By Pauline Gostling
Wanting to immerse myself in the timeless beauty of the estuary, I cross the misty playing fields to the little café overlooking the lake. Steaming cup of coffee in hand, the tang of the sea breeze, and the whisper of the reeds soon casting their spell. The Domesday Book of 1086 mentioned this place, where oysters have been harvested for over a thousand years and the remains of Anglo-Saxon fish weirs have been found. This is the Blackwater Estuary lying between Maldon and West Mersea in the county of Essex, just seventy-nine kilometers north of London.
At the tables outside the café, the starlings swoop for crumbs, kamikaze-style, running the gauntlet from dogs and their owners. There are usually a lot of dogs as the café specializes in homemade treats for its canine clientele. Soon I am drawn into conversation; Essex people are very friendly, and I’m sure the picture today is not so different from years ago when prominent fishing families would meet at The Tin Shed Parliament, which still stands today next to the café, to discuss their livelihoods. In their flat caps, blue Guernseys, and worn serge jackets, it’s almost possible to catch the echo of their strong Essex dialect.
Having finished my coffee, said good-bye to the other diners and their dogs, I decide to stroll along the riverbank. The Blackwater Estuary, as well as providing a rich harvest of fish and shellfish, has gained international importance for its wildlife and archaeology. Made up of sinuous tidal inlets, mudflats, and lonely saltmarsh, life here is governed by the wind and tides. When the tide goes out, the river belongs to the wading birds searching for food in the rich mud, such as the dark bellied Brent geese who are frequent visitors. When the tide turns, the birds retreat and the river again belongs to the boating enthusiasts. As Essex is the county with the longest coastline, 350 miles, it is no surprise that the waterfront plays an important part in many people’s lives today as it has in the past. Elizabethan expeditions set sail from here, and many fishing boat rescues have taken place here. It was also the obvious gateway to raiders, but more of that later. Smugglers used these waters. It is not hard to imagine their boats laden with gin, brandy, tea, and silks, moving silently past the ghostly reedbeds in the dark sea fog rolling in as they navigated the tortuous tangle of creeks and inlets to hide their contraband, often stashing it in local churches.
The tide is out and the mist begins to clear as I make my way along the riverbank to the end of the promontory where I can see a lonely statue in stark relief against the skyline. Birds’ footprints are etched in the thick mud; a cormorant skims low, its wings almost touching the marsh, the earthy smells pungent yet energizing. Scudding clouds and the wild cries of the seabirds accompany me to the end of the jetty where stands the evocative statue of Byrhtnoth, the Saxon Chief, brandishing his sword across the water toward Northey Island. Having beaten a Viking raid in AD 924, when they came again in 991, he challenged them in battle, inviting them to cross the causeway. The battle lasted three days, culminating in Byrhtnoth losing his life. It was a heroic failure, becoming known as the Battle of Maldon, the events described in an epic poem regarded as one of the finest examples of Old English literature, making Northey Island the oldest recorded battlefield in England. In a landscape that has not changed over the centuries, the defeated Saxon Chief stands defiant, the cries of the sea birds wheeling high above his lasting tribute.
Looking back is the timeless view of Maldon set high on a hill, the tower of St Mary’s Church dominating the skyline above Hythe Quay, which is where I am heading next. The town is named from the Anglo-Saxon, meaning Monument Hill. It is a historic maritime town, the second oldest in Essex and was awarded a Royal charter by Henry II in 1171.
Strolling back past the café again, I pass the Brent, the only surviving London Dock steam tug, and arrive at Hythe Quay. This ancient quay is home to the largest collection of active Thames Sailing Barges, where the last cargo vessels in the world still operate under sail. There must be at least eight moored here today, although at the height of their popularity, there were over two thousand. They originated in the seventeenth century, when flat-bottomed, wooden craft evolved for use on the River Thames and are still maintained and repaired today at Cooks Yard at the end of the quay. The barges were owned by local farmers and would sail to London, carrying grain, hay, straw, and root crops, then returning with general goods and horse manure for the farms. After 1665 vessels from Maldon were allowed to land goods free in London because those crafts had continued to supply the city during the Great Plague. To see these stately old ladies under sail, with their distinctive red sails and names such as Pudge and Centaur, is a magnificent sight.
The waterfront can be a dangerous place, and a few years ago, when strolling along the wharf, I heard a woman calling for help. Her husband had gone too close to the edge trying to read the barge’s history and had fallen down between the barge and the jetty. The tide was out, so he was stuck several feet down in the thick mud, unable to get back up. My husband and I rushed over to help as did a chap from the boat yard, and between us managed to haul him out, very frightened, very muddy, smelling awful but mostly upset because he’d lost his glasses!
I’m now making my way to one of the excellent pubs on the quay for lunch and look forward to learning all about the famous Maldon Mud Race where competitors race across the estuary at low tide, not to be missed I’m told. Also, I want to buy some of the world-famous Maldon Sea Salt, which uses water from the River Blackwater. The company has been in operations since 1882 and holds the Royal Warrant, so next time I take a pinch, as well as being sure of its health-giving properties, I know I’m in good company!
Pauline Gostling was born in East London, a post war baby. Before retiring she was Secretary at a local GP Surgery, a rewarding and privileged position where she felt she could make a difference. She has lived in Essex all of her married life with very happy memories of time spent in Maldon when her daughters were small. Now she lives at home with her husband and Daisy, the mad Jack Russell terrier.