Pitsea to Leigh-on-Sea
Saturday August 6th 2016
Finally today we got back to the sea! We left the sea three years ago almost to the day when we passed Seasalter in Kent and began to make our way along the Thames to the first crossing.
We caught an early train from Aldershot and arrived in Pitsea in time to pop into the big Tesco for lunch and water. We had identified the beginning of the first footpath last time we were here and it was a hopeful start as it was clear and dived neatly behind a row of houses just as it was supposed to do.
It came out at the end of the houses into a wheat field, which was yellow and ripe and swaying gently in the breeze. At the end of the fields we came out onto a lane and our first landmark of the day; St Margaret’s Church at Bowers Gifford.
It was already warm and we were grateful for a seat in the shade of the church wall to have a drink stop. There were a few people about with mowers and strimmers working in the churchyard and when we had finished the drink we stopped to chat. They were tidying things up as part of the preparation for a wedding and the grounds were looking lovely. A lady offered to show us the church and told us a little of its history. It is a strange place as the buildings now sits in the middle of fields a few miles from any civilisation but its origins were as a place of worship for the many people who lived on the marshes and worked on the farms there. Parts of the church date back to the 1300s and she showed us fragments which date from the rebuild in Tudor times.
We left the church behind and found our way out of the far side of the churchyard and along another path on the edge of a field which again came out on a lane. We were intrigued by a handmade sign here pointing under the railway to “Daniel and Chloe’s party”. We were under the impression that the road only went to a sewage works but maybe not!
There was a path here continuing alongside the railway but it was choked with nettles and brambles so we decided to find a way through the housing estate. It turned out to be very easy – up one road, right into another, then across a park. The park had some very large trees and we took a break in the shade and enjoyed a refreshing box of pineapple chunks. On the other side of the park, we found our way through more houses to join up with the route again at Benfleet Church.
Outside the church we stopped again and bought some more water in a shop opposite. We then walked along a road through Benfleet and picked up a path which would lead us uphill and into Hadleigh Country Park. We were now looking for a place to stop for lunch but the path led into a cow field and although we had seen the cows trotting past, we were a little worried that they might come back. So we pressed on uphill, over a stile and up again to the edge of a patch of woodland. Here in the shade, was the perfect place to stop for a while. We had a view of Canvey Island and Sheppey and a small patch of blue in the distance which was almost certainly our first glimpse of the sea.
After a good stop and some good food we were ready to continue and we thoroughly enjoyed the next section which was through the edge of the woods. It was a good path which climbed gently, was well signed and easy to walk. After a couple of miles, we emerged into the car park of the country park. Here we found a large visitor centre, toilets, a café and hundreds of cyclists and the solution as to why Hadleigh had been naggingly familiar as a name.
This is Hadleigh Farm which is where the Olympic mountain bike races had been held in 2012. The legacy of 2012 is really in place here as the Olympic courses are still in place and many more have been put in since. They are graded according to difficulty and some are suitable for children. We saw cyclists of all ages from toddlers on balance bikes to very elderly gents on smart expensive machines and many families out enjoying the sunshine. We stopped for water and ice cream and a sit down in the shade.
Then it was on for the last lap. A good “multi-use track” took us towards Hadleigh Farm which is now a rare breeds farm and tea room. The site was opened in the 1890s by the Salvation Army to provide work and training for men from London who needed a helping hand. Many went on from Hadleigh to work overseas. The complex included several farms, brickworks and living accommodation and the work on offer covered farm work, labouring in the brickworks or work in the living quarters, library and kitchens. The work has evolved over the years but the Salvation Army still help people find work here on the farm or in the country park. We did not stop but continued down to Hadleigh Castle which is about half way down the hill.
A few walls and one tower are all that is left of a once large castle. It was built in the 1230s by Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent and a hundred years later was a favourite residence of Edward I. Edward III also loved it and spent a lot of time at Hadleigh in his later years. After his death, the castle was no longer used and in the 1550s it was demolished and the stones sold off as building materials. It is now in the protection of English Heritage and the grounds are immaculate and it was full of families picnicking and enjoying the sunshine. The views were amazing and we identified Canvey Island below us and could make out Allhallows on the Isle of Sheppey and could definitely see the sea now.
After a break at the castle, we dropped very steeply to the path along the bottom near the railway line. It was hot down there, very hot and there was no shade. All we could do was keep going in the knowledge that we were nearly at Leigh-on-Sea. We could see the trains slowing down to stop at the railway station and suddenly we spotted this sign.
It took us a little longer than 2 minutes but we got there and gratefully collapsed on a seat in the shade for a few minutes. To our surprise it was quarter to five and we decided to finish the walk here. We were both struggling a bit and it seemed the wisest thing to do. Leigh station had loos and a coffee shop so all we needed was to hand, as well as a train back to London which was almost due.
We came back all the way to Fenchurch Street and came across London on a beautiful balmy evening. From Fenchurch Street we caught the tube to Embankment then walked across Hungerford Bridge. The South Bank was crowded and loud as we made our way through the throngs and up to Waterloo for our train home.
It was a splendid walk; Essex redeemed itself today and we really enjoyed it. The best thing was that we finally saw the sea and will look forward to walking along a proper prom again soon.
Pitsea 10.23 1.49 miles 3746 steps
Leigh-on-Sea Station 16.46 10.26 miles 25791 steps
Time 6 hours 23 minutes Steps 22045 Miles 8.76 Running Total 684.94 miles