Walking the Wild

Walking the Broomway

Living in the city during a pandemic often feels claustrophobic. And yet wild, empty places exist not too far away. Including this ancient causeway I visited a few years back….

The sound of the Broomway
Photo: BC Downer

It was a hazy Sunday afternoon, and my sister and I were tramping along one of the most dangerous pathways in Britain. Beneath us, the wattle lathes over the mud had soon petered out, and the old markers of the ancient causeway no longer existed. There was still a safe path for a few hours between tides, but its route was invisible to all but a trained eye.

Not only that, but the tides here disobeyed the timetables. All it took was a patch of low pressure, combined with the strange sloping geography, and stealthy tides would creep in on either side to cut you off. Then there were the sudden mists which could come in off the sea, concealing both the mainland you’d left and the island to which you were headed.

Although the mud looked uniform, underneath lurked the infamous Black Grounds. If you put a foot wrong and trod in this quicksand, it could suck you in down to your knees and keep you there. Over the centuries many had died that way, caught out by the tides, mist and mud. To add to the odds, since World War 1 the Ministry of Defence had sequestered the site as a defence firing range and testing site; the ground around us was littered with unexploded ordinance. Bombs, to you and me.

BC Downer

My sister and I were not on a joint suicide mission on this Sunday afternoon. We had taken some precautions, and found a former sailor who knew the way. Our plan was to learn the route and return later, on our own.

We were here to honour our father, who had indirectly led us here. For me, it was also a search for wild nature, a temporary escape from predictability and control. And I’d found this here in Essex; the place I couldn’t wait to leave behind as a teenager, the place I’d long despised for its ribbon development, bungalows and embrace of Thatcherism.

For we were walking the Broomway, which runs from Wakering Stairs to the island of Foulness, a path at least 600 years old, possibly even pre-Roman. Less than a mile from my home town of Southend lies one of the oldest and least tamed places I’ve found in all my years of wilderness-seeking. It had taken me 43 years to discover it.

The land we walked upon was once part of the Doggerland landbridge joining eastern Britain to the continent. The island’s name comes from the old English fugla-næss meaning ‘headland of birds’ and it still hosts hundreds of thousands of overwintering birds.

As we walked, we remembered an old story, now passed into folklore, of the last Broomway victim. He was a shepherd, named William Harvey, and his body was found washed up on the Maplin Sands nearby in 1857. His cart was found separately, upside down, along with his poor drowned horse, still connected to the cart by one trace. 

The story of his death varied, depending on whom you spoke to. According to some Foulness islanders he’d been drunk and hot-headed, disobeying warnings not to ride out when he did. My sister had a different version. This one saw him as a crime victim; he’d just been paid his wages and was set upon as he rode back home across the Sands. 

I was enjoying the sensation of the lug-wormed mud on my booted feet; warm and rich, it made satisfying sucking sounds with each step. But as we headed further and further out from land, a peculiar disorientation seeped in. The horizontal landscape was an endless terrain of white, silver, steel-grey and charcoal. Made from water, sharing the featureless monotony of desert. The light behind the white haze made it hard to see where the land ended and sky began; what was solid and what was reflection. The wet silt, an off-white mirror to the off-white sky. Distant oil tankers shimmered blackly, more solid, but appeared to be floating in sky. And when my sister and I looked at each other, metres apart, we couldn’t immediately tell where our bodies ended and our silhouettes began. It would be very easy to see mirages here, tricked by light, space and a disoriented mind. 

The wind tore away in our ears. The alien silt stretched out endlessly to the south and east, out to the North Sea, addling our brains and reducing us to tiny actors on a vast stage. We couldn’t linger; there was less than two hours before the tide turned. 

BC Downer
BC Downer

Foulness and the Broomway had been staring me in the face for most of my life. So close, and yet closed to me. Growing up, all I knew of the island were the strange sounds it made. Regular soft, puffy explosions that sounded like a vast cake being smashed; sometimes a huge detonation making the whole estuary sky a reverb pedal. ‘Oh, that’s just Foulness,’ people would say. ‘The MOD doing their tests.’ As if it was all perfectly normal. Years later, I learned that there had been plans for nuclear research on the island. To this day, no-one outside Quinetic, the private company running the island on behalf of the MOD, knows what tests go on there. 

There was only one way onto the island of Foulness we were aware of –  the military bridge and checkpoint. As the whole island was owned by the Ministry of Defence, you could only get through the checkpoint with a special permit. To get it, you needed to have business on the island or friends there, and I had neither. It was a closed, secret world existing less than a mile away.

Perhaps that’s why my father’s stories of visiting the island lingered, hardening into a determination to find a way to get onto it myself. Once, my father told us, when he had walked into a Foulness pub, everyone had turned round at once to stare at him, like the scene in An American Werewolf in London – because on Foulness, everyone knows everyone, with no outsiders to confuse things. What must it be like, to live in a place like that?

Then, after my father died, someone told me about the Broomway. I was sceptical at first, but an internet search confirmed its existence. I found some photographs of it on a blog written by a couple undertaking a coastal walk around Britain. They had attempted it but given up after an hour, realising the danger. The early images they took were tranquil, picturesque even, with a visible path. Later photos showed the path starting to disappear and the surrounding mudscape more desolate. The last photograph was menacing. No path, black rivulets in the mud. It looked like a landscape that could kill you. I spent more months searching for a guide who could keep us to the path and keep us safe. 

The Broomway’s last victim shares a surname with my brother in law, but I didn’t pay much attention to that as my sister and I walked along. It wasn’t until later that we realised that William Harvey was his direct blood relative, five generations back. We came across old records, which confirmed his family connection and deepened the mystery of his death. The newspaper report said that one hundred pounds was found on his body. As a shepherd, this would have been a vast sum, equivalent to three times his annual salary. So much for the robbery theory. We also found an old letter, written by Charles Miller, a local doctor and the last person to see him alive. The rumours that Harvey was drunk and driving must have begun even then, because Miller, writing to his widow, is at pains to point that Harvey had been perfectly sober that evening. In ornate Victorian lettering, he writes: ‘as I believe my House was the last one he called at before he took the Sands, whoever said that he was then intoxicated certainly told a deliberate and a wilful Falsehood.’

We remembered something else because of that walk. As a young girl, my sister had gone down to the beach in Southend, clutching an empty plastic bottle. Empty, except for her child’s message inside, giving her address and asking for a letter back. Months later, she received one, from a lady saying she lived on an island. Aged seven, she was thrilled at first, until my father broke the news that the island was Foulness, there on the horizon, a long stone’s throw away.

Her message had traversed the muds, escaped the ordnance and ridden the tides. A little girl on the mainland had inadvertently got past the Ministry of Defence checkpoints and bridged two parallel worlds.

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