I see them all the time, arriving at my local station, Manningtree, in Essex.
They’re walkers, although judging by the gear some of them are carrying – huge rucksacks, waterproof clothing, multiple water bottles, Nordic poles – I’m guessing they might consider themselves hikers or ramblers or possibly wanderers in the wilderness.
This seems excessive since the majority of them head to Dedham Vale, Constable Country, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty just three miles to the west, along the River Stour.
I like Dedham Vale, I’ve walked there often, and of course people are free to walk wherever they want, but I’m always wary of the notion of officially designated beauty. It can attract crowds, and it sets me wondering how beautiful a place has to be before it is considered outstanding.
I consider such things on my walks. I’ve always been a keen walker, but my walking took on a new meaning after a medical diagnosis. I have a rare, incurable type of blood cancer, called chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML).
My doctor told me: “You won’t be climbing Mount Everest.” But that was never really on my bucket list. And, in fact, when I look around and see all the people, many of them younger than me, with limps, walking sticks, mobility scooters, I’m grateful for the walking I can do, rather than the walking that I can’t.
I sometimes suffer from a terrible tiredness, but so far it doesn’t stop me doing more what I want to do, and I’m very grateful for that.
A local walk has become one of my favourites. The places I go don’t constitute prime walking territory, which is why I like them.
A stroll around Manningtree can take you across the small village green where Matthew Hopkins, the witchfinder general, did some of his worst work, and it can also take you along the smallest beach I’ve ever seen. However, my favourite route takes me past the plain black door of an (alleged) former brothel.
Does this constitute serious walking? Well, I think it’s as serious as you want to make it, but fortunately I don’t think there’s any official definition of seriousness in this context.
Meander a mile or two miles east from Manningtree and you’ll be in Mistley, known for its two freestanding towers. These appear in various books about follies, but they weren’t built as such.
They used to stand at either end of what was a startlingly unusual Georgian church designed by Robert Adam in 1776. Just over a century later the body of the church was demolished leaving the towers, now with columns, porticos and lantern domes. A well-tended churchyard surrounds them, and I do love walking in graveyards. This one is distinguished by an obelisk engraved in memory of Jane Death, who died in 1888.
Even further east is Wrabness, and if you’re in the mood for a folly there’s Grayson Perry and Charles Holland’s House for Essex, a fine architectural collage of gold roofs, multiple dormers, embossed tiles and pregnant fertility goddesses, along with a backstory about the fictional Julie from Canvey Island.
Before it was built there was some local opposition, but now it seems to be accepted as part of the scenery. You can walk surprisingly close to it, down to the foreshore – the river by this point has now become an estuary. The house is essentially a holiday let, and although there’s high demand to stay there, I’ve walked past it quite a few times and never seen anybody who looks like an occupant. Maybe they’re inside hiding away from the prying eyes of pedestrians.
Another eight miles east – and, okay, you’ll be forgiven for taking the train – you end up in Harwich, where you can walk in the footsteps of Samuel Pepys.
Pepys was MP for the area and a naval administrator in the days when the town had a royal naval dockyard, though nobody seems to have any hard information on his walking routes.
The dockyard is gone, but there are still lots of fortifications in Harwich – a circular fortress built to defend against a possible invasion by Napoleon, along with various concrete bunkers, pillboxes, a hill fort and battery – and where there’s concrete, there tends to be street art.
Recently, a stenciled image appeared of a boy with a cloth cap and a fishing rod, on the end of which is a blue Covid facemask.
There’s been some debate about whether this is a real Bansky or not. Either way, people love it, and it has been protected with a large sheet of acrylic.
I’ve walked in Harwich with various, very different people, and without exception, and without me suggesting it, they’ve posed beside the fishing boy and asked me to take their picture.
I’ve obliged, naturally. I’m not sure that great art exists in order to be posed in front of, but posing is a definite sign of approval, and it makes a wonderful, unofficial, souvenir of a very specific day’s walk in Essex.
I believe that it is the small pleasures that get us through life: spotting a rabbit hopping through the grass, seeing a statue of Buddha in a suburban garden, exchanging a couple of words with a fellow walker.
I don’t think these are distractions, but rather they’re small observations and moments of awareness that make life worth living. My illness hasn’t changed that.
Geoff Nicholson is a novelist and travel writer and the author of Walking on Thin Air: A Life’s Journey in 99 Steps (The Westbourne Press, £12.99)