| Kissin' don't last. Cookin Do.
Sylvia Wargent takes a trip back in time to reminisce on the pleasures of the old 'Soc and Sail' Club in West Mersea.
Back by popular demand! Coming to a store near you! Christmas! Time once again to consider the vexed question of how many minutes per pound to cook the turkey. Cookery books vary and can be boring (they lack plot), best to bung it in the oven and wait for the smell of burning. If you are excited by all this so far, do try and get out more.
It may sound a bit Scrooge-like but I have to confess that sometimes the festive season does not fill me with delight, seeming to be a tad too commercialised, too much food, too much wine, too much television, too much family tension.
Snippets of seasonal conversation spring to mind: "Grandpa, you've taken all your photos with the lens cap on."
"Remember, when we get there don't mention politics in front of cousin Clive."
"I really needed a nice pair of slippers with fluffy bobbles on."
"Liposuction sounds a funny present, mummy."
"Oh no, the dog's been sick again...."
Somebody should start a Campaign for Real Christmas. Imagine; snow falling gently on pretty children cosily attired in muffs and tippets; welcoming lights glow soft through cottage windows; hand knitted stockings hang from the mantle bulging with hand-crafted toys; indoor the fire is lit, the table laid, and the kettle on the hob.
If that doesn't grab you how about saving your pennies and, like the swallows, heading south for the winter? A good cure for cold feet, I am told, is to dip them in the warm waters of the Caribbean. Me, I would settle for a hotel in the Isle of Wight with someone else to do the cooking. Which brings me back once more to the theme of food.
Come with me now to a parallel universe; the People's Republic of Mersea before the last war. We are poised outside the old Soc and Sail Club. Let's push open the door and stagger into the smoke filled saloon. Peering through the gloom we behold within a gathering; a rich blend of high born, fine boned gentlemen and local fishermen with brown, winter apple faces. They sip dry martinis and sup ale and consider the consequences of the day.
A disparate crowd of people who have one purpose in common; they wait in eager anticipation to sample the culinary delights conjured up by the famed "Queen of Cooks and Cook to Queens", Mrs Winifred Mary Hone. She who could, even with the most meagre of provisions (plus the odd fish, rabbit or goose left on the back step) concoct a dish to die for.
Winifred Hone was unique. A Delia Smith with personality. Descendant of John Evelyn the diarist, she helped to found the famous Wig and Pen Club in Fleet Street.] Together with her husband, John, an Irishman of wit and charm, they cultivated a magic mix of good food and good conversation.
She was a formidable character; a shrewd observer of society but very forthright in her manner which some found not to their taste. Yet under that tough cookie covering, Winifred was a sympathetic soul. After all, it takes a generous spirit, a light hand and a large heart to be a good cook. Not only did she cater to the rich and famous, she also despatched her own version of meals on wheels to the sick and needy of the village.
The Social and Sailing Club occupied an asymmetric, slightly tumbledown barn. Humble it may have been but the great and the good were lured there by little more than word of mouth. There were no yachty pretensions about the place, no blazers or brass guns; peers of the realm prised open the oysters at the same table as wildfowlers and inshore fishermen.
"There were no yachty pretensions about the place, no blazers or brass guns; peers of the realm prised open the oysters at the same table as wildfowlers and inshore fishermen."
At weekends the place was patronised by a brotherhood of Fleet Street hacks known as The Savage Club, including two well known cartoonists, Australian H.M. Bateman, an illustrator for Punch, and George Studdy, creator of Bonzo the Dog, originally a comic strip in Tit Bits that became that became a familiar trademark for recording company HMV (His Master's Voice).
Nobility Flocked to the Island
The nobility came to Mersea mostly for the shooting season but soon sought out the Soc and Sail Club. Prepare to doff thy forelock when you learn that Mersea was the favoured retreat of Rayner Goddard, Lord Chief Justice of England, with Lord Lymington, the Duke of Grafton and Lord Gough in close attendance. Despite having only one arm, Lord Gough was reputed to be an excellent shot. A number of lopsided ducks held less complimentary opinions...
The island seems to have been a bolt hole for any European royals who had managed to escape assassination by revolutionaries. Princess Hohenzollern, widow of Leopold Hohenzollern, Prince of a dynasty which had ruled Prussia for give centuries, lived in Mersea for the last years of her exile. As did Prince Nicholas Galatzine of Transylvania. He did not care to dine at all, and only drank a dark red liquid after midnight.
Wildfowling enthusiast Sir Claud de Crespingny found his way here from Guisnes Court, his mansion at Tollesbury ( a building reputedly built from the recycled remains of the old London Bridge). Apres shot, Claud performed a fire eating act. A trick that could prove decidedly dodgy in wooden buildings and might explain why the heavily haunted Guisnes Court has lit up the sky over Tollesbury way on more than one occasion (burnt to a Cresp?). Whilst out on safari in the Serengeti, Claud's son, Brigadier Raul de Crespigny shot a badly advised tiger who leapt into the back seat of his motor car. Perhaps the poor creature just wanted a lift to the nearest Esso garage.
Early bi-planes were toys for rich boys with time on their hands. Barnstorming no doubt had the same impact on local people of jet skiing does today. Daring young men in their flying machines like Sempill and C.W.A. Scott set off from Mersea on adventurous journeys and became local heroes. On one memorable occasion Scott was carried shoulder high through the village of Mersea atop a wooden replica of his plane.
Millionaire Belgium aristocrat, Prince Lowenstein, another eccentric incumbent of Guisnes Hall, besides being a sandwich short of a picnic, was not so lucky. He set out one day across the wide blue yonder in his light aircraft and was never seen again. But such was the popularity of flying that the parish council even considered constructing an aerodrome on the island.
From Mersea Island Courier 159 Christmas 1997.