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Walking Britain's Deadliest Footpath
David Henningham is your guide to one of Britain's most entrancing and dangerous spots
There is a monument on an island, twelve miles from Southend, Essex that you are prohibited from visiting. An oval track with a pond at its centre and eleven listed workshops and storerooms arranged on the outside. This site is where Britain developed its first nuclear bomb. The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, founded in 1947, is enclosed on the island owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Yet, with ten years of experience not visiting the site, let me be your guide to Foulness Island.
We cannot arrive in the zone, but we can make approaches. Google satellites allow us to hover above this Essex coast that Soviet jets could only glance at. Limited access is also granted for seasonal openings of a Heritage Centre on Foulness Island, attracting curious neighbours from nearby towns, like me, and tourists of the macabre, which I also am.
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We are waiting on the mainland at Landwick Lodge for one of these limited permits onto Foulness Island.
Colchester-born William Hale first came to nearby Shoeburyness to test his stickless war rockets around 1850. Henry Shrapnel tested his shells over the same strand. By 1914, the MoD had purchased Foulness Island to the north, laying a road the length of the island that ended the isolation of a centuries-old farming community with its own accent and dialect words.
Today, it is a private weapons-testing and disposal subcontractor, QinetiQ, who control access to that road.
Gradually, more cars appear, and we become anxious about getting in. An ad hoc queue assembles to shore up social norms. Several times we are asked if we are "with Nigel". We are not with Nigel. Suddenly, a man appears in what looks like a MAGA hat. He walks with purpose, clutching a clipboard, and a flurry of activity erupts around him. This must be Nigel. His hat turns out to be his own red and white walking-tour merch.
Successful visitors burst from the QinetiQ office in triumph, car doors slam, and we are on the move. We enter the compound but must wait for the bridge over Havengore Creek, which is raised like a Tarmac tombstone to let a small boat’s mast slip behind – a concession to an ancient right of way. Our drawbridge descends noiselessly to merge with the road again, restoring Foulness Island’s connection to the mainland.
We drive at the required walking pace. To our right are grassy mounds; Saxon barrows storing explosives. To our left is the scheduled monument where the British Bomb was made. We drive more slowly than required, but it is just out of sight. Here in 1952, in building X6, a team assembled forty high-explosive hexagons and pentagons into a sphere. This was a “physics package”; the device that detonated an Atom Bomb back when nuclear war seemed survivable. One device was sent from Foulness to the Montebello Islands, a nuclear test codenamed Operation Hurricane that was to declare Britain the world’s third nuclear power.
A newer building emerges, like a short section of tunnel. I have been told this is for producing unthinkable temperatures, to test a vehicle’s resilience. When nuclear weapon tests became controlled, these effects had to be simulated. This building is a core sample of Armageddon.
Suddenly, as if we had nodded off, we are at the cross-roads of a picturesque village. A woman is hanging out washing. A child has left a tricycle on the lawn. The flower beds are at competition standard. We turn left at the closed-down pub, right at the condemned church, then park up. We have arrived in Churchend. Another driver gets out of his car and looks at me, as disoriented by this transition from weapons ranges to Britain in Bloom as I am. The mast of that boat passes behind him on the River Crouch. "This is the good shit," he says.
The Heritage Centre, which used to be the school, is filled to capacity. Through its exhibits the local residents have skilfully recorded the unique way of life here that was brought to an end by the road we just used. A man is showing off Roman coins, but even more rare is his accent, very different from the nasal Essex over the bridge; broad with a slight uptick that gets them mistaken for Australians in Southend. Exhibits about the Second World War and the Cold War demonstrate that, however remote Foulness may have been, its headland cut like a ship's prow through world events.
I eat blue cake in the grounds of the Heritage Centre. "I don't know what's in it!" chuckles the woman running the tea-room. A lot of neighbours are primarily here for tea and cakes, celebrating this precious institution. I tweet and notice a Twitter account I follow is tweeting from the same orchard. I try to guess which of the giddy thirty-something psychogeographers is behind it.
I ask a local farmer about his crop. "McDonald's bought it before it went in the ground," he says. He is cheerfully explaining phosphates when I suddenly recall the high security we had to pass through to reach this paradise. Foulness is a microcosm of the way the world works; a working model of how border forces and the military industrial complex disappear discreetly while they keep us "safe in our beds". I ask the farmer about how the MoD perform as a landlord. "We never have to lock our doors", he replies.
Britain’s Deadliest Footpath
I pass through the checkpoint, leaving the island, and head for what is said to be Britain’s deadliest footpath: The Broomway. This ancient route along the seabed runs the entire length of Foulness Island, parallel to its eastern shore. It only emerges when the tide goes out, and even then, it presents subtle dangers that can confuse and drown unprepared walkers. I am writing the final chapter of my novel, set on Foulness Island in 1957, and I need to gather more material. An experienced guide is essential, so I rendezvous with a walking club and three local dinghy sailors.
We put on our wellies at the top of flood defences, but one of the ramblers intends to walk on the seabed in bare feet. Our guide’s voice bursts out in frustration: “Why do people keep doing this?” We all look sheepishly at the ground. “There’s spent munitions out there!” he continues, appealing to his wife for confirmation. Nobody says anything. We all know why the man wants to walk the Broomway barefoot; Robert Macfarlane does it that way in his book, The Old Ways. If our guide wants an explanation of this new fashion, he'll have to start asking differently. He turns away and leads us onto the causeway. I slip off my boots.
The silt is firm underfoot, the ribbons left by the current fitting neatly into the arch of my feet like waiting unshoes. The silt brightens in ochre haloes around each footfall as my pressure expels the moisture. Tiny puddles merge to create a mosaic that mirrors the sky from our different points of view. The group oscillates between exhilarated conversation and silence. Everyone is conflicted between sharing the experience and wishing they were alone. The eye, never tiring of seeing, doesn’t leave time for conversation.
I glance back at the spire of St Nicholas’. Mist between us and Great Wakering’s spire would be a signal to abandon the trip, but today is clear. Great Wakering was home to John West; a Missionary who designed a flag for the Anti-transportation league, which some say was a draft version of the Australian flag. My thoughts turn to the nearby nuclear device that was transported to Australia, like the convicts and colonists with bogus tickets to terra nullius. To conduct a nuclear test in Australia was a divisive choice at the time, but project director William Penney—who also lobbied to target Nagasaki when he was head of the British delegation at the Manhattan Project—believed Britain was acquiring a capability required of any major power. The twelve British tests were later condemned by the 1985 McClelland Royal Commission for their negligence towards the Indigenous Aboriginal people, soldiers, and civilians.
We turn a few degrees left onto the Broomway itself. Gulls alight on the silt, their dazzling, folding wings consolidating into white specks like stars being born in the milky way. This used to be the main road until the army came. It’s not narrow; the whole seabed is exposed. A broad road that leads, for some, to destruction. Birds with hollow bones walk daintily on blackgrounds, waterlogged sand that would swallow us if we put our weight on it. Only narrow causeways, such as Asplins Head, connect the Broomway to Foulness Island. Far ahead, beyond where the Broomway ends, wind turbine blades fall clockwise.
People try and make their mark on this tidal landscape, but the Broomway tears a fresh sheet twice a day. Chunks of red Victorian brickwork and military concrete get swept about the silt like Lego rattling in a hoover. What we see out here is what we bring with us. The Victorian gothic Broomway decapitated a coach passenger; if they’d walked barefoot, they’d only have died of pneumonia. Two Edwardian cyclists jollied out here. I toe the silt and decide they must have had thighs like horses. Macfarlane found "the walk out to sea as a soft lunacy, a passage beyond this world." But he came out here when the foghorns were droning; today I can see the distant chimney at Grain, a landmark we used when I sailed dinghies with my dad. Far away I can see Kent's Maunsell sea-forts like lilac finger-painting on the busy shipping lanes. Perhaps being given this landscape's songlines by my dad makes it less primeval; to me it is an amphitheatre where the tides wrestle with human industry.
I haven’t yet seen how the tide moves so I wait, the air plucked by the sound of droplets. In the spirit of the TV presenter who says, “don’t try this at home,” I have a compass and a watch so that even in freak weather conditions I will be able to retrace my steps to safety.
The farmer John Burroughs told me at the Heritage Centre: “It comes in at walking pace”. I look away from a mound of sand for a moment, then return my gaze to see the moon has released the water and silently submerged the ground. In front of me I can hear the mad rush of the Thames’ traffic; a sliver of mercury with a red container ship balanced on top, as if drawn by a folk artist.
The Broomway is also a firing range. To my right is where Hale’s stickless war rockets were tested, used to depose Tewedros II, the Ethiopian Emperor who had his own weapons research facility. To my left, at Fishermen’s Head, artillery shells of all vintages nestle and rust against the causeway like fallen Roman columns. Out of sight behind me is building X6. The difference between forgotten and buried history is the hostile reaction to the latter when it resurfaces. As recently as 2021, artist Gabriella Hirst's installation ‘An English Garden’ (commissioned by local arts organisations Metal and The Old Waterworks), in which she resurrected the 1953 Atom Bomb rose, was trampled by Southend councillors for staging an offensive “attack on our country”. This is real cancel culture; when those in authority refuse to accept historical facts that they can’t take pride in.
I consider how the Broomway could act as a proving ground for post-colonial literature. We can retrace the trajectories of the British Empire from this spot, but not without the estuary making us acutely aware of our own presence. Likewise, with history, we can’t do good post-colonial writing without accounting for our own presence. Negotiating the rules for each project—where whose story begins and ends—deposits nuance upon nuance.
David Henningham is an artist, author and bookbinder, and co-founder of the Henningham Family Press. His novel Foulness, set on the island in 1957, is available to pre-order on Unbound