A few weeks ago, I wrote about walking the Colchester Orbital, and having walked all of that, I started doing some wider loops out from it to explore some of the territory around the edges of Colchester. It was a combined search for routes that were interesting in themselves, but also could work as extensions to the Orbital if you wanted to stretch a walk round that into a 20-mile plus excursion.
Walking the Colchester Orbital
Exploring the Colchester Orbital walking route, with pictures.
This is a loop route, so you can start and finish from anywhere on it. I’ll describe it starting and finishing from Castle Park, as that’s where I went from, but you don’t have to. The map on the left shows the outline of the route, which you can see in more detail on OS Maps. OS gives the total distance for it as just under 24km/15 miles but when I waled it my watch came out at about 16 miles, though that included a couple of points where I took a wrong turn and had to retrace my steps. It’s mostly off-road, but on marked paths with usually good surfaces, and there’s not much ascent or descent on the way — the highest point is about 40m, and both OS and my Strava from walking it say there’s less than 200m of total ascent across the whole route. If you want to add it on to the Orbital (between Spring Lane in the west and Hythe Bridge in the east) it will add about six miles on to the distance.
I’m going to mostly give general directions here, and not go for detailed instructions, because I didn’t take notes while I was walking so I can’t be certain I’d get them right. Hopefully, the map is clear, and I’ll try and flag up any particularly tricky bits as I write. I’ll also be describing the anti-clockwise route around it, as that’s the way I took, but it shouldn’t be hard to follow the map and go the other way around if you prefer.
So, we’ll start in Castle Park and one key point to remember is that this route stays south of the river throughout, so you won’t need to cross the Colne at any point. The riverside path and then Sheepen Road take you to Hilly Fields where you head diagonally across and then up that leads you to the path to Lexden Springs and Lexden Park. There are lots of different possible routes through all the different paths along here, but your general aim should be to keep heading west.
Cutting through Lexden Park takes you to Lexden/London Road where you need to cross over and then follow it along for about half a mile until you reach Gryme’s Dyke where you turn left into a narrow park. Going down here you can either walk through the park or take the path to the side of it, which is where you start to get an idea of the size of Gryme’s Dyke. This is the old boundary between Colchester and Stanway, so you can cross between the two if you wish.
This then runs south for a mile (crossing Peartree Road on the way) until you get to a fork in the road where you need to head right/west to Stanway Green and then follow another dyke south from there. One thing common to a lot of the old dykes here is the tunnel effect on the paths beside them, where trees have grown on the banks during the years to enclose you from both sides. It looks great, and provides a nice bit of shade when walking on a sunny day too.
This path then brings you out on Maldon Road just up from the Zoo. Take care crossing the road here, as it’s often very busy and drivers are going quite quickly around it — unfortunately there isn’t a better place to cross it around here. Once you’re over the road, you’re in trees for a while before the path opens up into fields. You’ll need to turn left and keep the woods at your side as you come round here, following the path down again as now you’re into the Roman River valley.
Following the path across the fields, you’re now travelling broadly east, away from those woods and towards Chest Wood. The key point here is that once you get into the woods, look for the path heading off to the left and take that as that will lead you towards Layer-de-la-Haye which is the next destination. The woods here are well-waymarked with footpath signs, but also quite open for exploring — they’re also a good spot to stop and take a break as you’re about a third of the way round at this point. There’s shops and a pub in Layer as well.
You’ll cross the Roman River (still as much a stream as a river at this point) going through these woods, and for the next part of the walk you’re going to be roughly following the river, though there isn’t a consistent path alongside it to allow you to go directly along it.
From Layer, the path meanders through some woodland and farmland until you suddenly find yourself coming across the old Mill House and crossing the river again. Heading up after this you’ll start to come into some MOD-owned land, so do please take note of the signs around here (and later on) warning of potential firing exercises going on. There should be clear notices displayed if anything is happening, but make sure you watch out for them.
The route is out in the open for a while, following lines of trees, and eventually leads you out onto Boundstead Road where you’ll likely find a bunch of parked cars of people visiting Friday Woods. Friday Woods is a mix of woods and parkland, and has a lot of different paths criss-crossing it so it’s one place I did lose my direction more than once on the way through. The best advice I can give is to head through and follow paths leading downwards as you’re looking to meet the river again, and then follow that through until you can cross over it one more time.
Crossing the river here takes you on another path through farmland, eventually leading you to a slightly confusing intersection of paths, where the main advice I can give is to take the small footbridge that will be to your left at the junction, as this then leads you off towards the direction of Rowhedge. You’re still heading generally east at this point, and it will be the last time you cross the Roman River. The path takes you around another farm and then along a long driveway that will eventually take you to Mersea Road. Like Maldon Road before, take care when you cross, but this is the last main road of the walk.
From here, there’s a nice walk through Donyland Woods and Donyland Heath, with nice wide paths amongst the trees to follow. The path does split when you get to Donyland Heath, but they all eventually take you out into Rowhedge, so don’t panic about getting lost. They’re right on the edge of the village, so quite popular and well-used and you ought to be able to find someone to give you directions if you need them.
Once you’re in Rowhedge, almost all the roads lead down to the riverside, so follow any of them down and you’ll soon be next to the Colne again. Rowhedge has shops and pubs, and it’s also another good place to stop, as there are plenty of benches and space down by the river where you can sit and look across to Wivenhoe which is both very close and very far away (if the ferry isn’t in operation). People not from either town will often suggest that a bridge between the two would be nice, which will normally prompt the response of people from either of them to explain why they don’t want one.
From here, the route back is simply following the river. A pathway leads alongside the river past the Hythe Marshes (complete with birdwatching hide halfway along) and then into the old King Edward Quay at the Hythe. From there you carry along, keeping the river on your right, past the various bridges until the path takes you into the Moors and then to East Hill. Crossing at East Hill takes you by the old mill there and then along the riverside path until you’re back to Castle Park and have completed the loop.
I’m biased, of course, because I came up with it, but I found this a really nice walk. There’s a lot of different things to see as you go around, and there’s an alternation between farmland and woodland,along with some riverside walking, to give it variety throughout. It shouldn’t be too hard to navigate, and there are several other pathways running in similar directions, so you should be able to find your way out of most wrong turns. The ground was pretty firm when I did it, but do watch out if there’s been a lot of rain, as some of the farmland might get quite muddy.
Let me know if you do walk it, and I’ll be out looking for other routes to share with you in the future!