The oyster beds and sandy beaches of Britain’s most easterly inhabited island have attracted visitors for centuries. Mersea is just a few miles south of Colchester, once Camulodunum – capital of Roman Britain – and there are Roman remains in the layers of the island’s history. Bus 86 arrives every hour from Colchester and crosses a causeway called Strood, which is often covered by water for about an hour at high tide. But Mersea feels even more like an island when you travel by boat, so I’ll start from Brightlingsea (bus 87 from Colchester), where a summer ferry takes you to wild East Mersea. Here the River Colne and wide Blackwater Estuary meet the tea-grey sea and strange bones emerge from crumbling cliffs.
It’s an hour to the next ferry, so I stroll past Brightlingsea Lido, the boating lake and beach huts to Bateman’s Tower. It is an octagonal late Victorian folly built as a lighthouse for a port that never followed. I can see grazing marshes and windswept forests across the water, and as I arrive on the south coast of Mersea I soon pass them. Giant dragonflies hover in tall flowering meadows as I detour around Cudmore Grove Country Park and then continue along the beach. Thames barges with dark burgundy sails float over the horizon.
Cudmore’s low red cliffs are rapidly eroding, exposing fossilized shark teeth and mammalian bones. The wooden children’s playground includes carved hippos, a nod to the hippo bones that emerged from the 300,000-year-old gravel nearby, as well as the remains of rodents, beavers, bears, wolves, monkeys and extinct straight-tusked elephants. In 2021, Cudmore was one of the filming locations for the Apple TV+ adaptation of Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent, starring Claire Danes as the fossil-seeking Victorian widow and Tom Hiddleston as the handsome local vicar.
There are sand martins nesting in cliff holes, wisps of fragrant sea roses, yellow St. John’s wort stars and silvery sea holly. Destroyed World War II bunkers are being reclaimed with sand and gravel. In the summer of 1940 the Essex coast was fortified against a possible German invasion and there are at least a dozen of these brick and concrete sentinels on the island. Later I pass Two Sugars Cafe in a converted West Mersea gun emplacement.
Due to coastal erosion the route now heads inland to the breezy church in East Mersea and then back to the shore past a thriving vineyard. A grave in the churchyard is protected by sturdy iron hoops, presumably to deter body thieves; A persistent rumor that this cage is actually there to prevent the deceased from climbing out has led to the church’s laminated fact sheet insisting that Sarah Wrench was “not a witch”. There is a palm tree beside the salt-topped tower and curves of Flemish stained glass in some of the clear stained glass windows.
The most famous vicar of the Church of St Edmund, King & Martyr – whose well-known vicars date back to Martin de Bockinge around 1200 – was Sabine Baring-Gould, famous for writing the hymns Onward, Christian Soldiers and Now the Day is Über. He was a prolific writer and his stay in Mersea in the 1870s resulted in a novel entitled Mehalah: A Story of the Salt Marshes, which evokes this area which is ‘water-veined and freckled in every part’. As I trudge further along the pebbly shore, Baring-Gould’s description as desolate but “not without beauty” seems apt. He mentions summer carpets of pink asparagus and purple sea lavender, and the winter marshes “alive and awake with wild birds innumerable.”
The long beach has mussel beds: cockles, clams, sea slugs and large, bleached oysters. Oysters have been farmed in the bays of Mersea, with their ideal mix of fresh and salt water, since Roman times. Oyster shells are everywhere, adorning flower beds and being threaded into garlands on the beach. Further out on the Ebbe-Watt there are V-shaped rows of posts: some of these are Saxon weirs, the timbers of which have survived 13 centuries.
A pastel prism of beach huts fringes the shingle near West Mersea. The tide is slowly rising; In the evening it’s perfect for a swim from the sandy strip at the top of the beach. When the houses by the sea finally give way to belts of reeds with boats ahead, I turn right up Monkey Steps to the road. As I enter the crowded museum next to the church, I can see weathered planks of a Bronze Age walkway under glass in the floor.
Oystercatcher Daniel French describes in the museum’s audio guide how he found these oak planks buried in the East Mersea mud flats and how he noticed the unusual square holes. The process of dating, conserving and displaying the plaques took five years, delayed by Covid, and this award-winning exhibition opened in May 2021. Nearby is a vessel containing bones from a Roman burial mound; other exhibits include beach huts and barges, fishing, farming, a stuffed curlew, an old hoop net, a penny farthing bicycle and a 17th-century Burmese crystallized fruit jar, dredged from a shipwreck by a Mersea fisherman.
Across the street, the newly opened White Hart has lounge chairs and local beers. Tomorrow I walk past the oyster sheds of West Mersea and back to the Brightlingsea Ferry along the north coast of the island with its marshy salt marshes and winding creeks favored by smugglers for centuries. Tonight there is dinner on the pub’s brick patio and local oysters on the menu.
Google map of the route
distance 8 miles plus a ferry ride
time 4½ hours
Ttotal ascent 60m
Route Notes: This route is based on the seasonal foot ferry which must be booked in advance (£4 each way, brightlingseaharbour.org). Alternatively, you can walk around the island (approx. 12 miles) or opt for one of Visit Colchester’s shorter West Mersea Walks (visitcolchester.com).
When general manager Jack Tuck first saw the White Hart, it had no roof and had been closed and derelict for a decade. The pub’s stylish incarnation includes a modern vaulted dining room and a colorful lounge in the older, weather-clad 16th-century section. It has only been open for two weeks when I arrive and is already popular. The menu includes a “casual” selection of gourmet pub classics (soup, pasta, burgers, mussels and fries) as well as upscale seafood choices, salt marsh lamb, and plant-based inventiveness. The bar has a very drinkable Amber Island Bitter and the malty Brewer’s Gold from nearby Crouch Vale. The terrace, with its loops of lightbulbs and tasseled umbrellas, is bustling with happy summer evening drinkers lingering over cocktails, Sussex fizz and pints from Adnams’ Ghost Ship.
Decorated in impeccable tones of mist, green and rose, The White Hart’s six bedrooms are named after local landmarks. Strood features nautical blues and church views; Sloping Cobmarsh has botanical fabrics and looks out over the rooftops to the sea. The beds are luxurious and the bathrooms spotless. Breakfast includes hot croissants, homemade jams, fresh juice and local fried foods.
• double off £150 B&B, whitehartinnmersea.co.uk