The Simple Things
Where the river meets the sea
ESTUARIES ARE AT THEIR MOST POETIC AT THIS TIME OF YEAR. WANDER THERE FOR A LITTLE BROODING AND BIRD WATCHING
There are times when the landscape suits, even amplifies, your mood. A sandy beach on a sunny summer’s day buoys feelings of jollity. A mountain top uplifts and exhilarates as you fill your lungs and look at the never-ending view. But where do you go when you want to indulge a reflective mood? When you want some time alone, perhaps, to think a little? To wander and wonder?
I always head to an estuary – the Blackwater estuary between Maldon and West Mersea in Essex in particular – and especially round about now when it is at its most evocative and mysterious. An estuary is the tidal mouth of a big river, a shifting landscape where the river and the sea meet. It reveals itself quietly: on a chilly winter morning, it is threaded with mist and the only sounds a muffled foghorn from a »
container ship or the clatter of startled crows disturbed from their roost. It is eerie and enigmatic, a place of saltmarsh, creeks and tidal islands linked to the shoreline by perilous causeways.
It’s not surprising then, that Sarah Perry set her bestselling novel The Essex Serpent amid the Blackwater’s saltings and marshland. It is a fitting location for a dark winged creature to lurk, slithering through the shallows, dark, viscous and terrifying. It is a landscape from which Magwitch from Dickens’ Great Expectations could emerge, slathered in mud and blood, fresh from the prison boat (although in fact, that was the Thames estuary in Kent).
But it is not all creepy otherworldliness. At high tide, the Blackwater fills its banks and tributaries and moored boats bob about cheerfully. When the tide ebbs away, expanses of mudflats and saltmarsh are revealed and oystercatchers with their jolly orange beaks descend in search of food. During the winter, migrating birds arrive at the Blackwater Estuary Nature Reserve in sociable gaggles to feast on the invertebrates burrowed beneath the mud.
My favourite place to meander thoughtfully is the sea wall along the edge of the Dengie peninsula, which overlooks the estuary. Built to mollify the impact of coastal erosion, this concrete path runs alongside the patchy and scrubby vegetation of the saltmarsh, past the lonely and ancient chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell, and over a beach made entirely of yellow cockleshells. If ever there was a place to gather your thoughts, this is it.
When I have had enough moody introspection, I head to Mersea Island. Travelling there has an element of adventure itself as it’s connected to the mainland by The Strood, a causeway flooded twice daily by the tide. Get your
timings wrong and you could spend more time than anticipated on the island. Which may not be a bad thing: this is the place to demolish a seafood platter, and oysters in particular – the rich sediment of the estuary creates the ideal habitat for these delicious shellfish, which have been farmed on Mersea for centuries. Once these have been eaten on the deck of the West Mersea Oyster Company, with a view across the oyster beds to the rickety houseboats moored alongside, all is right with the world.
If you aren’t anywhere near the Blackwater estuary, there are 90 more estuaries in the British Isles, all with their own particular pleasures, so it is easy to find one within reach.
LARKING ABOUT IN THE MUD
The muddy banks of estuaries might not look like the most inviting place for an afternoon stroll; they don’t have the come- hither properties of a sandy beach or a grassy riverbank. But put on your wellies and pull on a pair of gloves and venture on to their squelchy shorelines and you could be rewarded with treasure.
This is especially true of the Thames estuary. The river rises and falls by over 7m twice a day here, revealing mudflats peppered with historic finds. The mud is anaerobic (without oxygen) meaning that it preserves whatever ends up in it. In the 18th century, searching for things lost in the mud was a profession – mudlarking – carried out by the young and the poor who would scavenge among the sewage and corpses of dead animals for items that had been lost or fallen off boats to sell for a few pennies.
These days mudlarking is a more wholesome practice, but some of the things found remain the same. Clay pipes, some dating back to the 16th century, are often unearthed: sold prefilled with tobacco then thrown away, they frequently ended up in the river. The popularity of mudlarking has led to licences being issued for more serious practitioners (available from the Port of London Authority, which will also advise you on where to look) but, generally, surface finds are OK to take home and treasure.
A SHIFTING, TIDAL WILDERNESS
Walk along the side of an estuary at low tide and, among the boats moored and mired in the mud, you will see wading birds – curlews, dunlin, oystercatchers, perhaps – pecking for food. They know that mudflats, with their wriggling channels and creeks, are rich with worms and shellfish. More than 85,000 waterfowl overwinter in the Severn estuary, for example, and now is a good time to pull out the binoculars and see
if you can spot a few migrant species such as whimbrel and ringed plover, who arrive in large numbers to refuel mid-migration.
A large part of the Dyfi estuary in Ceredigion, a magical area of mudflats, peat bogs, river channels and creeks, is owned and managed by the RSPB and attracts Greenland white-fronted geese who overwinter there from October to March, although their numbers are worryingly dropping. Visit the Dee estuary, on the Welsh border this month, and look up: you might see pink-footed geese stopping off on their flight home to Iceland from Norfolk.
It’s not just about birds, though. The transitional landscape of the estuary – half-sea, half-river – is home to many different species drawn by its variety of habitats. Alongside the mudflats is saltmarsh – formed where silt and sand accumulate – where sheep and cattle graze and waterfowl feed on the grass, and where salt-tolerant plants such as sea purslane and golden samphire form colonies.
The sheltered waters of estuaries also attract marine animals – seals are often spotted in the Humber estuary, and Atlantic salmon swim up the Severn estuary on their way to freshwater rivers to spawn. Everything that lives here depends on the rhythm of the tide. It brings in food from the sea as it rises, and sluices everything clean as it falls away.
SOMETHING STRANGE IN THE SEA
As if sightings of eerie sea creatures rising from murky waters isn’t enough to put shivers down the spine, there are other man-made constructions almost as otherworldly lurking in the Thames estuary. The steel structures that make up the Red Sands Fort look like alien creatures pausing before they continue their walk across the ocean. In reality, they were designed by civil engineer Guy Maunsell to provide antiaircraft fire during the Second World War. Towed down the river and lowered on to the seabed in 1943, they were once inhabited by 265 men, but are now deserted. It is not possible (or safe) to clamber up and visit the structures (and the access ladders have been removed), but you can sail around them in a beautiful red-sailed Thames