The Benfleet Downs are also known as Hadleigh Downs, and they form an escarpment overlooking Benfleet creek and Hadleigh Marshes. Today the downs and the marshes form part of the Hadleigh Country Park, or Hadleigh Castle Country Park, which affords walks, cycle routes and bridle ways. They give an impressive panorama over the River Thames to the hills of Kent and imposing views of Hadleigh Castle. The Castle has been painted by many artists including John Constable in 1892 (see his sketches).
Public Access To The Downs
The public had been allowed access to Benfleet Downs by the Barnes family who owned some of it. One of the last acts of the Benfleet Parish Council was to purchase 30 acres of The Downs in 1929, with a view to it becoming a public open space.
On 14th July 1934 Sir Edgar Bonham Carter, K.C.M.G., Vice Chairman of the Open Spaces Preservation Society officially opened the Downs making it an official public space. At the official opening of the Downs a hope was expressed in the programme by Walter Bingham:
‘To have lost to posterity this beautiful place would have been a tragedy indeed its closing or otherwise would have extinguished the eyes of Benfleet. A pious hope has often been expressed that at some time in the future, the authorities concerned may get possession of the whole of the slopes from Benfleet to Leigh and thus preserve for ever to the people a vista unrivalled anywhere in Europe…’ ( ‘Bygone Benfleet’, N. Chisman, Phillimore,1991)
THE GROWTH OF THE PARK
Over time the area in public ownership increased. On 18th May 1987 Hadleigh Country Park opened covering some 458 acres, stretching from Benfleet station, through adjoining land owned by the Salvation Army Farm and that of Hadleigh Castle up to land west of Leigh station. This offers a coastal path and cycle track between Benfleet and Leigh, which is popular with dog walkers, cyclists and bird watchers alike.
This coastal wetland provides rich habitat for winter migratory birds and vital breeding grounds in summer months for Avocets which nest on the Western end of Two Tree Island.
The Avocet is one of our most distinctive waders with its striking black and white plumage and graceful upturned bill. It is listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, which gives it special protection at all times, hence why the small breeding colony at TwoTree Island is so important.
Avocets used to breed in the marshes and fens of east and south-east England from Humber to Kent, but became extinct as a breeding bird in 1842 as a result of extensive land reclamation and the building of sea defenses. Flooding of coastal areas for military purposes during the Second World War 1939-1945 created ideal habitat for the Avocets and they started to return.
The colony at TwoTree Island has bred successfully over the past few years although there has been predation by both humans and other wildlife. Thankfully this elegant bird can now be regularly seen at TwoTree Island and in Benfleet Creek when walking along the picturesque sea wall from Benfleet to Leigh.
For more information on Avocets and Two Tree Island visit RSPB site.
Hadleigh Country Park is also a site of special scientific interest with special regard for invertebrates.
Click here For more detailed information.