ID: MIS_2019_A18 / Tony Millatt

TitleToo Good to Leave
AbstractArticle published in Mersea Island Society Mistral magazine 2019 page 18

I am not sure when my father fell under the spell of Mersea. Later on he would often say it was the "island that is all too good to leave" - a phrase used by both Hervey Benham and John Leather in books on Mersea, and doubtless by others.

My mother was a Yorkshire lass, lured down to the wartime Essex Coast to get married. At that time the family lived in Thorrington, where my father was brought up, but she used to say that my father was very keen to show her Mersea in her early days down in Essex.

1948 the family moved to School House, Birch, when my father became headmaster there. In fact, he had taught there before the war so Birch, the school and its people were not new to him.

By the early 1950s we had first one and then two beach huts at Mersea, on the top row, just at the bottom of Willoughby Avenue. We drifted into a routine of spending much time as a family at Mersea in the summer holidays. We did of course sleep in the huts - a practice rather frowned on these days. Unlike most of the beach huts, these were not on land owned by the Council, but we paid rent to the Spinney Cafe.

It was the world of camp beds, cooking on primus stoves (I never remember eating out), a bucket of washing-up and cooking 'swill' to be despatched into the sea late in the day, seawater in a bucket beside the hut for washing muddy feet etc. The daily wash was a bathe in the sea. There was no refrigeration - milk bottles were kept cool in a porous earthenware jar filled with water. For our 'convenience' we had public toilets 100 yards down the road (still there, little changed over all the years).

Beach Hut at West Mersea. Tony Millatt, Alison Head, Anne Millatt and Michael Head.

Tony Millatt at back. Front: Gordon Meekings, Dennis Johnson, and two more yet to be discovered.

Looking back now, it was idyllic. There were perhaps seven or eight other families who stayed in nearby huts for long periods in the summer, so there were other friends for adventures. On the north side of the esplanade there were few houses, and a large area of bramble bushes and lovely grassy glades - we could get lost there for hours. Beyond Seaview Avenue, there were still substantial cliffs. Two nearby gun emplacements - one was an open shelter, long since demolished, but the other still survives as the Two Sugars Cafe. At low tide we would wander the mud - you could not get to the low tide mark without squelching through an area of soft mud. We would look for cockles (to be eaten by us) and for oysters which were taken to a house over the back of Willoughby Avenue where we got a few pence for them.

A man came round selling shrimps, by the time we shelled them there was not been much to eat but it was fun. Someone walked along to the bakery to get some baps, especially if we had visitors coming.

My sister Anne comments "When you look back now one of the main things was the complete freedom we had as children, Mum and Dad didn't worry about us and any danger from the sea, perhaps because we had been taught how to swim in the sea by Dad."

One family eventually had a boat, which extended our activities. The family was the Bligh family from Layer, so of course the boat was the BOUNTY. While rowing we would be singing - I now know them to be rather dubious WW1 army songs - I wonder how they came into our repertoire. They were certainly not sung at home.

The River was full of shipping at the time and that always interested us. An early visitor I remember was the POLAR MAID - a tanker full of whale oil, waiting for the price of whale oil to go up. The ESPERANCE BAY was there - an elderly Australian emigrant ship, and of course the GOTHIC which had served as the Royal Yacht on a tour of New Zealand and Australia 1953-54. We would get the occasional close-up view of the ships when we had a trip to Bradwell on the ferry PEDRO. A little later, the outer end of the river was full of Shell Tankers, uneconomic in modern trading conditions. Further up were many war-time standard ships, often owned by London Greeks, seeing out their days waiting for the occasional spot cargo.

Other memories - US Air Force planes circling over the bombing range off Bradwell, transistor radios, pirate radio ships all within easy range, and the building of the Power Station over the river.

The summers of the 1950s drew to an end. I went away to sea for a while, and then drifted into working for IBM. My parents swapped the two top-row huts for one on the bottom row. And then in 1970 my father retired and the remaining family moved to Mersea. They bought a bungalow on Seaview Avenue, and then ten years later moved to Reymead Close; the house where I am now. The parish churches on the island soon drifted into an interregnum ( a word used for years, but now they just call it a period of vacancy ) i.e. there was no rector. So my father (a Lay Reader) was soon busy helping run the church and taking services, along with Jim Sunnucks, ( the only other Lay Reader here at the time). My parents got involved in the Handicapped Club (now Club 73), Mothers Union, WEA, Friends of Mersea, Family History etc etc. There were surprises - my mother, who claimed a drop of alcohol had never passed her lips, took to really enjoying lunches at The Fox and the Dog and Pheasant.

My father passed away in 1995. My mother had been tied to the house for a few years, so she got back into village life by becoming a Church Warden. Eventually, we had to talk her out of firstly driving her car, and then cycling round the village. Her eyesight was poor ! She would often say how fortunate she was, settling on Mersea. My mother passed away in 2015, leaving just me on the island. But the rest of the family still have some of Mersea in their heart and do enjoy coming back, celebrating with a traditional lunch at The Fox.

The tanker POLAR MAID laid up in the River Blackwater, Summer 1954.

ESPERANCE BAY, Summer 1954. A former Australian emigrant ship in her twilight days.

AuthorTony Millatt
SourceMersea Museum