Dovercourt’s historic lighthouses

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The twin lighthouses at Dovercourt have been a fixture on the landscape since the 1860s.  Iron-framed, they sit 200m apart, linked by a stone causeway that extends out into Dovercourt Bay.  As you can see from the photograph above, this is completely covered at high tide.

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The differing heights of the two lighthouses are significant, allowing the lights to be aligned as ships approach.  The inner lighthouse stands 15m high, while the smaller one is about 4m lower.  Commissioned by Trinity House in 1862, they replaced the two redundant lighthouses in Harwich, a short way along the coast, which had become unreliable due to migrating sand bars in the Stour Estuary.  For more on Harwich, see my earlier blog post here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/harwich-the-town-that-rocked/

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With the installation of marker buoys indicating the approach to Harwich harbour, the Dovercourt lighthouses became obselete, like the Harwich ones before them.  In 1917, they were decommissioned, falling into a state of disrepair before being renovated in the 1980s.

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The beach today is one of just five in Essex that has been awarded the coveted Blue Flag in recognition of the cleanliness of both the beach and the water.  Off season, the beach is dog friendly, and with Felixstowe’s dock cranes framing the horizon, it’s a pleasant place to let them run.  If you’re planning to take your pooch, make sure you clean up after them to keep the beach in pristine condition.

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Abberton Reservoir & the Dambuster connection

Largely taking its water from the River Stour, Abberton Reservoir is the largest in Essex.  But as well as being an important source of fresh water for North Essex residents, it’s also a wetland site managed by Essex Wildlife Trust.  The location is a key overwintering ground for migratory birds.  The damp ground hosts lapwing, curlew and golden plover and where the grass is better you’ll see wild geese.  Other birds that are commonly spotted include grebe, coot, swan and wigeon populations.

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An estimated 40,000 birds come each year, attracted by the shallow waters at the edge of the reservoir where they can peck about in the mud.  There’s also a breeding colony of cormorants, unusual as they nest in inland trees rather than on the more common coastal cliff ledge sites.  There are plenty of footpaths in the vicinity as well as a well-stocked visitor centre.  You can’t quite circumnavigate the reservoir but you’ll get a close look at the water in many places.

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But this tranquil place hides a chilling secret.  During the war, Abberton was one of the practice locations used by RAF 617 Squadron, more famously known as the Dambusters.  Preparations were intensive, with emphasis on low flying and simulated night flights.  Though participating pilots didn’t know what the target of Operation Chastise was going to be, the reservoir location offered some vital clues.  The Layer Causeway would have simulated a dam and was closed to passing traffic while the planes were overhead.  But the reservoir, finished just a short while before war broke out, was itself a target.

The Ministry of Defence was concerned that Abberton could be used as a landing site for seaplanes and placed 312 mines across the reservoir.  They were held in place with steel cables attached to concrete blocks.  At the end of the war, most were exploded; soldiers were ordered to fire at them from the banks of the reservoir.  Some, however, were holed and sank.  A prolonged period of dry weather in the late 1980s led to 22 of these mines being exposed on the reservoir’s banks and the army were called in.  Seven still had some explosives intact and were blown up.  Since then, a specialist diving unit has carried out a thorough survey and the reservoir is now officially clear.

The gardens at Beeleigh Abbey

Beeleigh Abbey dates from the 12th century.  Once an abbey for the Premonstratensian Order (don’t try to say that with a mouthful of cake), it was later owned by one unfortunate individual who was beheaded for supporting Lady Jane Grey.

The house you see in the picture dates from the 17th century but the timbers and some of the other features of the original abbey have been retained.  These days, the place is privately owned and not accessible to visitors.

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However, for a few days each year, the gardens are open and make a pleasant afternoon out if you’re in the Maldon area.  What follows are some of the highlights of the garden.  If you’d like to see for yourself, the last opening of the year is on September 8th and then it will close until the 2018 season.

Adjacent to the house is an area laid to lawn surrounding several ornamental features.  There’s plenty of bench seating which was being well used at the time of my visit, as was the marquee serving refreshments.  The garden makes the most of its watery setting, with paths alongside the adjacent River Chelmer.

Beeleigh’s pond was very shady and on such a hot day, offered welcome relief from the sun.  This area felt less like a formal garden and more like a slice of the beautiful Essex countryside, but again had plenty of benches allowing you to sit and take in the view.

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For me, the most impressive part of the gardens were the floral displays, but that’s probably to be expected given the timing of my visit in August when the roses were a riot of colour.  As well as the dedicated rose garden, there were a plethora of fragrant specimens in the cottage garden and in the beds lining the many gravel paths.

It’s easy to forget how much deadheading and pruning goes into displays such as this.

Other areas open to visitors included the orchard, kitchen garden, wild flower meadow and wisteria walk.  Depending on the time of year, some are past their best or yet to take centre stage.  If you can only come once, and at £6 a ticket, that’s probably the case for many people, then think about the time of year which will give you the most pleasure.

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To reach Beeleigh, go to the top of Maldon High Street and follow London Road until you pass the cemetery on your left.  Make a right turn into Abbey Turning and follow the signs for Beeleigh Abbey.

http://www.visitmaldon.co.uk/beeleigh-abbey/