A walk along Britain’s most dangerous path.
I must confess that on the morning of the walk, I was nervous.
Images crossed my mind of swirling tides sweeping in like whirlpools, of sands sucking us into an inescapable morass, of newspaper headlines the following day quoting from family and friends that “he was one of the good ones”.
Then again, I was also super excited about visiting this surreal and ancient place with it’s unique, barren landscape and a path deemed to be one of the most dangerous in the UK.
Because this was the very antithesis of what you might envision a “path” to look like. This was no meandering stroll through bucolic English countryside as The Broomway is no ordinary path and is more than capable of claiming the lives of poor souls who stray too far from its ‘safe’ passage.
For many years it was the only way of getting from the UK mainland to Foulness island in Essex. It’s a path in no man’s land accessible only as the sea retreats for a few hours with each tidal cycle. A 3 mile one way route devised by the insane and which used to be marked by broom handles for horse, carriage and pedestrian to take their chance.
When researching the trip it became abundantly clear that local knowledge was going to be key, this was not for the novice. You have to go with someone who knows the tides and quirks of this fabled path. Someone who reduces your chances of becoming a headline in tomorrow's newspapers.
The accolade of expert guide was held for many years by a gentlemen now retired and so the task of leading our groups of waifs and strays fell to Tom Bennett, our highly qualified guide who regularly runs trips on the Broomway. Plans were agreed and the WildBase group were gathered. Time to set off.
After driving through a military base we met by a sea wall that immediately gave us a sense of being somewhere distinctive, other worldly, off the beaten track. Tom gave us a briefing that cranked up the excitement and led one member of the party to joke he was happy to be left behind. Bravado aside there was a distinct nervousness in the air but also a sense of why we do some of these things. Proximity to an hostile and unseen environment that made us feel alive and in touch with our senses on this August Sunday morning.
We set off along the hard causeway for a few hundred meters before making sand and The Broomway itself.
Alas to the smug satisfaction of those who had prepared properly and brought wellies, my feet were quickly soaked as standing water made an immediate impression.
We continued forward, keeping relatively close to a tuft of a bright green sea plant which was about the only visibly green element of this remarkably alien landscape. I know that’s how Essex has been described in the past, but this was more of the natural variety. It was also a moment I bonded with one of my fellow travellers author Robert MacFarlane, who had also by now abandoned his shoes and decided to proceed barefoot.
The day was magnificently clear with no sea mist or poor weather in sight, the more usual scenario in these parts.
Tom pointed out our first marker which was an upright object called the Maypole, which looked like a ship's spar. We headed in that direction and for the first time I was starting to relax into this ancient landscape and enjoying the feeling of seclusion and a little exclusivity, so rare in modern life particularly this close to home.
We arrived at the Maypole intact and in good spirits before setting a course for our ultimate destination of Foulness island.
The military seems only to grudgingly accept this public right of way so we were warned not to go near anything which looked remotely suspicious. Other than Sunday this is a live firing range and I imagined the extra hazard of having to dodge gun batteries firing shell after shell into the sea. Gulp.
Reaching Foulness island was via another area the military like to play with called Aspens head. A large stone circle perhaps 100 meters wide filled with oil and the sea once set ablaze.
We cut through this structure via a track that gave us safe passage into the black lands of deep mud before sitting down on a sea wall for a very well earned cup of tea and slice of cake. The perfect English fuel for this quirky English adventure.
We then wandered back, retracing our footsteps along this ancient path and reflecting on this extraordinary and vast natural landscape. We crossed benign streams of sea water brooding with that menacing presence of the imminent torrents of gushing sea water waiting to take out any stragglers. The group by now had spread out across 100 metres of more, each enjoying their personal relationship and solitude with this experience.
One highlight for me was that whilst it’s mainly a featureless landscape and spectacular because of that we would encounter several small trees, isolated but alive. Tom speculated that perhaps they were planted along the path for loved ones lost.
Eventually we made it back. A sense of calm stillness achieved within each and every one of us. Never have I been on such a short walk which has been so transformational.
WildBase will be walking The Broomway again on 27th September. I highly recommend you joining us for this truly original UK experience.