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Along the River Valley to Earls Colne

A fairly challenging walk along a disused railway track, now a nature reserve, and through ancient woodland.

Distance 6.4 miles (10.4km)

Minimum time 3hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 78ft (24m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Grassy with some muddy tracks, forest and field-edge paths, 3 stiles

Landscape Disused railway line, ancient woodland, riverside and grazing meadows

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 195 Braintree & Saffron Walden

Start/finish TL 855290

Dog friendliness Some stiles only suitable for chihuahuas, bigger dogs will need to be lifted

Parking Free parking at Queens Road car park in Earls Colne

Public toilets Queens Road car park

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1 From the car park, turn left and left again into Burrows Road. Cross Hilly Bunnies Road and maintain direction to the Wildside waymark. Here bear slightly right, then left on to the cross-field path, downhill across the golf course. Cross the footbridge following the yellow waymark over the River Colne. Follow the path for 70yds (64m) and bear left on the lesser path towards trees to the waymarked stile and information board marking the entrance to the railway nature reserve. Turn right on to the railway embankment and maintain direction keeping the river and golf course on your right. Cross the footbridge over the River Peb and maintain your direction for about 600yds (549m).

2 Leave the reserve by turning right at a collection of waymarks. Keep the fence of the sewage works on your left and follow the grassy path to reach Colne Ford Road. Turn left, cross the road, and follow the footpath and waymark between house Nos 20 and 22 through the wooden gate. Maintain direction across the meadow with the River Colne down on your right until you climb stile No 2.

3 Turn right and cross the bridge over the Colne, passing kennels and Chalkney Mill on your right, and maintain direction into Chalkney Wood. Walk for 300yds (274m), take the second path on your right and go along the straight bridleway, bounded on the left by Corsican pine. Maintain direction for 500yds (457m) and bear right to the parking area. Take the wide downhill track for 300yds (274m) and turn left into Tey Road at Peek's Corner.

4 After 300yds (274m) turn right at the fingerpost and go along the field-edge path keeping the hedgerows on your right. Cross the earth bridge through trees, maintain direction uphill, and pass Tilekiln Farm, on your right, to Coggeshall Road.

5 Turn right at Coggeshall Road and after 200yds (183m) turn left at the fingerpost marked Park Lane. Follow the path through the kissing gate and turn immediately right along the path bounded by thick gorse bushes. Follow the path left and downhill, keeping woods on your right, until you reach the Wildside waymarked stile. Cross the stile and walk along the field-edge path, keeping the hedgerow on your right, to an earth bridge where you turn right over the stream.

6 Take the path past a Brickfields information board on your right and turn right into Park Lane with St Andrews Church on your left. Turn left into Coggeshall Road and the High Street and return to the car park.

Is this the loveliest valley in all Essex? Judge for yourself as you follow the meandering River Colne and visit the delightful village of Earls Colne where the de Vere family, Earls of Oxford and one of the greatest families in English history, left their name. Here you will find a lovely view from the split-timber seating beside St Andrew's Church, with its tower visible for miles around; a nature reserve along a disused railway track, which has been cut back allowing wildlife to flourish, and the ancient woodlands of Chalkney Woods.

The Colne Valley Railway opened in 1860 and soon brought prosperity to the valley. Earls Colne, one of the stations on the line, was built by the Hunt family who developed the Atlas Works, which produced farming equipment until it closed in 1988. The line was used to import raw materials and to despatch the finished product, but since its closure in 1965 the track side vegetation has become a rich habitat for wildlife, with plenty of trees and shrubs providing heavy shade. As you walk along the disused track you will see evidence of coppicing which allows light to reach the ground, which in turn allows wildlife such as butterflies and other insects to proliferate.

Chalkney Wood dates back to 1605 when it was owned by the de Vere family. This walk takes you through the woods where conifers are gradually being replaced with traditional species to regenerate the woodland. You'll also see, near the kennels, an 18th-century watermill which last worked in the 1930s and is now a private residence. In the Alder Valley are the remains of conifer plantations established in the 1960s, but today the area supports more moss and liverworts than any other wood in East Anglia. You'll also pass close to the Wool Track, believed to be an ancient Roman road linking Colchester and Cambridge, and come across a prominent bank which enclosed the woods as a swine park where pigs would feed on acorns amongst the coppice.

Brickfields and Long Meadow Nature Reserve, bordered by woodland of oak, ash and hawthorn, has plenty of boggy areas and wet grassland. It is small, but has plenty of insect life. The ponds, surrounded by acacia and rhododendron, are home to newts, frogs and dragonflies. A major feature of the area is the anthills, which house huge colonies of yellow ants. Long Meadow, used for grazing, is free of fertilisers and pesticides, and as a result supports plenty of wildlife and a variety of grasses such as yarrow and birds trefoil. Near by you should also find a rare surviving elm tree.

Where to eat and drink

A good selection of eateries can be found in the High Street. Choose from the Colne Valley Tandoori restaurant which serves an 'eat-as-much-as-you-like' buffet on Sunday evenings or relax with your tired dog in the garden of the Castle pub. In Colneford Road you can enjoy a meal and drink at the Platypus Creek restaurant by the River Colne.

What to look for

The de Veres were great crusaders and were associated with a legendary silver star which was won outside the walls of Antioch on their first crusade. The family left their mark in the form of a star on buildings in this area of Essex, leaving no one in any doubt as to who owned and constructed them. One of these buildings is the unique star-studded tower of St Andrew's Church.

While you're there

If you're driving, head up to the East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel Station to view a fine collection of goods and passenger rolling stock. Railway enthusiasts and children alike will love the interactive signal boxes and video displays in this working museum which covers a century of railway engineering in East Anglia.

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