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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Join us Today!
Essex Wildlife Trust
The support of our 16,000 members enables the Trust to look after Tollesbury
Wick and over 90 nature reserves throughout Essex. Call us for a free guide.
Telephone 01296 729678
Please support the Trust by becoming a member. membership subscriptins
single £19.00, Joint £24.00 We will send your Membership card,
current magazines, essex wildlife and Natural world and details of our
Visitor Centres and Nature Reserves.
Essex Wildlife Trust
Fingringhoe Wick Visitor Centre, south Green Road, Fingringhoe,
Colchester CO5 7DN.
Tel: 01206 729678.
Registered Charity No 210065