Out in the wilds of Essex there’s an island you can drive to – if you can get past the escaped Lion first. The Dabbler sets off to investigate…
That silly season tale of an escaped lion roaming the Clacton suburbs allowed many to indulge in one of those occasional gleeful bouts of Essex bashing. People like to turn their noses up at Essex when offered the chance, even many London dwellers who reside only a short hop away; but if you can look past the new town horrors of Basildon and Harlow and their ilk, this huge county contains some beautifully varied countryside, from the lovely rolling farmland around Saffron Walden over to the melancholy hulk-strewn mudflats of the east coast. A trip out to the wild east will always reward you with surprises, apart from the occasional escaped lion there’s a trove of ancient Viking-proofed churches and lonely creeks to explore.
Maldon is a good base from which to sally forth, and the roman salt town has some charms of its own that are worth sampling – especially a night at The Blue Boar Hotel. For those that enjoy an escape from chain hotel purgatory, there are large and eccentrically decorated rooms that meander off in all directions, filled with paintings of salty sea dogs and dusty hunting trophies. It’s like staying in an antique shop run by Miss Haversham.
Whilst propping up the hotel bar late one summer night, alone in town on business, some rum coves suggested driving to nearby Osea Island. I was initially incredulous but the thought of driving to an island was too good to pass up, and so the next morning I set off to find Osea with nothing but a hangover and a very inaccurate Shell road map to point the way.
Driving a few miles out of town through lanes thick with cow parsley, I eventually spot an unmarked dirt road next to a row of caravans. Seeing no other route anywhere nearby I turn down and creep along in my car through potholes and hot fenny meadowlands until coming to a halt beneath the blank rise of the sea wall. Out of the car and a quick scramble up the slope to see a large warning sign, and a track insinuating itself in great ribbons across the black sucking mud.
Seemingly miles away, floating on the horizon like a mirage, a small flat island huddles with a cluster of houses in the centre. The shallow sea here retreats beyond the horizon, leaving the usually submerged causeway and a huge swath of hidden land exposed and giving you a strong sense of sunken civilizations and the prehistoric inundation of Doggerland. Having no proper idea of the tide times beyond being able to see that it was definitely as low as it could go, I set off at speed along the causeway, fearful of an incoming tide stranding me on the island for 12 hours.
My trip across the mud probably only takes a few minutes but it seems like an awfully long time. I breathe a loud sigh of relief on reaching the island and ascending the ramp to high ground.
A curving sandy track turns into a beautiful sort of lane. The light is diffuse, the trees are covered in lichen and moss. I have a strange feeling that it’s like being in the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard, a beautiful summery place where time has stood still and you can imagine children running wild. There is no sound here save for the buzzing of bees and the warm wind. All there is to see in the 300 or so acres of Osea is this small lane of beautiful Essex houses in that very New England style, with clapperboard and bright white picket fences, surrounded by roses and a few tightly knit trees.
These days Osea island is owned by a record producer, who has turned his new fiefdom into a chi chi holiday resort cum production studio for rich rock stars, but at the turn of the century it was the home of a colony of artists and philosophers. The Manor House at the centre of island has always been a retreat for people looking to escape the pressures of mainland life, especially those suffering addictions – including it is rumoured Walter Sickert, and Amy Winehouse.
At one end of the island is an old concrete pontoon, a relic from the days when this place was called S.S. Osea and served as a base for motor torpedo boats, slipping through the Blackwater on their way to protect convoys in the freezing Baltic.
With my irrational worry of being stranded by a North Sea tsunami I am aware of the need to keep my visit brief. I turn the car around and begin a breathless dash back to the mainland and modern life, fearful of the water rushing in at breakneck speed across the miles and miles of flat mud, not afraid of drowning but of an Englishman’s acute embarrassment at making a scene and having to be rescued.