|Mehalah's Country by G. W. Howe
Article from Essex Countryside magazine February 1963
transcribed by Joe Vince August 2023
Where Colne and Blackwater meet stands Mersea Island, separated from the remainder of Essex by long inlets from these two rivers.
To be very truthful, the two parishes of East and West Mersea do not really qualify as an island, being connected to the mainland
by a roadway known as the Strood or Strode. But even late-nineteenth-century guide books referred to the Strood as "a causeway
passable at low water", and today there are notice warning the motorist that the road may be under water at high spring tides.
The limitations of this single means of access by land have no doubt done much to help Mersea Island retain its characteristics as
a small community which, before the coming of the motor car, could truly be described as isolated.
The Romans knew Mersea Island well. There can be little doubt that they established a small military look-out as part of the
organization of the Count of the Saxon Shore. Remains of Roman villas and other relics found at West Mersea point to the existence
of a considerable settlement, possibly the summer residences of high officials at nearby Camulodunum (Colchester).
The Norman church of St. Peter and St. Paul in West Mersea has a very large amount of Romans tiles incorporated in its fabric; in
the church is a Roman ampula, just one of very many relics which have been found in the immediate vicinity.
The Danes also knew Mersea Island, and are said to have taken refuge at East Mersea after one of the many defeats they suffered at
the hands of King Alfred. Near the fourteenth-century church of St. Edmund, King and Martyr, are the remains of earth-works thrown
up by the Saxons and Danes when they faced each other.
The rector of East Mersea in 1880 was the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, and to him we are indebted for Mehalah: a Story of the Salt
Marshes. He gives us a vivid picture of Essex marshland life at the end of the eighteenth century, and wonderful descriptive passages reveal a marsh country which is not so very different today.
The novel opens with Mehalah and her mother living on the neighbouring Ray Island, which lies in the Strood Channel and is
described by Baring-Gould as "a hill of gravel, rising from the heart of the marshes, crowned with ancient thorn trees and
possessing what is denied to the main-land, an unfailing spring of purest water",
At most states of the tide the only communication with Ray was, and is, by water. It was possible for Mehalah to row her boat
from Ray to a hard belonging to the Rose inn at Peldon. The inn still stands, bowered in trees, but the approach to it is along the good hard road of the Strood.
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When Mehalah visited West Mersea she landed on Mersea beach, where "a little above high - water mark strood a cluster of wooden
houses and an old inn, pretentiously called the City". The old inn has gone, re-placed by the more modern Victory, with its
remarkable sign depicting Nelson`s famous flagship, but there is still a cluster of old wooden houses, their dark walls relieved
by flowers in summer. Others are of brick or stone; one of them, now named "Mariner`s Way", bears the arms of Colchester and the
The creeks and inlets afforded ideal conditions for smuggling, despite the almost permanent presence of a revenue cutter off
the island. But what chance had comparative strangers against men born and brought up on the island, knowing every trick and turn
of tide and wind? The twin villages of Salcott and Virley on the mainland were said to be the centres of the "trade", and though
the occasional traveller might find the local inns short of food they were never short of something to drink.
Mehalah was married to Elijah Rebow in Virley church, which Baring - Gould describes in his novel as " a small hunch - backed edifice in the last stages of dilapidation, in a graveyard unhedged, unwalled; the church is scrambled over by ivy, with the gales". Today, those who care to search can still find parts of the walls of the church of St. Mary at Virley, open to the sky and almost completely hidden in a tangle of briars, saplings and ivy.
Another feature of the island remains just as described by Baring-Gould, and his words speak for themselves, an invitation to all
who love the marsh country. "In summer, the thrift mantles the marshes with shot satin, passing through all gradations of tint
from maiden`s blush to lily white.
Thereafter a purple glow steals over the waste, as the sea lavender bursts into flower, and simultaneously every creek and pool is
royally fringed with sea aster. A little later the glasswort, that shot up green and transparent as emerald glass in the early
spring, turns to every tinge of carmine".