England: Wandering Mersea Island

The geography geeks among you may like to know that Mersea Island is the most easterly inhabited island in the United Kingdom. It’s a lovely day trip from London, through the pretty Essex countryside, and Mersea is a foodie destination bar none!.

The reason many people visit in the winter is for the native Mersea Island oysters (Ostrea edulis). This island in the Colne/Blackwater river estuary is only nine miles from the old Roman town of Colchester in Essex and these delicacies are also known as Colchester Navvies. In fact 2,000 years ago some Romans said the native oysters were “the only good thing to come out of Britain”!

Why are the oysters so good here? Tidal sea water reaching fresh river water over a shelly bed makes this an excellent fattening ground for oysters. There is also good nourishment streaming out from the surrounding marshland thanks to warm summer sea temperatures.

Mersea Island Essex

English people have been making a big fuss about these oysters since the 14th century, commercially growing oysters in the shallow creeks here since 1792. Boats sailed around the coast to deliver them to Billingsgate Market in London.

The annual Oyster Feast in October is apparently the highlight of the Colchester social calendar!

Apart from ending up on the plates of fancy London restaurants and in Harrods, these oysters also appear on the tables of the seafood shack restaurants in Mersea itself at a fraction of the cost. Hence the motivation for a foodie winter break on the Essex Coast.

The first shells are officially picked on the first Friday of September each year, dredged and consumed by the mayor of Colchester in full regalia! The oyster harvest continues until April.

The renowned Company Shed is the best known of the pack, offering heaving seafood platters for about a tenner.

Mersea Island seafood at the Company Shack, Essex

There’s no booking, simply put your name up on the chalkboard and wander the creek – lined with oyster beds and canted boats – while you wait for your turn to chow down. Take your own bread and beverages to complement the best fish supper you’ll have in a month of Sundays.

After lunch we went cake and art grazing at West Mersea’s Art Café. There’s a Mersea island food and drink festival each May and I’d love to go back in summer to sample a bottle of wine from the island’s very own vineyard. Not to mention exploring the coastal walk around the island, with its secluded beaches for picnicking and swimming. All in all, Mersea Island is a great day out in Essex whatever the season.

By Natasha von Geldern

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