Professor Jules Pretty explores the Essex archipelago

PUBLISHED: 17:01 25 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:56 20 February 2013

Professor Jules Pretty explores the Essex archipelago

Professor Jules Pretty explores the Essex archipelago

Find out why the Essex Islands are a source of interest to Professor Jules Pretty.

Essex boasts no less than 19 islands off its coastline and Professor Jules Pretty OBE, author and deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, is an expert on our own archipelago. Nicky Adams asks Jules to explain more about the unique features of our Essex islands

If anyone should know about the character of the Essex archipelago of islands, it is Professor Jules Petty. As deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Essex he has a special interest in our countys coastline, which he demonstrated when he committed to walking the more than 360-mile coastal border during the course of a year.

Most people talk about being on islands, not in them thus on Canvey or on Mersea, says Professor Petty. This gives them a different character to places on the mainland floating offshore like ships. You are in Southend, but on Canvey. Islands thus maintain a unique character, quite often very different to the coast itself. Each of the Essex islands has a different character, wildlife and geology.

And what a lot of Essex islands there are. While most of us could name two or three perhaps, there are in fact 19 Essex islands settled in the coastal waters in and around the county. Among the better known of them are Canvey and Two Tree in the Thames, and Mersea, Ray and others at the mouths of the Colne and Blackwater. But what about Foulness, Potton, New England and Wallasea around the corner in South Essex? Or Bridgemarsh Island in the Crouch and Osea and Northey islands in the Blackwater? And there are many islands in the Walton Backwaters, mostly uninhabited, but it is sad that they are so barely acknowledged.

All of the Essex islands were once joined to Continental Europe, says Jules, when the last ice age locked up so much ocean water in ice. Now the coast strongly defines this region. Beach, salting, seawall and marshland. Fishing and smuggling, farming and sailing. Birds watched and birds shot. Created communities, deserted resorts, eroded cliffs, villages under water, caravan parks and whole new invented places. The Essex coast is a truly fascinating place.

Of course, many people call an Essex island home and there are some very strong communities off our shores.In autumn 1954, and then again in summer 1955, two strange corpses were washed up on the south shore near Dead Mans Bay on Canvey, where bodies eventually seem to appear if theres been a drowning in this wide estuary. Some said these particular bodies had legs and toes, with prominent gills, brownish skin, the first about two feet in length, the second about four feet. How these great angler fish with razor teeth and lure swelled in the story-telling to become Canveys monsters, no one seems to know, but its a good island tale.

Two Tree Island

Two Tree Island was reclaimed from the sea in the 1700s for rough grazing and originally called Oxfleet at the Southend end and Haughness at the Hadleigh end. The two trees were great elms brought down by a storm in the early 1960s. There is now an Essex Wildlife Trust reserve on the eastern half of the island. This was a former waste tip and here is another example of new identities created on the coast, this time green space created over rubbish. The eastern half of the island is now a mix of reedbed, lagoon, scrub, grassland and some of the best salt marsh and mudflats in the Thames.

These Leigh Marsh muds support dense beds of two species of zostera eelgrass, which with invertebrates in the mud provides food for thousands of waders and geese. There are now avocets on the island, but egg thieves are still such a threat that volunteers have to protect them until fledged.

Bridgemarsh Island

At Bridgemarsh Island, the river wall is a thin broken strip of eroding Kentish ragstone topped with mud and grass, long since breached. It was abandoned in the 1930s when the islands final occupants, the Gooches, lived in the upper rooms of their lonely farmhouse as the tides washed through the ground floor twice a day.

Author James Wentworth Day knew this drowned island in the 1950s, when it was alive with sheep and cattle, the dykes and fleets home to vast numbers of eel and duck. At the west end was still the old farmhouse, by that time ruined and empty. But then the seawall was breached again and all the livestock drowned.

Islands maintain a unique character, quite often very different to the coast itself

Northey Island

Northey Island is mostly saltings covered at high tide. It was in these muds and creeks that 24 revenue men had their throats cut in the smuggling wars and no culprits were found.

In the late 1940s Mayland wildfowler Stanley Tiffin came upon a rare harvest while paddling his punt a parcel containing the torso of a man, later identified as Stanley Shetty, a car dealer from the East End. It was a national sensation and eventually a member of Elsdon Flying Club was arrested, tried and found guilty. He had chosen to drop the body into the marshes rather than bother to fly further out to sea.

Here also is the site of more gory history, where 93 ships led by a certain Olaf battled their way up from Kent in AD991 and fought the Saxons under Byrhtnoth at Maldon. The Saxons foolishly allowed the Danes to form up on Northey Island and march across the narrow wetroad before engaging them in battle. Byrhtnoth was killed and the Saxons routed.

Osea Island

Osea was purchased in Victorian times for its curative bathing and bracing sea air, the plan being to establish a colony for city alcoholics. It didnt happen, though a motor/torpedo boat centre was set up there during the war. Today Osea Island is an exclusive Island offering a variety of accommodation for holidays as well as corporate and private events.

An islanders view

I love living on West Mersea, says Wendy Bixby, the islands deputy mayor. Its not just the beautiful coastline, the beach and the unique places to eat and drink, its the people and the community. Since getting involved as a local councillor I have met so many volunteers who want to get involved and make a real difference to all the residents lives. We have a high proportion of older people and younger people living on West Mersea so sometimes it is difficult to bridge the gap between the two generations, but I have found since setting up a new Youth Interest Group here that the young people dont want to be intimidating, they just want to be heard and as a result help create a nice environment to live and play in. In fact it is important to them to have good services and facilities for all ages. I am one of the youngest councillors on the island I still have a young family myself and its really important to me that we have a safe and friendly environment to live in. We are very fortunate to have a younger generation on the island that are as conscientious and thoughtful as they are and it only makes the future of Mersea Island look even brighter.


Professor Jules Prettys book, This Luminous Coast (2011, Full Circle) gives an insight into the islands of Essex and is available from booksellers and at priced 25 in hardback.

Jules Pretty is Professor of environment and society in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex. He is a fellow of the Society of Biology and the Royal Society of Arts, former deputy-chair of the governments Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), and has served on advisory committees for a number of governments.

Images courtesy of Visit Essex

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