Where fishermen once lived

FUNCHAL IN MADEIRA is a place well suited for unhurried exploration. At first, I was worried that 11 days might be too long for a stay here, but this is not the case: it is far too short. There is plenty to see and do without queuing for the famous cable car or for the toboggan ride down a steep road. There are interesting museums to see, but a great deal of pleasure can be derived from wandering leisurely around the older parts of the place.

Cable car passing above Zona Velha in Funchal

One area, which despite being rather ‘touristy’, is the Zona Velha. East of the old patrician  areas around the cathedral and the university, the Zona Velha used to be the poorer part of the city, where fishermen and their  families lived in rather narrow crowded streets near the seashore and the venerable Forte São Tiago.  This fortress was one of a chain of four or five forts that used to protect Funchal from seaborne attackers.

The streets of the Zona Velha have become trendy and there has been a conscious attempt to make the area bohemian. Many of the doors have been painted with often entertaining designs and pictures. There are plenty of small bars and restaurants,  but we were advised by some ladies who work in a museum that these tend to be of poor quality and are best avoided.

High above the Zona there is a terrace overlooking a sea bathing area. Near this, there is an old church, the Igreja de Santiago Menor, which was closed when we visited the district. The café next to the terrace provided excellent coffee at a surprisingly reasonable price given the wonderful sea view from its tables: we paid 3 Euros for two coffees and a pastry.

As touristic areas go, the Zona Velha is certainly worth strolling through. It is probably best to go there earlier in the day before the roads are filled with tables  and chairs next to the eateries.

A glimpse of Mersea

SOMETIMES SUBMERGED DURING high tide, a causeway connects mainland Essex with the island of Mersea in the Colne and Blackwater estuaries. Markers with measurements are posted along the causeway so that people wishing to cross it when water covers it can tell how deep the water is. Road signs on both sides of the causeway advise drivers to test their brakes, especially if the road to and from the island is wet.

I first heard of Mersea Island in the mid-1970s when a friend of mine, with whom I have lost contact, married someone who farmed sheep on Mersea Island. However, it was only in 2021 that I first set foot on the island. The largest settlement on Mersea is the small town of West Mersea. We visited on the 12th of April, which was the first day (since the latest ‘lockdown began in December last year) that people were allowed to have drinks at pubs and eat meals at restaurants, but only in the open air. Fortunately, the sun was out and the waterfront mostly south facing.

In 895 AD, the island was known as ‘Meresig’; by 995 as ‘Myresig’; and in the Domesday Book as ‘Meresai’. The Old English word ‘mere’ usually refers to a lake (e.g., Windermere) but in the case of Mersea (and Margate) it refers to the sea. Thus, Mersea comes from words meaning ‘the island in the sea’. During the Celtic era (before the Roman conquest), the island was populated mainly with folk who fished and farmed. After the Romans established their capital at nearby Colchester, they built a causeway to Mersea Island and improved an already existing Celtic track (see: “The Shell Book of the Islands of Britain”, by D Booth and D Perrott). The Romans called the island ‘Maris Insula’ and archaeological remains of their presence there have been discovered and are now in Colchester Museum. There is a museum in West Mersea (www.merseamuseum.org.uk/) but this was closed on account of covid19 regulations. It plans to re-open in June.

The Normans also visited the island. The Domesday book recorded that in about 1086 there about 100 persons living on the island along with 300 sheep. The construction of the Church of St Peter and St Paul, which occupies the highest spot in West Mersea, began in 1046. Some of the original structure forms part of the fabric of the present church, which, sadly, was closed when we visited.

West Mersea is a holiday resort. Many fine homes, mostly modern, line the road that runs parallel to the waterfront, but which is separated from it by mudflats and salt marshes. Twenty or so large houseboats are moored at the water’s edge. Each of them has its own, often rickety-looking, boardwalk leading to it from the road. There are several pubs and eateries from which views of the boats moored by the town may be viewed. The town is famous for its oysters. We watched workmen hosing down crates filled with oysters, which look like large knobbly stones. Apparently, the Mersea oysters are highly prized internationally. Interspersed between boatyards for pleasure craft, there are yards where fishing vessels are maintained. At low tide, which is when we visited, the muddy shore is dotted with small boats of all types, some of them gently rotting away.

As it was late afternoon and we had to drive back to London and we had recently been well-fed, we spent no more than an hour in West Mersea. We hope to return when the weather warms up and then we will sample some of the local refreshment outlets. Although Mersea Island is only about 60 miles (and a lot of heavy traffic) from London’s Hyde Park Corner, it feels as if it is much further away: far away from anywhere.