22 October 2013 by Paul Carter
Walking in the south-east of England is an activity that mostly consists of exploring gentle landscapes. You're never too far away from the nearest town or village and, without the relative extremes of height, remoteness or difficult terrain that are to be found in others parts of the UK, the natural environment seems not to throw up too many challenges.
That is until you see an extraordinary public right of way marked on the map off the Essex coastline several miles east of Southend. This is the notorious Broomway, which runs across the vast expanse of Maplin Sands between Shoeburyness and the seemingly mysterious and inaccessible Foulness Island.
Marked with large DANGER AREA signs on the map, in the middle of a firing range and with stern warnings that the path should not be attempted without seeking local advice, it doesn't look to be somewhere for a casual stroll.
Foulness Island itself hardly rises above sea level, the island having been taken over by the Ministry of Defence in the early twentieth century and now used for variety of research and experimentation as well as the firing range across Maplin Sands. Unlike other such areas which were purchased or requisitioned, a civilian population remains on the island today, mostly engaged in farming the remaining areas not used for military purposes. Maplin Sands was in the headlines for a time during the 1970s when it was seriously considered for a new London airport, an idea which has resurfaced more recently in a similar form in a different part of the Thames Estuary.
Up until the 1920s, when a bridge was built across the maze of creeks between the mainland and Foulness, the Broomway was in fact the only pedestrian and vehicular route to and from Foulness, and then only when the tide was out. Described as 'the most perilous byway in England', the poor visibility that can rapidly envelope the sands, the quicksands which exist and the ease by which it is possible to become disorientated and end up walking out to sea mean that many people have died over the years by making the wrong judgment on this very hazardous route. The name was derived from markers in the sand which resembled brooms; these are long gone and the route itself is now a mere compass bearing across the sands.
It was therefore with some sense of trepidation that on the first Sunday of September I travelled to Foulness with three other members of the Metropolitan Walkers to walk the Broomway. We weren't alone; a few guided walks are organised across the Broomway each year, led by local guide Brian of Nature Break and we were lucky enough to secure places on one of these trips.
There are public footpaths marked on the map across Foulness Island itself, available to walk on unless red flags warning of military activity are flying. The slight problem comes in actually being able to get on to the island itself to use them in the first place.
The only public right of way to get on to Foulness is indeed the ancient route of the Broomway. The more modern road can only be used in a vehicle and then only if you are on official business. However, on the first Sunday of every summer month, it is possible to visit the excellent Foulness Heritage Centre, established in the old school in the village of Churchend. As well as telling the story of the island, there is tea and cake on offer when the centre is open (which we enjoyed).
We began our walk out to the sands from the Heritage Centre and made our way over the public rights of way to Asplins Head, one of several entry points to the Broomway from the sea wall. The vastness of Maplin Sands before us was evident - mile upon mile of wet sand, without any sense of where the sand ended and the sea began. Brian explained that the sands nearest to the sea wall were deeply treacherous and known as the 'black sands'. Causeways across these areas lead from several of the 'heads' on the island and to the firmer sands further out.
Once we were out on the sands, it was easy to see how dangerous the path could be. It was a bright, sunny day but had the fog suddenly come down it would have been very hard to see where we were going. Although the sea seemed miles away, the speed at which the tide came in had claimed many victims in years gone by. Another confusing factor is that the north Kent coast is visible on the other side of the estuary and in poor conditions the lights from here had been known to lure unfortunate travellers to walk into the sea, rather than towards Foulness.
Still, the experience of the walk was quite like nothing else I have experienced in this country. A huge sky, the vastness and unchanging nature of the environment around us, the trudge through the wet sand which could get somewhat hard going, as well as the sense that this was slightly on the edge, and the sad knowledge that many had perished out here.
We arrived back on dry ground at Wakering Stairs, another manmade causeway taking us back to the sea wall. A coach then took us back to the Heritage Centre to pick up our car which had been our way to get on to the island - public transport not being much of an option round here. It was a wonderful experience and privilege to walk the Broomway and our guide Brian's knowledge and passion for the path and the wider local area made the day even better.
For those who may be inspired to walk the Broomway, there is an informative pamphlet by Patrick Arnold which was published in 2013 and is on sale at the Foulness Heritage Centre, describing the history of the route as well as some advice as to safety out on the sands. However I would urge anyone thinking of doing this to think very carefully before embarking on such a mission - and much better to be part of an organised trip.
Paul Carter is a member of the Metropolitan Walkers.