For anyone who enjoys wandering out onto coastal flats during low-tide to explore the terrain, Britain's Broomway has all the appearances of the perfect gateway. The tidal foot path, so-named for the hundreds of broomsticks that once marked its boundaries, has for nearly 600 years provided access from Essex, England to the farming communities of nearby Foulness Island.
The Broomway, however, is more dangerous than its name implies. In fact, the more you explore the natural nightmares surrounding this 6-mile-long path, the more it begins to sound like something straight out of "The Princess Bride." For at least 100 people, and likely many more, it's one walk they never returned from.
To access the Broomway, you must first leave the mainland of Essex at a point called Wakering Stairs. You then reach a causeway of brick and debris that takes you over the ominous Black Grounds, a kind of quicksand that locals refer to simply as "coffins." Once on the Broomway, you'll walk across a firm, silvery mudflat called the Maplin Sands.
The dotted line on this map represents the Broomway and the various exits available to Foulness Island. (Photo: Liz Henry/Flickr)
Unlike the terrors of the fire swamp from "Princess Bride," there are no Rodents of Unusual Size or spurts of flame to negotiate as you make your way. Instead, its Mother Nature herself that supplies the necessary evils. In addition to the Broomway being poorly marked (the iconic poles from centuries past have long since rotted away), the mudflat it traverses is notorious for disorienting even the most seasoned adventurers. Often times, it's difficult to distinguish where the sands end and the sea begins. And if a common sea mist rolls in, you're apt to get completely lost without a compass or GPS-equipped phone.
"It's like walking under an arc of light, perhaps a little like being in a Turner painting, although of course the light isn't static," recalled Wendy on the Blue Borage blog. "There are also the sounds and smells of the sea and air to remind you that this is real. But this dazzling light is also disorientating. It was clear to me that if I didn't follow the right route, then I could easily wander off in the wrong direction, and become lost."
As you can see at about the 40-second mark in the video below, it's an otherworldly (and dangerous) experience to walk the Broomway during a gloomy, grey day.
Depending on the time of year, you have a window of three to four hours to explore the Broomway before the tide returns. Unlike other tidal flats where the water gently rises, the speed of the incoming tide is described as faster than a person can run. Even worse, the rising waters interact with outflow from the nearby Crouch and Roach rivers to create deadly hidden whirlpools.
Nearly every site I've visited warns that no matter how good a swimmer you are, if you're caught on the Broomway when the tide comes in, you're likely to perish.
Still interested in taking a jaunt down the Broomway? You'll first need permission from Britain's Ministry of Defence. The military took over much of Foulness Island in the early 20th century for artillery exercises and still controls access. Adding to the path's notoriety are large signs near the entrance warning "Do not approach or touch any object or debris as it may explode and kill you."
Have a nice walk.
NOTE: If you're serious about tackling the Broomway, be extra cautious and hire a local guide to assist you with the journey. You can find information on one guided tour here and detailed tidal times and other useful tips here.