15 April 2015


The name "Mersea" sounds like "mercy" but in Old English the Island of Mersea's name was actually "Meresig" which meant "island of the pool". We enjoyed our trip there straight after Easter and I have chosen a few extra pictures for your interest:-
Easter display in a corner of West Mersea Church
Abandoned old punt in reeds near West Mersea Beach
Heading to Packing Shed Marsh Island. It sits in the channel
just off Mersea and was once a hive of industry in the
processing and packing of oysters
At Mersea Stone - a concrete  pillbox relic of World War II
Easter display by a window in East Mersea Church
This grave in East Mersea churchyard caught my eye. It contains the mortal remains of a World War I soldier called Alfred Edward Russell. He died in December 1918 aged thirty. His wife Katie is also buried here. She died in 1984 - aged 95 - sixty six years after her husband. Their daughter Bertha is also interred here. She must have been six years old when her father died a few weeks after The Great War ended.
A view of Pewit Island across Pyefleet Channel

13 April 2015


Growing up in my East Yorkshire village there were certain social mores to which children were obliged to subscribe. After all, we were only kids and we needed to know our place. When we spoke of or to our adult neighbours and fellow villagers we never used their first names.

Next door to us lived a piano-playing widow called Mrs Varley. Mrs Austwick ran the little sweet shop on South Street. Mr and Mrs Ward were the licensees at "The Hare and Hounds" and Mr Peers was the village grocer. Mr Assert was the assertive school caretaker. There was a funny little man called Mr Grubham -  with a name like that he just had to be the street sweeper. To this day I have no idea what those people's first names were - apart from Mr Grubham who was called Joe.

Fast forward to 2015 and we have two little girls living next door to us and two little girls across the street. To them I am Neil and Shirley is Shirley. They probably don't even  know our surname. It just happened - symptomatic of our times and changing social habits. Of course the parents never asked how their daughters should address us. It's the modern culture we inhabit. Somewhere along the line something changed.

And when I was growing up, business organisations, banks and utility companies would never even think of using first names in their correspondence with customers. The very idea would have been outrageous. A degree of formality was important. It provided a suitable transactional distance and was an appropriate signal  of respect.

Nowadays, both in email communication and call centre talk, I am habitually addressed by my first name and usually this happens without my permission. On more than one occasion I have interrupted calls to ask the person at the other end not to use my first name. It is likely that I am the only informality protester they encounter. They probably skip to their call centre "comfort breaks" giggling about the dinosaur they have just stirred.

And as you may or may not know we have a general election coming up in Great Britain next month. I have received several election communications which begin with the appellation "Dear Neil..." or "Neil - this is the most important election for a generation". But all I can think is - Who said you could use my first name?

In shops and pubs I don't want to be "pal", "mate", "bro" or to be on the receiving end of  any other similar informal terms of address. If anything I still want to be "sir" - for that term helps to define our relationship. I am the customer and you are giving me a service. I am not your friend.

King Canute could not command the tide and I know that my feelings about manners and the growth of informal address are probably anachronistic. Some people's instincts are to embrace the new without question - be it in terms of technology, fashion, language or social habits. But that is not my instinct. In my world what is new is not necessarily better. It is simply something to be considered.

12 April 2015


Our holiday home in West Mersea - well the bottom right bit
Back home from Essex. I managed to take photographs in every square kilometre of Mersea Island. The northern coastline is a world of birds and saltmarshes, mud banks and silences where channels weave around like the adders that hide by the shore.

We visited East Mersea Church whose vicar was once the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould who penned "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "Now the Day is Over". Easter floral displays remained and on the north side of the church we saw the grave of fifteen year old Sarah Wrench who died in 1848. Her remains are protected by an iron "mortsafe". A local man told us that she had been a witch but the true story of her tragic end  was undoubtedly very different. Pregnancy and/or suicide may have been involved.
Sarah Wrench's grave in East Mersea churchyard
On our way home, after crossing The Strood, we headed westwards into deepest Essex and parked up in the charming village of Stock. As forecasted by the weather people, the drizzly morning rain had passed over on its way across the sea and April sunshine had returned.

We walked to a farm called Ramsey Tyrrells where my Uncle Jack, a radio operator aboard a Blenheim bomber, died in  November 1940. I wanted to find the exact location of the crash but the local farmer, a most pleasant man, was unable to help us. The records state clearly that the plane came down at Ramsey Tyrrells and there was even an archaeological survey of the site in 1975. Buried pieces of the plane were retrieved. But no luck yesterday - a thwarted pilgrimage.

We wandered back into Stock and had a light lunch in "The Baker's Arms". It was filled with affluent Essex people - spending some of their disposable incomes on sea bass and lamb chops. A similar scene could be regarded through the windows of the nearby "Hoop". It's all pretty different in the land of UpNorth. Three hours back along The Great North Road to reality.
Wild greylag geese on Mersea Island
Saltmarsh World at Mersea
Ramsey Tyrrells Farmhouse
Calf  near Fristling Hall Farm,  Stock

9 April 2015


Pigeon in a hole - St Botoplph's Priory, Colchester - established 1095
Day Three at Mersea. Yesterday - Day Two - we drove over The Strood and onwards to Colchester which proudly boasts that it is England's oldest town. And they are probably right as The Romans established a major garrison there between AD43 and AD50. 

We parked near St Bodolph's Priory, the oldest Augustinian priory in England and then we visited the Minories Arts Centre where we chatted with the friendly director before heading into Castle Park. This is where some of Colchester's oldest architectural treasures may be found - including the Norman castle, a Roman wall and the foundations of a Saxon church. I also spotted some fine swans on the boating lake.

Then we wandered around the shopping streets before heading back to the Minories for lunch.

Back on Mersea Island, we headed for the hammerhead jetty and soon upon a whim we paid for a short harbour cruise that took us around The Packing Shed Marsh Island where oyster fishermen once prepared barrels of  local oysters for transport to London and beyond. Later, Shirley drove me over to the hamlet of East Mersea so that I could undertake a five mile walk along the coast and back to West Mersea, reappearing at our apartment just before six. Soon after that we ambled round to "The Fox" for our evening meal - great value homemade roast beef dinners with lubrication courtesy of IPA ale and French Merlot.
This morning a sea mist cloaked Essex coastal areas and all day the sun struggled to make an impact. Half a mile inland there were blue skies but at the coast a Sherlock Holmes fog swirled. We went to Clacton on Sea and then on to Frinton and Walton on The Naze. It was only when we turned up in Brightlingsea that the sea fret receded for a while and allowed us to experience some of the sunshine that had been bathing the rest of the British Isles all day.

Brightlingsea is less than half a mile from Mersea but there is no ferry and no bridge so you have to drive eight miles north to Colchester to cross The River Colne and then eight miles south to get back to the island

We went straight to the local curry house for an excellent Indian meal. When we came out it was getting dark and the sea mist was thicker and chillier than before. We are hoping that Day Four won't be shrouded in fogginess but the forecast looks similar - sunshine everywhere else but clouds over the Essex coast.
Sandcastle at Brightlingsea

7 April 2015


The Clocktower, Coggleshall
We are in Essex, four hours from our Yorkshire homeland. To be more precise we are on Mersea Island which sits away from the Essex mainland at the point where the estuaries of two rivers - the Colne and the Blackwater merge with the sea.

On the way here, we stopped for lunch at "The White Hart" in Coggleshall. A delightful small town with an architecture that is distinctively different from what you might see in the north of England. How sad that in modern times, regional building differences are becoming blurred as new construction seems to follow a more standardised pattern.

Our apartment is called "Oakleaves" and it is really very nice. So clean, spacious and well-maintained with everything we might need for a five day stay. It's really the modern annexe of a family home but we have our own driveway, entrance and private patio area. 

After unpacking, we went for a stroll down to the beach and along the coast for a mile or more. Though Mersea is an island it is linked to the mainland via an ancient  causeway called The Strood. This can be flooded  and impassable during particularly high tides. Anyway, here are a few pictures from this afternoon...
Shirley liked the needlework on the hassocks (kneeling cushions)
in St Peter and St Paul's Church

6 April 2015


At Stanedge Pole - with top section removed
Our offspring have been at home this long Easter weekend. Knowing I would have the Sunday dinner to make later on, I was keen to have a bit of exercise beforehand so I drove up to the reservoirs at Redmires intending to walk along the old drovers' track to Stanedge Pole. It's a route that the Romans also used as they moved between settlements at Templeborough and Buxton via Brough in The Hope Valley.

The pole is an important moorland landmark and would have once guided the travellers of bygone times. When I got up there I was unhappy to find that the old wooden pole is now half the size it once was. There's a notice affixed to the remaining stump. explaining why The Peak National Park Authority decided to remove the top part of the pole. Apparently it was getting dangerous. Well, I hope they erect an extension before too long.
Long Causeway - an ancient track
The most westerly property within Sheffield's city boundaries is up on the moors near Stanedge Pole. It is called Stanedge Lodge and was built in the nineteenth century as a hunting lodge for grouse shooters and wealthy revellers. I would love to have a look round it but public access is forbidden. I believe it now has a commercial use - as  some kind of training centre.

After my little jaunt it was back home to prepare the leg of lamb. I made incisions and squeezed in fresh sprigs of rosemary and little spears of garlic before seasoning it and splashing a little rapeseed oil over the surface. Three hours in the oven and then there were roasted potatoes, carrots, spring cabbage, broccoli, Yorkshire puddings, mint jelly and gravy. Another feast to commemorate Jesus's crucifixion. Lamb for the lamb of God.
Stanedge Lodge

4 April 2015


Those poor passengers aboard the ill-fated Germanwings Flight 9525 - if only they had known what was to happen. That March morning so much of life lay ahead - seemingly endless with yet more treasures to discover. But that was before. They had no way of knowing what was to come and they had never even heard of Andreas Lubitz.

And the same was true of John Kennedy on the morning of Friday November 22nd 1963. Before the bullet exploded in his skull, he had no idea that it was coming. He and Jackie had had breakfast together in The Hotel Texas  in Fort Worth before an official event in the hotel's Crystal Room and all of that happened before the fateful drive east to Dallas.

And any ordinary person, before their car crash, before the heart attack, before the lottery win, before their stroke, before the divorce, before the cancer diagnosis. They look in the mirror. They grab their keys. They venture out to meet another day, oblivious to what is about to happen. In the bliss of ignorance. Before.

If only we knew what was coming, we would make different arrangements, say different things, act differently - even if we couldn't actually avoid the event just ahead. We would be prepared.

Of course there is a sense in which we are all living in the land of before. Squandering time before something life-changing happens to us or to our nearest and dearest. It will come. And when it happens we might look back on how it was before - as if to a world of innocence - a land of smiles when troubles were quite microscopic in comparison. The golden, beautiful land of before.