11th April 2012 The Strood,Mersea Island to Salcott-Cum- Virley
“What’s happening here then?”
“The tide’s over the causeway, you can’t get across”
Master F. is nonchalant in his response. It’s 4.30 in the afternoon and we’re having a post-walk drink outside the Peldon and Salcott embassy. The early rush-hour traffic is backing up nicely as the tide has covered the Strood, rendering Mersea Island inaccessible for 40 minutes, and several people have left their cars and are pacing about irritably. “I can’t understand why people are sitting in their cars with the engines running”, another man says to me. I agree about the engines and point out that it is the only way on to the island. “I know that, my mother lives there. I’ve spent too long at the shops”. We point out that the embassy serves excellent beer and suggest he has a drink. He paces around for another twenty minutes or so, then comes back to us; “I think I will have a half.” He disappears inside, just as the traffic starts moving. It’s getting chilly as the sun moves behind the embassy building, and we head for home.
Five hours earlier, and we’re setting off from the Strood, aiming to get to Salcott-Cum-Virley. It’s not far, about 12 kilometers, but we’re unsure of the terrain ahead. We know the sea wall has been breached in five places along this stretch and technically there’s no right of way, but our visas are in order and we walk down a track towards the sea wall. The track ends in a garden and the sea wall is, incongruously, given over to neatly-mown grass with daffodils growing on it. We walk along it briskly in case we’re challenged by the householder, but there is no-one about apart from a couple of guys working on a tractor, and they greet us casually enough.
The village of Peldon lies in the sun on the rise to our right; the hedges are green and the blossom is full, and generally, spring is bustin’ out everywhere. As we walk, a Marsh Harrier rises from the grass in front of us, flies fifty yards and settles again. It does this two or three times, each time settling in our path and then flying ahead as we get closer. Finally, it crosses over to the safety of Ray Island a few yards over the channel; this is the first of six Marsh Harriers that we see on this stretch which, by Ebb Tide’s calculation, is about three per cent of the national population. The sea wall makes large loops around fields of oilseed rape, already in flower; we are still only about a kilometer from the Strood after we have covered four kilometers of wall. The sky is huge, and whilst we are in bright sunshine, there are dark patches of cloud and showers at several points around us. Ray Island is between us and West Mersea, and we’re walking directly opposite the bank of the island on which we completed the last leg, looking over at the caravan site, the marina, the wooden buildings of old West Mersea, with Bradwell power station looming in the background. The wall is deserted and the going is easy. There are extensive wooden frames in the mud, encouraging the saltmarsh to develop. Master F. discovers the sloughed-off skin of a grass snake, which he displays for the camera, and keeps to use for enforced experiential nature study for friends and family back home.
We reach the first breach in the sea wall, a small one, about five yards across, but impassable. We walk around a field, half of which is dissolving into marshy mud, and follow the newly-created high water mark. In his book 350 Miles; An Essex Journey, Ken Worpole describes Essex as having a ‘Bulwark coast’, meaning that it is oriented towards defence – defence against invasion, defence of reclaimed land, defence against the encroaching sea – and in this context, the strategy of breaching the sea walls is radical. The saltmarsh is shrinking exponentially as the water rises, pushing it against the sea walls, where it has nowhere to go; this is known as ‘coastal squeeze’. Breaching the sea walls realigns the coast allowing the saltmarsh to develop, ensuring the maintenance of wetland breeding grounds for birds, as well as providing a natural form of flood protection to inhabited areas. The approach, pioneered on this stretch of coast by Essex Wildlife Trust, has spread to other parts of Essex and attracted international interest.
If I were an invader, the last place I would choose to land is Essex. Apart from the mud, which we have already encountered, the inland areas are riven by deep gullies, often lined with fences, and we have to negotiate several of these. If we were 12 years old, we would no doubt laugh at the prospect of having to jump a ditch four feet deep and three feet wide, but we ain’t and we don’t. We spend a fair while walking up and down, calculating the narrowest point in each ditch, with the firmest bank and the least likelihood of slipping into the mud which lines the bottom; we don’t escape entirely unscathed; “keep your weight forward”, Ebb Tide exhorts Master F. at one jumping point, whilst simultaneously falling on his backside and sliding slowly down the bank. How we laughed, and fortunately, he saw the funny side.
A massive black cloud has been approaching for about half an hour, and finally it begins to rain quite hard; fortunately, we are only a couple of hundred yards from a bird hide, and a good place to stop for a late lunch. The hide has a great view over the saltmarsh to a thirty yard-wide breach in the sea wall, over Salcott Creek and Old Hall marshes towards Bradwell. I speculate that there can’t be that many places in theU.K.where the view spreads over such a flat landscape, but I’d forgotten about Lincolnshire.High point of lunch is ‘Traveller’s Joy’ a home-made chocolate bar that has been provided by my loved one’s daughter, Erudite (rhymes with Aphrodite), who is over from her home in Athens. She declined to walk with us, but provided this by way of proxy attendance. It’s so good that I think that If she exported it, she’d eliminate the Greek debt in no time at all. Here, at Master F.’s request, is the recipe;
400 grams dark, bitter-sweet chocolate (preferably 40-50% cocoa)
2½ cups quick-cook oats
1 generous handful each of roasted hazel nuts and roasted almonds (that have been finely chopped or whizzed first)
2 tablespoon sesame seeds
” ” Linseed
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond essence
1 Cup Rice Crispies.
Melt chocolate. Mix well for at least 5 minutes. Squash in a pan or tray. Score into sections as desired. Leave in fridge to set.
Master F. and myself accompany this with a shared Jaywick breakfast, and by this time, the rain has stopped. It’s an easy walk over the fields towards Salcott, with only one ditch to jump, and, now fortified as well as experienced, we leap it like three gazelles. A newly-wet footpath along the side of a field proves deceptively hard going as the mud accumulates on the soles of our shoes, which, in my case, seem to have developed a leak, and which squelch in an undignified way when we reach the road. A short walk up one of those lethal, fast Essex roads with no verge to move onto when traffic careers towards you, but we reach the car safely and return to the Peldon and Salcott Embassy. Unusually, we have not met a single person since the start of the walk, and we slip easily into the warm bath of social interaction…
“What’s happening here then?”…