Description & Map
This is a simple walk around Mersea Island. The northern half is quiet, mostly along the sea wall, with tidal flats on one side and farm land on the other. The southern half is mostly along the beach, with the Blackwater Estuary on the left and beach huts and chalets on shore. Keep an eye on the tide - in some places, when the tide comes in the beach disappears completely and you need to be on the sea wall or you could be in trouble. Parking is in a civic car park in West Mersea. There are toilets in the car park, and shops and cafes on the High Street.
A. Exit the town centre car park (P), and turn right. Walk along the High Street passing St Peter and St Paul's church on your left. After the church, the road bends round to the right and there is an access point to the beach. Stay on the Coast Road (1).
B. As you walk along Coast Road you will pass St Peter's Well on your left, then some houseboats and a boatyard. Opposite the boatyard is The Victory pub.
C. Continue along Coast Road past the Oyster Bar on the left and a few yards later, the Coast Inn set back from the road on the right.
D. Keep going along Coast Road, now heading north. Go past a car park and another boat yard, until you see Dabchicks Sailing Club ahead, surrounded by a collection of black weatherboarded cottages (2). Passing Carriers Close, go straight ahead along the gravel track between the cottages for a few yards, then turn left then right to walk northwards along the sea wall.
E. Stay on the sea wall. You will pass a caravan park on the right and on the left, the amount of mud flats, salt marsh and old oyster beds gradually increases until it's about 200 yards wide. Follow the sea wall round to the left and then to the right and continue past the polders in the Strood Channel which are intended to recreate areas of saltmarsh (3).
F. Keep going along the sea wall. The polders give way to more salt marsh. Continue to the roadside and turn left (4). Walk north along the B1025 Colchester Road for 500 yards to the junction with East Mersea Road. Turn hard right to walk south east along East Mersea Road (5).
G. About 270 yards along this road you will see a metal gate on the left in front of 3 trees. From the map this appears to be the start of a footpath along the seawall. Don't be fooled: the sea wall collapsed some years ago and the footpath was temporarily closed in 2012 to allow repairs to take place. The repairs never happened. Instead carry on along the road past the 3 trees to a footbridge on the left and cross this onto a permissive footpath (6).
H. Turn left to walk along a permissive path beside the sea wall as it snakes along the coast. After about half a mile climb up a steep slope into a small copse (7).
I. From here the footpath line is along the sea wall but the vegetation can get a bit thistly from time to time, in which case use the farm track to your right. Continue past Bower Hall marsh and sluice gate (8) and about a mile later, just past the Mayday sluice, you will reach the mudflats of Pyefleet Channel (9). 500 yards later go through a kissing gate. The footing along the top of the sea wall is easier from here onwards.
J. Half a mile further on you will pass Pewit Island on the far side of Pyefleet Channel to your left. This island was once the centre of a thriving oyster industry, with hundreds of men employed. The corrugated iron hut was once a packing shed (10).
K. Shortly after Pewit Island the sea wall loops around an inlet and passes through a kissing gate (11). Continue along the sea wall, passing some more polders.
L. Ignore the footpath on the right going inland and stay on the sea wall. Go past the Colchester Oyster Fishery premises and landing stage to continue along the sea wall heading south east along a narrow path. About a third of a mile past the fishery there are good views of Brightlingsea across the Colne estuary (12).
M. Three quarters of a mile past the fishery you will pass Mersea Stone on the left. This is a narrow peninsula, from the tip of which there is a ferry service to Brightlingsea and Point Clear during the summer months. Turn right and continue along the sea wall going southwest along an asphalt path (13).
N. After a third of a mile you will reach the edge of Cudmore Grove Country Park where there are toilets. Look for a concrete ramp down to the beach and continue along the sand (14).
O. Walk along the beach heading west with the cliffs on your right. You will go past the remains of a WWII observation post for the East Mersea coastal artillery battery. The cliffs are fossil rich, and are a geological SSSI. Fossil evidence shows that bison, beaver and bears used to live here. Nowadays it's just people and pooches on the beach! (15)
P. After a while the cliffs disappear and the terrain inland becomes saltmarsh. The beach becomes littered with oyster shells. As you approach Coopers Beach Holiday Park you have a choice: to go up into the holiday park and walk along the sea wall or to continue along the beach. If the sea is getting close to the sea wall, get off the sand. At high tide the beach gets completely submerged and there are no exits from the beach for a third of a mile (16).
Q. Having said that, when we were there the tide was well out and we took the beach route past a slightly random pillbox (17).
R. At the far end of the Holiday Park is an entertainment complex, with a swimming pool, restaurant etc. Walk past the complex and turn right by the, boat launch ramp to walk inland passing a small supermarket on the right and a children's play area on the left (18). (When we did this walk the sea wall beyond the Coopers Beach Holiday Park was closed for repair so our route goes inland. If it has reopened you can continue along the sea wall and rejoin the directions at point W. Essex Walks does not advise walking along the beach here as it is under water at high tide for the next mile, with no exits).
S. After about a third of a mile you will come to St Edmund's Church (usually open during the day). Turn left along a wide farm track past a circular tower (19).
T. Continue ahead over the fields initially with a hedge on your left, for three-quarters of a mile. As you approach a black weatherboarded building, skirt round to the right and continue to the roadside (20).
U. Go ahead along the road past an open barn on your right containing a Davey Paxman & Co steam engine and follow the road round to the left. 175 yards later you will pass the entrance to Mersea Island Vineyard. Continue down the lane to the Mersea Outdoors Youth Camp. Despite being an Essex County Council venue, this camp seems remarkably unfriendly (21).
V. 50 yards past the entrance gates bear right past a 5 bar gate in accordance with the footpath signs. Walk around the edge of an overflow car park heading west then south. At the facing fence turn right along a field edge path beside a campsite (22), before turning left towards the coast.
W. At the coast turn right to walk along the coastal path towards the Waldegraves Holiday Park. When you reach the caravan park, go up some steps onto the sea wall and continue west (23).
X. About a quarter of a mile past the caravan park, cross a level grassy area heading towards a small copse: just before the trees, bear left onto the beach. Continue westwards along the beach towards the famous Mersea beach huts (24).
Y. The beach huts continue for almost a mile. There are several snack bars scattered among the huts. After the beach huts there are a few apartment blocks (25) then another half a mile or so of private gardens with beach access. Continue along the beach past the last garden then turn right to go inland and up some steps to Coast Road (26).
Z. Turn right to go up the hill back to the cafes and car park, or left to the pubs.
Along the northern shores of Mersea Island, a series of polders has been constructed on the mudflats using brushwood breakwaters, a method of construction unchanged since the 11th century. These are intended to trap sediment floating in the sea. Once this sediment settles, it will form salt marsh. Vegetation will colonise on the raised mud and create feeding and breeding grounds for birds such as redshank, and fish such as herring. The marshes will also slow the force of the waves hitting the sea walls, reducing the degradation of the sea walls and slowing down the process of erosion.
The Essex coast didn't exist in Palaeolithic times. At that time, sea levels were lower and East Anglia and the Netherlands were connected by land. The Thames flowed eastwards across Essex, over the top of what is now Mersea Island, over Clacton, and half way to Amsterdam before turning to head south. Over many thousands of years the course of the Thames moved progressively southwards towards its current channel, leaving behind great sheets of sand, gravel and alluvial soil in an essentially flat landscape. At some time during those thousands of years, humans and animals walked over this flat land from Europe and settled in Essex. The oldest manmade implement ever discovered in Britain is a wooden spear left behind in Jaywick 400,000 years ago, and fossilised remains of monkey, bison, beaver, wolf, bear, narrow-nosed rhinoceros and giant deer have been found in the East Mersea cliffs. It wasn't until around 6300 BC that water levels rose sufficiently to create the North Sea, separate Britain from Europe and so form the Essex coast.
But the coast is still changing. Cudmore Grove cliffs are only 15 feet high and about 600 yards long, and are gradually being eroded at a rate of about a yard a year. As the shoreline retreats, new fossils are revealed. The cliffs have been designated a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of their high fossil content and the superb exposure of gravels laid down originally when the Thames flowed through here. SSSI designations are not granted readily: generally one site in Britain is selected for each geological feature. Despite this designation, and the legal protections implied by it, the cliffs are still at risk from coastal erosion. As you walk around the coast you will see the remains of WWII defences lying broken on the beach: this gives an indication of how far the cliffs have receded since 1940.
An Essex shoreline management plan has recently been created, detailing the extent to which the shoreline will be protected from natural processes up to 2055. This shows that although the sea wall around much of Mersea will be maintained in the future, no active intervention will be made in respect of the cliffs. But cliffs can be protected. Seawalls, groynes, breakwaters and revetments are all used elsewhere as defences against erosion. Cudmore Grove cliffs, by contrast, are to be abandoned to the tides. This means the cliffs will, in time, disappear.
Further west along the coast, the shoreline management plan talks of "managed realignment". That is, the sea will be encouraged to breach the existing coastline and farmland will be lost to salt marsh. This is deemed a Good Thing:
Realignment is often a more positive approach than a policy of no active intervention as it will create intertidal habitats and the associated socio-economic benefits. EU-funded research has concluded that managed realignment sites have wider benefits than simply habitat creation or serving flood risk management. The economic value of these wider benefits is recognised but remains difficult to quantify.
(Essex and South Suffolk SMP2 Final version 2.4 - 79 - 15 October 2010)
So, Cudmore Grove cliffs, designated a SSSI because of their contribution to the geodiversity of Britain (and as such protected from damage and deterioration) are to be abandoned to the elements. Elsewhere on Mersea, good productive farmland is to be deliberately flooded to create "inter-tidal habitats and the associated socio-economic benefits" the actual economic value of which is "difficult to quantify".
After thousands of years of human endeavour, striving to form the land to our purposes and in so doing, creating a beautiful and sustainable landscape, we have reached a new dawn of green totalitarianism. We are now intending to work on the side of the elements, actively and passively collaborating in the destruction of the landscape we have occupied for 400,000 years. It's an outrage.
During WWII Mersea Island, with its gently sloping beaches and proximity to Europe, was at risk of invasion. As a result, it was highly fortified. Troops were billeted in empty houses on the island. Beach huts were removed from the greensward and the beach itself was mined and covered with barbed wire. Searchlghts were constructed along The Strood. Two coastal artillery batteries were built, one at each end of the island. They both consisted of two 4.7-inch (120 mm) guns, each in its own casemate, a Battery Observation Post, searchlights and pillboxes. At East Mersea, the Battery Observation Post was in the central command position, with searchlights sweeping out horizontally over the sea at night looking out for amphibious attack. Pillboxes guarded the perimeter.
The two gun casemates now lie as broken concrete on the sands but are recognisable from the large ring of gun-holding bolts, the holdfast. Similarly, the Battery Observation Post and the flight of steps which gave access to it lies in pieces on the beach, along with one of the two searchlight emplacements. The concrete base of the remaining searchlight emplacement still survives on top of the cliff. There is a pillbox on the sand near the Coopers Beach Holiday Park. Very few WWII 4.7-inch coastal artillery sites still exist in anything approaching significant form. The remains at East Mersea are an important part of the history and heritage of wartime Essex.
Oysters from Mersea Island have been describes as "some of the best you’ll ever taste, cool, sweet and softly saline, the very quintessence of native perfection."* Abundant, wild, nutritious and delicious, they have been a cause of friction for hundreds of years, with frequent court battles over disputed oyster-rich locations throughout medieval times.
In the wild, a mature female oyster will spawn millions of eggs and the male, millions of sperm. Fertilised eggs produce larvae which float in the currents. After a couple of weeks the larvae develop a "foot" and begin to swim down to the sea floor in search of hard substrate – usually other oyster shells – to which they attach themselves by secreting a concrete like substance. Once safely attached, the larvae undergo a complete metamorphosis and become a spat, a juvenile oyster. It takes up to 3 years to become mature. In the middle ages people realised that volume of oysters could be increased by trapping the larvae that came in on the tide in shallow pits lined with a later of cultch (broken oyster shells). Along the northern shore there are hundreds of these ancient oyster pits cut into the mud. Oysters became plentiful and cheap, and an essential part of the diet for poor people.
In 1563 Sir William Cecil (1520-98) passed an Act intending to encourage fishing in order to protect nautical skills at a time of naval decline. This Act made it compulsory to eat fish (not meat) on Wednesdays. Despite objections from protestant MPs, who thought the Act smacked of popery, it was passed into law.
Arguments to prove that it is necessary for the restoring of the navy of England to have more fish eaten and therefore one day more in the week ordained to be a fish day, and that to be Wednesday rather than any other. Wherefore all these things to be considered, that the trades which have been of merchandise into the Levant and Spain is decayed, the trades of navigation into Island [Iceland] and Eastland [the Baltic] is impeached, the building of ships is costly and difficult for lack of timber, the experience of the statutes prohibiting strangers to bring in fish and wines proveth that, notwithstanding those prohibitions, the navy and mariners have decayed, and on the other side, selling of fish out of the realm hath no present great vent: it must needs follow that the remedies must be sought to increase mariners by fishing, as a cause most natural, easy and perpetual to breed and maintain mariners... Sir William Cecil
As a result, the market for fish and shellfish grew, and prices went up. The stock of Colne oysters was massively over-fished to the point of destruction. Many fishermen sold their catch out of the local area and the Colchester poor, who depended on cheap and plentiful supplies of oysters, suffered. To correct this, a by-law was passed in 1566 ensuring that no Colne oysters were to be sold anywhere except at the quayside market in Colchester; fishermen who sold to 'foreigners' or even in their own villages could be imprisoned and their boats forfeited. At the same time the close season was introduced covering the oyster breeding period, the size of fishing boats was limited and a system of licensing was introduced.
The controls introduced in 1566 were successfully maintained for hundreds of years. Even so, over the next 450 years the Mersea oyster trade had to overcome many problems, such as inexperienced fishermen removing cultch to private layings and 'grounds' where the spat and brood died, typhoid scares as a result of Victorian sewage systems discharging urban effluent into river systems, the floods of 1953 smothering the layings in mud killing off much of the brood, and the cold winter of 1963 which destroyed 85% of the prime Pyefleet stock. Despite all these setbacks, oyster farming is still thriving on the island. And the evidence is everywhere, from the restaurants of West Mersea, the ancient oyster pits cut into the salt marshes along the northern shore, the old packing shed on Pewit Island, the dredgers moored in Pyefleet Channel, and the thousands upon thousands of oyster shells washed up on the southern shore, mother-of-pearl interiors gleaming in the sunlight.
* Tom Parker Bowles, Food Writer, 2014