Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Most Dangerous Path in Britain? Walking The Broomway



Late last summer, David and I walked The Broomway, arguably the most dangerous path in Britain. Before this walk, if I'd thought about dangerous paths, I might have come up with a mountain pass or a steep track along a cliff edge. But having walked The Broomway, I can see that this path could be the most deadly of all.

There are records of dozens of people having sadly lost their lives on this path. And it is very likely that dozens more have died here without their deaths ever being recorded.

So where is it?  The Broomway is to be found on the Essex coast between Wakering Stairs (not far from Southend) and Foulness Island. Before a road bridge was constructed in the twentieth century, this was the main route, across the mud and sand, from the mainland to the island. The name, 'The Broomway' comes from the posts that once lined the route to help people find their way across and I've heard two versions of the story, either that they resembled brooms, or that they had a sprig of broom on them.


The danger comes from the quicksands and the incoming tides. Setting off from Wakering Sands is setting off into a vast expanse of sand. Foulness is not visible at this point; the only land visible is the coast behind and at times, the distant Kent coast across the Thames Estuary. Get lost, or be too slow, and the tide will rush in from unknown directions and cut you off.


I suppose the obvious question today is why would anyone still walk The Broomway at all. Well, a reason has to be that is surely one of the most beautiful paths in Britain.

The beauty lies in the quality of the light in this place.  Under a huge sky, the sunlight on the sand is dazzling.  It's like walking under an arc of light, perhaps a little like being in a Turner painting, although of course the light isn't static. There are also the sounds and smells of the sea and air to remind you that this is real. But this dazzling light is also disorientating. It was clear to me that if I didn't follow the right route, then I could easily wander off in the wrong direction, and become lost.


We arrived for the walk early one morning to meet our guides.  I suppose we could have found a way across on our own with a compass and tide book, but, for the first time, I wouldn't want to attempt it like that.  David and I didn't have wellies a) David doesn't own a pair and b) I don't like walking any distance in mine (The Broomway is about six miles and we were walking there and back).  Fortunately, our walking boots were up to the task. It would have been truly miserable with wet feet!


Our guides were very friendly and told us all sorts of information about the area. Eventually we reached Foulness 'by the back door', so to speak.  Foulness is owned by the MOD and although there are two small villages on it, it's a very secretive place. The island is used for firing/testing weapons, and the main entrance on to the island - on the other side to where we were - is through a check point. We just about stepped foot on the island and didn't venture further in. Instead, we ate our packed lunches surrounded by samphire - and under the eye of the security cameras. But I've made a note to return here. Foulness has its own history and wildlife to discover.


We walked back, the clouds scudding overhead, the rain holding off - and we arrived again at Wakering Stairs.  It's a path I'd love to walk again; I know it will always look different, the light ever-changing, and I can't ever imagine getting tired of it.



26 comments:

  1. I had never heard of this walk, and I can see from the marine life and scenery that it must have been fascinating. The only similar place that I know is the walk across Morecambe Bay to the Lake District, but only at certain times and with a guide. I have been there when the siren goes off to warn of the incoming tide and it comes in at an alarming rate rather like a mini tsunami. You may recall those Chinese cocklepickers that were all drowned there a few years ago because they had no understanding of the dangers.

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    1. Hello Rosemary. Yes - I believe Morecambe Bay has very similar dangers with tides and quicksands and I do remember the terrible story of the Chinese cocklepickers. The tides race in across the flat sands of both places from different directions.

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  2. I think you were very sensible to go with a guide (and brave too). I am drawn to the quality of the light too, and East Anglia is a great place for that, and the wonderful skies. Thanks for coming over to mine!

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    1. Hello Marianne. Thanks for visiting! The skies here can be mesmerising, can't they? It's especially true along the coast.

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  3. I've been fascinated by the Broomway since reading Robert Ryan's Dr Watson novel about it last year. I had no idea it existed until then so am fascinated by your account of it.

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    1. Hello CT. I must look up that book! I'd long wanted to walk The Broomway and seized my chance last year. All guided walks are always booked up a long time in advance.

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  4. Very brave.. I'm intrigued, especially with the mysterious island. But just the idea of quicksand terrifies me.

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    1. Hello Jessica. It terrifies me too! I think Foulness will be well worth a proper visit, although this visit will be controlled by the MOD.

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  5. Dear Wendy
    What marvellous views - they seem to go on forever. It doesn't seem possible that such a beautiful place could hide such dangers - and as Rosemary says, I was immediately reminded of Morecombe Bay. I had never heard of the Broomway before - a part of Britain I am not familiar with. I would have replied earlier but I am still having problems with the comment box not appearing - I wonder if anyone else is having this problem - and why. Have a great week, sounds like the weather is going to get a bit rough later in the week down your way!

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    1. Hello Elaine. I'm so sorry you've had trouble commenting again. Thanks so much for persevering! I think my first action will be to make sure all the right comment enabling boxes are ticked after each post.

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  6. Very interesting read full of facts,sounds like something out of a horror novel,it always pays to read up on your walks,always respect what's around us.
    John.

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    1. Hello John and thanks for visiting! I think you're right; setting off on this walk without a healthy respect for nature here would be very foolish. For a start, knowing about the tides is crucial.

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  7. A wonderful post Wendy with some very atmospheric photos. You were very brave! I'd never heard of the walk before last year when I read about it in a book - I think it was the Old Ways by Robert McFarlane and thought then what an incredible experience it would be. The island sounds very intriguing!

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    1. Hello Caroline. You're right about Robert McFarlane - our guide told us he'd been in touch before writing the book. I must read it.
      I was brave because I had a guide!

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  8. Lovely post and great photos of your walk, would not fancy getting lost on the sand !!!
    Amanda xx

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    1. Hello Amanda. I wasn't tempted once to wander away from the guide! I was amazed to see that, on our return journey, we were walking back over our earlier footsteps. In all that sand, the guide was leading us back almost exactly over the way we'd come.

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  9. It looks like an extraordinary landscape, but I'd definitely want a guide...

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  10. Hello Janet. I agree. I think I'd need to do the walk with a guide a few times before I even considered walking alone.

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  11. The first photo is amazing! What a fascinating walk it looks, not one to consider without guides given the quicksand. It is an amazing landscape and from your photo I can see the wonderful light you mentioned. It is lovely to see you back here and thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment:)

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    1. Hello Rosie. It is a walk for anyone who loves big skies and changing light. I think artists would love it, although they would have to paint it quick before the tide came in!

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  12. What an interesting place! Looks like it would be a fun area to explore.

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    1. Hello Tammy. I'd like to see more of it for sure. I'm really looking forward to going back.

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  13. Why does Foulness have its name? It sounds more beautiful than foul.

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    1. Hello Emily. You have me wondering now! I've no idea. I imagine it's from an old English word that may not mean foul at all as we know it, (perhaps foul is to do with birds as in fowles? This is a place for migratory birds) Ness must be like Shoeburyness (nearby). I shall look it all up!

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  14. Really interesting Wendy, I read Robert MacFarlane's book as well earlier this year (loved it) and was fascinated by this walk from that so was great to hear about your experience. Definitely one to do first time with a guide. Plus to hear about the walk from him must have been good too.

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    1. Hello Annie. I've just started reading Robert MacFarlane's 'Landmarks', which I am enjoying. I'm looking forward to reading the others, too.

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