Oysters from the River Colne near Britain’s oldest town
Since Roman times the River Colne has brought trade and prosperity to Colchester. The creeks and saltings of the nearby coast are thronged with water-loving birds, and oysters flourish on the spawning beds. Boat-building has thrived along the river since Elizabethan times, and each September the great days of sail are recalled when surviving fishing smacks and sailing barges compete in a race along the coast.
During the 18th-century heyday of the canal trade the Chelmer and Blackwater Canal, which starts at Heybridge Basin, carried coal and goods traffic inland to Chelmsford. The moorings above the lock are crowded with sailing boats, from dinghies to a tall two-masted Baltic trader. An 11 mile towpath walk leads to Chelmsford.
This large village with a fine medieval church lies very much off the beaten track. From the centre of the village, Woodrolfe Lane leads down to a marina, backed by a row of two and three-storey wooden boat-houses, some of them now restored. The road is under water at high tide.
Joined to the mainland by The Strood – a causeway liable to flooding at high tide – the island is a little world on its own, with lanes winding across open, gently undulating countryside.
East Mersea is the rural end of the island, where saltings lead to mud-flats backed by sand and shingle. The public is warned to beware of unexploded missiles from the nearby firing ranges. There are walks along the sea-wall in both directions. A 35 acre country park at Cudmore Grove, down Broman’s Lane, has a large car park, picnic area and beach. There are dangerous currents off the end of the island.
West Mersea is the main resort and boating area, with boat-building yards and a public slipway. Oysters, known as ‘West Mersea Natives’, can be bought and eaten at stalls on the foreshore, beside the old oyster storage pools, some of which are still in use. There is a small museum of local history and boat-making techniques. Volunteer inshore lifeboatmen patrol the beach at West Mersea. to Wivenhoe. The marshes to the south are used as a firing range by the Colchester garrison and are closed to the public.
The headquarters of the Essex Naturalists’ Trust is at Fingringhoe Wick, on the banks of the Colne, reached down South Green Lane. An information centre explains the topography and wildlife of the area, and a central watchtower gives wide-ranging views over the surrounding nature reserve. This consists of 125 acres of worked-out gravel pits, together with heathland, reed-beds, sandy beach and salt-marsh. More than 200 species of birds have been observed there, including huge wintering flocks of Brent geese. In spring and early summer the air is fulPof the song of breeding nightingales.
The reserve is open every day except Monday; there are three separate way-marked nature trails, for the general public, for the disabled, and for members of the Trust.
This village, with an attractive river frontage overlooking the muddy upper reaches of the Colne estuary, is a good place from which to watch the cargo boats going to and from The Hythe at Colchester. Rowhedge was noted for its yachtsmen in the early years of this century, when ocean racing first became popular.
The oldest-recorded town and the first major Roman settlement in Britain, Colchester grew from a Roman fortress established in AD 43. It replaced the nearby British capital of Camulodunum, from which the pre-Roman kings ruled south-eastern England. Long stretches of the massive Roman town wall survive, and the Norman castle stands on the site of a temple dedicated to the Emperor Claudius. Inside the walls, the main streets still follow the Roman plan. In AD 60-61 the town was sacked by Boudicca (Boadicea), Queen of the Iceni, who led an unsuccessful revolt against the Romans. When the Romans left Britain the Saxons occupied the town and gave it its modern name, which means ‘the Roman fortress on the River Colne’.
The castle keep, now the main museum, was built soon after the Norman Conquest, and was the largest ever built in Europe. It resembles the White Tower of London but is half as large again. During the Middle Ages Colchester became a prosperous town, with an important port (The Hythe, still used today) and a flourishing cloth industry. Since Napoleonic times it has been a garrison town. The Natural History Museum, in a converted church, displays plants and flowers of the nearby coast.
With a ruined priory and an estimated 250 buildings built before 1714, Colchester well repays exploration on foot. Town trails include ‘The Siege of Colchester 1648’, taking in the sites connected with the siege of the town by Roundheads during the Civil War. It takes in Siege House, a 15th-century house in East Street whose timbers are still riddled with bullet holes.
Colchester is noted for its oysters, which have been cultivated in the lower reaches of the Colne since Roman times. In September the oyster season is declared open by the mayor, who sails downstream and dredges the first oysters, drinking the Queen’s health in gin accompanied by gingerbread. The Colchester Oyster Feast is held in October each year. The feast was first officially recorded in the reign of Charles II, but it had been held for centuries previously on the first day of St Deny’s Fair, a great local annual event. Oysters were eaten not because they were a luxury item, but because they could be taken from the river free of charge.
There is a rose show and carnival in July, and a tattoo in August every even-date year.
RICH LEGACIES FROM ROMAN DAYS
In and around Colchester the earth has given up its treasures, and displayed today in the Castle Museum these cast a vivid light upon the period of the Roman occupation of Britain. A bronze boar, found in a Celtic burial mound of about AD 10, was to Celtic warriors a symbol of fearless fighting qualities -qualities which they emulated in vain when the Romans invaded. Some British tribes became allies of Rome, and a silver medallion of AD 16 found in the same grave bears the head of Emperor Augustus, suggesting that the king buried there was a trusted ally of Rome. The Romans introduced their gods into Britain, and some Britons accepted and worshipped them. A bronze statue of Mercury, fleet-footed messenger of the gods, was found near the site of a Romano-Celtic temple.
Beyond the railway, a steep and narrow street of old houses leads down to the little quayside, which can hardly have changed in 200 years. Shipbuilding at Wivenhoe began in Elizabethan times. During the Second World War wooden minesweepers were made there, and the shipyard is still busy. The parish church has superb memorial brasses to Sir George Beaumont and Elizabeth de Vere. In East Street is Garrison House, said to be named after Cromwell’s troops who stayed there; it is decorated with some of the finest pargeting, or external plasterwork, in Essex.
In the 1750s there was an unsuccessful attempt to turn Wivenhoe into a spa, served by a regular boat service from London. Another unusual event in Wivenhoe’s history occurred on April 22, 1884, when the town was shaken by an earthquake which damaged more than 200 buildings.
Just north of the town is Wivenhoe Park, the setting since the 1960s for the tower blocks of Essex University.
As the possessor of the finest boat-launching ramp for miles around, Brightlingsea is a centre for boats of every description. Fishing and boat-building have been staple industries for centuries, and the town was once famous for its oysters. In the Middle Ages Brightlingsea was an important port and the only ‘limb’, or associate member, of the
Cinque Ports outside Kent and Sussex. The town’s officials still swear allegiance to the Mayor of Sandwich in a ceremony held on the first Monday after St Andrew’s Day (November 30).
Brightlingsea stands on its own ‘island’, surrounded by water on three sides, and can only be reached by a single road. The magnificent parish church, at the entrance to the town some 2 miles from the sea, has more than 200 memorial tiles commemorating local men who died at sea.
The town is the headquarters of the Smack Preservation Society, devoted to preserving the fine old Essex fishing boats. Each September there is a race for smacks and large sailing barges from Brightlingsea to Clacton and back; most of the boats were built at the beginning of the century.
The foreshore is muddy sand scattered with shingle. Strong and unpredictable currents can make bathing dangerous.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
East Anglian Railway Museum, Chappel Station, 7 miles NW of Colchester Weekends, steam days firs! Sun. in month in summer.
Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury, 15 miles NW of Colchester. Birthplace of the artist Thomas Gainsborough. Paintings on show. Most days,
Layer Marney Tower. 6 miles SW of Colchester. Tudor house and gardens. Some afternoons in summer
Paycocke’s House (NT). Coggeshall, 9 miles W of Colchester. Tudor merchant’s house. Some after- original St Osyth was a 7th-century abbess, daughter of the king of the East Angles, who was murdered by marauding Danes in 653. The road to Point Clear crosses St Osyth Creek, which has been dammed to form a lake wide and deep enough to allow water-skiing and windsurfing.