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.

Gushing from beneath the ground

AT SCHOOL, MY CHOSEN SPORT was cross-country running. Twice a week I spent an hour or so doing this in the grounds of Kenwood and the part of Hampstead Heath near to Highgate in North London. I have written about this before (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/06/14/my-sporting-life/), but there is one aspect of it that I did not cover. Once a year, those who did cross-country running were accompanied by a teacher, Mr Bowles, who believed that getting covered in mud was an essential part of this form of exercise. I did not share his odd belief. There was one place on the Heath where filthy red coloured mud was guaranteed. This was at a point 410 yards south east of the centre of the grand south facing façade of Kenwood House and a few yards northwest of The Stock Pond, one of the series of Highgate Ponds.

The reason that this spot, favoured by Mr Bowles, was and still is, always sodden is that it surrounds a natural spring, which issues from a cylindrical stone well-head covered with stone carvings. These include depictions of a squirrel, a fish, and the head of a man with a luxuriant moustache. The water issues from a pipe emerging from the man’s mouth and then drops into a carving of a scallop shell before some of it falls into a drainage grid and the rest all over the place.  

This well head is called Goddisons Fountain. It was constructed in 1929 (https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2019/04/19/the-healing-springs-of-hampstead/) and named in honour of Henry Goddison, who campaigned vigorously for saving Kenwood and Hampstead Heath from being built on and for preserving it for the use of the public. It is not known whether there was a spring on this spot prior to 1929, but it is not unlikely that there was.

Goddisons Fountain is the last surviving spring issuing chalybeate (iron rich) water in the Hampstead/Highgate area. Prized for its supposed curative properties, especially during the 18th century, there were several springs issuing this kind of mineral water in Hampstead. A fine example of a now disused spring well-head can be seen at the eastern end of Well Walk in Hampstead. It was for public use and located across the road from the Hampstead spa that thrived during the 18th century (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/01/15/a-house-a-spa-and-grays-anatomy/).

If, unlike many who stroll on the Heath, you do not wish to try the chalybeate water issuing copiously from Goddisons fountain, the next nearest source of this once highly prized water is about 47 miles south east in The Pantiles at Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

The water flowing from Goddisons Fountain is one of many sources of the water in the Highgate Ponds, which include (descending the slope from Kenwood) the Wood Pond; the Thousand Pound Pond with the trompe l’oeil bridge designed by Robert Adam; the Stock Pond which is directly below Goddisons Fountain; the Ladies’ Bathing Pond; the Bird Sanctuary Pond, where I spotted a heron; the Model Boating Pond, where I saw no boats; the Men’s Bathing Pond; and Highgate Number 1 Pond. The water from the topmost pond flows through the lower ones sequentially. Most of these ponds were dug before the 18th century as reservoirs for London’s water. They were kept full by damming the Hampstead Brook, a tributary of the now hidden River Fleet, in 1777. In addition, numerous streams in the grounds of Kenwood and on Hampstead Heath were diverted to keep them topped up. Now, the ponds form a valuable publicly accessible leisure amenity. Hardy souls gain great enjoyment in swimming in the gender segregated open-air ponds, whose waters are not subjected to any purification or disinfection procedures. During the present covid19 ‘lockdown’, it is only wildfowl that can enjoy their water.

As we looked at Goddisons Fountain today in late January 2021, I recalled my muddy encounters with it in the company of Mr Bowles and realised that I had not seen it since early 1970, that is just over half a century ago. And it was not until I wrote this that I learned that the fountain is the last surviving chalybeate spring in the part of the world, where I was brought up.