The writing on the wall

ALL THAT REMAINS now are the French words ‘moules’, ‘huitres’, and ‘langouste’ (mussels, oysters, crayfish). They are written in large white capital letters attached to a brick wall overlooking Leicester Place, which is a short street running between London’s Leicester Square and Lisle Street.

I am glad these words have not been removed,not only because I enjoy consuming shellfish and crustaceans but also because they provide a reminder of an establishment that thrived between the 1950s and 2006, when it closed for ever: Manzi’s restaurant.

Run by an Italian family, the eatery was famous for its seafood. Although I only ate there a few times, it was always an enjoyable experience.

Another restaurant, which has also closed, was on Lisle Street near Manzi’s. It was a Chinese restaurant called Mr Kong. Like Manzi’s, it had seafood on its menu. Their mussels in black bean sauce were superb. Kong’s also had a vegetarian menu – Chinese vegetarian dishes. I am not a lover of veg dishes, but the vegetarian offerings they rustled up at Kong’s were outstandingly tasty.

Usually, I often remember Mr Kong when I visit Chinatown around Gerrard Street, but it was only when I noticed the French words on the wall that memories of Manzi’s came flooding back.

The oyster merchant’s clock tower

BURNHAM-ON-CROUCH in Essex is a picturesque port on the River Crouch. Currently, it is a leisure resort and a centre for ship maintenance and boating. It was once famed for what grew in great numbers on the muddy bed under the water of the Crouch: oysters. For several centuries before the river became polluted in the 19th century, the oyster beds in the Crouch (and a few other places in Essex) were very profitable, providing much employment.  

“On the shores of England the principal nurseries of oysters, not only for the English markets, but also for the foreign, are those on the coast of Essex and the estuaries adjoining: those taken there are called ‘ Natives/ Mr. Sweeting claims the name as peculiarly applicable to his fishery, as within his memory no strange oysters have ever been introduced…”

Men were required both to dredge the oyster beds and process the molluscs as well as to protect the precious creatures from thieves based in other places on the Essex coast.

Today (11th of July 2022), we visited the small but excellent museum in Burnham-on-Crouch. On the ground floor, we saw a retired mechanised oyster grading machine (made in France and capable of sorting 7000 oysters per hour) amongst the exhibits. On the upper floor of the museum, which is housed in a former boat repair building, we met the museum’s treasurer, who is a mine of interesting local history. He told us several things about Burnham’s oyster heydays. I hope that what I am about to tell you is a reasonably accurate summary of what he told us. If it is not totally accurate, I hope that he and you, dear reader, will forgive me.

For 10 years, I used to live in north Kent and often visited Whitstable to enjoy eating oysters for which this Kentish seaport is famous. The treasurer in Burnham told us that many of what are described as ‘Whitstable oysters’ were born in the mud beneath the river in Burnham-on-Crouch. From what I can recall, the young oysters, which grow in the mud beneath the Crouch, are dredged and then placed on boards to which they attach themselves. Keeping them submerged in seawater, the boards to which the young oysters are attached, were transported to Whitstable where they matured in its waters. The Burnham oysters were ‘native’, meaning that they began their lives there; they were not imported, as Thomas Campbell Eyton described in “A history of the oyster and the oyster fisheries” (published in 1858):

“On the shores of England the principal nurseries of oysters, not only for the English markets, but also for the foreign, are those on the coast of Essex and the estuaries adjoining: those taken there are called ‘Natives’. Mr. Sweeting claims the name as peculiarly applicable to his fishery, as within his memory no strange oysters have ever been introduced.”

One of the exhibits in the museum is a large model of the octagonal Victorian clock tower that dominates Burnham-on-Crouch’s High Street. The tower stands next to the building that used to house the former St Mary’s School. It was erected in 1877 to honour the local philanthropist Laban Sweeting (1793-1876). So, what, you might ask, and what has he got to with what I have been writing about?

Laban Sweeting, mentioned in the quoted from Eyton’s book, was a philanthropist; a member of The Burnham River Company; and he was one of the town’s oyster merchants. The museum has amongst its exhibits a small barrow, which used to be wheeled around Burnham by a member of the Sweeting family. It would have carried baskets of oysters ready for sale to the town’s populace.

We had visited Burnham once before, and although I was impressed by the clock tower, I knew nothing of its history. Neither did I know about the town’s association with oysters, which were poor people’s food in the 19th century, when chicken was a luxury. How times have changed.

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.