“We don’t come fresh to even the most inaccessible of landscapes.” -Robert Macfarlane
Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting the ‘nature’ writer and obsessive walker Robert Macfarlane and took him on a short journey into subterranean London on a different kind of walk. Robert was generous, enthusiastic and genuinely interested in what I described to him as the old paths of the urban underbelly – the forgotten waterways of London few people attempt to traverse. I even convinced him to pose for a hero shot in an abandoned Victorian Reservoir under Finsbury Park.
Soon after, I received a copy of his book The Old Ways in the post. Inside, a pink post-it note marked a chapter entitled silt. It was a description of Robert’s walk with Patrick Arnold across The Broomway – often described as the deadliest path in Britain. Over 100 people have been swallowed by the soft mud and a tidal rip that rises faster than a human can run. Access required passing through an active Ministry of Defence (MOD) base via a right-of-way. Robert’s pagemarker was clearly a challenge. Luckily, my friends Stephen Walter and Eugene Rasini were game and last Sunday we made the crossing. Without wanting to spoil the ending for you, the fact that I’m writing this means that we did, in fact, survive the walk.
The beginning of the path was marked with a green pole at the Wakering Stairs. At the other end of the path, adjacent to Foulness Island, many miles Northeast of where we began, we expected to find a matching pole at the exit. This was an old path built sometime around 1419 and was the only way to access Foulness Island, other than by boat, until 1932. We could see in the distance, toward the sea, what looked like another pole marker. We assumed, from looking at the map, that we would head East, out to sea, until we hit that marker and then turn Northeast to stay on the path across the Maplin Sands. It turns out our sense of scale was slightly off.
When we arrived at what we thought was the marker to turn Northeast, we realised it was actually a marker for watercraft when the tide was in (that being a few hours later). Eugene took out his phone and started to panic. According to Google Maps, we were way off the path (yes, there’s a very faint mobile signal even here, likely broadcast from Kent – no one is ever really off the map anymore). We had in fact overshot the Broomway by a mile and were staring at what looked to be the remains of a structure (maybe a lighthouse) long swallowed by the sea. I suddenly felt very far from the shore and was reminded of a passage in Robert’s book from Patrick Arnold:
It’s weird out there on the flats. Nothing looks the same as normal. Gulls can seem as big as eagles. Scale and distance change. It’s easy to loose your bearings, especially in dusk or dark. Then it’s the lights on the Kent shoe that often do it. People think they’re walking back to the Essex Coast, when in fact they’re walking across toward Kent and so out into the tide. The mud’s the thing to watch too: step in the wrong places, and it’ll bog you down and suck you in, ready for the tide to get you.
Despite one scare where Eugene though he was being sucked into the mud, we steadily gained confidence as we walked. When the coast of Foulness Island came into sight, we spied an aircraft ejector seat testing device on MOD land poking into the sky and used that to orient ourselves. Eventually, we reached the other pole and veered back toward Essex, away from the open mud flats, sprawling sky and churning tide. All that was left was a four mile walk across MOD land back to the car. The defence landscape was almost as stark as the Doomway. It rained the entire return trip and we reached the car soaked and miserable with memory cards full of flat photos. I couldn’t ask for anything more.