Pics and story contributed by Robin Richardson; map reproduced from OS Maps. © Crown copyright. 2017.
Eight of us met in the unseasonal heat at the village hall car park in Wickham Bishops which is east of Witham and south of Tiptree in Essex, and for a change everyone was early. This was as well because despite being a walker and from Liverpool where according to her it always rains, Nicola had to be lent a rucksack having arrived with a glitzy shoulder bag – I can say this as I know her well enough!!
We walked through the village, accidentally disturbing a Palm Sunday procession, and across a golf course to the riverside. We were asked to wait while a group of golfers played their tee-shots but after the last one announced that they were all going to play again we made a run for it gaining the riverside path and walking beside the Blackwater and then through woods along a very wide mill-leat. The viaduct is one of two, the second being adjacent on private land, and together they are the oldest standing timber viaducts in the UK at 170 years old (part-restored in 1993 by Essex county council). They are 38 and 50 metres long and once carried the railway line from Witham to Maldon, closed in 1964. Interestingly the best preserved timbers are those in the water. Just downstream was a very large water mill, demolished in 1977. Crossing the road we followed some field paths to the abandoned (and locked) late Saxon church of St. Peter, 1,000 years old. The shade did for a coffee-stop however.
Next to this you can reach the railway cutting which has recently been opened up as a bridleway, running from here to the edge of Heybridge with just one break where two road bridge arches have been filled in. However there are permissive paths (and a churchyard) to get you around the breaks with little road walking. The track bed is mostly wooded and at Langford the old station platform is available as a picnic area (tested!). We joined the canal at a flood-gate where the railway used to cross it on another timber viaduct (there was a 4th one in Witham at one time).
The ‘Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation’ was built in approx. 1790 to join Chelmsford to the sea and provide a deeper harbour for Maldon, being easier to dredge and keep deep than either the original harbour or the river network. As you walk towards the sea it becomes less green and leafy and more industrial, finishing in Heybridge Basin which looks like a mini Ipswich Marina with a few old buildings of maritime origins, an ice-cream shop and two pubs, the Jolly Sailors (sampled) and the Old Ship (not). The weather by now was equatorial.
We walked across the large lock-gates to the west side of the canal and returned to Heybridge by walking along the sea wall path around the headland with views across the sands to Maldon itself. The flats are dotted with old barges that aren’t going anywhere very quickly except down into the mud. The path follows an old earth flood defence that eventually becomes a tour of several company’s private car parks but then the town centre is suddenly reached – and left just as quickly along Wood Lane, a footpath along a sandy track leading back into the countryside and past a fishing lake. A bit of shade under the willow trees (and a porta-loo) led to another stop.
We passed some interesting old farm buildings at Poplar Grove and then walked through a wood completely carpeted with wood anemones, arriving at Gt. Totham Church. Gt. Totham is Essex’s Tunstall, consisting of two completely separate villages with the same name a mile apart (presumably in the same parish however). This village is bigger than it looks and has been subject to new building, either that or we walked around it more than once! It has an old chapel joined to some alms houses, and then a network of narrow back lanes to negotiate before what was then a short road walk back to Wickham Bishops half a mile northwards.
Total distance was about 13.75 miles in 6 hours of actual walking excluding stops and getting lost (once, just before the finish!).
(Recent OS 1-25,000 maps, and even the online version, do NOT show all the railway trail as rights of way; near St. Peter’s church a footpath is shown parallel to it but in fact this has been extinguished and replaced by a bridleway in the cutting. It then runs to the Maldon Bypass at Heybridge village with the exception of 1/2 a mile through Langford where you have to piece a route together using busy roads with no footway and a permissive path parallel to the road that takes you near to the church from which it is road again to the next bridge over the railway).
Facilities – Free car park at Wickham Bishops village hall (NO public loos) almost opposite the Chequers PH (open all day at weekends, food). Village shop, 200 metres. Shade and logs to sit on at St. Peter’s Church. Pub and several cafes at Heybridge village (passed twice). Two pubs and a cafe at Heybridge Basin. Pubs in Gt. Totham are not en route. Just before the end of the walk you do pass two pubs, the Mitre, currently closed, and the Chequers, almost opposite the start (see above). Also a cafe but this doesn’t appear to open on Sundays.