Wick Marshes

Visitor guide to the Nature Reserve

The reserve, 600 acres of coastal grazing marsh, sea walls and saltings shows how traditional coastal farming with grazing livestock can encourage a superb variety of wildlife. The whole area lies within the Ministry of Agriculture, fisheries and Food's (MAFF) major agri-environmental scheme, the essex coast environmentally sensitive area (ESA). Its conservation importance has attracted both national and international designations

Welcome to
Tollesbury Wick Marshes
    We hope you enjoy your visit

The whole area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and forms part of the Mid-Essex Coast Special Protection Area (SPA) for wild birds and a Wetland of International Importance/ Ramsar Site, in particular because of its overwintering birds. Its estuarine and unusual marine communities on the fringes of the reserve form part of the Blackwater Estuary National Nature Reserve (NNR), as well as part of the candidate Essex Estuaries Special Area of Conservation (SAC). It became an Essex Wildlife Trust reserve in 1993.

From the car park at Woodrolfe Green follow the road for 350 metres and turn right just before the Sail Lofts, up the concrete steps to pick up the public footpath on the sea wall. Continue past the Marine Pool, the Tollesbury Marina and clubhouse to the gates at the reserve entrance. The sea wall stratches out along Woorolfe Creek and sweeps around the horizon enclosing the main body of the marsh. From the wall you will be able to appreciate the Essex coast, the history which formed it and the wildlife it supports. Beyond are the town of West Mersea, Bradwell Power station and on rising land behind Marsh House Farm Buildings, a Second World War observation tower.

The public footpath follows round the sea wall giving a 5.5 mile walk from the Marina back through the village to the car park, and takes about 3 to 4 hours. the route is exposed to the elements so be prepared.
If you have a dog then it must be kept under strict control because of the risk to grazing livestock and the disturbance to wildlife.


The grazing marshes at Tollesbury Wick were reclaimed from the sea by the construction of the sea wall. To the inside of the sea wall is the borrowdyke (a long ditch dug out to provide material for the sea wall), and to the outside is a narrow fringe of saltmarsh and expanse of mud and shingle.
     The origins of the sea wall go back probably to the late Middle ages. It was clearly marked on the Chapman and Andre map of 1777, and firmly consolidated in the 1860's. This was followed by the construction of Tollesbury Light Railway, which eventually opened in 1904. Remains of the terminus at Tollesbury Pier are still visible in the south west corner of the reserve. Its proposed development as a yachting centre did not occur and the branch line closed to passengers in 1951. Two years later the 1953 floods prompted further raising and strengthening of the sea walls. Other features of historical interest include the man-made mounds and Second World War constructions. In spite of all these developments that have come and gone, traditional grazing with sheep and cattle continued. Until, that is, the pressure for arable land saw 146 acres drained and ploughed. Fortunately, most of the marshes survived and now the Essex Wildlife Trust has reinstated them as an example of the best grazing marshes in Essex, aiming to combine good farming with good conservation.

Along the sea wall to the Leavings
There is some fringing reed and scrub development along  the borrowdyke just inside the reserve which is always worth a look and a listen in Summer for reed warblers and reed buntings as well as dragonflies. Two hundred metres further on is the only outflow sluice for the whole marsh, where precious water gushes out at low tide after heavy rain. Little terns are often seen searching for ten-spined sticklebacks, which thrive in the salty borrowdyke along with many insects and prawns and some big eels. The folding, that flat land between borrowdyke and sea wall, is good in Summer for plants like grass vetchling and spiny restharrow, and for grasshoppers and crickets, notably Roesel's bush cricket, with its persistent free-wheeling song. Regain the public footpath on the sea wall to keep a watch on the saltmarsh, which is purple with sea lavender in summer, and the muddy creeks which hold a good range of birds.

The Leavings Hard
Across the creek is Great Cob Island, with common terns and blak-headed gulls in summer, and the RSPB reserve of Old Hall Marshes beyond. The creek has more boats than birds in summer. At other times is a vast larder for waders like redshank, grey plover, curlew and dunlin, and wildfowl like shelduck, Brent geese and goldeneye.
   Looking landward, across the borrowdyke, the first marshes are rather uniform because 146 acres here were levelled, drained and grew arable crops for 15 years before being put back to set-aside and then returned to marsh. 
    Skylarks will be overhead in the nesting season to test the spots in your eyes, but will be nesting on the ground with lapwing, redshank and meadow pipits. The populations of voles which build up here attract overwintering predators like hen harrierand short-eared owl alongside the resident barn owls, and kestrels. 
    These nearby fields are taken for hay and then grazed to keep them relatively short for Brent geese and wigeon.
    Dogs must be kept on a lead or under close control from the kissing gate onwards because of grazing livestock and the disturbance to wildlife.

Shinglehead Point
The Second World War pillbox is a good vantage point to scan the Blackwater estuary for overwintering duck, geese and divers. You may be lucky to spot eider, long-tailed duck, great northern diver or a common seal. 
    Between late April and early July please do not venture onto the shingle itself because little terns, oyster-catchers and ringed plovers will be nesting. The shingle and shells here and further on support the yellow horned-poppy.
    To landward you now look back over traditional grazing marsh which has never been ploughed. The fleets which snake across it are the original saltmarsh creeks prior to reclamation. Many of the small lumps and bumps are long established ant hills of the yellow meadow ant so typical of grazing marshes. If you are lucky you may spot a hare here or a fox nonchalantly going about his business.

Big Fleet and Blockhouse Bay
Here the sea wall points into the centre of the marsh where Big Fleet meets the borrowdyke. This fleet forms a freshwater reservoir and a habitat for dragonflies and nesting marshland birds. A few hundred metres onto the marsh is a prominent mound of ancient origin. formerly believed to be a 'Red Hill' (where salt was concentrated in Roman times), it may have been made to provide a safe refuge for sheep grazing the saltmarsh if cought ot by high tide.
    To seaward is an area of saltmarsh wider than the thin eroded strip which remains in front of most of the sea wall. Loss of saltmarsh is a serious problem because of the risk of the sea wall being undermined. For this reason thousands of tonnes of shingle have been sprayed onto the foreshore from the maintenance dredging work in Harwich Harbour. This is called 'Beach Recharge' and is an experimental sea defence techniqe being undertaken by the Environment agency to help prevent further saltmarsh erosion.

Tollesbury Pier and Mill Creek
The remains of the pier mark the failed aspirations of Victorian entrepreneurs to develop a port and yachting centre similar to Burnham. The pier deck was removed in 1940 to prevent an enemy landing. The terminus station for this, the Crab and Winkle Line, was just inside the sea wall, and the level shows just how much the sea wall has been raised since the 1953 floods.
    To the east of the railway embankment is an area of grazing marsh where the Trust has created some wet marsh areas by installing sluices and directing water into the reedbed at Pier Fleet. This is the first wet area of a scheme under the Essex Coast ESA, which is designed to bring grazing marshes back along the Essex coast.
    If you have not seen many butterflies and other insects up until now then this last section of sea wall can be one of the best. shrubby seablight, the largest of the saltmarsh plants, occurs here growing along the strand line at the base of the sea wall. At the head of Mill Creek turn right to take the foot-path which brings you to the track and public footpath through Mel Farm and thence onto Mell Road back to Tollesbury village.
    'The Crescent' provides a short cut back to your car, but spend a little time in Tollesbury village if you can - its a fine self-sufficient village with a long history of sailing, wildfowling, smuggling, oysters, railways and everything else which goes with Essex coast life. And good pubs for lunch if you time it right.

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Essex Wildlife Trust

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Essex Wildlife Trust
Fingringhoe Wick Visitor Centre, south Green Road, Fingringhoe, Colchester CO5 7DN. 
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