Description & Map
Title: Bowers Marsh
This tranquil walk begins in the newly created Bowers Marsh RSPB reserve. This is a bird sanctuary and dogs are not allowed. The walk passes through several different wetland habitats, including saline and freshwater lagoons, scrapes, ditches, reedbeds and areas of wet grassland. In addition to waterfowl, the hedgerows lining the walk are rich with birdlife. After leaving the reserve, the route follows the Thames Estuary Path (under construction at the time of writing) beside the mudflats of Benfleet Creek and into South Benfleet where there is a railway station and several pubs for refreshment. The walk returns through a recreation ground and then along a footpath beside the railway, before crossing through the churchyard of St Margaret of Antioch, a lovely old church built in 1320 and still in use every Sunday.
Also, from J to P the route follows the Thames Estuary Path. At the time of writing this path is still under construction and you may need to exercise your best judgement to find the route through.
A. From the car park (P) walk back up the access road for 250 yards. Turn left over the anti-vehicle barrier, along Bridleway 228 towards Great Pound (1).
B. Walk along the meandering grey gravel bridleway for about 500 yards. When you reach a field entrance on the right, turn left to continue along the grey gravel path over another anti-vehicle barrier. Walk southwards towards two sets of electricity pylons (2).
C. Keep walking along the grey gravel track. In between the pylons you will pass a viewing area (Great Pound) on the right. Continue ahead along the track.
D. 300 yards past the viewing area, turn left at an information board (3).
E. Follow the track round to the east. You will pass a borrowdyke on your right and grasslands and then a large lake with reedbeds on your left (4).
F. The path continue eastwards, between some benches by the lake and two windmill water pumps (5)
G. About 120 yards past the water pumps you will reach a junction. Bear right through a gate to continue walking on the grey gravel (6). Turning left along the beige coloured gravel will lead you back to the parking area.
H. Bear left as you approach a picnic area, following the sign roughly towards East Haven Creek. 60 yards later you will cross a flat bridge: turn right on the far side to continue along the grey gravel with a lake on your left and fields on the right (7).
I. Continue ahead walking north west for 280 yards or so. You will see a junction on the right followed by a sharp left bend. At the bend, leave the grey gravel and go straight ahead, up the grassy slope along a footpath in the direction of South Benfleet Station (8).
J. Head across the field towards the facing hedge, then bear right with the hedge on your left, towards the A130 bridge. Take the Thames Estuary Path down some steps, over a footbridge, and under the road bridge (9). It's a bit of a scramble up the far side.
K. Follow the riverside path along East Haven Creek, with the mudflats on your right. After 250 yards you will reach Jotmans Sluice. There are concrete steps down towards the mudflats on your right, and a footbridge on your left (10). Do not take either of these - keep straight on.
L. Carry on straight ahead along the estuary path as it slopes down nearer the line of the estuary high water mark. At the time of writing this way becomes quite difficult to traverse within 200 yards or so. Please be aware that the 'easier' looking track higher up on the bank is a motorbike scrambling track and therefore likely to be very dangerous to use as an alternative. The new Thames Estuary Path is intended to establish a clearer path south of the scrambling track, but at the time of writing was still under development.
M. Follow the estuary path east as it meanders up and down the slope, passing an old World War II pill box. At the time of writing, the going here was rough.
N. Walk east until you reach a metal fence running north-east to south-west from the water treatment plant to the estuary. There is a gap in the fence on the right (estuary end), go through this and turn immediately left along a narrow path, away from the creek and with the metal fence on your left (11).
O. This narrow path bears right after a few yards to pass the corner of a wire fence, then continues ahead over rough ground towards a large, unattractive, graffitied metal container of indeterminate purpose (12).
P. When you reach the container turn right, walking south east along the Thames Estuary Path, with scrubland on your right and a playing field on the left. Head towards the corner of another metal fence (13).
Q. Continue roughly ahead with this fence on your left, turning left after 70 yards to follow the fence eastwards. Keep going eastwards for a third of a mile, passing some moored boats, until you descend to a pavement. Turn left under the railway bridge heading northwards (14).
R. If you are starting the walk from Benfleet Station, exit the station onto Ferry Road and turn right. Walk under the railway bridge, then cross the road and go up the steps 15 yards north of the bridge.
S. As you emerge from beneath the railway, continue northwards with a stream (Church Creek, which once contained a busy wharf exporting timber throughout England) and a stone memorial to the Battle of Benfleet, on your right. (15).
T. Keep going along this path for about 200 yards, then turn left to walk west, on a metalled path which 160 yards later curves round to the north (16).
U. Turn left at a T-junction, walking westwards. 150 yards later, follow the path left across a ditch, then turn right to continue westwards, now much nearer to the railway line and with a ditch or stream on your right (17).
V. Keep going along the metalled path through the recreation grounds for a third of a mile, getting progressively closer to the railway line. When the path turns right in front of a small copse, leave the path and continue ahead into the trees along a muddy footpath behind some houses and adjacent to the railway (18).
W. Follow the track through the trees for about a quarter of a mile. Cross Watlington Road (19) and continue ahead along Footpath 188 behind the houses for a further 60 yards.
X. Climb over a stile into a field, and continue with the hedge and railway line on your left. Keep going for about 250 yards (20) then cross over a second stile. Continue for a further 250 yards then turn right at a (hidden) finger post about ten yards before the facing hedge to cut across the field corner.
Y. Head north along the field edge, negotiating several more stiles through a series of paddocks, until you reach the access road for Rookery Farm (21).
Z. Turn left along this access road and go under the A130. Keep going until you approach the farm itself, then turn right just before the railway bridge, along Footpath 188 towards St Margaret's Church (22). You can see St Margaret's church spire through the trees ahead of you.
AA. Follow the footpath into St Margaret's churchyard. Walk westwards through the churchyard, with the church on your right (23). Turn left on Church Road to walk under the railway bridge and return to the car park.
Bowers Marshes were converted from salt marsh to farmland on a piecemeal basis, begining in medieval times, and more rapidly in the 16th/17th century onwards. Many of the original marsh creeks and some reed beds still survive within the present-day field pattern. These historic grazing marshes were once part of the life and economy of parishes located some distance away, so that a small parish would tend to sheep or cattle or goats on reclaimed grazing land, but the livestock could also be herded to higher heathland or woodland bordering the parish. In 1811, the majority of the Essex population were employed in agriculture. The network of paths and highways between grazing marshes, parish markets and butchers, and dryland over-wintering would mean that the farm-workers would have a constant, intimate knowledge of this environment. Over the centuries several farms have been built on the marshes but, with the exception of Rookery Farm and a barn at the site of Great Mussels, the farms are no longer in use and were mostly demolished in the 1970s.
Bowers Marsh itself occupies about 650 acres of low lying agricultural land. The soil consists of tidal deposits of consolidated soft silty clay with layers of sand, gravel and peat, above London Clay. On this, a wetland wildlife reserve has been created with a variety of habitats including saline and freshwater lagoons, scrapes, ditches, reedbeds and areas of wet grassland. The current emphasis on a binocular-vision of wildlife habitats gives little regard to the history and importance of the place over centuries of use of the land as a daily working environment. The reserve opened to the public in October 2013.
This church was built c. 1320 by Sir John Gifford, and is still in use every Sunday. Large parts of the church including the tower were re-built in C16. The church bells date from the 14th century and are amongst the oldest in the county, and are still rung regularly.
The church is said to be haunted, with tales of the organ being played by unseen hands, and of odd electrical faults in cars nearby. Headlights flicker, and even brakes are rumoured to have failed! Strange unexplained shadows flicker over the site, thuds and whistles and the rattling of chains can be heard......
In 894 A.D. Benfleet was the site of a small but significant battle in the long and bloody process of freeing Saxon England from pagan Viking rule. At this time most of eastern England was under Viking control. The border between Saxon and Viking lands ran along the Thames, and up the River Lea to Luton. Essex was under Danelaw, ruled by Vikings. There was an uneasy peace between the two sides, with many minor skirmishes.
Then in 894 the Vikings launched a major attack into Saxon lands, bringing their women and children: the intention was conquest and colonisation, not just plunder and spoils. The Saxon army (under the control of King Alfred's son Edward) attacked and beat them but large numbers of Viking soldiers, under their commander Haesten, escaped into Essex and set up camp at a fort in Benfleet. Edward followed them, somehow bringing his troops safely through the enemy territory of Essex. He managed to mount a surprise attack on the Viking fort, winning a quick and decisive victory, then burning their ships and taking Haesten's wife and children back to London as hostages. Burnt timbers, the remains of those Viking ships, were unearthed during the building of the railway.
Within a few years (and several other major battles) the Vikings withdrew from all their bases in Essex and East Anglia. But the war was not over yet: coastal attacks and full-on battles with Viking raiders remained a feature of Essex life for many decades to come.
Benfleet was a busy port in the 16th century, exporting primarily timber. The quay was alongside Church Creek, by the bend in the High Street. The 15th century pub, the 'Hoy & Helmet' commemorates this, 'helmet' being an area of hard-standing the boats were drawn up onto, and 'hoy' being a type of flat bottomed sailing boat used on the Thames to transport both people and goods. It is said that the cry 'Ahoy!' was used to hail a hoy which operated as a kind of water taxi. Benfleet wharf was still in use as recently as WWI: the boats used to lower their masts to pass under the railway.
The 'Half Crown' pub was originally the customs house for the wharf. When it became a pub it was called 'The Crown' until, during the 1960's, a lorry jack-knifed near the bottom of the hill, partially demolishing the pub. Witty locals instantly re-named it 'The Half Crown'. Although the pub was rebuilt, the name change became permanent.
'The Anchor Inn' at the top of the hill is the oldest building (apart from the Norman St Mary's church) in Benfleet. It was built in 1381, probably as a court or guild hall, after the manor house was burned down during the Peasants' Revolt.
The Thames Estuary Path is a project to establish a footpath from Tilbury to Leigh on Sea, with the advantage of being accessible by the rail stations at Tilbury Town, East Tilbury, Stanford-le-Hope, Pitsea, Benfleet and Leigh on Sea. Much of the footpath runs along existing public rights of way. The new path should be seen in the context of a planned wider regeneration of South Essex, and the "Thames Gateway" first announced by the government in 2008. Traditionally, the area has had a negative image, as described by historian Patrick Wright:
(Upstream) beyond the sprawl, they sense an unvisited world of malarial marshes and industrial debris: a place of ruined explosive factories, isolation hospitals, prisons, oil refineries and rubbish dumps; and a notable absence of good manners, prosperity and aesthetics too ... Since it fails to conform to upstream ideas of natural beauty and architectural significance, the entire area can easily be mistaken for wasteland - a vast 'brownfield' site, in which any form of development can only be counted an improvement.
As an area ripe for development, a chief concern was that the area should a receive a makeover to dispel this negative perception. Hence, the newly created parks and reserves to beautify the area, as a way of encouraging business and property investment. Spending on these park lands has topped £20million from a mixture of government/council monies (the taxpayers) and EU grants (also the taxpayers' money). As well as providing green credentials, a P.R. campaign on South Essex's local history, it's 'heritage', is seen to create a better 'sense of place' and local pride. It is questionable though whether marketing alone can create a true sense of identity or place. Funding for this pre-development greening has come from the Interreg IVA 2 Seas Programme, a European Union project aimed at diminishing the influence of national sovereign borders, requiring funded projects to involve several countries. Concessions against punitive EU landfill taxes are also available for reclamation of landfill sites. Overall, the Thames Estuary Path has cost £13million. So as you walk along the path, make sure you enjoy it. After all, you paid for it.
Guardian Environment Article: 'Sold down the River' [External link]
Footnote: At the time of writing (May 2014), despite the £millions spent on the project, including the marketing, and the development of gimmicky phone-apps guiding you through the Thames Estuary 'Heritage', the project is apparently looking for unpaid volunteers to cut a path through the difficult bits of the route, build steps on slopes, and clear the path. Actually having a path to walk on doesn't seem to have been very high up on the list of priorities!