The promise of a clear day and blistering nine degree sunshine lured us into embarking on our first proper walk of 2017. This would be our final walk in Essex before we moved to Yorkshire so we thought we would make it a good one, and Mersea Island appeared to fit the bill.
Famous for its oysters, World War II involvement, and locals full of bullshit (more on this later), Mersea Island sits in the Blackwater and Colne estuaries to the south east of Colchester. The walk we planned was to take us around the coast of the island, starting in the West Mersea area, along the Pyfleet channel, past the Mersea Stone and East Mersea, completing the loop at our departure point. The total distance was to be 13.5 miles, however due to one of the aforementioned locals, the actual distance we covered was closer to 16 miles.
Entrance to the island is via the Strood causeway, which floods at high tide making it impassable. As such we knew that we had to complete the loop, return to the car and get back to the mainland before the water gushed over the asphalt at 17:50 in the evening, and having set off around 11:00 we were confident that this wouldn’t be an issue.
The first point of interest we met was St. Peter’s Well, which is essentially a small wooden hatch on the floor, presumably so covered to prevent anyone from falling down it and requiring a bush kangaroo to assist in their rescue. We then walked over sand dunes past a number of house boats, and back onto the road to pass a number of oyster bars, pubs and boat yards. The walk then opens up to the sea wall – a raised earthwork upon which the footpath sits – giving views over the many salt marshes, mud flats and old oyster beds in the Strood Channel to the left, and flat farmland to the right. Despite the clear day and welcome sunshine, we did have to contend with a strong wind, and our exposed position on the top of the sea wall made us prone to catching its full force. At this stage of the walk it thankfully was behind us and helpfully pushing us along on our way, however after a precarious crossing of the B1025 the wind began to swirl from all directions, and at one point took us so much by surprise that I thought Herbie on his 8m long lead was going to become a kite. Having survived being whisked off to Oz, we ploughed on to try and find some form of shelter within which to eat our lunch, but as the Strood Channel became the ever widening Pyfleet Channel to our left, and the farmland to our right became ever vaster and flatter, shelter wouldn’t be forthcoming for a little while longer.
On the eastern edge of the island is the Mersea Stone, which I’m led to believe is a narrow peninsular from which ferries can be caught during the summer months to cross the channel to Brightlingsea. I can’t verify this as it was March, and from our footpath all we could see of the Mersea Stone was an information sign a few hundred metres away, which wasn’t appealing enough to encourage further investigation. Instead we continued to the edge of Cudmore Grove Country Park, and dipped down onto the part sand, part shingle beach. Here we came across the rubble remains of World War II observation posts, which seventy years ago enabled the East Mersea Coastal Artillery to defend the shores from the invading Luftwaffe, but now served as a windbreak for me to sit and scoff a tuna sandwich.
With Sammy and Herbie also suitably fed and hydrated, we trudged across the sand and thousands of deposited oyster shells, alongside eroding cliffs with protruding tree roots and fallen trunks, beside a nature reserve which threatened of snakes, and back up onto the sea wall alongside a caravan park. At this point the sea wall is made of stone and concrete, and it led us past holiday homes surely too large be called static caravans, some of which I eyed with a mild envy. At the end of the caravan park the sea wall is blocked by a small fence with a large NO ENTRY sign, and an informational poster from the council about why one should not attempt to traverse the route due to the severe possibility of further erosion to the wall, resulting in certain death for anyone in the vicinity at the time. Or words to that effect, at least.
Having resigned ourselves taking an alternative course we began to head inland, only to be called back by a friendly local man carrying a bucket and spade, who had jogged up a boat launching ramp in order to catch our attention.
“Don’t worry about that sign, it’s fine down there” said the jolly faced Mersea Islander. “We go that way all the time! You don’t want to go inland, honestly it’s safe.”
“Well the directions I’m following do say that the wall is under repair, and if it’s open we should go that way.” I naively replied.
“Yeah and worst case scenario you can walk along that bit.” He said, gesturing towards a swamp-like track a few feet lower to the right of the wall.
Without considering what the ‘worst case scenario’ actually meant, and with a brief look at Sammy’s not entirely convinced (but yet unprotesting) face, I stupidly thanked the bucket wielding twat and we clambered over the thin wire fence onto the wall.
He was telling the truth insofar as it was just about passable; roughly a kilometre in length, around half of that was the parts of the concrete that hadn’t yet been claimed by mother nature, and the rest of it narrow strips of crumbling earth wide enough for us to walk only in single file. The view to our left was one of waves crashing over huge fallen chunks of concrete and twisted metal, strewn across the shingle some twenty feet below. Despite feeling like amateur tightrope walkers, we eventually made it across alive, if slightly dishevelled.
Thankful to not be an item on that evening’s Look East news report, we made our way gratefully away from the demolition zone towards civilisation, only to be stopped in our tracks by a ten foot high security fence. You see, this is the part our new friend had failed to tell us. Yes, it is perfectly possible to get to the other side of the prohibited sea wall path without plunging to a watery grave, but when you reach the other side there is no way out.
We had two options, retrace our steps over the high-wire (not something Sammy seemed overly keen on doing) or take a public footpath we had spotted that led from the swamp track, back inland. We opted for the latter, only to discover after a few hundred yards that the path was overgrown with bushes, reeds, nettles and all manner of nasty jabbing vegetation that made it completely impassable. It most likely hadn’t been cut back and maintained as it should be in years, on account of the fact the council were actively warning people to avoid the dilapidated sea wall at all costs. A point made even more evident by the painfully unambiguous warning sign we spotted as we turned around in despair. You may recognise that sign from the cover photo of this post.
At this point it had truly sunk in what utter idiots we were, but rather than cutting our losses and heading back the way we came, I ordered us to try yet another option, of walking alongside the overgrown path through an adjoining field, which must surely have led to the same inland destination. Are you surprised when I tell you this wasn’t the case? No, it in fact led to a barbed wire covered fence, adorned with an sign that unequivocally threatened trespassers with castration, or possibly prosecution. I don’t think it was coincidence that at this moment we heard gunshots in the distance, however it’s not unlikely that our ever more panicked minds were placing too much significance upon that.
We squeezed around the side of the fence, through things even jabbier than we had yet encountered, jumped over a small brook, and traipsed through another kilometre or so of unkempt fields until low and behold, we were met with a steep and simply un-jumpable ditch. I won’t lie, hopelessness was beginning to creep in, as the realisation that the only way back was to do the reverse of the devastatingly unsuccessful and potentially life threatening, trespassing, jabbing-thing-ridden trek we had just taken. Which we eventually did, with much panic, anger, misery and pain from man, woman and dog alike.
Delightedly arriving back at the caravan park with no locals to be seen (luckily for him), we were struck with the realisation that the tide was ever rising, and as we had just wasted well over an hour travelling in an excruciating circle, we still had almost four miles to go before we made it back to the car and over the causeway to the mainland. Abandoning our planned route and plotting a slightly quicker one along main roads, we headed off at the fastest pace our depleted reserves could muster, and marched through the streets of West Mersea until the bright green metallic paint of Sammy’s car glimmered in the distance.
We made it off the island before the road became submerged; with the satisfaction that the winter was behind us and the world of walking open to us once again – even if our first of the season hadn’t gone entirely to plan.
Plus, we gained a new respect for the authority of warning signs.