Over land and Mersea
For epicures and bon viveurs crossing the Strood – the ancient Roman causeway that leads onto Mersea Island – is something akin to an act of pilgrimage. The tiny estuary island is home to vineyards, apple orchards and the finest seafood – where food miles are measured in yards.
Places to eat in Mersea Island
If you want polish and bling, then Mersea might not quite be for you. Alternatively, if ramshackle and eccentric floats your fishing boat, then you’ll never want to leave. The island is awash with character and old world charm, exemplified by The Company Shed. Long-hailed by restaurant critics as a culinary gem, this black-painted, weather-boarded institution sits just a handful of yards off the beach. It is run by the Haward family, who have fished the local waters since the 1790s.
Tables are offered on a first-come, first-served basis and you can’t book. Customers are also advised to bring their own wine and bread, so put your names down on the blackboard and wait to be called for your turn. It is well worth the wait. Hot and cold dishes are offered from the kitchen with, naturally, the star of the show being the oysters. However, fat, seared scallops, lobster, prawns and locally cured salmon all make choosing what to have deliciously agonising.
Overlooking the Blackwater estuary is the atmospheric Coast Inn. Offering a variety of traditional and contemporary dishes, the Coast is also a wonderful place to plot up and watch the world go by with friends and family, or as a couple. The extensive menu uses produce drawn from the neighbouring waters and farm land. The daily specials board is updated according to what comes off the boat that morning and catches the chef’s eye.
Palm trees may frond parts of Mersea’s waterfront but regarding this as the Essex Riviera might be stretching one’s imagination a little far. Those expecting miles of golden, sandy beaches might have a bit of a lip wobble. Don’t despair however, the wonderfully named Monkey Beach is a cracker and arguably the island’s best.
Children will love exploring the island’s myriad creeks and scampering over the boardwalks that interconnect the marshes, while parents will revel in the simple pleasures of watching little ones collecting sun-bleached oyster shells to decorate their sandcastles, crabbing and splashing about in the water.
For grown-ups, connecting with the Romans’ legacy of viticulture ticks historic, cultural and sybaritic boxes. Nearby Colchester was their original administrative capital of Britain and at Mersea they introduced oysters into the waters and planted vineyards on the fertile land. Essex can therefore legitimately claim to be the original centre of wine-making in Britain and it has a thriving local industry today.
The Mersea Island Vineyard produces white, rose and sparkling wines. Its dry white Mehala is particularly good with fish and white meat. The company also owns brewery which you can visit. Of course, the tour ends with a tasting session and an essential tipple for every real ale fan is the Oyster Stout. Described as ‘dark and delicious with possible aphrodisiac qualities’ it is indeed, as the name suggests, made with local oysters.
Places to stay in Mersea Island
With so many opportunities to enjoy oysters and their reputation for being Nature’s Viagra, magical Mersea is also ideal for a romantic break. Monkey Beach Cottage is an idyllic bolthole; sitting on the eponymous beach, this 300-year old property is picture perfect.
The charming weatherboarded cottage, complete with red-tiled roof and vines twisting around the front door and secluded back garden enjoys beautiful views across the glinting estuary. Inside it is furnished with antiques, oil paintings by local artist David Britton and features exposed beams and cosy nooks. So even if the weather is a little inclement, you’ll be delighted to stay indoors.
For families and couples looking for a wealth of facilities in one site, Coopers Beach Holiday Park is ideal. Boasting a heated outdoor and indoor pool, evening entertainment, sports and play facilities plus a new bar and restaurant, Cooper’s offers short family breaks from just £120.
With its broad expanses, unrivalled seafood, excellent local wines and beers and cute cottages, Mersea is a beguiling place. Terrific for chucking the kids or your mates into the car and heading off for a day trip, Mersea also rewards those who linger. Seagulls’ calls intermingle with the clanking of the sailing boats’ rigging, as you soak in the view. If it was near Brighton or Southwold, Mersea would be overrun with tourists and far too self-conscious. Thankfully, it isn’t and that’s why you should go.