Combine wonderful woodland walking and riverside views with a visit to one of the south east's busiest shopping centres.
Distance 4 miles (6.4km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 50ft (15m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Forest tracks, river bank and grassy paths prone to muddiness, boardwalk
Landscape Meadow, woodland, flood plains and river
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 162 Greenwich & Gravesend
Start/finish TQ 594798
Dog friendliness Good place for a romp off lead in woods
Parking Free car parks at Davy Down Visitors' Centre and Stifford Bridge
Public toilets Davy Down Visitors' Centre
1 Start from the visitors' car park, where you can still see remnants of the old farm in the form of gate posts and garden plants. Go through the gate and follow the path as it winds its way through the site, passing the Stifford Pumping Station which still extracts water from the 150ft (46m) bore hole in the chalk below. After climbing earth steps towards the pumping station, walk to the left towards trees and on to the boardwalk which bisects three ponds. In the distance the 1892 railway viaduct spans the valley. Below is a small modern footbridge which you cross to link up with the Mardyke Way.
2 Cross the footbridge, turn left and after the 'Welcome to Mardyke Meadows' sign, take the first path right into Brannets Wood, one of the oldest recorded ancient woodlands in south Essex. The track, through thick foliage and tall trees, rises sharply and soon bears left in a westerly direction. After ½ mile (800m), a cross path indicates the start of the less dense Millards Green ahead. Turn left here and, after 30yds (27m), rejoin the grassy Mardyke Way cross path keeping the fence on your right.
3 Beyond the fence the meadow flood plain stretches to the Mardyke River which, in summer, is accessible on foot, but soon floods after heavy rains. Retrace your steps beneath the viaduct along the wide grassy river. Ignore the modern footbridge, and continue to the next bridge, Stifford Bridge, where medieval pilgrims once crossed on their way to Canterbury. Cross the bridge and go left on to the wide boardwalk to the car park, where there is an interpretative sign. Turn right and follow the grassy track, keeping the fencing on your right, to return to Stifford Bridge. Do not recross the bridge, but instead turn left and walk towards the viaduct in the distance.
4 Just before the viaduct the path bears left and, after 200yds (183m), take the grassy path right, uphill, and walk between rows of oak saplings, part of a new woodland scheme. The path continues uphill and passes quite close to the Stifford road. Looking left, there is a marvellous view of Davy Down and the pumping station. Follow the path back to the car park.
Davy Down is part of the Thames Chase Community Forest, one of 12 such forests in England covering large areas close to towns and cities. Far from being continuous plantings of trees in the traditional sense, community forests are a conglomeration of wooded landscapes which may include farmland, villages, nature areas and public open spaces. The aim of the community forest is to create easily accessible landscapes for wildlife, work, education and recreation.
Davy Down nestles in the Mardyke Valley, among large modern developments to the north east of Lakeside Shopping Centre. Once used for market gardening, the land was taken over in 1985 as part of the Thames Chase Community Forest when the busy A13 trunk road was built, thus bringing to an end a long history of farming which dates back to 1730. The derelict outbuildings were replaced by the Davy Down visitors' car park. From this abandoned farmland, new landscapes are being created - you will see ponds and wetlands, new woodland hedgerows and areas planted with over 4,000 trees.
The River Mardyke winds its way through the Plain of Thurrock, from its source, 8 miles (12.9km) upstream, to the River Thames at Purfleet, meandering through Davy Down where the valley is dominated by flood plain meadows bounded by ancient woodlands.
Until the 15th century the valley was mainly wet fenland, much like the rest of Essex. The land was drained for agriculture and the course of the river was straightened. Work has begun to increase access in the valley and to improve the landscape and wildlife habitat. This will include efforts to return the channelled river to a more natural feature, by creating shelves and bays and planting trees and hedgerows.
Lakeside Shopping Centre is west of Davy Down. This centre attracts millions of shoppers each year and contains more than 300 shops, a food court, a multiplex cinema and a watersports' complex at the centre of the lake.
There are no places to stop for refreshments on this walk but, if you're driving, try the Dog and Partridge pub at Stifford (no food 3pm-6pm, Monday-Friday), or the Royal Oak (food served all day) at South Ockendon overlooking The Green. Both are dog- and child-friendly establishments. Otherwise, head for Lakeside where there are dozens of eateries to choose
Water voles love wet areas such as rivers, ditches and ponds and there's no shortage of these at Davy Down. Loss of suitable habitat through urban development, increased river bank mowing, dredging and degradation of river banks spell danger for these small creatures - now a protected species.