The Essex Way is a long distance route of 130km (81 miles) stretching from Epping in the West to Harwich in the East. It was created as a result of a competition organised by the CPRE in 1972, and some of the original CPRE-branded waymarks can still be seen on the route (although now largely replaced by Essex County Council waymarks). The route is described as “… lovely, taking you through ancient woodland, open farmland, tree-lined river valleys and leafy green lanes, with plenty of picturesque and historic villages along the way.” So it seemed like a decent candidate for a mini-project.
The first decision was quite easy – which direction to walk it in. Although I seem to have developed a penchant for walking long distance routes in the opposite direction to the “official” way, this one I decided I’d follow the standard west to east direction. I’ve been to Epping – it’s not the most inspiring place to celebrate the end of the walk – far better to mark the completion on the coast. It would feel like more of an achievement, albeit not that big a one anyway.
For the first section I mapped out a route of 50km that would take me from the end of the Central Line in Epping, where the trail starts, to the next train station the route meets at White Notley. For me at the height of winter lethargy this was probably a bit of a tall order, especially carrying backpacking gear. Nevertheless, I was so desperate to make up for cancelling my traditional New Year trip to Dartmoor, and to start the year off in a good way, that I decided to give it a go.
The plan was to walk somewhere in the 24-27km range for day 1, camping just before or just after the A1060, and decide whether to do the second day or not. From here I could easily curtail the walk via a bus to Chelmsford Station, and obviously just as easily pick it up again next time.
And so I set off, on the first train from home of 2018, and after a couple of changes got to Epping just after sun up. Here is the official start plaque.
I went wrong almost immediately, missing the turn off the street down a muddy path between houses, but a passing local was obviously used to this and pointed it out at just about the point I knew I’d gone too far. Soon I was on the path, making my acquaintance with the mud that was to dog the whole day. A walk across fields brought me to a small patch of woodland at Gernon Bushes.
Then I was crossing the M11 and leaving behind the noise of London’s fringes for some proper countryside. Birching Coppice brought me my first sight of one of the old style waymarks, high on a tree.
It also brought the first major obstacle…
Things soon improved, and I was also back on the new-style waymarks:
Soft ground underfoot slowed my pace, and I was glad I’d brought walking poles as I was slipping and sliding all over the place. It seemed like ages before I reached the log church at Greensted.
The walk across open ploughed fields to Chipping Ongar went on for ages, so gingerly was I walking, and so much mud was adhering to my feet. I was glad to wash the worst of it off in a puddle and take five in a skateboard park just after the end of the field.
Three of Essex’s major waymarked trails meet at Chipping Ongar, and this made navigation a little difficult – it was obvious that the Essex Way plays second fiddle to the Three Forests Way, owing to the lack of markers here. An important left turn went unwaymarked but I caught it just before I ended up following St Peter’s way instead. Across the A414 and the markers for the Essex Way led me to this…
It was obvious from the map that the Way follows a stream closely on its western bank, so I was able to quite easily improvise a route in light of the lack of actual signage. Here the path was mere centimetres from the level of the water, and side stream after side stream had completely submerged the path itself. More detours were needed to ford these raging torrents.
Willingdale was notable for the fact that it has two churches side by side in the same churchyard. I’d never seen this before.
I left Willingdale and my legs were starting to flag. I’d just crossed two big fields and my feet weighed double what they had at the start owing to the amount of mud I’d collected. With only an hour or so until sunset, thoughts also turned to making camp, aided by the increasing tiredness. I crossed the last road and was on the byway that would see me to the end of the day’s walk.
With the sun sinking lower in the sky, my eyes scanned the land either side for suitable spots to secrete my tent.
The big orange ball of fire was just hitting the horizon as I found a workable spot in a small strip of woodland, and got to work putting up my home for the night.
It cooled quickly, and soon it was unbearable to sit outside. This is when the folly of winter camping in a tent you can’t quite sit up in comes home to annoy you. I love my Snugpak Ionosphere for its stealth, but I’ve come to the conclusion it’s an absurd shelter to spend 16 hours of cold winter darkness in. I made the best of it though and even had a good night’s sleep – better in fact than I’d been having at home!! Maybe my daughter still partying at 3am in the house the night before may have had something to do with this too, though.
So it was with some surprise that I rolled over and looked at my watch and saw it was after 7am. Having decided to quit while I was ahead, my target was now the 08:06 bus, meaning I needed to break camp in record time. Twenty-five minutes later it was done and I was on my way, just in time to catch the first colours of sunrise appearing behind the trees.
Twenty minutes later I hit the A1060 and found a bus stop right there where the trail crosses. Brilliantly convenient. Less brilliantly convenient was the fact the bus was half an hour late!
I’ll return sometime soon to complete the rest of the section, which should make for a nice day and a bit’s walk with a camp. I think I may try to time it for after a few days of dry weather though!