Walking the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation

A walk from Chelmsford to Maldon

Chelmsford, the town where the great Elizabethan astronomer, occultist, master magician and advisor to Elizabeth I, John Dee, was educated. And where Guglielmo Marconi produced the world’s first wireless sets, was a great place to start a walk. There’s something in the waters of Chelmsford, the confluence of the Rivers Can and Chelmer on the edge of the town producing a curious Magick, that is channeled into the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation and flows out to the Blackwater Estuary at Maldon. You could sense it in the landscape lining the watercourse, it oozed through the muddy path and stirred in the channels and tributaries that fed the canal. It whispered in the swaying reeds and grasses and rattled the bare boughs of the trees. Maybe it was something the Romans left behind.

Along the Chelmer

My walk began at Springfield Basin just on the edge of Chelmsford where new blocks of flats rise on the sites of the warehouses and wharfs where softwoods from Maldon would have been unloaded and stored. The navigation opened  in 1797 and the last barge floated into the basin in 1972.

Chelmer

It was a wet and misty late morning as I left the town behind and headed through a field of tall dead teasels and beneath a motorway flyover. I was entering the landscape of The Essex Serpent. Progress along the Chelmer was marked by a series of locks – Barnes Mill Lock, Sandford Lock, Cuton Lock. Paper Mill Lock notable as a filming location for the brilliant BBC TV show Detectorists, which is set in the North Essex countryside.

Ulting Church appeared through the denuded trees on a bend in the river where swans munched on greens in the field. The present church dates from 1150 and was once a site of pilgrimage, said to be as significant as Walsingham (although I am unable to find out why).

Chelmer

The mist rose off the river in the last hour of daylight and I wondered if The Chelmer had a deity like the rivers of London in Ben Aaronovitch’s excellent series of books. If such a god/dess does exist they dwell in those reaches near the Langford reservoirs around the point where the Blackwater joins the Chelmer before it breaks free of the Navigation and heads through Maldon to the Blackwater Estuary.

River Chelmer

I followed the Langford Cut as far as the Tesco Extra the size of a village, on the edge of Maldon, and followed the Chelmer to the dock. It was pitch black, the only illumination coming from a lamp on a sail barge moored at the quay. It feels like an unfinished journey – I need to return to walk the Blackwater Estuary out to the sea. On the bus back to Chelmsford I started to plot my return.

A walk along the River Crouch

I scribble some notes down at Althorne Station, 8.15pm with ten minutes till the train comes along the single track Wickford to Southminster Line. It’s Monday 29th April, and the last light is fading. I’m parched and hungry at the end of a 17-mile walk from South Woodham Ferrers. I’d intended to start further along the River Crouch, at North Fambridge and walk the 10 miles to Burnham-on-Crouch, but somewhere on the train journey out from Stratford I’d started to wonder whether 10 miles was a long enough walk and toyed with the idea of starting at South Woodham Ferrers without properly thinking it through. I unconsciously alighted at South Woodham and it took me two hours to fully realise the implications of my mistake as the river path doubled back in a broad meander towards the outskirts of South Woodham Ferrers. Vast tidal mudflats stretched out ahead where I’d mistakenly assumed the path would continue towards North Fambridge. I was left with no choice but to follow the footpath around the ebb and flow of the river and then inland along Stow Creek to the disused railway line near Stow Maries. What had been intended as a straightforward, too straightforward, walk along the River Crouch had become a fieldpath ramble, an exercise in stoicism.

River Crouch Walk

River Crouch Walk

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By the time I reached North Fambridge it was 5pm, I’d drank all my water and burnt through the sandwich munched back at the beginning of the walk (I’d planned for a 10-mile walk afterall) and had already walked 12.5 miles to reach my intended start point. I looked forward to restocking at North Fambridge for the 10 miles into Burnham-on-Crouch, a couple of cans from a shop sunk on the riverbank and something to munch on, anything, as the hunger started to reach my legs.

There was not so much as a solitary shop at North Fambridge (population 835), and the only pub was closed for refurbishment. I was directed towards the marina where I was told there was a café, a 20-minute detour that proved fruitless as the café closed at 2pm on a Monday. There was an outdoor tap that couldn’t be trusted.

River Crouch Walk

I weighed up my options. Quit and head home. Catch the train to Burnham-on-Crouch to eat and drink then walk back along the estuary, or just call it a day at Burnham. None of them appealed. I hate giving up on a walk so on I pushed along the Crouch, 5-miles to Althorne, the next station. Heading off along the riverside path my hunger suddenly abated and my thirst subsided. I got used to my physical state, accepted it as the price of continuing the quest. Lots of memories, moods and associations swept over the evening-lit mudflats – backpacking, Bondi, a school trip to Swanage. Good feelings.

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Reaching Althorne at sunset I tentatively asked a dog walker near the boatyard if there was a shop or pub nearby, ‘Not for 50-miles’, he laughed. ‘It feels that way,’ I replied and off he walked. I sat on a stile and looked along the estuary towards Burnham-on-Crouch and decided it would be madness to continue. So I headed up the lane to the station and the wait on the deserted platform for a train back to Stratford.

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Unto the Fields of Buckhurst Hill

This walk and video was inspired by a comment on my YouTube channel, urging me to visit Linder’s Field in Buckhurst Hill. I had to confess I’d never heard of it and in the way that digital maps can deceive you, thought I’d never been anywhere near it somehow.

To make more of a walk, I decided to start down by the River Roding, one early afteroon at the end of November, when really the winter should be starting to bite but in reality it was quite mild. The terrain brought to mind my recent discovery of D.W Gillingham’s wonderful book about the Roding Valley, Unto the Fields, published in 1953.

“Now I have chosen this November morning to introduce you to the fields because November is the beginning of Nature’s year”.

Gillingham writes of the misty, frost covered mornings in November when this winter the frost didn’t arrive until near the end of December. I’m not complaining.

Linder's Field Buckhurst Hill

Linder’s Field Buckhurst Hill

Following a stream through a housing estate, remains of Gillingham’s world, I found Linder’s Field on the other side of a footbridge and realised it was the open space I’d seen from the tube a hundred times on the way to Loughton and Theydon Bois and wondered how to reach it. A magical place sealed from the outside world.

Weald Iron Age Fort and Stukeley’s Druid Temple

When searching for William Stukeley’s ‘Druid Temple’ on Navestock Common, I’d noticed Weald Country Park both on the map and the horizon. The map also showed a ‘settlement’ marked on the edge of the park, which a quick Google search identified as an Iron Age Camp or Fort.

“Three years after the excavation, a detailed contour survey of the earthwork and its immediate environs was undertaken as part of a separate project aimed at assessing the archaeological potential of the Essex Country Parks.  The two trenches excavated sectioned the univallate defences in the north-west and south-west quadrants. Both the excavations and the contour survey date the beginning of the construction of the hillfort to the Late Iron Age. Dating is provided by small amounts of Late Iron Age pottery in the rampart make-up. One trench had a well-defined linear cut interpreted as a slot for a revetment at the rear of the rampart. Within the area enclosed by ditch and rampart were a number of post holes also dated to the late iron Age; they may represent internal structures.”

Source: Essex County Council

It was a site that demanded further examination.

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After marvelling at the surviving earthworks and pretending to be a member of the Trinovantes tribe running up and down the rampants and ditches, I decided to push on through Weald Park to another of the possible locations of Stukeley’s ‘Druid Temple’.

“The central mound had been heavily quarried with a circle of trees interpreted as denoting the original edge of the mound. Havis suggests this represents a small motte and bailey or two adjoining baileys to the central motte. It is not clear whether this is the temple refered to by Stukely or if that is located at the western end of Mores wood.”

Essex County Council

You’ll have to watch the video above to see if my quest across two walks was ultimately successful.

Neolithic Trackway through Epping Forest – walk to Cheshunt

The cold biting down on the winter dark towpath out of Waltham Abbey to Cheshunt, turned out to be the perfect ending to this walk back at the end of November. It seemed a folly to eschew the cafe warmth of Sun Street to head out along the road to Waltham Cross as the sun was setting at 4.15pm. A mile-and-a-half up the Lea Navigation to Cheshunt seemed reasonable, and I needed a little more to tag onto the schlepp from Theydon Bois. A fella slugged beer from a green bottle on the deck of his barge. A single white bike headlamp zig-zagged in the distance til it fizzed past me. An illuminated barge looked impossibly cosy, like a floating Hobbit Hole. The red lights flashed at the Cheshunt level crossing where I started my Ermine Street walk in the snow in February. I like this stretch of the towpath and was a little sad to give it up – but it was time to go home.

Epping Forest

The aim had been to cover a small pocket of Epping Forest I’d somehow bypassed on previous Forest wanders – north-west of Theydon Bois, beyond Amesbury Banks – around Crown Hill and Warren Wood. Crossing Epping Road I discovered that the asphalt path I was walking along followed the course of a raised Neolithic trackway that ran across boggy ground that had recently been carbon dated.

Potkiln wood path

Potkiln Wood path

I picked up a narrow overgrown path beside Crown Hill Farm, crossed the M25 and waded through deep muddy ruts along the edge of Potkiln Wood towards the outskirts of Waltham Abbey. Open countryside gave way to scrubby fields abutting 80’s housing estates navigated via reluctant footpaths. Mangy horses chewed grass down to the roots. The sun set perfectly over the Abbey, casting it ablaze in a heavenly endorsement of the 11th Century vision that led to the establishment of the Abbey by Tovi the Proud. Popping inside the Abbey just before closing, a CD of choral music and a 2018 Diary were pressed into my hands by a member of staff for the exchange of a few pence. And then it was out to that dark winter towpath.

Cobbins Brook

Cobbins Brook, Waltham Abbey

M25 Hinterland walk from Theydon Bois to Epping

Such is my desire to tramp every square of my Ordnance Survey map 174 ‘Epping Forest & Lea Valley ‘ that I try to avoid repeating walks too often. Of course that goes out of the window when my youngest son joins me on our favourite routes through the Forest to arrive at the Royal Forest Brewers Fayre at the Hunting Lodge, Chingford. But, for my series of Walking Vlogs I try to break new ground where possible. The justification for following this route (in the video above) was that, although I’d walked it before with my son 3 years ago, it had largely been undocumented.

Theydon Bois Walk

This was not intended as a long walk, as I set out across the rough field the other side of the tracks from Theydon Bois tube station. I was merely intending to follow the tracks of that previous walk, picking up the trail across that curious teasle infested field the other side of a babbling brook where someone had pitched a tent among the tall spikey stems. I had to navigate through great pools of recent November rain discovering along the way that my boots were no longer waterproof.

Theydon Bois Walk

I had some difficulty locating the spot on the high ground by the field edge where we’d had our picnic that September afternoon but after some tooing and froing was glad to find the place – although there’d be no sitting to take in the view on a wet and windy November day.

Theydon Bois Walk

The track on the other side of the M25 was a glorious tunnel of autumnal colours and it encouraged me to push on in a different direction rather than cutting across the farmland to the outskirts of Epping by the Station. The path led around the perimeter of Epping Golf Course where the Sunday golfers were glad to give directions, curious to have a rambler in their midst. Then I walked along a field edge down to the brilliant named Fiddlers Hamlet.

Epping Fiddlers Hamlet sign

The light was starting to fade but with the half-hour or so remaining I followed a section of the Essex Way out from Epping to Coopersale and Gernon Bushes. The way back in the last of the day led me over the disused section of the Central Line between Epping and Ongar, now operated some weekends and during holidays by the brilliant Epping to Ongar Railway.

Fiddlers Hamlet

It was dark by the time I sloped up Epping High Street and bagged a pork pie from the butchers. Early Christmas lights twinkled and late shoppers huddled in the cafes. I found a table near the back of Cafe Nero and plotted future walks.