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1. The Broomway Maplin Sands
CREDIT: Patrick Smith

Maplin Sands, Essex

by Patrick Smith

Maplin Sands, Essex with Professional Photographer, Justin Minns by Patrick Smith 

Maplin Sands lies off the coast of Essex beyond the resort of Southend and makes up part of the Thames estuary.

It is a vast area of sand that stretches up to 5km from the shore at low tide and across this area is an ancient footpath – The Broomway – which connects Foulness Island with the mainland.

This is an unmarked route across the soft sands and to use the path you require a professional guide to show the way and to ensure you avoid the soft sands that have claimed many lives over the centuries.

To add an extra element of potential danger the area is under the stewardship of the MoD who use the sands as a firing range. We were warned to look out for any unexploded ordnance that may be partially buried in the sand!

Our group of [foolhardy?] photographers made our way to the shore line at Wakering Stairs which can only be reached after passing through an MoD checkpoint. There we met up with workshop organiser Justin Minns and Tom Bennett – our guide for the evening.

Having enjoyed a couple of very sunny and warm days prior to the event the weather had changed - with a fairly overcast sky which unfortunately did not provide much reflective light on the pools of water lying on the sand.  However, the evening was dry with a fairly stiff breeze. It was not a venue that would be very appealing in stormy conditions!

Looking south, the large shallow pools of reflective sea water make the horizon line disappear and the sight of large container ships leaving the Thames estuary gave the appearance that they were levitating across the sands! 

We set off - walking almost directly away from the land, splashing through shallow saltwater pools and puddles. The sand beneath our feet was reassuringly firm, occasionally giving way to darker mud below.

Cordgrass and a far horizon

Small, scattered mounds of cordgrass have managed to dig their roots deep into the mud, and at one of these we gathered to take our first images.

Turning then towards the north-east our goal was a distant wooden pole - a navigational marker for Havengore Creek. Boards of wood have been nailed across this marker pole, creating a primitive ladder, known as the Maypole.  

The Maypole marker

The Broomway path was once marked with sticks raised above the mud. Now, only occasional markers remain. We set off towards another navigational pole with Tom leading the way. Even in fine weather the Broomway is a disorientating place, with distances impossible to judge

A Broomway path marker  

Far out in the estuary, two groups of Maunsell Forts can be seen – these were built in the second world war to provide a front-line defence against German air attacks on London. A more recent addition is the inevitable line of wind turbines on the horizon.

Other poles and beacons can be seen further out - at least one guarding a wreck. We turned in a south easterly direction to visit this shipwreck.

Marking the shipwreck

The Shipwreck

By now the wind was picking up as darkness started to descend and looking back to the mainland there were repeated flashes of sheet lightning. We set off at a brisk pace to the shore line as the light faded.

This was without a doubt a unique place to visit and photograph. Much credit to Justin for organising this trip and ensuring that we had the opportunity to take some different images on a unique stretch of coastline.

Within 20 minutes of setting out on the drive home through Essex we encountered the storm which we had viewed earlier from the Sands. The sheet lightning was continuous and the rain so heavy that it brought the traffic to a virtual standstill on the A13. I’m sure we were all relieved that we did not encounter this huge storm while out on the Broomway!

All images © Patrick Smith

This article was featured in the RPS Landscape Group's Newsletter, September 2022.



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