Island Living: Exploring Mersea Island
PUBLISHED: 12:02 30 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:02 30 May 2017
Mersea Island, sitting on the Blackwater and Colne Estuaries and nine miles southeast of Colchester, is a unique destination with great charm and character. Petra Hornsby discovers why island life is so popular
For any visit to Mersea Island, the first bit of adventure is getting onto the island itself – let’s say it’s all in the timing. The island is connected to the mainland by its infamous causeway, or Strood, which is often unpassable at high tide – typically during spring. For those visiting the island it is worth bearing this in mind as marooned vehicles or stranded daytrippers are a familiar sight for those living on the island.
To help, www.StroodCam.co.uk is a website that provides information about the high tides and the probability of the route being flooded. The website also provides general weather updates and local information. The only other thing to be aware of when crossing the Strood at night is the ghost of a Roman Centurion who reputedly haunts the island’s entrance and exit, especially on stormy nights.
Some believe the Strood was built by the Romans who liked to holiday on the island, which was a short trip from their settlement in nearby Colchester (Camulodunum), and here they would enjoy the oysters farmed off Mersea’s shores, which is an industry that remains vibrant today and is celebrated across the region.
The island itself is divided into two – East and West. West Mersea is a town and home to the West Mersea Yacht Club and the Dabchicks Sailing Club. Sailing and fishing are very much the theme here with fish being caught and brought in daily, courtesy of Mersea Island Fresh Catch. There are also, thankfully, many opportunities to sample the catch of the day as well as sample the famous local oysters and other seafood at The Company Shed or West Mersea Oyster Bar, both hugely popular with tourists.
Keen sailors, once moored, head for the facilities of the harbour and in particular the yacht club where families and their children can partake in a bit of crabbing off the jetty or explore the beaches and mudflats that are home to a variety of wading and migratory birdlife – even the occasional seal has been spotted in the river.
The surrounding scenery is picturesque and tranquil, and, with a salty sea breeze and the sound of the ropes clinking on masts, it is hard to imagine somewhere more idyliic.
West Mersea also has many lovely and characterful houses, including clapperboard-clad cottages, some of which are rented as holiday homes while others offer bed and breakfast accommodation. Staying on the island is a great base from which to go off and explore the other tourist hot spots in North Essex.
Every year in August, Mersea holds a much heralded regatta – a week of sailing competition and fun for all to enjoy, especially the islanders who use the opportunity to come together. The Mersea Regatta has been held on the island since 1838 and today is organised by a dedicated voluntary committee.
Held at the end of Mersea Week – a week of organised sailing events aimed at being ‘family and friends orientated’, the regatta is a chance for sailors of many different types of sailing vessels to compete against each other in various classes. The competitions provide quite a spectacle, with several boats filling up the River Blackwater.
For those who want to take part but who may not have a boat, other watersports events take place in the afternoon and can be entered on the day. These include rowing races, swimming and the highly entertaining Walking the Greasy Pole challenge – as difficult as it sounds! Throughout the day there are stalls, refreshments, entertainment and souvenirs to buy, before the week and the regatta come to an end with a firework display on Saturday evening.
As well as sailing spectacles, the island celebrates food and drink with a special festival, this year on May 27 and 28. It features a variety of local producers of food, ale and wine with plenty of opportunities to sample and buy, as well as lots of tempting refreshments available over the two-day period.
The other part of the island, East Mersea, is smaller and is classed as a village, although, with just a church, pub and village shop, it is perhaps better described as a hamlet.
However, it is here where many holiday makers head to pitch up a caravan, motor home or tent at the popular campsites located here. The campsites and their proximity to the beaches is a great lure, as is the island’s Cudmore Grove Country Park. This nature reserve offers grasslands, meadows and a walk which will take you down to the beach – a great opportunity for a paddle for all (including the family dog!) on a hot summer’s day.
The cliff that lines the park and beach has offered up several great fossil finds, including those of a monkey, bear and bison dating over 300,000 years. More recent historic artefacts to be found in the reserve include World War II pillboxes and a 16th century blockhouse fort. There is also a ferry which runs across to Brightlingsea, another lovely location which is visible from the shore.
Mersea Island as a whole has many clubs and ways to bring people together, which is perhaps central to its great community spirit. Islanders can enjoy a game of tennis at the club situated at the Glebe, where coaching is also available for all ages and standards.
Budding thespians both young and old can get involved with the Mersea Island Players who put on two productions a year, including a pantomime, and there is a Mersea Island Film Society for those wanting to keep up with big screen releases and who are less keen to travel to the nearest cinema. The Island Artists are a collection of artists working in a range of styles that include painting, ceramics, printmaking and jewellery. They exhibit throughout the year and annually hold open studio events.
There are also various clubs and organisations that offer residents the chance to volunteer their help to others within the community, like the Guardian Angels and Mersea Community Support. Refresh Mersea is an organisation which — as the name suggests — ‘refreshes’ parts of the island that need a little refurbishment or TLC. There is also a Monday lunch club for the over 75s living alone or in sheltered accommodation.
So, for residents of the island, it must be hard finding an excuse to leave – other than that of potential high tides flooding the Strood – and for the new visitor or the returning regular, it is clear why this unique place is so special and, thanks to the locals, is likely to remain so for many years to come.