The Broomway

Looking back at one of my most memorable walks, guided, May.

TL;DR The deadliest path in Britain is completely captivating

Some paths stay with you, a crystallised memory, becoming a part of your world. The Broomway is one of those paths. In fact it isn’t a path at all, it doesn’t exist until you step out onto it.

The Broomway is a right of way across the shifting and tidal Maplin Sands, a pathway from Havengore Island off the coast of Essex to the island of Foulness. It is a very unusual walk, and one which I took with someone who had walked it hundreds of times since he was a boy. It is not a route that should be taken without a great deal of experience of the area. The Broomway is called deadly for good reason. It has taken the lives of at least a hundred people and certainly more over the centuries. Because of the emergence of two rivers, the Crouch and the Roach onto the sands and a swift incoming tide, the space can rapidly become disorienting, confusing. Add in a sea mist and you would not be able to find land and safety. You would be lost.

The other point to note is that both the islands of Havengore and Foulness are owned by the Ministry of Defence, and chances are if you haven’t timed it right you will be refused entry to the start at Wakering Stairs, or the finish, unless it is one of the MOD’s handful of open days.

I went with Brian Dawson a few years ago. Brian wound down his guided walks shortly after. I was fortunate. We (a small group of us in wellies and walking boots) began by meeting and crossing the military checkpoint, before making our way to Wakering Stairs.

As you look out at Wakering Stairs, the light is bouncing off the glistening sand, it looks a wide open landscape, not exactly inviting. A semi submerged beach without a sea. You cannot see the banks of quicksand, or the areas of deep watery mud you could fall up to your neck in. At least I can’t, this is why I need Brian.

As we stepped out onto the water covered sand it felt firmer than I expected. This causeway is known as the Black Grounds. Perhaps I thought I would sink into it. It feels reassuring, not exactly solid but easy enough to walk across. In the days before GPS and people like Brian, the Broomway was marked by poles at intervals topped with bundles of broom, hence the name. It must have brought to mind witches and submerged broomsticks. The idea being that even in a mist you could tie a rope to the pole and try to make it to the next one in safety. The brooms have long gone, few people walk here nowadays. Then Brian takes us out onto the sands. At first we stay bunched up, but he’s a reassuring presence and we begin to relax a little.

It’s an amazing feeling to be out here, in the sea. The sky seems huge, the daylight is dazzling, coming at you from above and below. Brian tells me in all honesty the walk is never the same twice and I envy his experiences. In the sea there is occasional wreckage, even military debris. The islands are used for firing practice. But apart from that there’s very little to mark time.

8000 years ago we would have been walking on land, Doggerland in fact which once connected Britain and Europe, before a cataclysmic tsunami flooded it and cut us off, making us an island nation. Now there is just sand and sky as far as I can see. The Essex coast looks close but it’s not possible to walk directly to it, you would drown, or at least get stuck until the tide took you.

We’ve reached the maypole, used by ships to navigate. It’s a pleasure to see in a sea of nothing and everything. It reminds me in a few hours time this space is deep under water. Foulness has one of its few open days today so we will be able to walk onto the island and drive around it on a truck.

I don’t want the walk to end. I understand what Robert Macfarlane meant when he wrote you feel drawn into the horizon and feel the urge to walk out, off the Broomway and into the distance. It is beguiling and unfamiliar, and yet familiar to anyone who has seen a beach. Maybe this is how the Sirens work, luring sailors to their deaths at sea. I remember the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy. This isn’t an innocent landscape. But Brian has brought us safe and sound to Foulness Island.

We spent some time exploring Foulness but if i’m honest I can’t remember much about it, a somewhat bleak farming outpost, a visitor centre, wildlife, a church. I have no photographs of it, I should go back.

Before I leave the island I walk back down to the shore. The tide is coming in fast. The Broomway is gone. It’s a very odd feeling.

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Walk info

Brian has retired now, I don’t know if he still walks the Broomway but I suspect he does. It looks like there is another guide now, Tom Bennett who has a sleek looking website so if you are interested I would seek him out. Don’t be tempted to walk unguided.

You can read Robert Macfarlane’s account of the Broomway in his book The Old Ways. Click on this link or buy from good, preferably independent, bookshops.

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