There are snakes here… a coastal Essex that time forgot | holidays in essex

TFleshy sea purslane leaves brush our ankles as we pass a clapboard shack and make our way up the path through the brine to the jetty at Alresford Creek, a seaside village tucked away on the edge of the shoreline. of Essex, near Colchester. An oystercatcher guards the entrance to the ruined pier, its timbers slowly melting into the marshes. On the other bank, a lapwing circles over the marshes and a nightingale sings in the bushes. Even on this bright spring day, it’s easy to see why Alresford Creek was chosen to film The Essex Serpent, a new Apple TV series starring Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes, based on the best-selling book by Sarah Perry. This place feels remote, cut off from the outside world. In 1893, when the story takes place, tales of snakes forcing their way through the broken rafters of boats and sucking teenagers into the mud must have seemed more real to the villagers than news of scientific discoveries from distant cities. .

essex map

Later that day, my mother and I left Maldon’s Hythe Quay to explore the scenery aboard the Thistle, a Thames barge built in the 1890s. The pier is a forest of masts towering above the many barges moored alongside. The rigging hangs like cobwebs above us. Many of the scenes in The Essex Serpent were filmed on the wharf, with locals playing the role of sailors and dockworkers. As the Thistle heads into the Blackwater Estuary, the three little boys sitting next to us are in full throttle. Their mother confesses that they were reluctant to leave the house that morning, but now they are busy sniffing the sails for the fish oil the sailors used to waterproof, and eagerly listening to the stories of the dead smugglers and collectors they found floating around. in Death Cove.

A sailing barge returns to Maldon Pier.
A sailing barge returns to Maldon Pier. Photograph: Bill Allsopp/Alamy

The sky is dotted with high clouds, skeins of Brent geese descend on the marshes, and the terracotta sails of other barges draw attention to the heights of these plains. Lunch arrives, a seafood platter with prawns and smoked salmon pate, prepared at the nearby Maldon Smokehouse. I drink Wilde Samphire gin with a touch of sea salt and slivers of rosemary floating on top. It’s a moment of connection as I get a taste of the land we sail through.

We skirt the island of Osea, once a temperance colony established by the brewer’s son Frederick Charrington. He had an epiphany after trying to rescue a woman who was being beaten by her drunken husband outside one of the family’s pubs. Unfortunately, the locals did not share his vision and set up a lucrative business transporting bootleg liquor to inmates who were supposed to be drying out. Today, the island is a luxurious haven that is still touted as a place to escape a turbulent world.

Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston in The Essex Serpent.
Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston in The Essex Serpent. photography: apple

Back on dry land, we headed to our hotel, the Blue Boar in Maldon, a 600-year-old inn featured in the Apple TV series. To create a Victorian feel, the exterior walkway was covered in dirt and packing crates were used to disguise the modern street furniture. Inside it is easy to feel transported to another era. Portraits of noblemen in frock coats hang on the oak-paneled walls, and armor guards the doors. The rooms have chandeliers and cabinets in which you could travel to Narnia.

The next morning, we drive along spring roads to Mersea Island. Cudmore Grove Beach is packed with families enjoying a moment in the sun. We’re here to look for fossils on the cliffs, in imitation of Cora Seaborne, the heroine of Perry’s book. In the story, Seaborne is fascinated by stories of a recent earthquake that is rumored to have awakened the Essex Serpent. In fact, an earthquake, one of the most damaging ever recorded in Britain, struck off the Essex coast in 1884 and 300,000-year-old fossils, including hippopotamus bones, have been found along these shorelines.

The old barn at Tollesbury.
The old barn at Tollesbury. Photograph: Tony Watson/Alamy

Sandplanes brush past our heads as I search the cliffs, picking through the pebbles at their base alongside teenagers, searching, with more hope than luck, for shark teeth. Before long I find a pebble with a dark spot embedded inside it. Turns out fossil hunting is easy, much harder to figure out what you’ve found.

“I think it’s a crustacean,” says one of the teenagers, encouragingly.

I think he’s just being nice.

My mom uses a different technique. She lies on the beach, sifting sand between her fingers and singing fossil poetry in the hope of enchanting an ammonite in her palm. I don’t blame her; after all, the beach feels almost tropical…trees tumble to the shore and kids walk by with piles of oyster shells.

We headed for lunch at Osea View Cafe Bar in Heybridge Basin, which looks across the river to Northey Island. My mom likes Tiptree Strawberry Jam Iced Tea, produced for over 150 years at the local brewery.

Salt marshes at Heybridge Basin looking across the River Blackwater.
Salt marshes at Heybridge Basin looking across the River Blackwater. Photograph: Ian Goodrick/Alamy

The tide is high when we reach Tollesbury, our final destination. This shipyard and marina, located in the middle of the marsh, created another atmospheric backdrop for the series. Through the doors of the workshops I see the ceiling beams hung with tools and weathered men cleaning things with oily rags. We had ice cream from the Loft Tearoom and walked along the boardwalk. Whiteboarded sail lofts look ready to float on the incoming tide. Two boys are shrimping from the decks of a cornflower blue houseboat; the warm air is honey scented with hawthorn blossom; seagulls roll and dive in search of fish. Today the swamps are benign. On a different day, in a different light, I can see that this land could hold secrets among the winding streams. When we get back to town, I hear about porpoises swimming in the mouth of the Blackwater. Perhaps, in this remote haven on the Essex coast, the snake has returned.
Accommodation on the Blue Boar (doubles from £95pn) and River Blackwater Cruise (from £30pp) were provided by Visit Essex

the essex snake launches worldwide on Apple TV+ on Friday, May 13

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