To enjoy Mersea Island’s natural beauty, first you’ve got to get there. Close to Colchester and attached to the mainland by a tidal causeway called the Strood, it’s an easy drive. However, the road floods at high tide leaving the island cut off, so ignore the tide tables at your peril!
Mersea Island has the distinction of being the most easterly inhabited island in the British Isles. It’s the seventh largest in England, both by area and by population. An island of two halves, quiet East Mersea is a world away from the bustle of West Mersea’s oyster beds.
Cudmore Grove Country Park is a popular spot with dog walkers and history buffs. Its shallow cliffs have spawned the 300000 year old bones of monkeys and hippos as the sea pounds the soft sand relentlessly. The wooden fences that were erected across the beach less than 30 years ago stand ruined, a reminder that you need to use more resistant materials to have any chance of beating the North Sea once it’s angry. Take care to watch where you walk as there are plenty of trip hazards such as uprooted trees on the beach as well as ruined World War Two gun emplacements.
Across the island at West Mersea, oyster farming has been taking place for centuries and is a familiar feature of the landscape. Two types are harvested from the River Blackwater: the Colchester Native and the Mersea Island Rock Oyster. The island has been settled since Roman times and the tradition of eating oysters is thought to date from then. Once, oysters were street food, a cheap but nutritious favourite of the poor; today, they are more associated with luxury and indulgence.
Both are dredged from the nutrient-rich silt of the estuary and then fattened on the oyster beds. Colchester Natives are less resilient to harsh weather and you’ll only be able to buy them from September to April, whereas the hardier wild rock oysters can be enjoyed all year round.
There are several places at West Mersea where you can savour your oysters, including the Company Shed and the West Mersea Oyster Bar. It’s also possible to take them away to shuck yourself. But make sure you’ve got a specialist oyster knife. I tried it, and without one, shucking’s not as easy as it looks. Fortunately, I still have all my fingers, but when I next fancy oysters, I’m going to head back to Mersea Island and let the experts do it for me!