The Crouch Estuary is on the edge of a coastal wilderness of saltmarsh and muddy creeks. Hereabouts, the water and the wind run the schedules and the regiments of moored yachts must hustle, like cars on a crowded motorway, to win the battle for both on summer weekends. Today at low tide, there is no activity on the water and little on the land; a persistent nor’westerly carries arctic air that is just bearable in the warming sun but only after it has blown a slab of dense, grey cloud south towards the Thames.
The landscape is wide and uninterrupted, save for boatyards, cranes and great storage sheds on the southern bank of the river and across the water at Burnham-on-Crouch, a pretty promenade of terraces, pubs and cafes with an outsized wedding cake of a yacht club anchoring the eastern end of the town.
The coastal path on Wallasea Island runs east past a jetty and intricate conveyor belt system, perhaps designed by a student of Heath Robinson, that brought much of the contents of the Crossrail tunnel to be disposed of and so create a new freshwater wetland nature reserve with sculpted pools and islands; managed by the RSPB, this provides a new expanse of habitats for breeding waders and wintering waterbirds. Fences, built within the centre of deep, water-filled ditches, look like like tank traps, and are designed to keep invading foxes and other mammal predators out of the breeding areas. Today, the reserve holds a team of three workers with brushcutters and an unflustered flock of Canada geese. Spring should be a tumble of lapwings and shouting redshanks.
At the tip of Wallasea Island, there is a birdwatching shelter on the sea wall; beyond a section has been dug away to allow the sea to flood the land and so create a saltmarsh that today is mainly bare mud and bright green algae. There are long views east across the creek to Foulness island; at the north end of which there is an odd assortment of concrete buildings and, towards the centre, a small village sheltered by tall trees with a narrow, church steeple. Heavily controlled access has created an island of intrigue; a secret, military weapons testing facility that for years has lobbed all types of ordnance offshore, a small, resident community, a number of farms and much space for nature.
The Crouch estuary is strictly protected by wildlife legislation for its wintering population of dark-bellied Brent geese, but there is no sign of one today, just a smattering of redshank, knot, dunlin and shelduck on the mudflats and occasional whistle of a passing curlew. There ought to be a merlin chasing the larks across the fallows or short-eared owl hunting the tall grasslands; instead a common buzzard circles slowly across the sky.
Most of the geese are probably on the Maplin sands on the seaward edge of Foulness; these distant mudflats were the site of a proposed airport in the 1970s. All wild estuaries within the long shadow of the capital remain at risk from such developments today. As the stocks of eel grass and sea lettuce are depleted through the winter, the geese move up the estuary and onto the adjacent fields to graze the well nourished crops and pastures. Today, only a small herd of mute swans with muddy undersides paddle about in the centre of a huge, winter wheat field.