The oyster beds and sandy beaches of Britain’s easternmost inhabited island have been attracting visitors for centuries. Mersea is just a few kilometers south of Colchester, once Camulodunum – capital of Roman Britain – and there are Roman remains among the layers of the island’s history. Bus 86 arrives from Colchester every hour, crossing a causeway called the Strood, which is usually covered in water for about an hour at high tide. But Mersea feels even more like an island if you arrive by boat, so I’m starting in Brightlingsea (bus 87 from Colchester), where a summer ferry crosses into wild East Mersea. Here the River Colne and the broad Blackwater estuary meet the tea-gray sea and strange bones emerge from crumbling cliffs.
There’s an hour to the next ferry, so I go through the Lido from Brightlingsea, across the lake by boat, and past the beach shacks to Bateman’s Tower. It’s late Victorian octagonal madness, built as a beacon for a harbor that never followed. I can see grazing swamps and wind-twisted woods across the water and, arriving at the south shore of Mersea, I am soon passing through them. Huge dragonflies are hovering in tall, flowering meadows as I swerve through the Cudmore Grove country park, then continue along the beach. Dark Thames barges sailing through Burgundy cross the horizon.
The low red cliffs of Cudmore are rapidly eroding, revealing fossilized shark teeth and mammal bones. The wooden playground includes carved hippos, a reference to the hippo bones that emerged from the 300,000-year-old gravel nearby, along with remains of extinct straight-tusked rodents, beavers, bears, wolves, monkeys and elephants. In 2021, Cudmore was one of the locations for the Apple TV+ adaptation of Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent, with Claire Danes as a fossil-hunting Victorian widow and Tom Hiddleston as the handsome local vicar.
There are sand martins nesting in holes in the cliff, trails of fragrant roses, yellow stars of St. John’s wort and silver holly. Ruined WWII pill boxes are being salvaged by 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 such brick and concrete guard posts on the island. Later, I pass by the Two Sugars Cafe in a converted weapons post on West Mersea.
Coastal erosion means the route now heads inland to the breezy church on East Mersea, then back to the coast, past a thriving vineyard. A grave in the churchyard is protected by sturdy iron hoops, presumably to deter body snatchers; a persistent rumor that this cage is actually there to prevent the deceased from climbing has led to the church’s laminated information sheet insisting that Sarah Wrench “was not a witch”. There’s a palm tree beside the salt-splattered tower and slivers of Flemish stained glass in some of the church’s bright windows.
The most famous vicar of the church of St Edmund, King & Martyr – which can date its well-known parish priests from Martin de Bockinge to around 1200 – was Sabine Baring-Gould, famous for writing the hymns Onward, Christian Soldiers and Now the Day is About . He was a prolific writer, and his 1870s stint in Mersea led to a novel called Mehalah: A Story of the Salt Marshes, evoking this “veined and freckled everywhere with water” area. As I walk along the pebbled shore, Baring-Gould’s description as desolate but “not without beauty” seems apt. He mentions thrift store summer rugs pink and sea lavender purple and the winter swamps “alive and awake with countless wild birds.”
The long beach has banks of shells: cockles, mussels, sea snails and large bleached oysters. Oysters have been cultivated since Roman times in the streams of Mersea, with their ideal mix of fresh and salt water. Oyster shells are everywhere, trimming flower beds and tucked into seaside festoons. Further on, in the low tide mudflats, there are lines of V-shaped poles: some of them are traps for Saxon fish, whose woods have survived 13 centuries.
A pastel prism of beach huts lines the gravel near West Mersea. The tide is slowly rising; at night it will be perfect for swimming in the sand strip at the top of the beach. When the seaside houses finally give way to sugarcane fields with boats ahead, I turn right down Monkey Steps onto the road. Entering the crowded museum next to the church, I can see worn floorboards from a bronze-age walkway under the glass on the floor.
Oysterman Daniel French, in the museum’s audio guide, describes how he found these oak planks buried in the mudflats of East Mersea and noticed the unusual square holes. The process of dating, preserving and displaying the plates took five years, delayed by Covid, and this award-winning exhibition opened in May 2021. Nearby is a pot of bones from a Roman tomb; other exhibits include beach huts and barges, fishing, farming, a stuffed blowtorch, an old hoop net, a penny farthing bicycle and a 17th century Burmese jar for candied fruit, dredged from a shipwreck by a Mersea fisherman.
The newly opened White Hart is beckoning across the road with its armchairs and local beers. Tomorrow, I’ll pass the West Mersea oyster sheds and head back to the Brightlingsea ferry along the island’s north coast, with its swampy salt flats and meandering streams, favored by centuries of smugglers. Tonight, there’s dinner on the pub’s brick-walled terrace and local oysters on the menu.
Google map of the route
To start Brightlingsea
Distance 8 miles plus a ferry ride
Time 4½ hours
Tfull rise 60m
Route Notes: This route depends on the seasonal ferry, which must be booked in advance (£4 each way, brightlingseaharbour.org). Alternatively, walk around the island (about 12 miles), or opt for one of the shorter Visit Colchester walks in West Mersea (visitcolchester.com).
When general manager Jack Tuck first saw the White Hart, it had no roof and had been closed and abandoned for a decade. The pub’s stylish incarnation includes a vaulted contemporary dining room and colorful lounge in the older, wood-clad section, dating back to the 16th century. It’s only been open for two weeks when I arrive and it’s already popular. The menu includes a “casual” section of gourmet pub classics (soup, pasta, burgers, mussels and fries), plus a sophisticated selection of seafood, swamp lamb and plant-based inventiveness. At the bar, there’s a very drinkable amber Island Bitter and malty Brewer’s Gold from nearby Crouch Vale. The terrace, with its circles of lamps and tasseled umbrellas, is filled with happy summer night drinkers, lingering over cocktails, Sussex bubbly and mugs of Adnams’ Ghost Ship.
The White Hart’s six rooms are in impeccable shades of haze, green, and faded pink, and are named after local landmarks. Strood features navy blues and church views; Cobmarsh, with its sloping roof, has botanical fabrics and views from the rooftops to the sea. The beds are luxurious and the bathrooms immaculate. Breakfast includes hot croissants, homemade jams, fresh juice and locally sourced fried foods.
• doubles of £150 B&B, whitehartinnmersea.co.uk