Celebrate 50 years of the Essex Way by walking it in short circular routes
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By Julie Lucas
This year, The Essex Way celebrates 50 years of guiding walkers across our beautiful county. Stretching from Epping to Harwich, it takes in Essex's greatest hits, from picturesque villages and undulating countryside to quirky attractions and glorious coastline. If the full 81 miles seems a little daunting, then two local rambling enthusiasts have just the answer for you. We chat to the couple behind the book The Essex Way in Circular Walks
‘We had always talked about doing the Essex Way, but we didn’t want to do the two-car tango,’ explains Paul Bentley. ‘We thought a better way to do it would be in circular walks, in bitesize pieces. While we were at it, we thought we might as well write a book so everybody else could do the same.’
The book, The Essex Way in Circular Walks, co-written with his wife Jacqui Farrants, takes in all 81 miles of the Essex Way, a long-distance footpath that stretches from Epping in the southwest to Harwich in the northeast.
It was created by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) in 1972. Maintained by volunteers, this year it celebrates its 50th anniversary. ‘When you talk about walking in Essex, most people will mention the Essex Way. It’s one of those things that walkers want to do,’ says Paul.
The route passes through areas of outstanding natural beauty, from ancient woodlands in Epping to Dedham Vale, which was inspiration for painter John Constable, before opening out on to the breezy paths towards the Stour Estuary and lastly the seaside at Harwich. Along the way, it takes in historic towns and pretty villages. ‘It’s an absolute joy to walk,’ Jacqui says. ‘It takes in the best the countryside has to offer.
‘One of the benefits of making the Essex Way into circular routes is that we got to see some less well-known countryside and objects of interest that are not directly on the footpath,’ says Jacqui. ‘Wrabness to Ramsey is a cracking walk as it takes you along the estuary with views across the Stour to Suffolk, as well as woodland sections. You also get some good views of artist Grayson Perry's magnificent and quirky A House for Essex; it’s a short hop off the Essex Way to get up close and personal with the house. Our circular route that links the Essex Way section in Walk 21 takes you past Wrabness church, with its curious bell cage.'
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The couple began walking the route in 2019 and finished writing the Harwich section when the first lockdown ended. ‘It was the only walk we had left, but we couldn’t do it as we had to stay local,’ Paul tells me. ‘We thought if we could get 10 or 15 people out getting fit while they were reading the book as well, that would be a good thing.’
Plaques mark the start and end of the Essex Way, but the old signs have now been replaced with two poppies. ‘We were surprised to find some of the old green Essex Way signs still going, which is of interest to Essex Way nerds like us,’ laughs Jacqui.
There are 23 circular walks in total, all generally dog-friendly. Each walk shows the total distance, map coordinates and details of parking and pubs en route – good for those wanting to plan ahead and stop off for lunch or a drink. As someone who is known for going in the wrong direction, it also includes detailed instructions, which make the walks easy to follow. ‘We have done quite a few walks over the years and got lost when the instructions said left, but what it really meant was diagonally left. We have written the walks in the way we would like them written,’ says Jacqui.
‘We have done our best to guide people using other landmarks, as well as providing the corresponding OS map number as additional reference,’ adds Paul. ‘The advantage of an app over paper is that it can pinpoint exactly where you are, not where you think you are and this reduces heated debates!'
The guide covers the whole of the Essex Way, with each walk picking up at the point where the previous one left off making it more manageable to walk. Walks range from four and a half miles up to eight and a half miles. ‘We tried to cover at least three miles of the Essex Way per walk,’ says Paul. ‘If you wanted to do six or eight miles of the Essex Way, then you can join two of the walks together.’
What is their favourite? ‘Walk nine, Fuller Street to Fairstead,’ says Jacqui. ‘It includes our favourite pub, The Square and Compasses. Outside the pub, there’s an old phone box that’s been converted into an Essex Way Information Point. And we particularly enjoy the puddingstone at White Notley on walk 10, Fairstead to White Notley. Puddingstones (a type of rock made of pebbles) are fascinating. These are ancient rocks formed around 55 million years ago and have become the stuff of myth and legend. While they’re plentiful in Hertfordshire, those in Essex are few and far between.
‘We also enjoyed lots of great flora and fauna on the routes. These included ancient woodland, bluebells, snowdrops and wildflowers, buzzards, kites, jays, deer, hares, an assortment of wildfowl and a whole mixed grill of livestock,’ says Jacqui. Look out for the ‘woolly alpacas’ on the walk from Chatham Green to Fuller Street.
The book also points out places and things of interest. The walk from Colliers Hatch to Greensted passes the 11th century St Andrews Church, purported to be the oldest standing wooden church in the world. There’s a thatched carriage at Cannon’s Green, Greensted, on the walk to Witney Green and the unusual twin churches at Willingale can be seen walking from Witney Green to Peppers Green.
‘Different walks appear differently as the seasons change and that’s reflected in the book,’ says Jacqui. ‘We have done walks in the winter and then revisited in the summer and it looks completely different, you get double the value out of it.
‘We are quite pedantic about our instructions and people seem to like that. One person described it as “the most amazing tool to complete an epic adventure across Essex”. In the book, we mention that we saw a red kite, buzzard or hare and a reader said that it felt like we were walking beside them.'
The Essex Way in Circular Walks by Paul Bentley and Jacqui Farrants is published by Half Way Publishing, priced £13.95 on Amazon