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Essex wildlife walk: Hadleigh Castle to Old Leigh

Hadleigh Castle was built during the reign of Henry III and overlooks the Thames Estuary (c) Andrew Millham
Hadleigh Castle was built during the reign of Henry III and overlooks the Thames Estuary (c) Andrew Millham

It was a bright autumn morning when I set out from the flinty ruins of Hadleigh Castle [wounds.wisely.hype] to walk the grassy path down to Old Leigh. A light breeze rustled fallen leaves as I took in the sight of the ancient castle, standing sentinel over the Thames Estuary – watching ships coming and going. Heading east, I followed the rolling trail, breathing in the fresh salty air, as sunlight glistened off the miles of mudflats exposed by the ebb tide.

To my right, trains slipped through the lowlands like the Essex Serpent, heading towards Fenchurch Street for another day in our bustling city. Far beyond, massive container ships appeared stationary, their movements too difficult to perceive from such a distance. Once you descend from the lofty heights of the castle, hedgerows line the paths, and a few sturdy oaks are the only trees to be seen – their acorns spilt like marbles across nature’s floor.

Great British Life: Hadleigh Castle was built during the reign of Henry III and overlooks the Thames Estuary (c) Andrew MillhamHadleigh Castle was built during the reign of Henry III and overlooks the Thames Estuary (c) Andrew Millham

Rabbits hurried away at my presence and, just then, a russet-brown muntjac deer spotted me and flung himself back into his briar home. Many birds also live in the hedgerow, like robins, blackbirds and great tits with their iconic ‘see-saw’ call. Despite having lost much altitude, I was still catching glimpses of the estuary between the trees, as well as St. Georges flag flying proudly atop St Clements Church in the fashionable centre of Leigh Broadway.

The Belton Hills Nature Reserve eventually pops out at Leigh Station [jabs.pinch.crown]. I crossed by the station and went down a set of steps by Leigh Marina, before walking past the Belton Way Small Craft Club to the dark green wooden cockle sheds of Cockle Row.

Great British Life: Take a pit-stop for some fresh seafood in Old Leigh (c) Andrew MillhamTake a pit-stop for some fresh seafood in Old Leigh (c) Andrew Millham

One would do well to find a more traditional sight in Essex than Leigh’s cockle sheds [beyond.roses.issue], still selling fresh seafood daily. Behind them, their cockle boats are moored alongside the working quay, with the white gravelly floor composed of crushed up shells. In the olden days, cockle fishermen came back as early as possible on the incoming tide to get the best price for their catch. Such was their haste that they would often hit the creek bed, which is – so I am told by a Leigh local – where the phrase ‘touch-and-go’ originated.

Continuing past the cockle sheds, tarmac gives way to charming cobbles and the full delights of Old Leigh, complete with idyllic fisherman’s cottages, traditional pubs like The Crooked Billet, Ye Olde Smack and The Peterboat and even a little beach right at the end. The smell of fresh seafood wafted from my favourite, Osborne Bros Café [privately.later.zeal], a family run business founded in the 1880s and delivering fresh food straight from sea to plate. My order is always the same: a pint of cockles, crabsticks (for my sins!), crispy squid and a latte. Watching the weather-beaten fishing boats in the creek, with the Thames beyond, is the perfect way to end such a halcyonic walk.

Distance: 2 miles

Time taken: 1.5 hours



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