Sailing the Essex Coast (i)

Apologies to anyone who stumbles across this site in the hope of finding sailing or navigational information. It is a brief account of a sailing trip taken this summer by Marsh Samphire and myself with her daughter and a few friends, on a Thames barge out of Wivenhoe. Its intended as an adjunct to Walking the Essex Coast and contains nothing that will be of much help to a  sailor.

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As we sail up the  Colne, the coastline performs what I now consider to be its usual trickery. The Mersea Stone on the West  side of the river and Colne Point, beyond and to the North East, overlap and appear to merge, hiding the curve of the river as it passes Brightlingsea and St Osyth marsh, and forming a solid band of land on the horizon. The river reveals itself as we get closer, and we sail out of the estuary, past the Mersey Stone, heading north-east towards Jaywick and Clacton.

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It is hard to imagine how a Viking longboat, or any one of the waves of earlier or later settlers found any purchase at all upon this inscrutable landscape. The creeks and inlets that we have walked around, slipped over in, waded across and that define the Essex coast are barely discernable from the water. The Spanish, in the course of their imperial comings and goings, apparently sailed past the mouth of the Mississippi for two centuries without knowing it was there, and it required native knowledge of the landscape before it was colonised. So, rather in the way that the Brits fouled up the first couple of times they invaded America, landing in the swamps of North Carolina, without skill, knowledge or technology, there must have been any number of founderings and drownings in the Essex shallows, on mudbanks, or perhaps false starts when, after wading through miles of inhospitable saltmarsh, the crews decided to return to their boats and head for the more obvious attractions of the Volga and Baghdad.

We are never more than a kilometer or so off the shoreline but even so, it is surprising how quickly the Essex coast scales down to seem distant and small in relation to the sea. The raised land  towards Thorrington and Frating doesn’t reach thirty feet above sea level, the ridge between Fingringhoe and Abberton hits forty feet. As you sail down the Blackwater, Danbury dominates the skyline at a towering 360 feet, whereas beyond Bradwell, the Dengie peninsular shades off towards Foulness barely a shadow on the horizon, the thickness of a sea wall.

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The BBC’s history website emphasises how completely the people of coastal Britain were sea-oriented in the pre-Roman era. Before roads were constructed, sea was the taken for granted route of transportation and trade, land travel the exception. Robert Mcfarlane invites us to turn ourhabitual image of the map of Northern Europe inside out, with the North Sea,  the Channel, the Baltic as the  central network of communication, and the shorelines the  hubs of trade, conflict and cultural exchange. Inland, what we now refer to as ‘countries’ a blank.

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Much of what is lauded as ‘heritage’ on the Essex coast revolves around boats, principally, the Thames barges, and with good reason. They are magnificent, many have been lovingly restored. They were, for many years, the trading lifeline of the coast, moving between the myriad keys in the creeks and estuaries, transporting between the Essex coast  and London. In the 19th and early 20th century, sailors from this coast were sought after to crew luxury private sailing and steam powered yachts the reasoning being that If you could navigate this coast, you could do it anywhere.


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