile. The Dodge was given to me by an old boy who wanted to see it restored.”
Duncan’s plan, he tells me, is to ship the car from Tilbury to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and drive across Canada. Since it only manages 40 mph, that could take several summers.
Is there something in the Essex air? A large percentage of people we meet seem to be engaged in, to be frank, highly eccentric and ambitious tasks. I wonder if it’s the landscape: flat and featureless at first glance, but on closer inspection, an ornately folded and complex parchment where a person can seclude themselves up a creek and get on with any kind of outlandish madness unimpeded and unseen. On top of that you have the tradition of smuggling. Customs duties were only introduced to England in 1643 and here in Essex it was seen as a ridiculous imposition that no one in their right mind would pay. Such things cemented the highly independent, cheeky and sometimes truculent, Essex character.
On the west side of the island are some big houses with big gardens, but mostly Mersea seems delightfully small-scale. We eat Mersea oysters and set off for the final seven miles with only three hours to spare before the last ferry. The seafood has helped. I set a blistering pace and drop Ali, John and the others far behind. I feel great. Slasher and Slicer are cooperating, but then I feel something in my right shoe give way. Slasher has mangled my Kevlar sock with all the power of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Ali and John sneak past with a cheery wave. The sea wall curves endlessly onward. Far across the fields of yellow wheat, a brown sail appears, apparently cruising across the land. In a side creek avocets and redshanks are sleeping in the afternoon heat.
I make it to the shingle landing place in time for a quick swim before the ferry arrives. Colin is there with Dave whose deep-seated thrump played up so badly that they were forced to spend the day at the Mersea vineyard and brewery. Colin tells me that long distance walking oxygenates the blood so efficiently that drinking alcohol is perfectly safe, even in large quantities. Inside my shoes, now sockless, Slasher and Slicer murmur their agreement. I feel a deep-seated thrump may be coming on.
Beach of Dreams Blog
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Route: Walk 16
Gallery of the Miles
See all the mapped miles on the Storymap, find a selection below. Slideshow images are by Mike Johnston.