Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Broomway

Robert MacFarlane:
If you consult a large-scale map of the Essex coastline between the River Crouch and the River Thames, you will see a footpath -- its route marked with a stitch-line of crosses and dashes -- leaving the land at a place called Wakering Stairs and then heading due east, straight out to sea. Several hundred yards offshore, it curls northeast and runs in this direction for around three miles, still offshore, before cutting back to make landfall at Fisherman's Head, the uppermost tip of a large, low-lying and little-known marshy island called Foulness.

This is the Broomway, allegedly the deadliest path in Britain and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked. The Broomway is thought to have killed more than a hundred people over the centuries; it seems likely that there were other victims whose fates went unrecorded. Sixty-six of its dead are buried in the little Foulness churchyard; the bodies of the other known dead were not recovered. If the Broomway hadn't existed, Wilkie Collins might have had to invent it. Edwardian newspapers, alert to its reputation, rechristened it the Doomway. Even the Ordnance Survey map registers, in its sober fashion, the gothic atmosphere of the path. Printed in large pink lettering on the 1:25,000 map of that stretch of coast is the following message: 
WARNING
Public Rights of Way across Maplin Sands can be dangerous. Seek local guidance.
When the Broomway was established, possibly in the Middle Ages and certainly by the eighteenth century, it was the only way to reach Foulness, which is why the route was discovered and marked with the brooms that gave its name. More:
After 300 yards the causeway ended for real, dipping beneath the sand like a river passing underground. Further out, a shallow sheen of water lay on top of he sand, stretching away. The diffused light made depth-perception impossible, so that it seemed as if we were simply going to walk onwards into ocean. We stopped at the end of the causeway, looking out across the pathless future. . . .

We stepped off the causeway. The water was warm on the skin, puddling to ankle death. Underfoot I could feel the brain-like corrugations of the hard sand, so firmly packed that there was no give under the pressure of my step. Beyond us extended the sheer mirror-plane of the water, disrupted only here and there by shallow humps of sand and green slews of weed. I thought of the lake of mercury that allegedly surround the grave of the First Emperor of China.
From The Old Ways: a Journey on Foot (2012), which is actually about a lot of separate journeys, at least one by boat, but so far I have enjoyed it very much.

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