I’m not quite sure when or how it happened, but at some point late the previous evening, Simon had found a campsite and I had found a guest house nearby. I remember admiring Simon’s confidence that ‘there was bound to be a campsite on the road leading out of Dovercourt’, and he had been proved right. He hadn’t managed to establish whether it was open, or whether it had space for him, but he was content to head off at around ten o’clock and try his luck. If there was no one about then he planned to pitch up his tent somewhere and sort out payment in the morning. I tried to imagine myself in the same situation, and it left me feeling overwhelmingly anxious.
I met him at his campsite, just as he was wedging his tent back into its sleeve. I had passed a cafe on my way, so it was my turn to arrive with bacon rolls and coffee. We were heading for Walton-on-the-Naze, but because of the estuaries and marshland renowned along this part of the Essex Coast, the route was largely inland.
I was encouraged to find that I was keeping pace with, and occasionally outpacing Simon at times. As a keen cyclist himself, it must surely mean that after ninety days in the saddle I was finally finding my fitness. I wondered how I would cope now with the hill outside Hastings that had defeated me so comprehensively on the first day.
We stopped in Walton for more coffee and a handful of Snickers bars. I was delighted, because I’d have bet on Simon being one of those ‘isotonic energy gel’ sort of cyclists. Then we ambled onto the grassy Naze headland in search of the Naze Tower.
Just north of Walton-on-the-Naze is a grassy headland set above low cliffs, known simply as The Naze. In 1720, Trinity House built an octagonal red-brick tower, nearly ninety feet tall, commonly known as the Naze Tower. In conjunction with the nearby Walton Hall Tower, it guided vessels through the Goldmer Gap and on to the harbour at Harwich.
There is much debate about whether or not the tower was ever lit, or if it operated solely as a daymark. If it was ever a genuine lighthouse, then it would probably have had an open coal fire on top of the tower.
Over the years, the Naze Tower has had a number of uses, including a tea house, a lookout (during the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War) and as a radar station (during the Second World War). Following complete restoration in 2004, it is now a popular visitor attraction, with gallery, museum and tea rooms.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) August 2, 2015
There is a former lighthouse at Gunfleet, about six miles offshore, which is visible from the Naze Tower, as well as from the seafront at Frinton, which we would cycle through later in the day. Getting up close to it would require chartering a boat, something that I couldn’t justify, so I settled for a long-lens photograph. Fortunately it was a clear day, and although with the naked eye I saw only something small and without form, with my zoom lens its screw-pile structure was clearly visible. It would have to do.
To mark the Gunfleet Sands, and the north entry into the River Thames, Trinity House’s Chief Engineer James Walker built the Gunfleet Lighthouse in 1850, around six miles off the coast at Frinton-on-Sea.
It is a hexagonal screw-pile structure, seventy-four feet tall, with living room, bedroom, kitchen/washroom and storeroom, and a small lantern above. It displayed a rotating white light, which was visible for ten miles.
The light was deactivated in 1921, having been replaced by a lit buoy, although the tower is still used as an automated weather station by the Port of London Authority. It made news headlines in 1974, when it was briefly commandeered by the pirate radio station Radio Atlantis.
South of the Naze Tower, our route followed ten miles of seafront promenade, through the resorts of Walton, Frinton and Clacton. On a sunny Saturday morning in late July, the seafront was crowded with families, dogs, buckets and spades, balls and frisbees. In Frinton, one man had drawn a crowd by swimming out with his dog, hugging him in the water, with the dog using his owner’s back as an improvised surfboard.
From time to time the promenade narrowed, and cycling was forbidden. When it did, we simply switched to the clifftop road, or enjoyed the opportunity to dismount and continue on foot. I hoped that by cycling on to Colne Point, we stood a chance of getting a long-distance shot of the two modern Blacktail lights that mark the Maplin Sands. With my zoom lens, as well as binoculars, I saw at least half a dozen buoys and other small structures in the sea, but nothing resembling the two lights I had seen online. They would have to wait until I got further south.
I planned on pushing on to Southend to continue the search, although other than the pair of metal Maplin lights, most of the Thames Estuary lights have long since been replaced by simple lit buoys in the water.
For now, though, we could go no further south without finding a way to cross the Blackwater Estuary, an area of marsh and wetland covering nearly 5,000 hectares surrounding the mouths of the Rivers Colne and Blackwater. One option was the Brightlingsea ferry across to Mersea Island, which is connected to the mainland by a road bridge. Another was the Wivenhoe ferry that crosses the River Colne a few miles south of Colchester. Neither turned out to be viable, as we’d missed the last Brightlingsea crossing, and by the time we reached Wivenhoe we discovered that the ferry only runs for a couple of hours either side of each High Tide.
So we followed the Wivenhoe Trail, a cycle track nestled between the river and the railway line, all the way into Colchester. It was easy going, very pretty and delightfully quiet. It was the right decision from a lighthouse perspective too, because it led us to the TS Colne light, a former Trinity House light vessel, built in 1953, that is now the home of Colchester’s Sea Cadets.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) August 3, 2015
Taking a quick rest alongside the river, Simon offered to take charge of finding accommodation for the night. Given his almost perpetual sense of calm and optimism, I thought I’d set the bar high. I requested a quintessentially English inn, preferably on a village green, serving Adnams bitter, with a cheap en-suite room for me, a campsite behind the pub garden for Simon, decent food and safe storage for the bikes.
He wandered off with his phone, and returned to the river bank ten minutes later with a broad grin on his face. Ten miles south of Colchester, we arrived at the Hare and Hounds at Layer Breton, a pub on a village green so pretty that I am sure it has adorned many a jigsaw puzzle over the years. Believe it or not they had en-suite rooms in a separate building by the car park, with an entrance hallway perfect for a pair of bikes. There was a campsite in the field behind. And, yes, they served Adnams bitter.
The jammy bastard.