ID: WW01_031 / Winifred Hone

TitleFirst visit to Mersea Island - Winifred Hone Memoirs
AbstractA bright night, the sky full of stars, just the night for a raid. I was awakened by a banging on the door; this wasn't unusual as the Tollesbury policeman was very spy minded and had received permission to cover the attic window with black material leaving a hole in the middle for his spying activities. Lighting a candle, I went downstairs as I thought to let him in. Imagine my surprise on opening the door to find an airman almost unrecognisable for mud. He had crash landed on the marshes near Woodroffe Creek and had somehow found his way up to the Kings Head thinking it was Mersea Island. His name was A. Crozier, a Canadian serving with the RAF.

Relating my experience of the night to my friend District Nurse Bowles of Tollesbury, we decided to cycle to Mersea Island, which was the only efficient way to travel. Although it was only twelve miles away it was still remote to people not connected with the sea. We finally reached the Strood which was described by the guide book as a causeway anchoring Mersea Island to England. When we arrived the tide was high and covering the causeway, there were several other people waiting for the tide go to down, and they told us as newcomers the usual thing was to go back to the Peldon Rose at the cross roads. Being extremely thirsty after our long ride this we did, only to find that it was closing time. However, we finally reached the Island and experienced a feeling of great disappointment. Expecting to find fisherman's cottages on the sea shore, we found a long winding road and just ordinary villas, but by the time we got to the church our disillusionment disappeared. The lovely parish church of St Peter and St Paul apparently has little resemblance to the original structure. There is firm evidence that it is part of a Roman settlement, the present structure replacing an earlier Saxon building. A wide path takes you to the 14th century porch, which over the years has become a frame for newly married couples to be photographed after the ceremony. The church is surrounded by a resting place for Islanders over the centuries, mounds covered by very green grass, headstone names obliterated by lost time and the elements, sinking some of them out of sight as if seeking to join their ancestors in their final anchorage.

To the east of the church is West Mersea Hall where in about 1736 a very fine Tesselated Pavement was discovered, 21ft in length and 18 ½ feet in breadth. The Hall stands immediately next to the Church and it would appear that the whole extent of it is underlaid with this pavement, on which indeed many lie buried. In 1895 similar remains were discovered in the neighbourhood of the Church. Dr Cromwell Mortimer, Secretary of the Royal Society, visiting the spot in 1740 conceived it to have once been the Villa of a Roman Praetor, but it has otherwise been regarded by Dr Stukeley as the remains of a Temple dedicated to the Goddess Vesta, which once stood on or near the site of the Church. The Counts of the Saxon Shore are said by Morant to have had their residence adjacent to the Temple now occupied by West Mersea Hall.

To the northeast of the Hall, a lovely old Essex barn trying to show itself through the trees, still hoping to find the sea. We passed two old cottages, and then a 16th century house "Orleans". It had high wooden gates, the gate post escutcheons with griffon heads, but it was not until Mrs Guthrie Smith became the owner that you had the chance to see the courtyard beyond. A large circle of green turf, a beautiful old oak tree planted in the middle with every sort of spring flower blooming in rotation from the snowdrop, making a wonderful splash of colour, the gates were always open as if the owner wanted passers by to enjoy the beauty with her. Connected with Orleans was a large wooden building where fruit was stored, protruding out of the building was a small square structure that I learned later was used by smugglers for signaling. Opposite, Yew Tree House, once part of a Benedictine Priory.

Cycling on down the road we suddenly saw the Blackwater EStuary, a wonderful expanse of water, described in earlier records as part of the German Ocean. Proceeding down the Coast Road a few houses and fields ripe with corn, but what a shock when to the shore side of the coast road you were confronted with another kind of graveyard; once famous yachts, that had been owned by wealthy people before the First World War, lying in mud berths in creeks, to end their illustrious careers as houseboats. What an inoble end to their flamboyant past. To the right was a fairly new pub called the Victory. Little did I realise that I would be spending the next 50 years of my life on this enchanting island.

We finally reached what we were looking for - the harbour end known as the Old City. This consisted of old cottages and the shops of ship chandlers. This harbour end of the Island with its foreshore, when I came to live here, was a wonderful playground for mothers to bring their children, safe bathing in shallow waters, fishing for crabs, sunbathing and playing boats. For the architectural minded, sand to build castles to watch the rise and fall of the tide and to teach them to love the sea and all things connected with it. Alas, all that ideal sport friendly and pleasurable playground no longer exists owing to the increase of mobile population. Now it is a concrete jungle of cement, wooden posts and chains creating a barrier from all the delights that I have mentioned, a perfect picture of man's achievements in the anihilation of a sport that was once simple and carefree - quiet solitude and gateway to the sea.

This was known as Stone Hard as for centuries the Dutch fishermen had brought cargoes as ballast on the voyage, discharged them on the mud, before loading with barrels of local herring for the return voyage, making it possible in future years for the cargoes of coal and wood. Sometimes a small coaster would be brought onto the hard by the firm of Messrs A.J. Hempstead, then the leading ship chandlers, to be broken up.

Way back in 1919 when I came to live here as my husband Ronnie Hone had taken over the tenancy of the Victory, Mersea Island by virtue of its isolation had a sleepiness and simplicity; living was carefree and unrestricted, the islanders were natural, good tempered and generally saw the funny side of any situation. Families having generations of forebears behind them earning a living from the sea and soil in unhurried contentment, friendly and often quite eager for conversation.

The war was over and the Island was now attracting visitors seeking relief from the turmoil of the city and town life. It had something to offer that cannot be measured in terms of money, no herd instinct, just a simple holiday, seafresh and no petrol fumes. The creeks, wild and unspoiled, are full of magic. Although they are so desolate with mud flats and saltings, they are the home and breeding ground of Gulls, Mallard, widgeon, tern, plover and others too numerous to mention. There is silence, just the cry of the sea birds.

On calm days the sea, blue and serene as Bristol glasss, makes sailing a great joy, but with the wind in the east the sea becomes a dark sinister green, viscious and violent, and a warning to the inexperienced on boats, who often take liberties with these conditions and suffer by their ignorance. The wise yachtsman, respecting the old proverb "Fools step in where angels fear to tread" would retire to the nearest pub bar with the locals and enjoy a pint.

Most of the local men had spent their whole lives connected with the sea. A lot could be learned by the amateurs just listening to their tales of stormy weather and perhaps, with the aid of another pint, hear how to handle sails in adverse conditions, andin fact capture their spirit and learn much from their practical experience. It is good to remember that you cannot always fight the elements and be sure of winning.

The Island has many moods. You might be enjoying the warm twilight of a spring night, when suddenly without any warning a menacing wind with clouds rushing over the night sky, and just as suddenly dead calm, a bright moon listening to legends of the sea as with a sign of relief. Dawn could be a wonderful experience with grey mists and an awaking breeze ringing a bell that is within gathering up the past present and future, and the agelessness of the whole scene. It is not surprising that Mersea has been invaded with artists endeavouring to capture the sky, sea and marshes; something picturesque to paint in their own inimitable way. Sunshine or gloom, it's all here for the taking. The sky shapes would take a lifetime to describe, the sky changes with such rapidity from diamond to pearl and the richness of colour that comes from waning light. Sunset can be unbelievable if the tide is low, flame gold crimson flamingo and yellow sky unites with the marshes and mud flats, and it is then that you wonder if the reality is fantasy or vice versa. One strange thing is that you can go down to the same place next day and have a feeling of not being there yesterday, always a changing scene.

AuthorWinifred Hone
SourceMersea Museum / Wendy Brady