Tak­ing a Walk Pa­trick Barkham

The Oldie - - NEWS - pa­trick barkham

Like many walks that fire the imag­i­na­tion, this one be­gins with an ad­ven­ture straight from the pages of Win­nie the Pooh.

The creeks that make ‘the Ray’ an is­land are fill­ing as quickly as a bath when I set off on a gen­tle cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of this mys­te­ri­ous, un­in­hab­ited place.

I fol­low a dap­per set of fox prints on the sand, slowly cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing an al­lur­ing dome of tan­gled scrub barely three me­tres above sea level. Af­ter twenty min­utes, I halt, mo­men­tar­ily shocked by the sight of fresh boot prints in the sand. They are, of course, my own.

I’m as jumpy as an imag­i­na­tive child be­cause Ray Is­land has a gift for the eerie. It is set within Es­sex’s Black­wa­ter Es­tu­ary, the source of in­spi­ra­tion for Gothic clas­sics old and new, from Sabine Bar­ing-gould’s mag­nif­i­cent Me­ha­lah to Sarah Perry’s The Es­sex Ser­pent. Ghost sto­ries cling to this 110-acre is­land: there’s a Ro­man cen­tu­rion who paces the cause­way to nearby Mersea Is­land, and horses’ hooves are ap­par­ently pe­ri­od­i­cally heard thun­der­ing across the marshes.

‘A more des­o­late re­gion can scarce be con­ceived, and yet it is not with­out beauty,’ con­ceded Bar­ing-gould, who dis­liked this land­scape’s mi­as­mas, mos­qui­toes and marsh­men.

Gothic fan­tasies loom large, I think, be­cause there is some­thing stub­bornly wild here. Most of the Es­sex coast­line – as long as the Nether­lands’ – has been tamed by sea-banks, the marshes be­yond drained for wheat and bar­ley. But its sky and sea and space can never be do­mes­ti­cated. And the tiny frag­ment of Ray Is­land rep­re­sents half of all that re­mains of what ecol­o­gists call Es­sex’s ‘nat­u­ral, tran­si­tional coast­line’: a won­der­fully sub­tle gra­da­tion from mud­flat to salt­marsh to salty grass­land to freshwater meadow to scrub. Ray Is­land is this coast’s most an­cient place.

Curlews bub­ble and red­shank pipe as win­ter mi­grants ar­rive: a flock of wid­geon, slen­der ducks with a hint of sickle in their wing who call with a poignant whis­tle. Later, the air will be filled with the com­pan­ion­able chat of other vis­i­tors from the Arc­tic, Brent Geese.

John Fowles once said the Es­sex marshes are ‘set to the key of win­ter’, but they are not drab or de­spon­dent. The mud dances with whorls of sil­ver, pur­ple and ma­genta. Worms have ex­ca­vated blue­grey mud from below a sur­face washed cop­per and gold. Creeks’ muddy banks are cov­ered with lurid green sea­weed, slick as hair gel. Most spec­tac­u­lar of all is the carmine car­pet of last year’s glass­wort lain across the salt­marsh.

We fall in love with places (safer than fall­ing in love with peo­ple), and I be­come ob­sessed with this tiny is­land and its se­crets. I twist my way into its cen­tral thicket. Decrepit el­der, pocked with mus­tard-coloured lichen, is dank and rot­ting and fall­ing down. Hawthorns cast knob­bly limbs over sandy soil where noth­ing grows ex­cept moss and stringy net­tles. Fur­ther on is a huge black­thorn, with great cur­tains for boughs. The ground is a Jenga game of dead twigs.

When I re­turn home, my wan­der­ings on the Ray stay with me with the phys­i­cal­ity of a love af­fair. Even af­ter a shower, I smell the Ray’s mud on my scalp and skin. I feel in­fat­u­ated like Fanny Price in Mans­field Park, scorned for think­ing of noth­ing but her favourite is­land. For days af­ter, I sense I’ve en­coun­tered not an empty is­land but a liv­ing thing, puls­ing with power and per­sua­sion.

Ray Is­land is not an easy place to ex­plore. It is man­aged by Es­sex Wildlife Trust and open to Es­sex Wildlife Trust mem­bers only. There is no pub­lic ac­cess across the marshes so most vis­i­tors get a boat from Mersea Is­land. Ac­cess is re­stricted dur­ing bird breed­ing sea­son (March to Au­gust). OS Map: Ex­plorer 184, Colch­ester

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