On the Essex Marshes

On the Essex Marshes

A quiet spot on the Essex coastal marshes, where time seems to stand still, raises the question—where is the source of true power?

Join me, if you will, as I re-visit one of my favourite old haunts, the Blackwater estuary in Essex.

Our first port of call is the market town of Maldon at the head of the estuary with its quiet quayside and Thames sailing barges. Under sail these old vessels move with a charm and silent grace that takes us back to when they plied their gentle trade up and down these coastal estuaries. It’s good to see that a few still survive.

Thames sailing barges at Maldon

Mersea Island 

I’ve always found the island full of quiet old fashioned charm. At West Mersea fishing boats lie on the shore with fishing pots and nets, fishermen’s huts and old boats rotting in the mud. Time doesn’t seem to matter here. It’s a place to relax, slow down and unwind, absorbing the atmosphere as the tides come and go. You can also enjoy fresh-caught fish, or  taste some of the local mussels and oysters.

Mersea boasts a rich wildlife with the huge flocks of waders visiting the rich mud-flat feeding grounds. The ‘Strood’ causeway leading to the island is cut off by the high spring tide so human visitors need to check the tide times!

Simon Frost / The Strood causeway flooded at spring tide. Photo Wikimedia Commons

St Peter-on-the-wall, Othona

J. A. Baker, the nature writer, knew the marshes of the Blackwater estuary. He was a passionate follower of the Peregrine Falcons of this area. His remarkable book ‘The Peregrine’ was based upon his records of searching for these dramatic  birds. When I first came to visit Othona on the southern edge of the estuary I was looking for something altogether different.

The remains of an east end apse can just be seen,

As I walked through the fields on a personal pilgrimage towards this sacred spot it was a mid week day with not a soul about, only a few cows, the birds and the wind.  I was alone, but  there is a peaceful ‘presence’ in this place.

The same wind that brings the winter birds from the North has also brought others to this place. First came the Romans, establishing the fort Othona, then the Saxons, some of whom asked for someone from Lindisfarne to come and teach them about the Christian faith and Cedd responded.  This his chapel was built in c 654  from the ruins of the Roman fort.

The Vikings came next bringing destruction with them, but happily the Christian faith survived.  Today the chapel still stands and continues to be used as a place of prayer and pilgrimage. The Cathedral church of St Cedd in Chelmsford holds an annual pilgrimage  to this place.


This silent, simple and deeply spiritual place has stood here for almost 1400 years. It’s one of the oldest standing church buildings in Britain and one of the least well known treasures of our Christian heritage.

Largely forgotten, it was used for 200 years as a barn, but was recommissioned in 1920 as a place of worship.  Today’s  Othona Community nearby continues the long tradition of this being a place of prayer, holding weekly services here.


Alongside the silent witness of the ancient chapel in the fields stands the silhouette of the huge 20th century Bradwell Nuclear Power station in the near distance. It was commissioned in 1962 and de-commissioned in 2002, but is to be re-built as a new station by a Chinese  consortium. Seeing these giant buildings brings us back with a jolt to our impatient age with its insatiable demand for power whatever the cost to the environment.

The power station lasted for a mere 40 years. Its proposed replacement will last for a few more decades. Its only legacy will be the problem of safely disposing of the dangerous nuclear waste!  By contrast, the chapel has stood here for 1400 years.

The True Power

These  two very different structures stand side-by-side in an uneasy relationship. To reconcile the two kinds of power they represent is the challenge of our generation. Where does the true ‘power’ reside? I believe it lies in that silent, often empty chapel and the Christian truth that it has represented and proclaimed for the past 14 centuries.  I think I know what the saintly Cedd would have thought about the issue.


Thank you for joining me.

Next Time — Spring’s Magic in a Sussex Wood


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