PUBLISHED: 10:01 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 February 2013
Island hopping off the coast of Essex may not be as strange as it sounds as Elaine Sivyer discovers the varied delights of a day on Mersea Island
IMAGINE the romantic allure of life on a small island and the mind may quickly leap to far away destinations. Yet such a place can be found much closer to home, just off the coast of Essex.
Mersea Island, nestled between the Blackwater and Colne River estuaries, is the most easterly inhabited island in the UK. It is accessed by a causeway known as The Strood that dates back to Roman times and is part of the main road running from Colchester directly to Mersea. Those making the trip should beware, however, as the waters creeps over the causeway at the full and new moons, leaving the island cut off from the mainland.
The Strood enabled the Romans to establish an early presence on the island, which was eventually to attract wealthy Roman visitors. Mersea Island was also used as a retirement retreat for veteran officers of the Roman legions.
To discover more about the history of the region, a great place to visit is the Mersea Island Museum. The exhibits range across local, natural, social and marine history, geology and also include a large photographic collection. Visitors can learn about the traditional activities of fishing, oystering, wild fowling and boat building, and there is even a fascinating reconstruction of a typical weather-boarded fisherman's cottage.
Mersea Island is famous across the world for its oysters, and one the most important businesses on the island is the 'seeding', nurturing and harvesting of local oyster beds. Indeed, one of the earliest mentions of Mersea Island in writing was by Julius Caesar, who considered the Brits a cruel and savage breed but was seduced by the native oysters.
Oysters have been nurtured on the same stretch of Salcott Creek for at least a hundred years, producing the finest Colchester Native and, latterly, Gigas (rock) oysters. Here the tidal waters of the sea reach the fresh river water, while warm summer sea temperatures and nourishment streaming from the surrounding marsh combine with beds of shell to provide the ideal fattening ground.
To officially open the oyster season the Mayor of Colchester sails into the Mersea waters to sample the first of the season's produce. The oysters are renowned for their quality and can be found in some of Europe's most esteemed restaurants. Local fish-lovers, however, know that an ideal spot to enjoy the region's bounty is right on their doorstep. Dealing almost exclusively with local fishermen who land their catch daily, The Company Shed sells fish and only fish - you must bring your own bread and wine. The food is simple and the décor basic, but it attracts devoted customers from far and wide.
Aside from its oyster specialities, Mersea Island is also a rich ground for many other types of wildlife. The Blackwater estuary is of great significance from a conservation perspective and one of the top ten areas in Western Europe. A large section of the area is recognised as a triple Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Moving from the waters to the skies, the Mersea saltmarshes form part of the Eastern Atlantic Flyway - a migration route stretching from Siberia to South Africa undertaken each year by millions of seabirds. For those seeking to experience nature and enjoy a relaxing stroll, Cudmore Grove County Park at the eastern side of the island offers fine views across the estuaries. Visitors can walk the sea wall, explore the shore and watch for wildlife. Behind the sandy beach is an area of cliff top and grassland providing a serene open landscape for picnics, flying kites and other outdoor activities.
Splashes of colour
The island naturally attracts many tourists, many of whom come to enjoy the beaches and good weather. The long beach at West Mersea has plenty of huts and a good view over the water to Bradwell-on-Sea. Watersports are also very popular, and the sails of windsurfers and kitesurfers add frequent splashes of colour across the waves. And when the tide retreats, you may even wish to venture across the sandbank in search of cockles and winkles. All in all, a perfect location for a summer's day out.