Ellie & I have been doing walks with Gary Bebb’s fabulous ‘GO London’ hiking group for more than two years now. Ten days ago we joined Gary and 16 other hikers on the “Coastal Hike – Hadleigh Castle and the Saffron Trail.” The 16km (10 mile) walk involves 230m of ascent (all added up). It takes about 4 hours to complete and is classified as “beginners hike.” This was fine with us. Lockdown had just ended and our bones were still a bit rusty.
Why ‘Saffron Trail’?
Part of this hike is along the Saffron Trail. An Essex hiking group devised this route only 20 years ago. They wanted to have a major north-south long-distance walk in the county of Essex. Until then there had only been two long-distance walks which both went from west to east: The Essex Way and St Peter’s Way. The Saffron Trail starts in nearby Southend-on-Sea. It is called Saffron Trail because it ends 120km away in Saffron Walden in the northwest of the county. Saffron Walden is named after the yellow spice, because local farmers grew saffron there until the 1700s (extracted from crocuses).
No maps, instructions, or directions
This blog post does not include any maps or specific instructions. It is not aimed at enabling you to do the walk on your own. It is instead intended to give you an idea for what to do on London weekends if you should ever be bored, or – even if you don’t live nearby – show you some of the beauty that one can find near The Big Smoke. Even if you’re an experienced navigator we’d still highly recommend the tours offered by GO London, as they are a great way to meet new people. We like the fact that we do not have to stress about finding the path, reading the map, looking for road signs and markers.
45 minutes by train
The train from London Fenchurch Street Station takes about 45 minutes, and we arrived a few minutes before the official departure time of 10:30am at Leigh-on-Sea. Last year we had done some strolling around on Canvey Island just a mile to the southwest from this town and had fond memories of the marshlands and wildlife.
Gary went through the usual Covid- and general safety briefing and outlined the day while cracking a few jokes and making everyone feel welcome. The weather was extremely cold and windy, so we were all rather pleased when our caravan was set in motion. Movement meant warmth. Luckily the trail starts with a giant stairway that leads up to the inland plateau from the coastal lowlands.
We only stayed on the plateau long enough to enjoy the views over the estuary below us for a moment. You can see plenty of containerships make their way to and from the deep-water port in Thurrock. It handles any size of containership including those in the ULCV (Ultra Large Container Vessel) class. Those ships have to be at least 366m long to qualify. That’s similar to the 380m height of the Empire State Building, if you discount the antenna.
After a short while we descended back down to the marsh- and shrublands. The descent was surprisingly adventurous. Thick bushes and other vegetables on either side were closing in above us. They turned the path into a green tunnel with a very muddy, slippery, and steep floor.
Hadleigh Castle used to be a massive fortification. Hubert de Burgh, the 1st Earl of Kent, recognised the strategic importance of this hill overseeing the gateway to London. What he failed to recognise was a whole ton of soft clay beneath the grassy surface. This meant that even without the feared French invasion the castle gradually fell apart due to subsidence.
In 1290 the giant main hall was built. Also in 1290, the giant main hall collapsed. No attempts to rebuild it were made, as henceforth all focus was on keeping the remaining bits from falling apart for as long as possible.
To this day the bits keep falling off the few ruins that are left. The last major buildings collapsed in 1969, 1970, and 2002. However, you can still gather the castle’s former greatness. We paused for the obligatory, socially distanced, group photo, before ploughing on.
Next, we passed by the 2012 Olympic Games mountain bike track, now relabelled as Hadleigh Park. It has been adapted for the public shortly after the Games. In German we have a word called “Verschlimmbessern” which is a combination of “Verschlimmern” (to make worse) and “Verbessern” (to improve). Teutons use this word to describe any well-intentioned improvement attempts that have miserably failed, usually in a spectacular way.
I have seen a few mountain bike tracks in my life. Nonetheless, I can honestly say that this is the dullest, most boring, track I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. It looks so sad you want to cry when you first see it. Even Mountain Biking UK gives it a 1 out of 3 rating. I’d imagine if they would’ve simply kept everything as it was in 2012, then we’d have a sterling 3 out of 3 course.
On the plus side, they added a skateboard park on top of Adders Hill and plenty of other facilities. A lot of under-12yo’s seemed to have the time of their lives. Even better: there was a café that served hot coffee and a surprising variety of lovely pastries. The outdoor queue was long and slow-moving, so we probably spent twice as much time queuing as we did gobbling everything down, but well worth it in my view.
The weather was still chilly so we kept the break short and continued our hike as soon as everyone had finished their meals. To our left and right we could spot a few ponds and streams, while the path continued to be hilly.
Along the creek
My favourite part of the walk was the long stretch along Benfleet Creek (Hadleigh Ray), not only because it was so flat. A gazillion boats in all shapes and sizes are towed to piers on the river banks. You’ve got everything from half-rotten tiny rowing boats via fully operational house boats and expensive private motor yachts to big, rusty open-sea fishing boats. We walked on an elevated dam or sea wall that is surrounded on one side by the Creek and on the other side by a small canal. The sea wall widens and turns into Two Tree Island Nature Reserve. To top it all off: After several hours of mostly dark and cloudy weather, the sun was finally making an appearance.
A derelict pier and a sculpture resembling a sailing boat make for excellent photo opportunities. We spent at least ten minutes at each location until everyone had taken their perfect shot. Discussions circled around sepia vs. black-and-white, contrast vs. sharpness, mobile phone cameras vs. DSLRs, and VSCO vs. Snapseed.
Coast and beach, Leigh-on-Sea
On our arrival that morning we hadn’t had a chance to catch much of a glimpse of Leigh-on-Sea. We were all taken in by its charm when we walked along the cockle sheds, the colourful 19th century houses, the piers. Finally we reached the golden sand beach.
We considered a number of seafood stalls, but ruled out the ones where no one was queuing. Unfortunately, the ones with queues would have involved too much of a wait for our liking. Never mind. We said our goodbyes to the rest of the group, who had decided to stay a bit longer. Last but not least, we thanked our guide and made our way back to the station. For £10 per person (not including train tickets) this was another fun day out with GO London. 5 out of 5 in our book.
Talking seaside and seafood, feel welcome to check out our posts about the Jurassic Coast, Dubai, Norfolk, my deep-sea fishing trip from Brighton or our recipes for Bacalhau a Bras, conger eel steaks, clam chowder, or razor clams.