Before this week, we had only ever passed through Essex in our enthusiasm to get to the wildlife wonders and reserves of Norfolk and Suffolk – we had never viewed the county of Essex as a destination in its own right. But this week we stayed a few days in The Wobbin, near Tollesbury, in the very rural south east of Essex around the Blackwater Estuary.
The Wobbin is a listed pair of old farm cottages built around 1800 and now knocked through into one. It does look like a rather large self-catering cottage for just two people and a dog but it is only one room deep.
This part of the Essex coast has miles of wild coastline and salt marsh and far too many nature reserves for us to have visited them all in one short break
The part of Tollesbury marsh closest to the village is used as a natural marina, although we only saw it at low tide when it looked a lot less desirable:
On the other side of the Blackwater estuary stands Bradwell nuclear power station, built in the 50s but now decommissioned since 2003.
There are plans to build a new Bradwell B nuclear power station close to the site of this old one, but these are yet to get officially sanctioned.
There are large numbers of dark-bellied brent geese over-wintering on this part of the coast. Around ninety-one thousand of these birds spend the winter in eastern England before returning to Arctic Russia to breed:
These small geese are about the size of a mallard duck.
Once you get on the seawall around the Blackwater estuary, you can walk for miles.
Other than two training yachts packed with children, the only other vessel we saw in The Blackwater estuary was the Radio Caroline radio ship, Ross Revenge. This is now permanently moored in the centre of the river with a team of volunteers still broadcasting the sounds of the 60s and 70s via the radio waves to parts of Essex and Suffolk and also nationally online.
There is a lightship at Tollesbury marshes. LV15 was built in 1954 and for thirty years did service around the British coast warning shipping of dangers at sea. She retired in the late 80s and was bought by the Fellowship Afloat Charitable Trust who provide outdoor activities for kids who sleep onboard the lightship herself. She has been renamed Trinity and since 1991 rests her old bones in Tollesbury Marshes
The RSPB reserve at Old Hall Marshes just to the north of Tollesbury is enormous and we had it entirely to ourselves:
We realised that this must be an eel ladder:
The green plastic brushes mimic grass – apparently elvers can slither themselves up grassy banks to get round obstacles:
We were also the only visitors at Essex Wildlife Trust’s Chigborough Lakes reserve. This ancient pollarded oak on the reserve has a girth of three metres according to the Ancient Tree Inventory:
There has been much rain recently and the clay soil of the area did make things muddy:
Our wood in Kent has a lot of goat willow which is now flowering, but all the action is high up in the crowns of the trees and difficult to view. This week in Essex we found a hedgerow of goat willow with the catkins down at eye level. Unlike hazel, goat willow is dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. On the male trees, the catkins are covered in yellow pollen:
The catkins of the female trees are made up of narrow green flask-shaped flowers. They also produce nectar to lure in bees and these bees may have previously visited a male tree and picked up some pollen to fertilise the flower.
We were a bit disappointed with RHS Hyde Hall – both with the scale of the garden and with their policy that no dogs are allowed anywhere on site so we couldn’t even get Pops out of the car to stretch her legs in the car park. We did, however, love this windmill garden sculpture of sycamore keys that were gently circling in the breeze:
These living willow sculptures on the winter garden were also very impressive:
On our way out of Essex at the end of our stay, we called in at Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome, staffed by a band of enthusiastic and welcoming volunteers. After the First World War, the farmer returned to the land and continued farming whilst retaining the buildings. The airfield wasn’t used again in the Second World War because it was too marshy and so it remains the only intact Great War aerodrome in England.
The site covers 118 acres and they are working to improve the habitat for wildlife. All five species of British owl have been seen there and, working with ‘WildlifeKate’, they have cameras on a barn owl nest in the old generator building, a little owl nest and on ponds around the site. Their website has links to live feeds from the cameras:
It was great to visit Essex off-season and have it to ourselves but we couldn’t help wondering how it will be when the invertebrates are out and the birds are breeding. This lovely part of the country deserves another visit to find out!