Taking a Walk 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