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.

Monkey Island

ROWERS AT THE 2012 Olympics would have become familiar with Dorney Lake. Built at great expense by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s alma-mater, Eton College, this 1.4-mile-long waterway, a rowing lake, was ready for use by 2006. From the air, it looks like a long, wide airport runway filled with water. Prior to 2012, it was used for several international rowing competitions. In 2012, the lake was the site of both the Olympic and the Summer Paralympics. The lake continues to be used for rowing and members of public are allowed to use the parkland surrounding it when events are not taking place.

Monkey Island

We reached the outer fence of the rowing lake after crossing the elegant Summerleaze footbridge across the River Thames. It allows cyclists and pedestrians to travel between Bray (Berkshire) and Dorney (Buckinghamshire). The bridge takes its name from the company that built it in 1996. It was constructed originally to carry a gravel conveyor belt, which transported gravel from the construction site of the Dorney Lake across the river to the Summerleaze company’s gravel pits next to Monkey Island near to the village of Bray.

The view from the top of the footbridge is magical. The Thames flows briskly beneath it. Upstream the water flows around Monkey Island. Then it travels as a single stream beneath the bridge before being divided into two streams by another island a few yards downstream, Queen’s Eyot. On the chilly Saturday afternoon, when we crossed the bridge, several small cruisers and canoeists passed beneath us.  If you are lucky, and we were, you can see the towers and turrets of Windsor Castle in the distance on the south-eastern horizon.

Looking upstream and through the trees on Monkey Island, you can catch a glimpse of part of the Monkey Island Estate, currently a grand hotel built in and around a house with a fascinating history (www.monkeyislandestate.co.uk/pages/our-story.html).  Many people assume that Monkey Island is so-called because of the paintings of monkeys in one of the buildings on the island, but this is probably erroneous.  The name is most likely derived from the island’s earlier name ‘Monk’s Eyot’. The monks lived in Amersden Bank near Bray Lock on the Buckinghamshire side of the Thames. Their monastery, a cell of Merton Priory, was in existence by 1187, but was dissolved when Henry VIII put an end to such establishments.

The Great Fire of London of 1666 gave the area around Monkey Island a particular importance. For it was from here that Berkshire stone (for details, see: http://hanneyhistory.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Berkshire_Building_Stone_Atlas.pdf) was shipped down river to aid the reconstruction of London. Gravel from the damaged city was brought back upriver and dumped on and around Monkey Island. This resulted in both raising the level of the island to above flood level and providing a solid foundation upon which to construct buildings. Well, getting to know this was alone a good consequence of having crossed the Summerleaze bridge, but wait, there is more to follow.

An ancestor of the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Spencer Churchill, Charles Spencer, the 3rd Duke of Marlborough (1706-1758), purchased the island in about 1723. He had:

“…seen the property whilst attending meetings of the notorious Kit-Kat Club at nearby Down Place in Water Oakley. The Club which met from 1720 purported to be a gathering of ‘men of wit and pleasure about town’ but beneath a facade of joviality had more sinister objectives concerned with the defence of the House of Hanover.” (www.berkshirehistory.com/castles/monkey_island.html).

The Kit Kat Club, about which I have written before (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/11/29/kit-kat-in-hampstead/) also used to meet at the Upper Flask pub in Hampstead Village.

The Duke had two buildings constructed on his recent purchase: a ‘fishing temple’ and a ‘fishing lodge’. The latter, constructed from wooden blocks that were cut to look like stone, still stands and is known as The Pavilion. Lady Hertford (1699-1754), Frances Seymour, later the Duchess of Somerset, writing in 1738, described the Pavilion as follows:

“He has a small house upon it, whose outside represents a farm – the inside what you please: for the parlour, which is the only room in it except the kitchen, is painted upon the ceiling in grotesque, with monkeys fishing, shooting etc., and its sides are hung with paper.”

The Monkey paintings, which still exist, were the work of a French artist Andien de Clermont (died 1783), who worked in England between about 1716 and 1756. Painted before 1738, they decorated the ceiling of what was once a banqueting room. It is now known as the ‘Monkey Room’.

By about 1840, the pavilion had become an inn, which could be reached by ferry from near Bray on the Berkshire side of the Thames. The hostelry became quite popular during the early 20th century, when its regular guests included King Edward VII and his immediate family. The authors HG Wells and Rebecca West enjoyed visiting the place. West makes many references to the island in her novel “The Return of the Soldier” (published in 1918). Here is an excerpt:

“So they went to Monkey Island, the utter difference of which was a healing, and settled down happily in its green silence. All the summer was lovely; quiet, kind people, schoolmasters who fished, men who wrote books, married couples who still loved solitude, used to come and stay in the bright little inn.”

In 1956, a footbridge was built from the Berkshire shore to the island. Additional accommodation was added to the original Pavilion in 1963 and then the inn became known as the ‘Monkey Island Hotel’. After a brief period of decline in the early 1980s, the hotel was restored and has become a successful luxury destination with a fine restaurant, which we have yet to sample.

Our friend who lives in Bray kindly introduced us to the Summerleaze footbridge from where we glimpsed the building on Monkey Island. She suspected that the place had an interesting history, and she was quite right. I will leave you with one more quote from Rebecca West’s novel, one which captured the atmosphere of the place well both when she wrote and today:

“…a private road that followed a line of noble poplars down to the ferry. Between two of them—he described it meticulously, as though it were of immense significance—there stood a white hawthorn. In front were the dark-green, glassy waters of an unvisited back-water, and beyond them a bright lawn set with many walnut-trees and a few great chestnuts, well lighted with their candles, and to the left of that a low, white house with a green dome rising in its middle, and a veranda with a roof of hammered iron that had gone verdigris-color with age and the Thames weather. This was the Monkey Island Inn. The third Duke of Marlborough had built it for a “folly,” and perching there with nothing but a line of walnut-trees and a fringe of lawn between it and the fast, full, shining Thames, it had an eighteenth-century grace and silliness.”

Before Cyprus was divided

MY ONLY VISIT TO CYPRUS was in 1960. I was eight years old and Cyprus was all one country. We went to Kyrenia, where my father was attending a conference in the town’s best hotel, the centrally Dome Hotel. We were all put up there.

It was not my father’s first visit to Cyprus. He had gone out there for a week in the early 1950s to give advice to a large Greek industrial firm based there. When he arrived at the airport in Nicosia,  the immigration officials threatened to forbid him from entering Cyprus because he did not have a yellow fever certificate.  The company for whom he was going to work had sent people to meet Dad. Not wanting to waste my father’s time and the company’s money, the officials assured them that they would make sure they would get my father vaccinated during his stay.

After a week, it was time for my father to leave. As he had not received the yellow fever ‘jab’, he asked his hosts about it.  He was told:

“Don’t worry, we sent someone from the company to be injected instead of you. We didn’t want you to waste your time.”

By 1960, the yellow fever certificate was no longer required to enter Cyprus.  We flew from London to Athens. As we stepped out of the cool aircraft onto the steps leading down to the tarmac, my face was hit by a blast of very hot air. I thought that this was being emitted by the aircraft engines. It was not. It was that never before had I stepped out of an air-conditioned space into outside air with a temperature over 30 Celsius.

GREECE 60s HBY Athens

We stayed in Athens a few days before flying to Nicosia. It was the beginning of the Greek Easter weekend when my mother realised she had left our travellers cheques in a small shop, which had closed by the time she discovered the loss. We went to a police station to report the problem. After taking many details including the names of her four grandparents,  they recorded the loss, but did little else.

My recollections of Cyprus are but few. The Dome Hotel had a swimming pool, which none of us used. Instead, we took trips to Six Mile Beach outside Kyrenia. This was a stretch of sand that looked idyllic at first sight. However, very soon after arriving, our would be covered with small specks of sticky black tar. Thinking back on this, I am surprised that we kept on returning to that beach.

Of the food we ate, I remember little except that we ate a surplus of thick stemmed richly flavoured spring onions (scallions).

My mother found a shoemaker in Kyrenia. She ordered a pair of sandals. This required daily,  lengthy visits to the craftsman. She was quite demanding and expected perfection. I suppose that there were many adjustments she wanted before she was satisfied. I enjoyed the visits to the cobbler because he listened to a radio station, which broadcasted a children’s programme in English.

We made several car trips from Kyrenia. At least twice, we drove along a winding mountain road to Nicosia. It took well over an hour each way back in 1960. We also took a trip  to visit the picturesque ruins of the 13th century Bellapais Abbey.  Although it is only just over 3 miles from Kyrenia, the roads were so poor in 1960 that this journey proved to be quite lengthy, as was an excursion to an archaeological site near Famagusta.

From Nicosia,  we returned to Athens, where we spent a few more days. Before leaving London, I had learnt about Archimedes and his legendary bath in which he is supposed to have been inspired to derive is principle of buoyancy. I was convinced that this famous bath was in Athens. I managed to persuade my parents to hire a taxi to drive around Athens in search of the bath.

Having explained to our taxi driver the nature of our quest, he gamely drove us around the city, stopping frequently to ask locals whether they knew where we could find the bath. Eventually, the driver revealed that he was Jewish. When he discovered that we were his coreligionists, he took us not to see the bath of Archimedes but, instead, to his synagogue. Some years later, I  discovered that our quest had been in vain because, if this bath ever existed, it was likely to be in Syracuse in Sicily.

Fifteen years following our stay in Kyrenia,  Cyprus became divided into two parts: one governed by a Greek administration and the other became governed by Turkish administration.  Kyrenia, where we stayed, is now in the Turkish part of Cyprus and is called Girne. The Dome Hotel still welcomes guests. Maybe, one day after the air is clear of coronavirus particles, I will revisit Cyprus and that hotel.

Photo taken in Athens, 1960

 

Islands of worship

IN HYDERABAD, BOMBAY, and Calcutta I have seen mosques or large dargahs (mausoleums) located on islands in the middle of roads. Traffic flows on both sides of the places of worship like river water flowing around a rock.

I mentioned this to my wife, who reminded me that London has at least two churches that stand on islands around which traffic flows. Two of them are on the busy Strand: St Clement Danes and St Mary le Strand. This got me thinking about other places where a place of worship stands in a position that forces traffic to move around it. Only one place springs to mind as I write this. There is a small church in a street leading off Syntagma Square in Athens (Greece) that stands on an island in the middle of a street ( or, at least it did when I last visited the city in 1980).

Why are these places of worship on traffic islands? Maybe, the shrines were built before roads were laid out or perhaps a road was widened leaving the holy places stranded in the middle of the enlarged thoroughfare.