17th October 2012
Mersea Island can be distinguished from the islands of the southern Essex archipelago and the Thames estuary by the fact of its being, in considerable part, higher than the water which surrounds it, the land rising in places to a mighty seventy feet above sea level. The Island straddles the estuaries of the rivers Blackwater and Colne and there is a degree of gratification to be had from finishing our walk here because, from various points on its shore we can survey a good part of where we have been, somewhat in the self-satisfied manner of old-time colonialists, but without the means or desire to colonise. Facing the Blackwater, West Mersea gives views over Salcott Creek, Old Hall Marshes and Tollesbury Wick. To the south, the skyline is dominated by Bradwell power station, and next to that the diminutive but still distinct shape of St Peter-on-the-Wall. From East Mersea, the remote end of the island, standing at the Mersea Stone and looking across to Lee-over-Sands, you are delineating the mouth of the Colne estuary. On a clear day Foulness is visible beyond the pencil-thin shade that is the Dengie coast; beyond that again, the chimney of Sheppey’s power station stands over the horizon, marking the Kent side of the Thames Estuary. Remains of mammoths, elephants and bears have been found in the estuary gravels here, evoking the time when this expanse of sea was inhabited land – the mesolithic ‘Doggerland’ which joined Britain to mainland Europe.
Ebb Tide is sipping a skinny latte. Claire Balding has a plastic bag in which he intends to collect pieces which may or may not become sculpture (a mammoth bone would be good). Master F. has gone to the cashpoint. We are slow off the mark today. The morning had started with heavy cloud and steady drizzle and we want to allow the weather a chance to behave in the way that has been forecast and to brighten up, and so have delayed our meeting time. To make doubly sure, we’ve stopped for refreshment in a cafe on West Mersea High Street.
Sure enough, the sun is shining as we set off, past the ancient (Saxon with Roman components) church with its plaque on the wall dedicated to the memory of churchwardens Pearl H. Blyth and Octavius Cross (Walking the Essex Coast would welcome any information about Pearl and Octavius, and why they are so commemorated). Down the steps onto the sandy shingle beach, which curves away to the west towards the houseboats and yacht moorings. We head east, past the large beach side houses with improbably exotic gardens confidently confronting the Blackwater with no bulwark of sea wall. They are on a slope and at least ten feet above sea level. The architecture becomes slightly more democratic as we move down the beach – the buildings more modest, and the beach huts appear, tiered three or four deep, although I have heard of huts going for £21,000 on this stretch. Kite surfers are zipping across the sea, people are fishing from the beach; a cafe sign advertises ‘take away Sunday roast’. Beach huts give way to static trailer parks – “Tired of Touring?” reads the ad outside one – then agricultural land. At one point, there is a pill box, collapsed onto the beach and washed through by the tide. “Possibly the cleanest pill box in Essex” remarks Ebb Tide. I pause to take a photo of Master F. beaming ecstatically as he walks between caravan park and pill box. The tide is coming in fast, and the beach gradually narrows to a strip no more than a foot or two wide, over which the waves are encroaching. This is a low-tide footpath. The right of way has swung inland behind another trailer park, the shore to our left, lying between us and the park, is a salt marsh edged with ‘keep out’ signs and warning of danger from snakes. After a few hundred yards, there is a creek rapidly filling with the incoming tide. It’s only about five or six yards wide, and we could probably take off our shoes and wade it, although there’s no saying how deep it might be. We opt to turn inland seeking a crossing point. There is none, and we have to head back, this time across the saltmarsh as the beach has become impassable.
Back onto the right of way which takes us past the trailer park and to the road, and then to Cudmore Grove, a country park with a long grassy sward leading down to the sea wall at the Mersea Stone, with views across to St Osyth Marsh, Point Clear and Brightlingsea. We spot some unusual looking ducks, chocolate brown and white on the marshes by the sea wall, which none of us can identify. A later consultation with Secret Informant reveals the possibility that they might simply be a cross between an Aylesbury and a mallard.
We are becoming aware that it is an exceptionally high tide. The Mersea Stone, to which you can usually walk comfortably, has become an island (picture above). Rounding the sea wall on the north of the island, the old oyster shed on Peewit Island sits on the water like a houseboat, the island itself completely submerged. Walking past the newer oyster farm buildings, the water level on the seaward side stands about ten feet above the fields inside the wall (pix below). The Strood lies a mile or so ahead (three miles via the sea wall), with a lorry apparently stuck in the middle. Watching it though, it is apparent that it is inching its way across almost imperceptibly. The causeway is flooded, and we can tell by the absence of cars that it remains flooded for a long time. I read later that the tide reaches 5.2 metres today and I wonder how that compares in terms of highest tides for The Strood. Can anyone help?
It turns out that, while we are walking the sea wall on the north side of the island, viewing the causeway from a distance, several dramas are occuring;
“Nine people and a toddler have been rescued from their vehicles after being stuck during high tide on The Strood causeway at MerseaIsland….Thames coastguard was told about the incident earlier this afternooon after an elderly woman was stranded on the road in her car. She got out but was then swept away by the rising water. A nearby recovery truck drove onto the Strood and the driver managed to pull her to safety. An ambulance was called, but about thirty minutes later they had to call HM coastguard for backup as seven other vehicles had become trapped on the flooded road.”
Tides of five metres plus are common enough over the Strood, it floods regularly, and the floodings are reliably forecast on tide tables. However, the local papers regularly carry headlines about rescue dramas – there have been at least four over the past twelve months (there was another one the day after we walked). Sometimes, as on this occasion, helicopters, inflatable lifeboats and ambulances are involved. In January, Mersea town councillor John Bouckley called for more effective warning systems on The Strood, claiming that the number of cars getting stranded had reached “a critical level”. It is interesting to read the responses to these stories in the online edition of the local paper; “idiots”, “should be made to pay…”, “Why don’t they take off their shoes and walk?”. Getting stuck on The Strood is not a good way to ingratiate yourself on Mersea.
Pictures of the Strood at;