Europe

Britain’s ‘deadliest path’

This walk is sublime. Just avoid the bombs, tides and quicksand.

Britain’s ‘deadliest path’

This walk is sublime. Just avoid the bombs, tides and quicksand.
Wakering Stairs offers one starting point for the Broomway path. (Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post)

SOUTHEND-ON-SEA, England — The ramblers call it the deadliest walk in Britain, the “most perilous path,” and so for some it is as irresistible as a siren’s song.

A yellow sign with a stark exclamation point at the trailhead announces that this ancient “right of way” — first recorded in the 15th century — is “hazardous to pedestrians.”

We are skeptical. We are city people. But we looked up the records and read that 100 people have died here over the centuries.

Truth be told, the many warnings stir the bowels, especially the caution of “unexploded objects.” The path crosses a still-active military test-firing zone, pelted with bombs since long-gone boys slaughtered each other in the trenches in World War I.


The sandbar, accessible only at low tides, was once used by farmers to get back and forth to market. (Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post)

On marine charts, the fabled, infamous Broomway trail is shown traversing a nebulous gray shoal, half land, half sea, not entirely here nor there. One can only venture onto the path at low tide. At high water, the Broomway disappears — abracadabra, thanks to the moon — to become the North Sea again.

The footpath is marked on the maps by a confident straight line just north of the mouth of the mighty River Thames and its estuary, running for six miles through a vast delta called the Maplin Sands.

The word “sand” doesn’t sound so bad? But skimming the travel essays and local histories, one discovers some of these sands are the quicksand ones, far from shore.

Then there is the equally disturbing caution of the “Black Grounds,” closer to land, described as a kind of jellied pudding of mud that swallows people and animals.

So, please, let’s avoid those spots.

One of the charts advised, “Seek Local Guidance,” and that is what we did.


Brian Dawson leads hikers on the "most perilous path" in Britain. At right, an old telegraph pole provides a waypoint. (Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post)

We met Brian Dawson on a recent Sunday evening at the entrance. Dawson is 76 years old, with one new knee, awaiting a second. He herded us half-dozen ramblers in rubber boots into a tight flock, and, clucking about the tides, said, “Can’t wait. Let’s go. We’ll turn back if the wind picks up.”

So we began: out onto the wooden wattling of the Wakering Stairs, down a descending causeway built of sticks and stones that transitions the walker from the low marshlands of Foulness Island onto the Maplin Sands.

Dawson was pleased with the first 100 yards. “The walking’s good, the sand is hard, but please keep up with me,” he said. “Don’t go wandering …”

We clung to him like barnacles.

The path is called the Broomway, Dawson explained, because walking the Sand Bar at low tide was once the only way to get to Foulness Island without a boat, and farmers erected a line of rushes and reeds as signposts to help them get back and forth from market.

There are few brooms now.

“The path goes out to sea — and then? It just disappears,” said Jim Mackenzie, 66, a retired computer engineer and one of our group, grinning with the oddness of it.

There is a metaphor there, he said.

Even at dead low tide, the sand was covered by six inches of briny, swirly water. We navigated over long braids of eel grass, scuttling crabs, the odd blue mussels and small bait fish, trapped.

The sea floor was solid enough — but still a little needy. The muck tugged at our boots, then reluctantly let go, and our progress sounded like suction cups applied and released, over and over: pluck, pluck, pluck!

It was tiring and spooky and sublime.


Remains of a crab are buried in the sand. (Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post)

Once away from land, gazing out, it was hard to tell where open water began and sand ended.

We could understand how a person without GPS or a compass could become disoriented if a fog rolled in. We were guppies in a milky white fishbowl.

“I like something peculiar — and this is it,” said Jan Knight, 46, a retired military man turned teacher who came out for the hike.

BRITAIN

50 MILES

2 MILES

Detail

Dover

London

FRA.

Foulness

Island

ENGLAND

Southend-on-Sea

North

Sea

River Thames

Source: Ordnance Survey

BRITAIN

50 MILES

2 MILES

Detail

Dover

London

Burnham-on-Crouch

FRA.

Foulness

Island

ENGLAND

Great Wakering

Southend-on-Sea

North

Sea

River Thames

Source: Ordnance Survey

BRITAIN

2 MILES

North

Sea

Burnham-on-Crouch

London

Detail

Dover

50 MILES

Foulness

Island

ENGLAND

FRA.

Great Wakering

Southend-on-Sea

River Thames

North Sea

Source: Ordnance Survey

Laris Karklis/The Washington Post

BRITAIN

North

Sea

2 MILES

London

Detail

Burnham-on-Crouch

Dover

50 MILES

FRA.

Foulness

Island

ENGLAND

North

Sea

Great Wakering

Southend-on-Sea

River Thames

Source: Ordnance Survey

Laris Karklis/The Washington Post

In the far distance, toward the sea, we could see the wind turbines off the Essex coast, spinning like children’s pinwheels along the horizon. There were also tankers, freighters and cruise ships plying the Oaze Deep and The Warp channels. The ships would appear and then recede into the haze.

Toward land, on Foulness Island — today owned and guarded by Britain’s Defense Ministry — one could glimpse faint objects, towers and scaffolds. They looked like Cold War ruins. “All very hush-hush,” said our guide Dawson. He pointed to one: “That’s an ejection-seat tester” — to test catapulting a pilot out of a failing military aircraft.

We sloshed on and arrived at a marker for Havengore Creek. It stood there like a battered cross at Calvary, salt-pocked and tilting. There was no creek at low tide, but there would be again soon.

Dawson told us that as the tide returns and the North Sea races to cover the Broomway, the metabolism of the pathway quickly changes from benign to malevolent.

“The tide comes in faster than a man can run,” Dawson warned. “It comes in from all directions.”

In minutes, sea up to your calves, then thighs, then hips.

“Can you swim two miles against a current?” Dawson asked.


Hikers Jim Mackenzie and Tim Fraser explore the Broomway. (Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post)

An account at a parliamentary hearing noted the deaths of three young men who ventured onto the sands to shoot waterfowl but were lost in the mist in January 1969.

“Exactly how they died will probably never be known,” the record concludes. “Richard Pinch's body was discovered on the outer edge of the sands in March. Andrew Bull's body was found closer in to land in June, and Robin Perry's body has never been found.”

On the day of our trek, though, with an eye on the tide charts, mobile phones tracking our positions, and Dawson guiding us along, it all felt fine.


The hikers led by Brian Dawson turn around at Asplins Head. (Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post)

Why would people want to do the Broomway?

There is no need anymore. There is a bridge to Foulness Island, built in 1922, maintained by the military.

A local farmer and historian, Peter Carr, told us the islanders are tough and resilient, but their culture is fading away — the school, church, pub, post office are all shuttered. Homes are abandoned. About 150 people, mostly farmers and pensioners, remain.

“When people call, we tell them, ‘There’s nothing here!’ And I think that’s why they want to come,” Dawson said.

The esteemed British nature writer Robert Macfarlane hiked the Broomway for his 2013 book, “The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.” He recalled “the walk out to the sea as a soft lunacy, a passage to beyond this world.”

Macfarlane confessed it might not be the most perilous journey, but it was “the unearthliest path I have ever walked.”

Paul Carter, a veteran hiker, wrote on a British walking website that the Broomway was “like nothing else I have experienced in this country.”

It is barely 40 miles from London.

At the halfway point of our three-hour hike, Asplins Head, we stopped and drank tea from our thermoses and nibbled biscuits before turning back. We were in the middle of nowhere. Our feet in the salt.

Britain is a nation of walkers, and this was a fine place to admire the view.

Story editing by Marisa Bellack. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Video editing by Joyce Lee. Designed by J.C. Reed. Copy editing by Dorine Bethea.


Toni Dawson, the wife of guide Brian Dawson, and Bill Booth, The Post's London bureau chief, head back before the tide comes in. (Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post)
Credits: William Booth

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