16th April 2012
Salcott-Cum-Virley, Old Hall Marsh, Tollesbury Fleet, Tollesbury Wick, Tollesbury Pier
Ebb tide has sustained a foot injury, and is carrying a walking stick, just in case; Master F. has pulled a shoulder muscle from being tugged out of ditches last week and I have a blister on my heel from a walk I did at the weekend. We are crock. I have also forgotten my camera, so all pictures attached to this blog are courtesy of Master F., which will probably be a huge improvement.
We are a couple of hundred yards onto the footpath at Salcott, and a woman coming towards us moves her dog three yards to the side of the path, and holds it there on a short leash where it glares at us malevolently; “He doesn’t like twitchers,” she explains, “It’s all the black you wear.” We are not sure whether to be flattered or appalled at being mistaken for twitchers, for whilst we certainly have an eye for the birdlife, and, when we remember, carry binoculars with us, I don’t think we would see ourselves as belonging to the twitching community. Twitchy at times, maybe, as Master F. points out, but not twitchers. It’s an understandable mistake though, because the Essex coast is well populated by migratory flocks of birdwatchers heavily-protected against the weather, and often carrying enormous telescopes on tripods. I’ve never noticed a particular preponderance of black clothing, unless perhaps there’s a gothic sub-species that frequents the Old Hall marshes. The dog isn’t the only creature we encounter with apparent neurotic tendencies; the Greylag geese, of which there are plenty, exhibit extremely peculiar behaviour, sitting on the sea wall as we approach, squawking nervously, and then, when we are within ten yards of them, taking off in a screeching flurry, making a wide circle over the water and around the marshes, to settle in front of us once again and repeat the process. We reach a sign asking us to walk below the sea wall to avoid disturbing the birdlife, but if we complied, it would take us straight through a flock of about ten Greylags, so we keep to the top of the wall, not wanting to leave ourselves open to accusations of the emotional abuse of geese.
This part of the seawall pirouhettes and swirls like a flirtatious ballroom dancer, advancing to woo West Mersea, retreating in order to tease Tollesbury, then repeating the move before shifting allegiance and bowing before Bradwell and the Blackwater. (Groan. Ed.) At the furthermost point of the wall, we stop to look over Mersea, about 400 yards across the water, then the silhouette of Colne Point and St Osyth Marsh, so low-lying that it looks like a mirage, and beyond that the wind turbines at Gunfleet Sands. To our left we can see the slight rise in the landscape that stretches from Fingringhoe to Wigborough and to our right the mouth of the Blackwater estuary, and on the other side, the grey block of the Bradwell power station and the diminuitive outline of St Peter-on-the-Wall. In front of us, standing in the mud, is a long wooden pole with an industrial rubber glove attached to its end, and next to that another pole with, bizarrely, a cctv camera on top of it. Why, we wonder, a cctv out here on the remotest part of Old Hall marsh? There are a half dozen or so yachts moored nearby, so it could be marina security; it could be monitoring illegal maritime movements; it might even be a high-tec device for lazy twitchers. A heron swoops over the marsh as we turn towards Tollesbury. Tollesbury looks to be about three kilometres across the marsh, however, the sea wall is deceptive and capricious and by the time we have wound our way another couple of kilometers along it, the village is becoming more distant.
We pass a sign warning ‘Dangerous Bank’, and wonder if it is deployed to best effect in such a remote area; surely it should be plastered large up and down every high street in the land.
Near one of the fleets that lace these marshes, we stop to eat; sandwiches, the remains of an Indian take-away and wine gums. Master F. closely inspects the wine gums and registers disapproval that only three are green. He tells how, when his son, Young Master F., was a child, he would ruthlessly exploit his gullibility by telling him that the green ones were poisonous, thus ensuring the whole supply for himself. We are diverted from arguing the ethics of this however, because, at that moment, Ebb Tide notices, on a small islet about twenty yards to our left, in the middle of the fleet and half-concealed by tall rushes, a flock of about 50 or 60 Avocet. This is a moment to savour, and the first unequivocal sight of Avocet since we started the walk. We watch them, without a twitch, for about ten minutes; presumably a breeding colony, they’re completely unaware of, or unperturbed by, our presence.
We continue around the extensive saltmarsh that borders the Tollesbury Fleet, past Ship Ahoy Quay, towards another large breach in the sea wall, creating an area where salt-petrified tree stumps and the remains of a hedgeline graphically illustrate the shifting dialogue between land and sea on this coast. The established saltmarsh on this stretch has a particularly inhospitable aspect; the channels in the mud are deep and wide, and it is no surprise to learn that the opening scenes of the recent t.v. version of Great Expectations were filmed here. We are told this a little further along by a woman who emerges from a very fine Dutch barge houseboat to walk her dogs. A mock-up of Pip’s family cottage was built, so realistically that “it looked as if it had been there for years” she tells us whilst, I can’t help but notice, manipulating large dog turds into a plastic bag with an unselfconsciousness that I could only ever dream of attaining. We talk about how film crews with their paraphernalia of equipment trucks, refreshment trailers, caravans and innumerable staff could take over an area (“When I was a girl, I always wanted to be a Dolly Grip.” she confided), but this lot were, apparently, very considerate and friendly. Local people were encouraged to watch the filming, and it sounded as though the high point was watching Ray Winstone, as Magwitch, having to submerge himself in the Tollesbury mud for take after take. I’ve always had a soft spot for Mr Winstone, and particularly liked his t.v. portrayal of Henry VIII as an Essex boy (“Wottacoun’ryneedsizzanoo’eir!”) and it’s good to hear that he’s intensely relaxed about getting filthy.
Through the Tollesbury marina, and we’re onto the Tollesbury Wick marsh. A helpful leaflet informs us that this land, now managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust, was probably reclaimed from the sea in the late middle ages, and nowadays, is used as rough grazing for Shetland sheep and cattle as well as being a bird habitat. Rounding the furthest point of the marsh, there is a pill-box with a smiley tattooed onto it, and a large expanse of shingle, which is apparently, an example of ‘beach recharge’, in which many tons of aggregate have been dropped to compensate for the eroding saltmarsh. Apparently, the aim on this stretch is to protect the sea wall. Martin Newell memorably characterised Essex as ‘Bouncer on the Gate’ of the Thames estuary and I can’t help but notice that many of the shoreline management terms have a militaristic ring to them; ‘beach recharge’, ‘holding the line’, ‘advancing the line’, as though the sea were an invader of the same status as Julius Caesar, The Vikings, William the Conqueror, Napoleon, Hitler or the Euro, and requiring the same ‘bulwark’ strategic approach. Maybe it’s etched into the psyche of coastal planners – like the bouncers on duty at Colchester’s weekend nightclubs, bound to a defensive mindset in the face of many irresistible forces.
Bradwell power station is just across the water and, as we’ve gradually wound our way closer, so it has arisen, Phoenix-like, from being a distant, dull, grey, featureless block, to being a nearby, dull, grey block with a few equally dull features on it. The unfortunate entrepreneurs of the early 20th century who briefly colonised Tollesbury, envisaging a major tourist centre and sea-port, would have had a heart attack had they been able to anticipate a nuclear power station opposite their pierhead, and it would have been the final nail in the coffin of Tollesbury’s status as gateway to Europe. The pier was demolished at the beginning of the second world war however, before the atom had been split, and the accompanying light railway was even more short-lived, so they were spared this prospect. Bradwell power station too, had a fairly short shelf-life – forty years, and presumably, more of Bradwell later when we get to that bit of the walk. However, the brutal minimalism of the structure does, to my mind, emphasise the incongruity of the Essex coast as an orthodox tourist destination. It doesn’t entice you into its arms, inviting you to consume it passively, in the way that, say, Bournemouth might, and you can only try to meet it half-way. Not dissimilar, in fact, to the approach needed when confronted by the canine population of Essex; we are assaulted by a ferociously barking poodle as we go into the pub in the neighbouring village of Tolleshunt Darcy, for our customary debrief. “I’m ever so sorry” apologises the owner, “he goes into a diabetic coma, and, when he’s woken up, he panics.”