If you thought we’d beaten our previous eight mile record for walking sections of the Essex Way, you’d only be partly right. We did two sections and they totalled 10 miles.
It’s like this.
Our start point is getting further away while the days are getting shorter. We quickly realised that before long we’d be in the slightly ridiculous situation where we were driving 35+ miles to walk for five. So to try and mitigate that, we decided to try out some longer sections and have a lunch break. Crucially though, we didn’t decide this until halfway through the latest section, so last weekend we walked from High Ongar to Shellow Bowells, then the following weekend from Shellow Bowells to High Easter.
High Ongar to Shellow Bowells
Yes, there really is a place called Shellow Bowells, except it’s pronounced ‘bowls’ rather than ‘bowels’, fortunately. Its claim to fame appears to be that it was mentioned in Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, a book which readers may remember as being a vehicle for Bryson’s amusement at British place names. It’s actually a really good book, as it happens.
The walk started where we left off last time at High Ongar, winding across a series of meadows and following the River Roding. Parts of the track here were pretty muddy after last week’s heavy rainfall and quite narrow in places. There was also a lot more scrambling required this time, with caches hidden in trees overhanging the river, and some hard-to-reach places in ditches.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this walk is the changing scenery, even though none of it is particularly far apart. We’ve gone through woodland, wheat fields, hedgerows and some comparatively busy bits which have even had tarmac on them. It’s also going to be interesting to see the way the scenery changes with the seasons – having started at the end of the summer, harvest time, we’re already seeing how the fields and hedges are changing. I can also see the terrain becoming pretty challenging (for a townie anyway) in some places.
Through most of this section, we could hear gunshots from the nearby Essex Shooting Ground at Fyfield. If you ever want to do something a bit therapeutic, there are a lot worse things you could do than clay pigeon shooting. It’s surprisingly satisfying to blast the ‘pigeon’ (a ceramic disc) into smithereens and not nearly as difficult as it might first appear.
The footpath diverged from the Roding shortly before Fyfield, putting us towards Willingale on the Fyfield Road for a bonus and a letterbox hybrid cache. And now it’s time for another mini-lesson on geocaching.
Cache Types 101
There are a number of different types of geocache, which you can find out more about here. The Essex Way is predominantly made up of what’s called ‘traditional’ caches – this means there’s a hidden container, the given co-ordinates take you straight to the container, you sign the log and that’s it. It’s the most popular type of cache, both to hide and to find, because you aren’t required to anything except find a container.
Just to mix things up, the creators of the Essex Way geocache trail have thrown in a few different types – multis, letterbox hybrids and mystery caches.
Multi-caches require you to find out a piece of information from another location which will then guide you to the actual cache. So in this case, we had to find a particular object along the path, count the parts it’s made up from, then use that number to complete a set of co-ordinates. For example, the number of letters in the third word of the name of a local farm, then divide that by two and add that number into the co-ordinates.
Letterbox hybrids are a combination of a traditional cache and a letterbox. The latter contain a rubber stamp and a notebook, and the finder logs it by stamping their own book with the cache’s stamp and vice versa. Hybrids just have a stamp, inkpad and a notebook and are basically the same as traditional caches in the UK.
Mystery, or puzzle, caches do pretty much what it says on the tin. You have to solve a puzzle which will give you the location of the final cache. They vary in difficulty, but one I did recently involved a tube map and a list of stations and took me an absolute age to solve even though it turned out to be ridiculously simple.
The footpath brought us out on the road on the edge of the tiny hamlet of Shellow Bowells. Our last cache on this leg was a church micro with a twist – the church isn’t a church any more, but rather spookily, still has the gravestones in the garden. St Peter and St Paul’s was built in 1754 and from what I could find out, appeared to have been de-consecrated in the 70s to become a private residence.
Shellow Bowells to Good Easter
We were on the edge of autumn with our last walk, but this time we’re well and truly into a dismal November. On a damp and overcast Sunday, both with hangovers, we forced ourselves out of the house and back on the trail. We started back at Shellow Bowells, where the former church looked even more forbidding surrounded by bare trees and fallen leaves against a grey sky.
The footpath this time was at first mainly smooth lined by trees. It looks like it would have been an old farm track. After a while it petered out into a dirt track which got more and more rutted and muddy. The caches were all pretty much as they have been previously – easy finds behind trees and we whizzed through them fairly quickly. After a few minutes, the peace was shattered. The first of a series of dirt bikes flew past us at speed. Fortunately, we’d heard it coming from quite a long way off, because there is no grass verge to stand on, so we crowded ourselves right at the edge and hoped the rider was paying attention.
After Newland Brook, the ground got considerably worse – great ruts carved in the path filled with muddy water which we had to weave and tiptoe around. We could hear the persistent tinny buzz of the motorbikes so we were constantly on alert for one to appear on the path. At cache 103, we found the source. A group of people had gathered on the edge of a field and were using part of the track, the field and some rough ground at the edge for off road riding. I have no idea if this is legal or not and I’m not especially bothered, except the state of the path where they had clearly been riding up for some time was awful. Annoyingly, one of the caches was right by where they were gathered, but with a bit of stealth and some trees blocking their immediate line of view, I was able to retrieve it without too much trouble.
Eventually, this track smoothed out and joined a single track road onto the A1060 Chelmsford Road. The cache here was a multi which led us into a copse of trees the other side of the road. Typically, at exactly the point I disappeared into the copse while my husband waited outside (and there is not much tree cover at this time of year) another couple walking the footpath appeared. This is par for the course. Anyone who’s ever done geocaching – or actually anything which requires a degree of discretion – you will not see a single other person for miles, then at the exact moment when you need to poke around in some trees, people will come along.
On the path outside, we had out second encounter with vehicles. Two emphatically non-urban 4x4s bumped up the track, complete with extra spotlights, winches and excited children inside, presumably going green-laning.
The final leg of this slightly shorter stretch was one of the least pleasant, involving a half-kilometre tramp across a muddy field which was a bit like walking on a soaking wet mattress. By the time we reached St Andrew’s church on the edge of Good Easter, our boots were caked with mud, the light was going and we were both feeling a bit tired and dispirited.
I didn’t enjoy this section nearly as much as the previous ones. Perhaps it was the weather – a typically dreary November day, or perhaps it was that most of the route today was along a track bounded by half naked trees, muddy and without even a lot of the beautiful autumn colours I’ve seen elsewhere in Epping forest. It was sort of a bit of a downer to end the section on.
As it happens, it’s likely we won’t resume the Essex Way until well into the new year. A full calendar for December plus a planned operation for my husband for carpal tunnel syndrome means we don’t have a free weekend between now and the new year. Our next section is considerably longer – from Good Easter to Great Waltham with 52 caches and a break for lunch at Pleshey.
High Ongar to Shellow Bowells was about six miles and took us just over three hours to do. Shellow Bowells to Good Easter was 4.5 miles and took us about two and a half hours, though the majority of the footpath was a lot easier to walk. Across the two sections, we covered caches 055-118 plus a handful of others in the near vicinity. Here’s the map.
Next section: Good Easter to Great Waltham.
Update: To a lot of people’s disappointment, the original Essex Way walk was archived from the geocaching website at the start of January 2016. Luckily, two fantastic cachers decided to take over and resurrect the two sections from Willingale to Good Easter, then Good Easter to Great Waltham. This was obviously excellent news for us as the latter section was the next on our list. Just waiting for the weather to improve a bit…