(Continued from previous)
Between 1871 and 1881, the parson of East Mersea was Sabine Baring-Gould, and he was the person responsible for the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers. To me, this piece of religious jingoism always had an element of whistling in the dark about it and it is tempting to think that it was rooted in Baring-Gould’s discomfort during his time on Mersea. The island was, he complained “Always cold” and he was convinced that living on the marshes had a detrimental effect on the mental capacity of the local people. His feelings may be surmised from the title of his memoir Ten Years on the Mud. Despite setting Mehalah, one of his better-remembered novels, on the island, he was not a popular man hereabouts.
The Essex coast has been described as a ‘bulwark coast’ but it is doubtful how effective a bulwark it has actually been. The Romans far from invading, appear to have been invited to Essex by Adminius, member of a Colchester ruling family who, losing a power struggle with his father, appealed to Caligula for assistance. Roman imperial muscle apparently sorted matters out in favour of Adminius. Subsequently seeing off Boudicca, the Romans briefly made Colchester their local capital, possibly installing sympathetic local rulers (Adminius?). Mersea Island was a retirement community for Roman Officers.
The Saxons made inroads and in the 10th century, the Vikings made Mersea a military base and bridgehead into the surrounding areas. An attempted invasion of Colchester was successfully repelled during the 17th century, but it was an invasion of Royalists attempting to relieve the siege of Colchester during the civil war, and it was actually launched from Mersea itself, so I’m not sure that one counts. The Mersea Stone, at the easternmost tip of the island was the site of a Napoleonic fortification, but coastal defences of this era were never put to the test; no more were the WWii pillboxes that are scattered along the shore, and it’s hard to see how these static defences could have been particularly effective given the mobile and highly mechanised force they would have had to contend with. All of which points to the bulwark coast as existing mainly in the imagination – a bulwark of the mind, rather like Onward Christian Soldiers.
As we pass the stone, we get caught in a sharp sleet storm. We are heading round to the northern and, inasfar as there is no shelter from the elements, the most exposed side of the island. It’s a short squall, heavy enough to soak us, but by the time we get to the oyster fishery, the sun is out and we’re beginning to dry off. Oysters are of course, another strand of Mersea history going back at least to Roman times. By the middle ages, the monarchy had appropriated the industry, and the right to farm oysters was bequeathed to West Mersea by Edward the Confessor, and to East Mersea, a century or so later, by Richard I. Oysters are sensitive to variations in their environment and the trade has had many fluctuations since then and currently, appears to be relatively flourishing. As we walk past, a boatload is being tranferred to a tractor and taken to the packing sheds. I worked for the oyster company for a couple of weeks one Christmas in the late seventies. In those days, you were picked up by a boat from the hard at Brightlingsea at seven in the morning, and taken to the shed on Peewit Island. The casual labour chipped barnacles from the shells with a hammer and chisel. The skilled workers packed the oysters in straw, into decorative barrels destined, at that time for the markets of Paris. As we walk past the boat, I ask the fisherman for a photo (complete with his dog in the boat) and he is happy to oblige.
This side of the island is farmland, and more typical of the Essex coast in that it lies below sea level behind a wall. The wall does the looping, curvy business which, as we’ve often noted, means that it is futile to fasten on a spot ahead and attempt to estimate how long it will take to reach. There are few diversions, although I stop to investigate what I think is a cluster of parasol mushrooms, but am not confident enough to pick them, and, as we are approaching the Strood, we disturb a flight of six egrets. This is the longest walk we’ve done for a few months, the last one at Grays was short, and we are palpably not as fit as we were back in August. Borrowing four horses from a nearby field, we ride bareback into West Mersea. Tethering them outside the library, we retrieve our cars and head for the Peldon and Salcott embassy to plan the next expedition. Ebb Tide engages the ambassador himself in conversation about the Essex Coast, he’s familiar with Wallasea, and is a friend of the family who own the boatyard there. He thinks it is the biggest yard in Essex, but we wonder what Maylandsea and Rochford might have to say about that.
Possible future walks might include the Suffolk Coast, or following the footsteps of John Clare (and Iain Sinclair) from Waltham Abbey to Peterborough. The Essex Coast will continue with variations on the theme. Look out for Sailing the Essex Coast, Driving the Essex Coast, Reading the Essex Coast. I’m tempted by the prospect of Drinking the Essex Coast, and, given recent developments at Wrabness involving Grayson Perry; Art Installations of the Essex Coast.
For now however, it remains to thank on behalf of myself, Ebb Tide and Master F., all those who joined us on various stages; Marsh Samphire and Florence (whose idea it was to blog the walk) for their support and company. Miss Terri, competition poker player and connoisseur of fine wools, her son, Master Erry, Key West, Flash Drive, Claire Balding (most promising newcomer). Also non-participating consultants Secret Informant and Van Morrison (no relation).
Late news: The Essex Coast is excited to discover a new website devoted to the life and work of John Alec Baker, author of The Peregrine. Try it here.