In 991AD, according to the celebrated English poem The Battle of Maldon, the Anglo-Saxon Brithnoth permitted his Viking enemies to wade across the causeway from Northey Island, where they had landed, to a field on the mainland. Here, he and his chieftains were routed by the Norse invaders until not a man was left standing.
I learned this tale as a child when I spent my summer holidays sailing the River Blackwater and I had always assumed it to be apocryphal. But it turns out to be true, and I can only reflect now on what a bleak and blasted place it would be to die.
The Blackwater estuary is a strange place: the land surrounding it is as flat as a pancake, and the surging North Sea has created a network of saltmarshes, mudflats and islands that – in the case of Northey, anyway – partially disappear at high tide. It’s not conventionally beautiful, but it’s got a greater sense of wilderness than any place in southern England I know.
You can visit Northey with permission from the National Trust, but only at low tide when the causeway is exposed. Further downriver lies Osea Island and its shingle beaches – rare for this part of the world – and you can also access this via a causeway that runs across the vast, empty spaces of glistening black mud for which the Blackwater is famous. You can overnight here, too, and be castaway for more than just a few hours.
A spot of crabbing
Carry on along the north side of the Blackwater and you’ll reach Mersea Island, which, unlike Northey and Osea is only cut off at spring high tides. Head for West Mersea and make sure you’ve got a bucket, some string and a rasher or two of bacon, because the one thing any self-respecting six-to-sixty-year-old
will want to do is go crabbing.
I still vividly recall the immense satisfaction of filling a bucket with these alien grey-green creatures and the even greater one of the splish-splosh-splash as I threw them back into the sea.
Across the estuary from West Mersea is another unmissable destination, the ancient chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall. It’s not just – or even mainly – its age (built around 660AD) that makes it remarkable: it’s the chapel’s location on the Dengie Peninsula, surrounded by a great sweep of the Blackwater on three sides and low, flat green fields on the other.
Standing here, bathed in a warm summer’s breeze and listening to the piping calls of oystercatchers, there are times when I’ve understood on some crude level why St Cedd was moved to build his church here. So far from civilisation, he must have thought, much closer to god.
How to get there
Maldon is linked directly to the A12 by the A414 and B1019. By train, take the route from London Liverpool Street to Chelmsford or Witham and continue the journey to Maldon by bus.
The Company Shed
129 Coast Road, West Mersea
This is a fish ‘eatery’ where they supply the fish and nothing else – you bring the bread, butter and wine. Local fishermen bring in cod, skate, brill and Dover sole.
Osea Island Resort
Osea Island, Maldon CM9 8UH
There’s a huge range of accommodation on Osea Island.
The Green Man
Bradwell-on-Sea CM0 7QX
A 16th-century freehouse
right on the Blackwater.