It is extremely perilous for any stranger to attempt the passage to or from this island without a guide, but the dangers attending it have been a pleasurable excitement to many. Some farmers would stay to the last, and then race the tide, and swim the creeks. Some of those who have been used to the sands all their lives, have there yielded up their breath, and many hairbreadth escapes are recorded." They are part of the words that Philip Benton, a local historian from Wakering Hall (Essex County, England), left written in his book The History of Rochford Hundred, published in 1867; a kind of guide or local encyclopedia where parish notices, biographies and family trees, traditions, superstition, agriculture, tithe apportionments... "and various other matters" were collected. And among those other matters is the one we have referred to at the beginning of this article, to which Benton dedicated two pages of the aforementioned work, and which contains a mixture of mystery, superstition and, of course, reality. We refer to The Broomway.
It is a historical Roman route that was made on foot, on horseback or in animal-drawn vehicles between the so-called Wakering Stairs, on the Essex coast, and Foulness Island, an area in the south-west of England. A journey of about 16 kilometers our and back, linked not only to the evolution of the tides, but also to unpredictable weather conditions, making it, even for those who used to use it and had the necessary experience and expertise, an adventure similar to walking on the edge of a knife. The broom plants, along with wooden sticks and bare branches, have given it the name by which it is popularly known. It was for a long time, specifically until 1922 when the Havengore Bridge was built, the only communication route to reach Foulness Island.
Fog, Quicksand and Strong wind
As we said, the route starts at the Wakering Stairs and goes into the sea about 300 meters towards the flats of Maplin Sands when the tide is low, and the route then continues parallel to the coast until Foulness Island. Even being an expert on this route, extreme precautions should always be taken, keeping in mind that there is quicksand and the sea comes in faster than you can run, as those who know it point out. Also, it is easy to get disoriented if sea fog blows in and a strong wind can significantly alter the low tide state.
Returning to Philip Benton, in his book the following fragment is collected:
"The present Charles Miller, late surgeon at Great Wakering, who, during his professional duties, occasionally lost his way, formerly possessed an old horse, which upon such an emergency, when the reins were thrown up, her instinct never failed her. Fogs are liable to come on, the tide out of course, and other accidents occur, so that the most experienced may lose their way. Those on foot who attempt the passage through the creeks, should be cautious, as dangerous holes exist; one called Shagsby's (from a man lost there) is on the edge of the saltings at Great Shelford".
In fact, Benton himself recounts what he experienced firsthand by noting in a footnote, marked in the text with a cross symbol next to the word "fogs", the following:
"The writer was once lost in a fog whilst wild fowl shooting on the sands, and, but for timely assistance, must have lost his life. These fogs at a little distance appear to be a bank, and upon turning round you lose all idea of north, south, east, or west. As a hint to future sportsmen, the author entertained the idea of tying his arm to the muzzle of his gun, (burying the latter in the sand) to simplify the search for his body".
About 70 Bodies Recovered since 1600
Walking on water... it is clear that it is not made for mere mortals. The Broomway has claimed dozens of lives. It is estimated that more than a hundred, although the Foulness Burial Register counts about 70 bodies recovered from the sands since 1600. And it must be taken into account that it is Benton himself who accounts for some of these tragic events related to the transit through this peculiar and dangerous path:
"Amongst those who have been drowned upon these occasions was Thomas Jackson, an apothecary, in the year 1711, who was buried at Rochford. Thomas Miller, surgeon, of Great Wakering, son of Morton Miller, of the same place, was likewise lost coming from Foulness, August 21st, 1805, aged 45. He was on horseback, and was discovered swimming in the haven by some men in a barge, who conducted him to Land Wick blackgrounds, and it is supposed his horse afterwards threw and kicked him, as a mark of the shoe appeared on his temple".
"One of the most distressing events of this nature occured in 1836, when two poor girls named Chittocks and Bates were found dead, not drowned, but exhausted from cold, wet, and fright. Although entreated to stay at Wakering, they refused, as they expected to meet their sweethearts on the opposite side. The night was a frightful one, incessant rain, with frequent flashes of forked lightning. Nearly all Foulness attended their funeral.
"In 1857, William Harvey, a shepherd, was drowned, in consequence, it is thought, of having been led astray by the Horns light. Another of these victims was Gardner, of Havengore, Mr. Archer's son in law. He was extremely deaf, and being set down from a cart near his own head-way, wandered from the track. His cries were heard from the shore, but on account of his infirmity he did not hear his would-be deliverers. It would have been dangerous to leave the land in total darkness, and the shrieks of lost persons have been imitated".
"One of the most recent casualties was that of an unfortunate Irish policeman, who, from a sense of duty, having a paper to deliver, remained too long in the island, and though warned, would attempt the passage, and was overtaken and lost his life, by the raging water at the first creek".
If the route was so dangerous, what was there on Foulness Island for such relatively frequent traffic in time past? Perhaps the answer is given by Benton himself when he points out:
"Arthur Young, who issued his last work in 1807, on the Agriculture of Essex, is inclined to think in this island is to be found some of the richest soil in the county. He describes the fertility as so great, that the farmers seldom applied any manure for any sort of corn, and such was the lukewarmness in that respect, that there was scarcely an enclosure for the cattle, which used to wander at pleasure, and no anxiety was felt on the subject".
Foulness Island is currently owned by the Ministry of Defense. If you want to visit the town on the island, Churchend, you must take The Brromway, as access by road is restricted to residents. Today, expert guides offer their services to those who wish to do the route, becoming one of those unique tourist attractions that, despite the passing of the centuries, it is still as dangerous as in its origins.
Philip Benton (1867). The History of Rochford Hundred (pp. 219-221). Published by A. Harrington
"The Broomway and Foulness Island walk". Saturday Walkers Club, 26 September 2022, https://www.walkingclub.org.uk/walk/the-broomway-and-foulness-island/ ]