"If you can't find the right folk tale, make a new one"
This was a very fitting comment gifted to us by a wonderful human and dedicated volunteer at Mersea Museum. A spritely nonegenarian named Ron. The Museum is exactly as I had hoped, small but beautifully formed with plenty of good local history and some really astonishing artefacts. It smelled exactly right; a mixture of stale earth, old paper and furniture polish. But perhaps most importantly it is filled with good people who love to talk about the island, its place in history and what it means to them.
The displays were interesting and had some joyful quirks in their presentation but the jewel in the museum's crown must certainly be the friendly research space. Here computers line up, eager to share a rich and comprehensive archive of documents, photographs, articles and maps with the curious visitor. Bethan took a shallow dive for 20 minutes or so, seeking information about a story we'd heard earlier in the day. No leads were found on this occasion but I am sure something will come up as we plan to return often to plunder the archives and chat with the volunteers.
This bookmarked a truly magical day on the island.
We had arrived as the water was coming up to meet the strood. As we set out into the park we decided that it would be a good idea to knock on the Park Ranger's door... just to introduce ourselves. The rangers get to know these sites in such intimate detail and we really want to be able to work closely with them to ensure that we are not only making the best work we can on the site, but also that we make decisions that are beneficial to the habitat being created and maintained there.
A friendly young man with a thoughtful demeanour answered the door. On discovering that he had only really been given a basic idea of our proposals for the site we were delighted that he was able, and willing, to give us a little time (and a little tour). We lightly explored the possibilities for our work there and he also outlined the spaces and methods they are using in their work to protect and reintroduce some truly remarkable fauna at Cudmore Grove. These are the spaces we must avoid in order to help take care of them!
Perhaps to begin with he was a little guarded, but as he spoke about moths and badgers and egrets he lit up. He began telling us stories of the park from his unique and tender perspective. Of the red squirrels that keep him company in the quiet mornings, the hedges he will be replacing in the winter, and of one day when it was so still and quiet he could hear the wing beats of a lone swan sailing in the breathless sky over the park.
We found out more about where the edges of the the site are, and were, and where they will be in the future. About the "cursed" sap of the plants consciously placed in the earth to support the Fishers Estuarine Moth population (that frankly needs all the help it can get, being perhaps the lepidopteran equivalent of the Panda with their specialist requirements for successful living). He told us about the old woman who was rumoured to have been the last occupant of the Tudor fort. I could hear her quiet breath, rhythmic and sure as her eyes scanned the horizon. The walls of her dwelling crumbling. eroding minutely but steadily behind her, just like the cliffs on the beach.
We left him to his work on a promise to check in again on our way out so that he could show us some of the parks original information boards (which I will put in a gallery a little further down). Bethan and I wanted to capture some more of the spirit of the place, and to make some creative offerings in return. We read stories and poems to the sea, about events from the past, about ecological anxiety and about how special the coastline can be.
I drew a simple spiral labyrinth with salt in the sand, and dizzied myself following its path, clockwise and then widdershins... opening something up I hope. It was a tiny, primitive version of one of the spectacles we will be making in the park. A small proof of concept. A little prayer...
All through our visit we had been serenaded with an all encompassing chorus of crickets, singing loudly to the sun in the softly moving dry grass. We sat with them too and recorded some of their songs. Once the rain returns to the land they will not be so talkative. The sun was beaming into our skins and the air smelled of all the sweetness of the dried grass and the insistent blooms. The punchy honeyed fragrance of birds foot trefoil, perforating it bravely at the root, despite the prodigious heat.
Heading back over to the proposed location of our monument it was clear that we were moving forward in the right direction. The proposed work would fit both spectacularly and respectfully in the landscape. It would make use of materials that already existed on site (and perhaps needed a better home already!) and provide a space to gather, to draw people in, to appreciate and share memories about this special place. A place to observe the changes to come. I noted an offering of oyster shells that another visitor had left and enjoyed the bright white sheen that danced across the shells as I moved around them.
We sought out our Ranger again and walked over to a secret workshop, hidden in plain sight. Once a munitions store it was now a space for creating all the things that the site required. An old blue tractor called Thomas slept at the door and a huge pile of old fence, retired from its watch at the cliffs edge, provided an ideal space for bugs to crawl about in.
Here, in a corner scented of diesel, old tools and warm concrete, the old signs leant quietly against the wall. Sun faded and cracked, covered in dust and cobwebs. They still held so much living information! The progress made in caretaking the environment in the park was clear, as was the amount of land already lost to the sea.
It was one of those days where everything seemed to align in the most wonderful of ways. We left with plenty of ideas and with even more to do. We made a point of passing back by the barrow that had inspired our monument, feeling it's weight as we went. Bellies growling and brains a little weary, we hunted out a properly good pub lunch back on the mainland, at The Peldon Rose.
Cool and ancient, we had been meaning to pop in on one of our island trips, as Bethan had questions to ask about the pub's resident ghost. A former landlady apparently she has recently fallen quiet, evidently approving of the way the current owners are caring for the place. We holed up under dark beams in a nook by the fire. Unlit at present it offers a warm and comforting focus to the bar in the long winter nights, and even still a place to sit next to and tell stories as the doors are all thrown open to let the summer breeze move through. We had a good feed and made some time to discuss and process our findings from the Park.
Returning across the strood about 20 minutes after high tide the water was already dropping again, tarmac shining where the sea had licked the road. We headed west this time gravitating toward the museum, welcomed by an enormous anchor, an amphora covered in lacy barnacles and a pair of enthusiastic and smiling volunteers. This is where you found us at the start of this post, and it is where I will leave you for now... Be sure to pay them, and the island a visit this summer and maybe I will be lucky enough to see you there.
Mersea Museum is run by a crack team of brilliant volunteers and as such the opening hours are not your normal 9-5. Check out their website to see up to date opening hours. Here you can also find details of current exhibitions, upcoming talks and lots of really useful resources!