ID: CW11_WTA / Dora Greenwell McChesney

TitleIn the Marshes of Old England
AbstractThe Wichita Daily Eagle Wichita, Kansas Sunday Morning, November 16, 1902


Part of the little Island is Still Wild


Of the Lowlands by the Side of the Sea

The marsh land has lain unchanged so long, beside the ever-changing pageant of the waters, that it is hard to believe next spring may be the last to break across the undivided silences. True, Mersea is no undiscovered land. It has been known since remote days of which the British barrows bear witness, since the Roman flung his causeway across the waters, and came hither to seek oysters for the epicures of the empire. But Briton and Roman and the Count of Saxon Shore have passed away like the sea mists from the marshes, and today one is more aware of the flush of the sea lavender across the gray-green stretches than of all their warlike array.

Mersea: Marsh Island: the name is not alluring: yet I came to it in spring and have lingered till I can watch the white swirl of sea gulls following the autumn plough and still its desolate charm is unbroken. This is not the England of one's fancies and memories, with rolling greensward, great serene trees, and the distance dimming from gray to blue. There are many Englands, and this bit of the east coast, despite its harvest, has the trick of effacing all the centuries of culture and recalling a wilder more primitive world. I shall be glad to remember it as I have seen it under the shifting sun and cloud of a stormy summer, and as not many will see it henceforth for the speculative builder is hovering on our borders, prepared to ruin what the long generations have spared. Remember it I say, but the strangeness and spell of the place center in the fact that Mersea itself offers little to the memory, even from one day to another. When twilight falls or the gray blur of the rain, the level island shores, the levels of the sea and the skyline merge, and all is lost, unshaped in the common dimness with never a hill crest or cliff to stamp itself on eye or mind. And then - if the next day bring sunlight, Mersea is new created; a space of golden harvest field, perhaps, scarlet-barred with poppies, and then beyond the infinite gradations of color in the salt marshes, a sea of Italy's own blue, flecked with white pleasure yachts and slant sails, red and tawny.

It is strange that the low-lying land, with its austerities of barren marsh and flooded coast should riot at times in a frank carnival of color, which bids defiance to all one's thoughts of England's sober tints and changeless verdure. Certain days, spent in wandering along the sea wall or drifting from the Colne mouth out to sea, still burn jewel-like in retrospect. One I recall, which began in soft-falling rain, till suddenly the world flashed blue as a burnished sword-blade - sea and sky bright as the heart of fire, blue shadows in the great clouds, gleaming blue in every pool, which the high tide had scattered over the marshes amid green of marsh growth and purple of the sea lavender. Just the tints that blend in a peacock's plume.

However the island is not built entirely of sunsets and blue distances. It is a quite natural bit of ground off the east coast of England, girt about by the rivers Colne and Blackwater and the open sea. It is possessed of a highroad and two churches, one of them located, if tradition speak truly, on the site of a temple of Veta and both lifting staunch, weather-buffeted towers against the easterly winds. There are houses too on the island, as might be surmised; old red-brick farmsteads with fruit trees trained along the funniest wall; steep-pitched thatched cottages still lingering but few and fewer every year. Do not I - I who write - enjoy the honor of living in the haunted cottage? Such a smiling little place it is for so eerie a reputation bowered all summer through in "seven sisters" white roses up to the eaves, aflame in autumn with the Virginia creeper. And next to "The Myth" lift [sic] a quaint old world house, gabled, thatched, with an oaken door which might resist a seige. "The Ship" or "The Old Thatch" for it has born both names has sheltered for the summer our good neighbors " The Mother of the Island" and her gayly gipsy household. Two of the merry party "Wankie" and "Bay" by name or nickname, have on occasion served us as the most picturesque of crewes. And the lass and lad so effective in their bravery of white jersey and scarlet cap are water-babies indeed, champion rowers and swimmers and altogether triumphant Merseans.

"The Old Thatch" has known very different inmates, for it was in earlier times an inn, which must have sheltered many a riotous gathering of smugglers. Smugglers the name is pregnant with romance and Mersea was famous for the smuggling trade, not so long ago. Dwellers in the place, if friendly, may show you some yellow, crabbed diary, kept by a grandfather perhaps which hides whole epics of adventure under the innocent formula "went-a-fishing." Wild days enough (has not Baring Gould caught their tumultuous heartbeat in his Essex romance of "Mehalah"?) but they are very much in the past. A spirit inclined to chartered gains could in these tamer times undertake nothing more stirring than a little illicit oyster-dredging.

For all along the river in the priceless oyster beds, Colchester oysters are the finest in the world, and Essex man will tell you but these waters give hospitality to Spanish, American and others. It is to protect this submerged wealth that the little police boat skims tirelessly to and fro: such a boat, so swift, so beautiful, that one might desire to be a law protector or law breaker for sake of a small sail in the vibrant winged craft. I have never gone dredging yet, but I have tried "winkling", hunting for very unattractive little shellfish at low water on the mud flats: those flats where flock the black-headed "sea cobs" and "waddle-back" gulls and where the great herons - "franks" in Essex parlance - drowse between meditation and greed. Winkle hunting did not impress me as a wholly rewarding occupation but it is one much followed in winter by the island folk. They have need of stray earnings; these farm laborers and watermen whose wages average eleven shillings a week, and who seldom fall short of the orthodox standard in the matter of families: nine children appear to form the correct Mersea household.

I have made friends with some of the Mersea boatmen during our long water trips and learned interesting facts concerning the great mound "chucked up by the Romans," where under the full moon ghostly swords may yet be heard unappeased conflict. Never by any chance does one learn anything of the actual history of the island by such means. Yet there have been episodes stirring enough to pass into legend, from the far days when Hastings the Dane held here a defiant fragment of kingship against Alfred's England, to the nearer strife when the great civil war swept in clangorous tides along the quiet inlet. On East Mersea Point a circle of green lifts, beside the low sea wall: the half-effaced foundation of a blockhouse. Here the Parliament soldiers held an outpost and hither the hard-pressed royalist garrison at Colchester send down a detachment to surprise and seize the fort. Hard they rode and fast, for famine was at work in Colchester, and to win Mersea meant the command of the river Colne and the chance of supplies by sea. But Fairfax's horsemen distanced them by an hour, and reached the blockhouse just in time to decide by their presence a fierce fight being waged in the Colne mouth between three parliament ships and two royalist frigates. It is an almost unique instance of a naval engagement decided by a force of dragoons; but decided it was and the Royalists, goaded on by the sound of distant firing, spurred into the little town of Brightlingsea just in time to see one of the captured frigates drawn beneath the guns of the Mersea fort. An almost forgotten skirmish, scantily recorded in an old pamphlet of the day, but it sets the cannon thundering once again from the blockhouse, over whose grass-grown foundation the peewit now shrills unalarmed.
- Dora Greenwell McChesney, in the New York Evening Post.

Published in The Wichita Daily Eagle, Wichita, Kansas, 16 November 1902.
Transcribed by Elaine Barker.

Dora Greenwell McChesney (d. 1912) was an American historical novelist, noted for her heroes defending lost causes and a lifelong romance with the seventeenth century. Born in Illinois, as a child she left America with her mother and resided across Europe before eventually settling in England, in a cottage on the Essex coast.

Dora and her mother are buried in East Mersea Churchyard. The inscription reads
"Mrs L Studdiford McChesney, died October 24th 1906 aged 65 years; her daughter Dora Greenwell McChesney died July 3 1912 aged 40 years. They desired a better country That is our heavenly God has prepared for them both. In Loving Remembrance of those noble women and gifted writers this cross is erected."
The Burial Register lists her mother's abode as East Mersea, and her daughter's abode as North Nibley, Glos.

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AuthorDora Greenwell McChesney
Published16 November 1902
SourceMersea Museum