Tony Smith is now the keeper of Charlie Stock’s game little 16-foot gaff cutter Shoal Waters, and has made it his business to take her the length and breadth of the Thames estuary, and into nooks and crannies most of us have never heard of, let alone visited. One such is Lion Creek:
I took a deep breath and my shoulders fell as I exhaled. I had cleared the last of the swinging moorings while passing through Burnham on Crouch and was able to free off a little. As I did so 500 deep water moorings at Essex Marina passed close-by to port, while Burnham Yacht Harbour, home to two RNLI boats, was opposite. Just a few more moorings in mid-river to pass and I was deep inland again, at Baltic Wharf, where ships still call regularly from northern Europe to deliver steel or timber. Just west of the wharf is an insignificant-looking opening in the marsh; enter it and you are in Lion Creek, a whole micro-world on its own, and one I had come here to explore. Across the river was neighbouring Creeksea, on the north shore, the place looking as pretty now as it has done for centuries, with its old brick cottages and Tudor buildings leading down to the water, and the sailing club slipway originally built in World War II to service RAF rescue boats. Not much else appears to have changed in this little area of the Crouch that manages to retain a timeless feel.
It is said that during the 17th century Lord Mildmay, who was Keeper of the Crown Jewels under Charles I and who owned Creeksea Place, a wonderful Tudor building just up on the hill, was taken from here to the Tower of London for, with eleven other state elders, signing the King’s death warrant, though it is also said he was later pardoned by Charles II.
I sailed around the Creeksea Sailing Club moorings before looking back across the river and lining up a transit route into Lion Creek’s approximately 100 feet wide mouth, which was now facing opposite and right beside Baltic Wharf on Wallasea Island. The creek is deeply cut with a good 15 feet of water in the gut if coming in on a high tide, and it has steep-shelving mud slopes that are marked 2.7 metres above chart datum on my Admiralty chart, that can trap the unwary skipper, and are topped with the green glory that is East Coast saltmarsh. This marsh abuts an encasing six-foot-high grassy sea wall creating a creek haven that is a joy to sail in and one that slowly narrows the deeper you enter, but with this westerly wind persisting I ambled into the waterway on a beam reach, playfully probing the margins as we went, penetrating inward until out of sight of the Crouch, and where I had to “ready about” a few times to round a westward bend that camouflaged a massively humped mud shoal that tried to claim us.
The banks of the creek were coming together now, embracing us fully. It was time to fold Shoal Waters’ little russet brown wings and gently paddle the rest of the way up. The last few yards took us into a tight cut at Lion Wharf, where just a few jabs with the quant pole positioned her; I anchored in five feet of water at 0843 to cook steamed kippers for breakfast, right beside a solitary wooden hut that is thought to be an old oyster shed. This is quite possible as the creek, like many others in this area in the 19th century, was used for highly profitable oyster farming, and is profusely indented with hand-dug oyster pits along its saltmarsh banks.
The wharf at the creek’s head once had the traffic of many Thames spritsail barges during the heyday of working sail. Quite unique to Lion Creek today are the mysterious solid wooden blocks, of which I counted 30, scattered all about on the top of the saltings or part-buried in muddy rills off the main creek. Maybe they had broken free from a tether of connecting chains during some gale-blown night. Each block is approximately ten feet long by six feet wide and four feet deep and on closer inspection has four steel airtight drums encased within and held together by giant iron rods with large mooring rings. Their history is worthy of note as they were some of thousands made for floating defence booms that spanned the mouth of the River Thames from Shoeburyness in Essex to Minster in Kent, and other East Coast rivers, to thwart enemy incursion during WWII. Huge nets were hung from them to trap submarines and some of the blocks had spikes on top to prevent ships going over the boom. They were sold off after the war and used as pontoons and now resemble giant planters, especially those that have become overgrown with saltmarsh. However they ended up here, these wooden blocks and many other man-made objects, such as wrecks or old docks, that I come across lend a distinct charm to the forgotten and lonely backwaters I explore.
Knowing where to anchor in a creek when you come in at high water can be a hazardous business, so if I have not done a scouting visit on foot I always sound forward and aft for level ground, and sweep the cane underneath the boat both sides as the water level drops to check for any protruding stumps that could hole her. Where I had anchored for the night the bottom was flat and just perfect for drying out, and once the tide had left the creek it became the feasting-ground for curlews and terns; I climbed ashore to find wild mushrooms as big as jam-jar lids growing along the rim of the saltings.
Lion Creek was once named Canewdon Creek for it is sited in Canewdon Parish, at the foot of a belt of green land that rises westward to a steep hillside behind which the evening sun sets. There Canewdon village is found with its ancient church from whose tower are some of the most far-reaching views across the Crouch valley and greater Essex. Canewdon is a name which you could be forgiven for thinking was derived from that great Dane, King Canute, who it is said came to this part of the coast in 1016, after his failed siege of London, to battle with the King of England, Edmund II, and triumph in the valley between Canewdon and Ashingdon hill. But it is thought to have derived from much earlier Saxon meanings such as ‘don’ which meant a hill settlement.
The creek ends at Lion Wharf beside Creeksea Ferry Road that connects the mainland to Wallasea Island and also blocks another cut to the east that would have joined Paglesham Creek, encircling the Island. There is also a dam across the main body of the creek to the west in the form of the sea wall, beyond which the creek has become a freshwater inland pool named Lion Creek Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Old maps show the creek would have originally made its way westward through marshland where King Canute is thought to have made camp, before it enters the River Crouch again near South Fambridge.
Lion Creek is best explored a couple of hours around high water when it’s possible to get ashore. I eventually left at high water that same evening for the 25nm journey back to my mooring, where I arrived safely the following day. Trip tally 50nm with an average of 2.5kts made good under wind and tide alone.