First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Coalhouse Fort lay low and ominous under a grey, rain-speckled sky. Any damned Frenchie coming up the Thames to burn London would be blown out of the water before he’d even spotted the bastion at the bend of the river; that was what General Gordon of Khartoum surmised when he built the fort out here in the marshy wastelands east of the capital. The French never came; it was the Dutch, 200 years before, who had burned East Tilbury church tower in a daring raid, and they were the last foes to get so far upriver until the German airmen of the 20th century.
We passed the grim old stronghold and set out north along the seawall path where large lilac-coloured flowers of salsify bloomed among the grasses. Across the river lay the ghostly outline of Cliffe Fort, where Charles Dickens sent poor little Pip in ‘Great Expectations’ on a foggy Christmas morning with stolen ‘wittles’ and a file for escaped convict Magwitch. This is all moody country hereabouts, looking downriver over bird-haunted marshes and mudflats to the giant skeleton cranes at the new container port of London Gateway.
All the marshes hereabouts have for centuries been the dumping ground for London’s rubbish. Now they’ve finished land-filling the giant tip on the appropriately named Mucking Marshes, and a phoenix from the ashes is arising there – Thurrock Thamesside Nature Park, a big reserve of reedbeds and grasslands, woods and lakes, already up and running even as it expands and consolidates.
The senior warden gave up some precious time to show us around. Reed buntings chattered, invisible among ten thousand stems, a cuckoo called, shelduck hoovered the mud flats, a brown hare scampered off. We mounted the spiral ramp to the roof of the Visitor Centre and had a wonderful 360o view over the sullen grey river, the cranes like giraffes at a waterhole, the greened-over hills of the landfill, and floating on the western skyline the towers and spires of London, as strange and distant as a dream.
Start: Coalhouse Fort, Princess Margaret Road, East Tilbury, Essex RM18 8PB (OS ref TQ 690769)
Getting there: Train/bus – train to East Tilbury; bus 374 to Coalhouse Fort. Walk ends at Stanford-le-Hope station; return to East Tilbury by rail.
Road (2 cars) – A13, A1013, minor road to Mucking; follow signs to Thames Thurrock Nature Park/visitor centre. Leave 1 car here, drive other to Coalhouse Fort (‘East Tilbury’, then ‘Coalhouse Fort’).
Walk (5½ miles, Coalhouse Fort to Stanford-le-Hope station; 5 miles, car to car; easy, OS Explorer 163. Online maps, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): Follow seawall path north from Coalhouse Fort for 1½ miles till fence blocks path (695792). Left along fence for 1 mile. Through metal gate (684793); right through kissing gate (‘Essex Wildlife Trust/TTNP’) into Thurrock Thamesside Nature Park. Left along path for ½ mile to lakes; right (679799) along path beside railway. In ¾ of a mile, path bends right just before Mucking road (683810); in 400m, bear right by Warden’s house (687810, ‘Visitor Centre’ fingerpost). If doing 2-car walk, follow roadway to Visitor Centre. If station-to-station, left at roadway in 100m (arrow) along path; in 350m, left through gate; cross sluice (691808). In 200m, fork left past metal gate (694809) to road (693812); left for 1 mile to Stanford-le-Hope station (682823).
Lunch: Inn on the Green, Stanford-le-Hope SS17 0ER (01375 400010, innonthegreen-stanfordlehope.co.uk); TTNP Visitor Centre café
Accommodation: Bell Inn, Horndon-on-the-Hill (01375-642463; bell-inn.co.uk) – friendly, well-run stopover
Thames Thurrock Nature Park: 01375 643342, essexwt.org.uk/reserves/thurrock-thameside
Coalhouse Fort: 01375 844203, coalhousefort.co.uk