Late March. New sun. We boarded the midday train headed north out of London through the unlovely towns along the south Essex border. Essex sits just as close to the capital as the other commuter counties, but a pass through the landscape reveals forgotten boroughs, concrete supermarkets and offices to let, not the quiet, lush wealth of the home counties. But then, after changing at Wickford, the train branches, heads east, the buildings are stripped away like leaves from a branch. Gradually everyone left the train, until we were alone in the warm carriage as it pulled into Southminster. On the platform, the station clocked marked each second with an audible, analogue flack. No station office. Three bored teenagers. A timetable listing return trains for Sunday. Sleepy forgotten air.
From Southminster, the path lead north-east. Our plan was to hit the coast along the St Peter’s Way, an ancient pilgrimage route that cuts across the county horizontally, from Chipping Ongar to the coast. We were aiming for the chapel of St Peter-on-the-wall, the oldest Christian structure in the UK built in 654 AD, and constructed, as we discovered, out of materials scavenged from an even older Roman fortress established on the site, c. 300 AD. Partly in the footsteps of those ancient pilgrims, and partly on following our own plans, we cut across through the pretty village of Tilingham (weatherboarded houses, cricket pitch and village green), then out to the coast, bleak and unexpectedly wild.
Newly kitted out with £30 bivouac bags from Alpkit, we set up a small, discrete camp in the protective shadow of St Peter’s, in the very location of the sanctuary at the east end. Looking out to sea and up at the stars, we fell asleep – my first night outdoors without a canvas above my head.