Thursday 17 October 2013

Packing Shed Island - a Landscape with Oysters, by Penny Dolan

Writers tend to steal landscapes, laying places down in the mind until they are ready for revisiting in fiction.  I’m huddled over another idea right now, but the landscapes keep arriving, ready for whenever they might be needed for some fiiction in the future. 

There’s time, and there’s place. 

The afternoon was the last of a golden August, and we were at a good friend’s birthday celebration. There was a lot of waiting around, so I started to think – as one does – about the passing of time, not only birthday musings but also about the place under my feet: an island off the Essex coast, known as Mersea.

Earlier that week, looking for somewhere to stay near Mersea, I’d studied maps of the Essex coast, a ragged region of land and water.  The oozy rivers and the flat, marshy tongues of mud stretch far out into the sea. Small harbours and villages that look close neighbours by boat can be hours away by road, especially in the past.   

Any map of the coast itself, with its many inlets, mudbanks and tides, suggests how easily people and goods could travel in or out of the area, as long as you had a trustworthy or well-paid local guide or pilot.   

With no disrespect, the wildness of the coast suggests a place for unseen arrivals and departures, for plots and plans. There are no cliff-top coastguard paths looking down on the waterways here. 

West Mersea, the island’s harbour, was a mix of well-worn boats, a few hulks and gleaming craft whose masts rattled in the brisk breeze. Our friends live in the old harbour, in the handful of original cottages set beyond the sea wall. 

As we were ferried towards the party, the outlines of the newer Mersea showed in the clustered architecture of the thirties, forties and fifties. The community that had lived from the sea made a living from now-mobile holidaymakers and caravanners.
We arrived, on a low tide, at Packing Shed Island, the raised, dry mud bank in the middle of the tidal waterway.  There you stepped into water and mud and history. Under your shoes were crunched shells of all sorts, left over from past oyster boat hauls. 

Ahead, raised on its legs, was the wooden Packing Shed, crowning the ridge.  When the original shed was built, in 1890, oysters were a flourishing trade and sixty men and boys worked on the island.

Over on the far side were the remains of the square oyster “tanks”, where the oystermen rested their catches. Some lay partially filled with water, some looked ready to disappear under an unusually high tide. 

The oysters were left in their shells in the tanks, so the tides could wash in and out, believing the seawater cleansed the shellfish of all impurities. Now, a local explained, all oysters are “washed” by UV light to kill all the bacteria.  I still didn’t feel hungry. 

I admit to shivering slightly as I write this, because only last night I read about Execution Dock where the bodies of seafaring malefactors were left until three tides had washed over them. 

The Mersea men packed the oysters in barrels for shipping by Thames barge to Billingsgate and Europe. It was a hard life: fierce storms often swept in Mersea to damage the shed, the boats and the people. A portion of the Tollesbury and Mersea Native Oyster Fishing Company’s profits was set aside for widows and orphans.

The Packing Shed, however, hasn’t been used for oysters for years.  The trade disappeared, taken away by rail, road and refrigeration. The Shed was left alone until, after the big storm of1990, local people realised that part of their history was danger of disappearing completely into the sea. A Trust was formed, funds were raised and local lads on community service were drafted in as the hard labour.  

Would current health, safety and claims rules scupper such a hands-on scheme now. Would there be a tick-box for risk of death by drowning? Would this make good story . . .?

Quick, back to party time. By now, a single-seater plane was flying in joyful acrobatics across the blue sky. I can’t have been the only one to whom, even among the admiration and happiness, those billowing smoke-trails brought thoughts of all the planes and pilots who’d dropped into the water off the Essex coast, unable to reach their bases?
Just how many centuries of history were there in that one small place and moment?

Across the water, just visible on the mainland, lay St Peters Chapel on the Wall, a tiny church founded in 653 AD by the Celtic missionary St Cedd,  sent all the way from Lindisfarne. 

The "Wall" that the chapel was built against was the remains of a Roman fort.

Once upon a time, I was told, St Peter's Chapel at Bradwell had been two miles inland. Now a breakwater of vast concrete blocks lay off-shore, protecting the holy place for a while longer.  

 I’d like to visit that little chapel sometime soon.

Meanwhile, not far from the chapel’s stone tower was a far larger building of grey brutalist concrete: Bradwell Nuclear Power Station, built in 1962 and decommissioned in 2006, It sits there, as most such power stations do, on the sea’s ever shifting edge. 

 Dystopia, anyone?

Hoping, once again, that energy planners and politicians did think about the long tides of history, I turned back, rather thankfully, to the party.

Penny Dolan


Unknown said...

Wow!! What was the moment when you were in a single-seater plane, was flying in joyful acrobatics across the blue sky.

Health And Safety Consultant Peterborough

Sue Purkiss said...

Very evocative!

Joan Lennon said...

That's a lovely, skillful piece, Penny - thank you for writing it.

Katherine Langrish said...

What a lovely post, Penny! You're right - the seeds of so many stories!

Ann Turnbull said...

Lovely post, Penny. Even the most ordinary seeming places are full of stories, and it can be very stimulating to visit new places.

Susan Price said...

Wonderful post, Penny - thank you. It struck a big chord with me, as I've often thought that this tiny, crowded island, inhabited since Neanderthal times, is a place where you can hardly take a step without kicking up history - 'sheep-pens' on the moors that turn out to be Viking longhouses, stone arrow-heads, medieval potsherds, ruins of all kinds, deserted workshops and warehouses - all these past lives and stories. We're haunted by them.

Sally Zigmond said...

Fascinating, Penny. I have never been to that part of the world but I remember studying (and admiring)the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Battle of Maldon." It was a major battle between the English and an army of invading Vikings and many lives were lost not too far away from where you found yourself. Your evocation of the landscape through time has brought it back to me. I will re-read it - in translation this time! History is more than facts. It also layers memory and story.

Penny Dolan said...

Must go and find that poem, Sally!

Penny Dolan said...

The Battle of Maldon poem's here, as part of this website.