England Coast Path, Tilbury

7 miles (11 kilometres) along the Thames Estuary Path, now part of the new England Coast Path. February, cool and sunny. Solo with dog.

The England Coast Path is a new national trail, so new it isn’t finished. It is opening in sections, taking in existing coastal paths around the country and linking them together in a solid 2700 mile long journey. Where there’s a river as wide as the Thames it’s hard to know exactly where the coast path will end and the river begins. I long ago finished the 188 mile Thames Path at Woolwich, and then couldn’t leave the water, so continued on the south bank to Erith. And now I set off onto what used to be the Thames Estuary Path, perhaps the start of my own journey round England, but at 2700 miles I doubt it.

It’s safe to say Tilbury is not one of life’s pretty places, nor the safest as it has the prize of being Essex’s most dangerous town, so I make my way straight down Tilbury docks, like the start of a Victorian murder mystery. It’s not pretty but man it has history. Everyone from the bronze age Beaker people, to the Romans, Saxons and Normans, they all landed at Tilbury. And in June 1948 the Empire Windrush followed them.

HMT Empire Windrush brought 1027 passengers and 2 stowaways from the Caribbean, and has become symbolic of the immigration of West Indian commonwealth citizens, the Windrush generation. I can’t even begin to imagine what it felt like landing here in Essex. I pass by the containers to the mud of the estuary, the word that comes to mind is bleak. The ferry terminal is sadly closed, I would have loved to take the £5 return ferry over the water and back. Instead I gaze into the cruise ship terminal with its security warnings and police notices and feel the urge to either chuck a brick or move on swiftly.

Despite the cold, the stiff breeze blowing in, the weird remoteness and the bleakness (or perhaps becuase of the bleakness) it is absolutely captivating. Despite the container port and terminals, it feels wild and untamed. The river is powerful and the mud of the banks is held together by grasses which move in the wind. Bird prints cover the sludgy mud but I can see none. The tide has left rivulets of water and patterns deep in the ooze. It looks like, and is, another world.

I walk along the river, separated by a thick low wall and as I look back I watch the industry recede, a mix of historic port buildings and steel and concrete. Two centuries ago this was the busiest port in the world: I am the only person here.

I walk over an embankment and come to the pub, appropriately named The World’s End, at the end of the world. It’s too early to be open which is a shamed, it’s a listed building, mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary (although I have to say I think he was referring to a different place, let’s go with the local history page). It also has quite a history, the current landlord was attacked in the middle of the night by a murderer, it feels like the kind of place straight out of a Dickens novel.

Not far from the pub along the river is Tilbury Fort, a fortress to protect the Thames passage into London built in the 17th century. It was built on the site of a Tudor fort built by Henry VIII, and near here Queen Elizabeth I prepared her army for the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It was here she made the famous speech,

I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.

Elizabeth I

It’s all happened here, there are ghosts everywhere. After the fort the path curiously climbs down over the great wall defences, there are tidal and storm warnings about using the path but with a tinge of trepidation I go down. This is not a pretty section, there is rubbish strewn and twisted metal in the mud and water below. There is, however, an amazing collection of colourful graffiti on the high wall. This sea wall is modern concrete but there has been a sea wall here since the 13th century. I like to think that was highly graffitied too, a long tradition stretching back 700 years.

From time to time there are jetties pushing out into the estuary. It’s a good place for ship watching. I don’t even need the Marine Traffic app which is always on my phone, the ships are near enough to read their names. Agriculture comes almost down to the sea here, and I can watch the waders and crows at the same time.

As I get closer to Coalhouse Fort I look across the water and I can see Cliffe, the marshes over on the north coast of Kent where we walked last year, an RSPB bird reserve and more alien surroundings, where I heard the noisiest cacophany of sea birds I’ve ever heard. Near where I’m standing was Captain Kidd’s gibbert, privateer and pirate. He was hanged at Execution Dock Wapping in London but his corpse was tarred and stuck in a gibbet at Tilbury Point. I hope he would have appreciated the view although clearly not at that stage.

As I approach East Tilbury I start to see a few walkers and cyclists, and the litter disappears. I’ve reached Coalhouse Fort, more modern dating from 1860 to protect the Thames from French attacks. I turn inland to take a look.

This is a popular picnic spot (I neglected to bring one) and there are lots of parents and kids around. The weather begins to look like it might rain so I decide to press on a little further onto Mucking Marshes, mainly because I like the sound of it.

After the busyness of the fort, the path seems suddenly lonely, and the rain begins to steadily drip drip, the kind of weather you expect. Not a haar but a definite murk. I feel suddenly melancholic. I decide to turn inland to East Tilbury and the end of my walk. It may be the industrial landscape, unloved graffiti and quicksand will not be to many people’s liking, but it’s been bizarre and, yes, sublime.

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Walk info

With thanks to Rob Smith of Footprints of London who suggested this walk to me during lockdown, and gave me info about the wider Thames estuary and its history (he will take you on a guided walk here which is well worth it). This walk is straightforward, seeing as it follows the river. My GPX is here.

8 responses to “England Coast Path, Tilbury”

  1. Another wonderful read, I feel as though I am there walking with you. In the last photo, what is the tall object with the points on top of it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a beacon. In the old days there would be one on every prominent hill so each could be seen by the next, making a beacon chain for sending messages. I guess if this one was lit it would signal an invasion. In the UK they are now only lit for things like the royal jubilee.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I see, thank you for the description. The UK has so many beautiful and fascinating things about it, I love it! I cried a lot when the Queen passed, so sad. She saw so many changes during her reign. 🇬🇧❤️

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not a monarchist but she’s been there my whole life, it felt like she would always be there. The first time I ever saw a beacon was in 1977 for her silver jubilee when my dad drove us to see them. It felt like a midnight adventure.


  3. You’ve definitely sold this walk to me. So very different from the Moors and dales which are my daily bread when walking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not for everyone but it’s an emotive landscape. You are certainly spoilt for choice up there!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. We’re really lucky, I know that. But a bit of grunge with added history would make a thought-provoking change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know exactly what you mean.


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