184: Mersea Island

OS Explorer map 184, Colchester: Harwich & Clacton-on-Sea – I do not own this map, but had visited it before starting this blog. Visited again for this post 11th July 2020.

Google Maps location links: Castle Hedingham, Mersea Island, Colchester, Copford, Harwich port

When I came to this map area in July 2020, it was, unsually, my first trip about which I’d be able to write a blog post in almost 5 months, the last being my trip to Thorney in February. The reason for this was, alas, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and the associated government restrictions, which had rather limited my travel in the preceding months. I, sometimes in the company of my housemates Vesper and Erithacus, had been going for walks fairly regularly, but always close enough to home (i.e. Cambridge) that it was in map areas I’d posted about before. Here are some photos from various fairly-local walks I did in March-July 2020:

The trip that I’m writing about here came about when, sitting at home one evening, Vesper, Erithacus and I came up with the idea of going to the seaside, it having by then become permitted to travel around the country again. The closest (in driving time) bits of coast to where we live in Cherry Hinton (just outside Cambridge) are Maldon in Essex, and the bits of the Wash around King’s Lynn. We discounted Maldon, as you can’t really see open sea from there, and so planned to go to King’s Lynn on a Saturday evening.

However, we switched our plan to go instead to Mersea Island in Essex (a little further east than Maldon, but on a more nicely open bit of sea), when I realised that we could easily drive there by a route taking us past Castle Hedingham. The reason for this is that last time I visited Castle Hedingham, in the company of my friends Little S and Mashers, I had a very nice so-called “vegan fungi pie” at the Bell Inn, and since then had been intending to take Vesper and Erithacus there so that they could try it too. The Bell Inn had entrepreneurially started offering takeaways three nights a week during virus times, so we could have pie on the way to the seaside! [1]

Picnicking with my parents on Coldham’s Common earlier that day. I’m sporting a medium-length version of my “lockdown beard”, which got much thicker than my usual fairly short beard by the time I trimmed it a couple of months after this!

On the Saturday that we did this trip, Vesper had some work to do, and I had my parents come to visit me – we met for a picnic on Coldham’s Common in Cambridge, one of my favourite parks – so it wasn’t until the evening that we departed. We left at around quarter to seven, and soon arrived in Castle Hedingham. I walked up to the pub window, was handed our pies (which we’d ordered by phone earlier in the day), and we ate them in the car, successfully managing the perilous task of pouring gravy out of a tupperware box into foam takeaway containers of chips sitting on our laps.

From there we continued driving southwards, and reached Mersea Island. Mersea is a tidal island on the Blackwater estuary in Essex, a few miles to the south of Colchester. West Mersea is a small town with a little beach and promenade, but we headed over to the more rural eastern tip of the island, to try for a quiet seaside walk.

Our first attempt at parking was defeated by Cudmore Grove Country Park’s car park having a 9pm closing time, but we soon found somewhere else to park, and go for a circular seaside walk!

Walking along the beach at the eastern end of Mersea Island!

We had a very nice time walking along the shore. You could see across the Colne to Brighlingsea and its colourful beach huts. The sunset was very beautiful, and we passed a group sitting around a little fire, which looked nice, and sang songs from ASNaC Yule Plays (and the Seagulls “bad lip reading”…) as we walked.

There were lots of interesting ground textures, first sandy grass, then sand, seaweed, then mud in these sort of very interesting wave formations – which turned out to be brown mud on the outside, but black on the inside.

We stopped in the deserted Cudmore Grove country park to use their toilets, where there was a very exciting looking ships-and-dinosaurs-themed play area, before returning to the car along some public footpaths slightly further inland.

The nautical-slash-dinosaurs themed play area

And that was it! Our drive home passed without incident, getting us back shortly before midnight; we’d had a very nice day out, and travelled the furthest from home that any of us had been since the pandemic started. Thoroughly enjoyable!

Previous visits

I’ve visited this map area once before, on a short trip in June 2017. At this point, I’d just finished second year studying the wonderfully weird degree that is Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. Following the end of exams, there’s always a week or so of freedom before everyone goes their own way for the summer holidays, filled with celebrations, balls, garden parties, farewelling friends and so on. My group of friends from my course were in the habit of usually going on some little outing during this period – as we did to Ely the year before, and to Saffron Walden and Bury St Edmunds the next.

In this year, my friends Millicent, Erithacus, Cheremy and Vesper went on a little tour around Essex, exploring several of its medieval churches, as well as a couple of other sites medieval (or otherwise historical) interest. Our trip started off outside this map area, as we travelled down one evening to stay with a conveniently-located aunt of Cheremy’s, and then made our first church visit at Little Braxted – both of which you’ll be able to read about whenever I visit map 183. We then entered this map area to visit Colchester.

Colchester Castle

We had a good wander around Colchester, looking at the Roman walls, before going into Colchester Castle, a Norman castle built on Roman foundations. The town is of course best known for its Roman history, having been the first Roman city in Britain (and the capital city for a while before losing out to London), and indeed there was plenty of Roman stuff in the museum (alongside some nice medieval things), including some dress-up items that we had a great time playing around with!

Millicent enjoying Colchester Castle museum’s dress-up facilities!

From Colchester, we proceeded to our second church of the trip, at Copford. Copford’s church is a lovely little Norman church, but what makes it particularly special is its medieval wall-paintings.

Copford church

The paintings which cover huge portions of the internal walls of the church, and are some of the best-preserved in England. (Medieval churches were often very colourful, but in most places the colour was lost to the Reformation. At Copford, though, the Victorians were delighted to uncover its paintings amazingly intact from under various layers of whitewash!) They’re very impressive.

The inside of Copford church, with some of the medieval wall-paintings visible on the left! (The ones at the far end are mostly Vistorian.)

We proceeded on from Copford to visit another two churches and one other site, but those were outside this map area, so I’ll leave them for a future post!

Before I bring this post to a close, a couple more things. Firstly, it’s true that the the Essex churches trip is the only time I’ve previously visited this map area according to the criteria for what counts as a map visit under The Rules. However, this map area contains Harwich port, where the Stena Line ferries to Holland go from, which I’ve used several times.

Vepser, Erithacus and I on the ferry to Holland!

That ferry is probably my favourite way of getting to the Continent, not only because it’s quite close to my Cambridge home, but also because you can get an overnight ferry with a comfortable little cabin, and do most of your travelling while you’re asleep, which is convenient – no late nights or early mornings required, and depending on where you’re going you get to use the whole of the day on either side for things other than this bit of travel. So far, I’ve always gone on that ferry with a car, but it’d be nice to do it as a train passenger sometime – you can walk right onto the ferry from Harwich International railway station, and there’s integrated ticketing too.

Waiting in the queue for customs at Harwich, after getting off the ferry back home from Holland

The second other notable thing about this map area concerns Colchester again. My father moved to the UK from Malaysia in the seventies, when he was nineteen years old, and Colchester was the first place he lived, training as a mental health nurse in a large psychiatric hospital there. The story of his move is one that’s been recounted to me many times, because it was rather eventful for him – and not just because, coming from a farming village, he’d never been even to Malaysia’s capital city before, never mind on an aeroplane or to another country. Father Dearest was unlucky enough to have his wallet stolen during his changeover in Russia, leaving him with no money at all. He also had his suitcase searched, during which he apparently made the security guards suspicious by trying to hide things, not because he had anything dodgy, but because he was embarrassed by the variety of slightly silly household items his mother had packed for him – pots and pans and so on. Fortunately, at the end of his journey, he was saved from having to run off leaving his taxi driver unpaid, and from a period of destitution, by the hospital administrator paying his fare and agreeing to give him his first month’s salary in advance.

A young me, Father Dearest and the presenter on Legal TV’s Cook with Counsel!

An appendix to this tale is that, some three decades later, when Father Dearest had left his nursing career behind, done a law degree, been a barrister for a good while, and I’d turned up in his life, he was invited to be a guest on a slightly odd television programme called Cook with Counsel, on Legal TV. The format was, as you might have guessed, that a different member of the legal profession would be the guest each week, and would cook a dish, while chatting with the presenter about their life, legal issues, and such like. Now, young me was terribly excited about this, and I managed to convince my parents to let me take a day off school to go to the studio with my dad when he was filming. The connection to the moving-to-Colchester story is that Father Dearest related that tale on the programme and, excitingly, I was allowed to come on screen for thirty seconds or so, to ask him to tell it!

[1] When we went on this trip, it had actually become allowed for pubs to open properly, as long as people kept distant from each other and were served at their tables, but we were still being a little more cautious and hadn’t yet started to do that again ourselves.

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