Southend/Burham Ferry/Estuary Essex ride
Sunday 22 April
The planning was, natch, deceptively meticulous beneath the slung-together exterior. Trains checked, ferry checked weeks ago, and day before. Maps packed. Bike cleaned. Train to Southend, up to river Crouch, ferry over to Burnham, up to St Peters, back to Burnham, train home from there.
Lucy, Lea, two Richards, Elaine, Kat, Gav, Jaqui, Andy, John, Sarah, Steve, Paul and me met under the huge indicator board at Liverpool Street station for 10am. Sharp.
No Southend trains at all, all day. They looked at me accusingly. No Burnham trains either. Is engineering work really only decided upon over Saturday night? That whole chunk of Essex out of reach. Maps checked, possible destinations considered. None of us had been to Witham on the Colchester line. Lots of estuary and a couple of islands to visit but the silver lining was slipping away. Too far from Burnham for that or any other ferry. Too far from Bradwell nuclear power station. The two ingredients of the perfect ride were out of reach. No cruise, no glow.
We jumped for unheard of Witham. The 14 of us got day returns (£5.95, group discount) and headed for the 10.20, Platform 13. Spirits rising again. The platform guard saw the wheels, started shouting about too many bikes. Wed had just about enough of customer service by now and simply got on at the front end of the vanless sliding door train. It wasnt busy. The unmarked tipping seats bike alcove took about 8 bikes, the rest got on easily.
At promisingly small Witham station an hour later. Osea Island looked good on paper in the Blackwater estuary and approachable only over a causeway. Cool sunny day, windy, high wispy clouds. The quiet lanes started only a mile out of town, not prairie Essex but lots of small fields and commutery hamlets.....Wickham Bishops and two Great Tothams, Little Totham, Goldhanger.....we did about 12 miles along the twisty until the coastal caravan sites arrived.
Sarahs broken spoke caused no problems and was the only bike thing that went wrong all day.
Nothing much there, just estuary, pretty fields, boats, water, vast skies and the hundreds of caravans. The track to the island was down a private unmade road.......Id of course forgotten my tide tables so the causeway was under too many feet of water. Whilst some flopped down on the grass, others wondered why the vans were so far below sea-level behind the dyke, the rest just admired the blue skyscape. The gannets started wondering about lunch. Wed passed a likely estuary-side pub a few miles back so rode along the concrete dyke-top, past those vans and a couple of campsite clubhouses, shops and bars on one side and a narrow shingly beach on the other.
It was 1pm. The Rivermill. I dashed in to see what excuses they had for not serving food that lunchtime. But they were pleased to see us and the menu looked good value. The Rivermill is a mile east of Maldon but feels to be in the middle of nowhere if you hit it from that side. Big restaurant with river views up a few steps from the bar and stacks of space outside. Too windy to sit outside in the bright sun. We sat at a long 20 seater table all laid up with over elaborate cutlery and paper napkins in the wine glasses. And 14 varyingly scuzzy cyclists from London fell into Essex caravan site spot the stereotype what a cheesily surreal but ace place mode. Someone just had to notice the health warning on the whisky-flavoured condoms machine....Do not drive whilst in use....and the day just went downhill from there really. Big Andy could not eat all of his huge Allday Breakfast at £5.50. The veggies, there was of course no such option on the menu, got an ok rissotto. The tomato broth was not well reviewed.....but came in buckets. It was USA Kats first Spotted Dick, and that may have been why she came off her bike twice in slow motion painless tumbles. Service was slow but we barely noticed and only 4 other people were eating there but they looked after us well and got the bill right and said they were packed in summer. But the portions were really generous and extra bowlfuls of vegetables and chips kept appearing. A great value, quirky and really enjoyably funny place to eat.
Not everyone found it easy remounting after such a big lunch and a couple of beers but we were soon heading for Tolleshunt DArcy, Great Wigborough, Peldon and the Isle of Mersea. (Id been thinking about them earlier in the day, and had been disappointed on the Dungenss ride but just north of Goldhsnger at 3.05pm I saw a pair of swallows, my first if the year. There were some House Martins up there too. Wonderful to have them back). And the road onto the Mersea island runs very low over the estuary marshes. The wind was whipping across the water and the causeway headwind here was horrible. We headed straight to lonely East Mersea where the land runs out past a few houses and caravan sites, and empty fields. The road ran out and the footpath, like most hereabouts had a closed, foot and mouth precaution, sign. Brightlingsea across the river Colne looked lovely.
We turned round to do the 4 miles to the other extreme of the island and West Mersea. A lucky left turn took us through loads of bungalows to the coast again and a lovely sort of bunker on the front that did mugs of tea, terrible coffee, chocolate cake, buckets, spades and bubble-makers that got Elaine really excited. Lots of wind-swept beach childhood memories here as we sat on concrete steps and looked and the very low tide and long rows of beach-huts 3 deep. Then I realised that we were right opposite St Peters Chapel and Bradwell Power Station, 3 miles across the Blackwater and our original destination.
About 4pm now.....we decided to go back to Witham station the long way round Abberton reservoir. Several decided to head for nearer Colchester.
Then we started getting lost. Really lovely lanes north of the reservoir with rolling contours and marshes and water all over. Somehow missed the road over pat of it. Some lovely downhills after short sharp rises. Richard on his recumbent, Paul on his Marin and Sarah just had to race down each hill. Layer Marney Tower looked intriguing a mile off the road. Through Birch and Birch Green to Tiptree where the posh jam still comes from and signs to Witham. All of a sudden our way the thundering A12(T) with big traffic bombing along was right in our way. We hadnt seen a big lorry all day and all quietly edged towards the middle of the pack. We just ran for it. Onto the central crash-barriered reservation and dumped bikes over the rail......but there was no space on the other side, just the fast lane inches away. Weve fantasised about leader-losing Essex marsh snuff rides over post-adventure beers but this was too close to home. Anyway, we all made it over. Someone phoned the station. Next train 40 minutes away. Thoughts of the Railway Tavern got all moving. John and I shoot off following the road sign, only to find ourselves under the A12 and back where we were minutes ago on the wrong side of the traffic. Much hilarity at my expense, again.
We got to the station with 12 minutes to spare so just waited and those with computers checked distances. Sarah, polishing PR skills for new job, thought wed done either 800 or 80 or 8 miles. But wasnt sure what the PM was for. We agreed wed done just under 60 since Witham this morning.
The train back was quick, about 50 minutes. 9pm. Andy got off at Stratford. It was raining when we hit Liverpool Street. Dark. The bunch then dwindled fast. Five of us decided to head for The Windmill in The Cut. Closed. We went round the corner to chat about the ride and congratulate ourselves on good company. Suddenly it was way after closing time. Monday morning work beckoned and we all went home.
So, really excellent mix of people. Lots of sun, a little bad headwind, some appalling navigation from me that didnt matter a bit really (that map-reading course collection joke was unkind), lots of great estuary views and seaside scenes, first swallows, very fine stops, a few of us feeling nicely stretched, aired and sunned......and a great new bit of country explored.