|Abstract||James Blott's memories of Tollesbury and the Essex Saltings in the 1950s and 1960s
On arrival in Tollesbury, with a car bursting with suitcases, food and drink, we would be met by Charles Spooner, our 'Steward' who was employed year-round initially, looking after us when we visited, and keeping the boats shipshape in the quiet months of winter. Tollesbury then was a much quieter place than it is now.
Tollesbury creek and the boatyards etc (there is now a marina there, but that came much later) were approached by leaving the village and we left
the car at an open area (now covered in later buildings) where there was a large wooden shed that housed the two-wheeled trolleys that were then loaded with supplies from the boot. Just about the most evocative smell of my life was the combination of marine paint, varnish and tar from hempen ropes that hit you like a blanket as you entered the shed. The walk from there to the boats was over raised paths (always referred to as 'towpaths') topped with crushed shells, which I remember my parents telling me had been built and paid for by my grandfather, despite the fact that they served several boats in addition to ours. Several years later, wooden posts were also erected to carry mains electricity (albeit 110 volts rather than 240). The boats were maybe 15 minutes' walk from the shed. When I was little, I remember being placed on the top of the pile on the trolley and tasked with ensuring that nothing fell off. Later, I remember the thrill of being given the job of pushing the two-wheeled trolley, where the real skill lay in ensuring that the trolley was 'balanced' when it was first loaded, and ensuring that it didn't become unbalanced during the bumpy trip down the path, as things shifted around.
I still have a thrill of excitement when thinking about arriving on the Essex coast at Tollesbury. This kind of coastline is known as
'The Saltings'. At low tide, it consists still to this day of a maze of little tiny mud creeks (the mud incredibly deep and dangerous, mid brown on
top but pitch black and smelly underneath) separated by banks of vegetation made up of lots of different types of wild grasses, sea lavender and no
doubt many other plants that I was not familiar with. At dawn and dusk, the sound of duck, geese, waders and curlews was hugely evocative. On big spring tides, the entire area including the towpath was submerged, and if our arrival for the weekend coincided with one of these tides, we had to push the trolley(s) down to the boatyard, past the yacht storage sheds on the left and at the side of Frost & Drake's yard, get picked up by dinghy. We had two dinghies, a traditional clinker-built and varnished one and a larger, riveted aluminium one painted black, which must have been quite advanced for its time. When everything was in the dinghy, we were sometimes loaded to within a few inches of the gunwhale, and everyone had to sit very still whilst Charles rowed us to the gangplank to board 'Heartsease'. At this point, I need to stop and explain what boats we had, how they came about, etc.
For the whole time of my memory, we had 'Heartsease' (above), designed by WG Storey as a 'Gentleman's Yacht' in 1903 and built by Fay & Co in Southampton.
We also had 'Merrymaid' (below) designed in 1904 by the famous yacht designer CE Nicholson (of Camper & Nicholson's fame) and built by Camper & Nicholson in
Finally, 'Susan', our fishing smack.
From piecing together information, I think Heartsease was bought in 1951 and Merrymaid in 1949 or 1950, in full working order when bought, but subsequently converted to houseboats. 'Merrymaid' was 80 feet LOA (length overall) and Heartsease (named originally 'Adela') was 131.8 feet LOA. Both raced in their early years against the old Royal Yacht 'Britannia and other 'Big Class' yachts, in the days before the 'J' Class arrived on the scene. I have Beken of Cowes pictures in my study of this era of Yacht racing, which include 'Cicely' which looks very like Heartsease, which was also designed by Storey. 'Merrymaid' was originally built as a Cutter, and 'Heartsease' as a two-masted schooner. The two big houseboats were set at right angles to each other in Tollesbury, and rose and fell on each tide, held in place by huge mud berths that eventually 'moulded' to the shape of the hulls, and everything secured by the massive Admiralty pattern anchors with which they'd been built, part-buried in the mud at some distance to the hulls. Gangplanks were built for each, rising from the towpath. And just opposite was a berth where 'Susan' was kept. She was built as a modern Fishing Smack in 1948, when my grandfather John Blott (1872-1965) was not permitted by post-war rationing of materials, to build a yacht. 'In that case, I'll build a smack' said the old man, already 71 years old at that point, and he named his project after my sister, born on 15 June in the year the smack was launched. The fishing registry number of 'Susan' was MN 29, registered in Maldon. Sadly, I've been unable to find out who built her, where she was built or any of the details of her construction. I suspect that she was pitch pine planking on an oak frame. My own feeling is that she was about 50 feet long. 'Susan' was always moored parallel to 'Merrymaid' so on the nearest side of the towpath to be taken out of the river. Two further boat lengths along, there was a WW2 Motor torpedo boat, which appears in some of my father's cine films. I've often wondered what happened to her - she's certainly no longer there and I believe that ones that survived are now very rare.
'Heartsease' was a stunning paradise for a small boy. On the aft deck was a huge canvas awning, which was where the adults used to gather in warm weather for their drinks. We kids were more interested in the extreme aft of the yacht, which had square-shaped openings, no doubt designed to allow excess water on deck to escape whilst under sail. These openings were just about child-sized and we used to dangle long pieces of string with bacon rind tied at the end over the aft and onto the mud where, within a few minutes, you could guarantee to see a small crab clinging on for dear life, trying to eat the rind. Generally, they clung on hard enough to be hauled aboard and placed in a bucket of water, where they would fight each other. The water that flowed past these stern openings were also used for 'match racing'. The idea was to throw a match into the ebb tide and see whose match reached the open creek first.
As a small boy standing on the aft deck of 'Heartsease', I couldn't help but be impressed with the huge scale of her - almost 132 feet excluding
bowsprit, which took her to over 150 feet. The bowsprit had been removed, together with the masts and rigging and keel when my grandfather bought her. I was always told that when he bought her, he paid £1,100 (a large sum in 1951) and he knew that she had 70 tons of lead on her keel, which in due course fetched £1,500 when the keel was removed; a canny purchase. The decks were painted at that stage, but were originally Burmese teak, and on each side of the deck there was a massive varnished rail that stood about adult knee height and ran the full length of the deck. I discovered later on that this was made of a single piece of teak each side - an astonishing fact, as I don't think it would be possible to find old enough Teak trees now? 'Heartsease' was not exactly environmentally-friendly by modern standards, as her hull was made of three and a quarter inch thick teak planking, the whole then copper-sheathed. The cost of this defies modern imagining - my best guess is that she would cost £200 million to build now, if you could ever find a yard with the skills to do it and a big enough supply of teak.
Just forward of the aft awning, there was a curved seat that was also a skylight for the aft cabin, with seats back-to-back facing port and starboard. Forward of that was the entry to the deckhouse, which had been heightened by 12 inches in 1934, during the ownership of banker Sir Henry Seymour King, Bt, KCIE (Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire) after the famous 160-foot Big Class yacht 'Westward' had put her bowsprit through the old deckhouse during a 'Big Class' race.
During the summer months, almost every weekend was spent on 'Heartsease' (once 'Heartsease' had been acquired, 'Merrymaid' was only ever used as
overspill). The range of activities was almost limitless. We either owned, or had access to a 'Twelve', which was the name for the 12-foot, clinker
built, varnished gaff-rigged dinghies that were ubiquitous until the first of the modern dinghies started to appear. The more modern ones were the
'Enterprise' introduced in 1956, followed by the 'Fireball', both made of marine ply. The latter looked almost like a floating plank to my eyes.
Eventually came the fibreglass dinghies, which then endured for many decades. Having learned how to row before I'd learned how to ride a bicycle,
later we were taught how to sail the 'Twelve'. There was also swimming in the sea, which was more dangerous than it sounds and almost led to my early demise aged four. The tides in Tollesbury creek were ferocious, but the easy answer to this was only to allow swimming on an incoming tide, generally from an area known as 'The Hard', which was a couple of hundred yards from 'Heartsease', and which also housed a lookout post on stilts, which was rarely manned. This area now boasts a retired lightship. The 'Hard' was used for launching dinghies, mostly and was only really busy on days when races were planned. On this one occasion, as a small boy before I learned how to swim, I was playing in the shallows, when I fell into a huge hole that was much deeper than I was, and started to sink. Luckily a man with an orange beard, whose name is lost in the mists of time, saw what happened and raced across to pull me out. I already had water in my lungs by that stage. I remember spluttering and finding it hard to breathe, between bouts of coughing up seawater.
The other place for swimming was the open air, mud-bottomed, seawater public swimming pool, which is there to this day. I still remember with a
frisson the feeling of oozing black mud between the toes, as you waded out. I also remember being seriously cold, as obviously the water was the
same temperature as the sea and there were no changing huts etc, so we had to be rubbed hard with a rough towel to get us warm after bathing. The pool was designed so that it never dried, but refilled on big spring tides.
My sister Susan was always far more interested in swimming than I was, and was quite adventurous as a small child, even swimming in the creek from
the dinghies sometimes. This was not always a good idea as in the early season, the sea was absolutely full of jellyfish, to an extent that would now be considered extraordinary. The vast majority of these silvery animals with four curious circles in the middle were completely harmless, but occasionally the conditions would bring to shore larger ones, which had a yellowish appearance, I believe called 'Compass' jellyfish. These 'stingers' gave you an incredibly painful rash if they stung you, and the remedy was a 'mustard bath' in one of the two full-sized baths that graced 'Heartsease'. Susan was stung often, as she was much more adventurous than I was. I was stung once only, enough to put me off sea swimming altogether after that, although I continued to swim in the public pool. To my amazement, global warming is now blamed for the presence of jellyfish off our coasts, but during our eight-year ownership of our own 1957 Hillyard in the Solent, I saw fewer than in one season at Tollesbury in the 1950s.
I suspect that we must be almost unique as a family in going out trawling for fish in the North Sea as a hobby (and not for our living). Charles Spooner was a fisherman first and foremost, was a founder of the local Oyster fishery and knew exactly where to stream the trawl net. It was often that we'd come back with a massive quantity of sole, plaice and skate, as well as other less welcome catches such as dogfish and catfish. I was taught how to gut fish at an early age and saw nothing unusual in this odd pastime. We also used to fish for little 'grey' shrimps and an early memory, which is captured in one of my father's cine films, is of my grandfather sitting on the deck of the 'Susan', with a galvanised iron bucket on his lap, full of freshly boiled shrimp, eating the tails and throwing the heads over the side, with a mass of squabbling seagulls following in our wake.
Memories of Tollesbury in the summer months would not be complete without reference to the inflatable canoe that I was given when I was maybe 7 or 8. At the time, I found it extraordinary that I was allowed the freedom to explore the creeks in my canoe and travel sometimes what I felt was a long way from 'Heartsease'. However, firstly I'm sure my parents would have been monitoring my progress through the pair of 'war surplus' binoculars that graced the deckhouse, but also, they knew that, wherever I went, the only way out to the open sea was 50 metres from the deck of Heartsease. My explorations were also always restricted to rising tides, as I remember sometimes having to wait to get further up a small creek, as the tide poured in to fill every small place. It could hardly have been a more magical way of growing up for a small boy - genuine 'Swallows and Amazons' stuff.
Later in the season, there were always the first signs of wildfowlers heading out as the sun set and the occasional sounds of shots as the duck and geese came in. I found the wildfowlers' appearance intimidating, as they set off down the towpath - a bit like the convict scenes from the 1946 film of 'Great Expectations'. No-one in the family was in the least interested in wildfowling, but when I became interested, in my thirties, I realised how much I'd missed, not being taught about this primordial sport in magical wild places.
The other 'wildlife' that were much less welcome were the wasps. I've never understood how an area that completely floods at the top of every spring tide could be a place where you would find lots of wasps, but in the creek at Tollesbury, they would become a real pest and the cabin tops of 'Heartsease' would always be filled with lots of jam jars, with a small amount of beer mixed with jam in them, and a greaseproof paper top held in place with an elastic band, and a single pencil-poked hole in the top. They used to catch such prodigious quantities of wasps that we had to empty them almost every day. The wasps also caused a tragedy one day, when our first West Highland White Terrier called 'Whisky' was attacked by a large number and induced to jump off the deck into the mud. By the time we managed to rescue him, the poor wee dog had been stung to death.
James Blott age 13 in the saloon of HEARTSEASE
I haven't described 'Heartsease' below deck. I have photos, but they really don't do her justice. From the huge deckhouse with upholstered settees each side, beautiful clock, barometer etc, the companionway stretched down to the belowdecks, with the base of the main mast facing you and the sides completely panelled with carved Cuban mahogany. The owner's cabin, was to starboard and, like all the cabins, was also lined with Cuban mahogany. All the built-in drawer handles, coat hooks etc were silver plated. The owner's cabin housed a large double bunk, with brass portholes facing you as you entered. Beyond this was a bathroom with full-sized bath, basin with solid marble surround and massive mahogany top to a full-size 'head', operated with a flushing mechanism very similar to those found much later, but in this case all of massive, solid brass construction. By the time I was 10 or so, maybe earlier, we had a 110-volt electric supply, but the light fittings, again silver plated, were quite clearly originally designed for paraffin. There was a far door to the bathroom which, when unlocked, led to another large double cabin done out in the same fashion. After that, a door to the right led onto the curved corridor which snaked aft from the bottom of the companionway, with a single cabin opposite (with its own en-suite head and basin). To the left, aft, the 'Ladies' Cabin' with large bunks right and left, a massive skylight above and large floor area which was normally filled with 'Lilos' (inflatable mattresses) on which we kids slept. Leaving the Ladies' Cabin, as you came level with the bottom of the companionway, there was a bathroom with another full-size bath to port and next to it in the corridor, a massive 'pull out' chart system, spring-loaded, with various old charts of parts of the coasts of Britain, all printed onto textile. Ahead, you entered the main saloon.
The saloon had been completely redesigned in 1924 by Sir Henry Seymour King, to a much brighter and lighter design than the heavy mahogany one with
which she had been launched. The design was in Sycamore with inlaid marquetry of East Indian Satinwood. The bulkheads were all lined with patterned green silk brocade (yes, really). The Deckheads were all inlet, with carved surrounds. As you entered this absolutely stunning space, an open coal fireplace faced you, with a sycamore clock on the inlaid sycamore mantel. To the right was a huge dining table, at which we would sit for all meals, always covered with a patterned cloth, even for the most important occasions; I don't remember ever seeing the table itself. The table would probably have accommodated ten adults, including those who sat on bench settees, to the port and forward sides. Aft of the table was a stunning full size two pedestal desk in the same sycamore and satinwood style. Behind it, against the aft bulkhead, was a deck to overhead bookcase with room for scores of books and again in the same stunning style, as were the four or five chairs that graced the inboard side of the dining table. Above the forward end of the dining table was a massive World War 1 painting of Royal Navy warships passing under the Forth bridge. When we sold 'Heartsease', the painting went with her, but we subsequently heard that for the £7,500 we reputedly received for her, the painting was subsequently sold at auction for £3,000, so the new owners almost pulled off the same stunt as my grandfather, when he sold the keel for more than he had paid for her. To one side of the saloon was a huge built-in sideboard with the same details. To top it all off, there were originally two armchairs, one to the left of the door as you entered facing forward and the other facing you to the left of the fireplace. The latter was one of only two items that were retained from 'Heartsease' when she was sold and is now in the possession of my son Jonathan. The other item was the brass ship's bell, which for many years after her mast had been removed, hung at the back door of my parents' home in Blackmore and was used to summon my father from the garden when wanted on the 'phone. When my parents sold 'Saybridge', I was offered the bell and it hung outside the front door of my home at that time in Hertfordshire. It was during this time that the Waller family came to our attention as the new owners of 'Heartsease' at her berth in Lowestoft, and when I visited them there to witness the 're-birth' of 'Heartsease', they asked if I knew the whereabouts of her bell. To cut a long story short, I ended up swapping the bell for a set of the Beken pictures of her.
Forward of the saloon, you entered the crew's quarters, and a different world. On the starboard side was the Master's small but well-equipped cabin.
To the opposite side of this room was a ladder to the deck and to the far side, a huge sink and washing area. You then went up a step into the
galley, where there was a massive four oven cast iron, solid fuel 'Esse' cooker! To the other side was a small cabin with two berths and pipecots to house four. Beyond it was the crew's saloon, where they slept in hammocks and pipecots when at sea - 11 could apparently be housed in this area. In view of the fact that in racing trim she had a crew of 26, it's not clear where all of them slept - 'hot bunking' I assume being the answer. The forward saloon in our time had a huge bench settee down the port side and a darts board on the other bulkhead. I remember the Wallers complaining that the bulkhead was full of small darts holes when they bought her, which they had to fill individually. I probably looked sheepish at this point. The final area was a door to what I think must have been the chain locker, to house the massive five- or six-inch links of chain that were draped across the saltings to keep Heartsease from drifting off on a high tide.
As kids, we were not allowed to run on deck, let alone below, but this didn't quell our enthusiasm and I remember many races that started in the Ladies' cabin and ended in the forepeak, as well as races on deck from stem to stern.
One of my other memories of the Tollesbury saltings was of the Bradwell Nuclear Power Station being built, visible from the deck of Heartsease on the horizon to the south. I think the construction started in 1956 and the Internet tells me that it finally shut in 2002. At the date of writing this, it is awaiting a new use. Perhaps one definition of getting old is when you are 23 years older than the total life of a nuclear power station!
If the weather was windy and mucking around in small boats was impossible, we would occasionally walk the sea wall. This was (and is) extensive but I don't know how much of it post-dated the famous fatalities in the East Coast floodings of 1953. The wall started on the far side of the saltings to us and continued up the creek and around in a huge sweep, eventually ending up back at the public swimming pool and nearby sailing club - well over an hour's walk. In the late nineteenth century, it had been decided to make this area into a holiday area for East Enders from London. The plan I don't think was ever completed, but the railway tracks can be seen to this day, terminating in the middle of nowhere on the saltings. There was a station in Tollesbury village, connecting with London, until about 1950, I think. The sea wall followed the creek out into the Blackwater River, which in the 1950s was a place where unwanted 'freighters' were anchored, to await being scrapped off. Many a trip on 'Susan' ended up with trips up and down the line of ships. Further afield was Brightlingsea, a place occasionally visited overnight, including the night of a ferocious storm, which I still remember vividly. Visits to the Mersea Regatta with its greasy pole, dinghy races and mud walks were also common. West Mersea was to some extent the fashionable place to have a boat - Tollesbury was most definitely not, which was probably why my grandfather favoured it. I think he would have winced at the term 'yachtsman' being applied to him, despite his having owned several large and magnificent yachts.
We also often walked to Tollesbury village. It had two shops, a grocer and a tobacconists, where in due course I remember buying my first packet of
cigarettes, considerably under age. The grocer's shop at Tollesbury generally delivered supplies to us, incredibly in view of the distance over the
tow paths, and I also remember having my hair cut on board 'Heartsease' by a visiting barber from the village. The only other memory of the village
was of the WW2 mine that had been emptied of its high explosive and was retained as decoration outside the village Post Office, which was near the
church and more central to the village. When I was in the village for Charles Spooner's funeral, maybe in 2001, it was still there, but on a visit
early in 2021, it seemed to have disappeared, but has maybe been rehoused elsewhere.
At the far end of the village from the boats was the little terraced cottage where 'Skipper' George Brand lived. 'Skipper' was probably at least 70 in 1955. He was one of the 'Tollesbury men' who were in such demand by the owners of the J Class yachts in the 1920s, as a result of their legendary seamanship on racing East Coast barges and smacks. I recently discovered on the Internet pictures of my grandfather's yacht 'Alpha' (of which I own a 1937 painting) which described my grandfather as 'Owner' and Skipper Brand as 'Captain'. Skipper was our tutor in many things nautical, and was often around in the 50s and 60s, albeit probably not on the permanent payroll at that point. His dialect was 'old Essex', which has almost disappeared now. Tollesbury was, and still is, an interesting place with a wonderful marine history, but I didn't know until much later that by tradition, everyone in the village had a nickname. Charles Spooner was 'Waggles' and no doubt that information was carefully protected, to ensure that uppity young Master James didn't take the mickey, when he became a teenager. Although much has changed about Tollesbury, not least the development of the Marina, I was pleased that the mud berths of both 'Heartsease' and 'Merry Maid' are still visible; that of Heartsease is now home to no less than seven boats of different sizes!
Eventually, about the time that we all were reaching adulthood and after my grandfather's death, (I think maybe around 1970) 'Heartsease', at that stage owned equally by my Aunt Nancy, Uncle Peter and my father, Bill Blott, was sold. Within a year or so, she was removed from her Tollesbury home, but I think the first owners did very little other than move her to Lowestoft, which must have been a huge undertaking in itself.
I can't conclude this section without telling the sad story of the demise of Heartsease. When Gordon and Caroline Waller sold her in, I think 1993, the buyer was 'Mr Vodafone USA' called George Lindemann. He gave Pendennis Yachts in Falmouth a budget for completely renovating her - reputedly £10 million. She was towed round from Lowestoft to Falmouth on a barge. A Naval architect, Gerry Dijkstra, was appointed. Both Dijkstra and Pendennis were known for huge new builds, rather than renovations. Six months later, the Wallers visited to see how work was progressing. Their first stop, the yard manager's office, brought them up short, because there in his office were the beautiful desk and bookcase from Heartsease, being used as office furniture. They were then shown into the main shed where 70 men were working on a huge new steel hull. They expressed their confusion. By the time they left the site, they'd picked up the story that Pendennis had sold the new owner the idea of building a 'replica', much easier for building in air conditioning, water makers and all the rest of the 'kit' that modern Superyachts must have. When the Wallers returned to London, they contacted people they knew, to try to get the 'old' Heartsease saved. When the yard picked up that there may be an attempt to pressure them into saving what would then become the 'original', they pulled in a huge fleet of skips and men to hack her to pieces with chainsaws and dispose of her in the skips. The deed was done on Easter Monday, when eyes would be elsewhere. Much later, they claimed that Heartsease's hull was 'rotten, you could kick the planks off the frame.' The Wallers explained to me that this was nonsense. She was built before electrolytic action was fully understood, and the teak planking was attached to the steel frame with brass bolts. The electrolysis had resulted in a small area of teak around each bolt being affected, but within the budget, this would not have been a problem.
The die was then cast, Heartsease was no more. I wrote to the yard, attempting to buy the desk and bookcase. I sent two follow-ups but never received a reply. When the new yacht was completed and launched (as Adela, the original name), she was 'passed off' as the original to Prince Philip, who visited her at the Classic Yacht Festival in Antigua. In fact, the only feature of Heartsease that was retained was some of the Cuban mahogany, which was bleached to match the interior spec that had been decided. The replica has since undergone lots of changes, including being extended in length, but Lindemann died I think in 2018 and she was then advertised for sale at a price of $13 million. She may have sold, as she's no longer listed as for sale, but for Charter.
To quote a classic yacht expert at the time: 'If you don't like the Mona Lisa's expression, by all means paint an alternative version. But don't slash the original in the process.'
I'm at least happy to report that 'Merrymaid' still exists and underwent a massive restoration in her place of birth, Southampton, in 2006. When last heard of, she was also for sale, for $5 million and was located in Palma de Mallorca.