Jhe fleshy leaves of sea purslane brush our ankles as we pass a wooden cabin and follow the path, through the salt pans, to the jetty at Alresford Creek, a waterside hamlet nestled in the edge of the Essex coast near Colchester. An oystercatcher guards the entrance to the broken down pier, its antlers slowly melting into the mudflats. On the other bank, a lapwing tumbles over the marshes and a nightingale sings in the maquis. Even on this beautiful spring day, it’s easy to see why Alresford Creek was chosen for the filming of The Essex Serpent, a new Apple TV series starring Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes, based on Sarah Perry’s bestselling book . This place seems isolated, cut off from the outside world. In 1893, when the story is set, tales of snakes snaking through broken ship timbers and sucking teenagers into slime must have seemed more real to villagers than news of scientific discoveries from distant towns.
Later that day, my mum and I set out from Hythe Quay in Maldon to explore the scenery aboard the Thistle, a Thames barge built in the 1890s. The quay is a forest of masts, towering above the many moored barges to the side. The rigging hangs like cobwebs above us. Many scenes from The Essex Serpent were filmed on the quayside, with locals acting as deckhands and dockworkers. As the Thistle heads into the Blackwater Estuary, the three little boys sitting next to us kick into high gear. Their mother confesses that they had been hesitant to leave the house that morning, but now they are busy sniffing the sails for a hint of fish oil used by sailors for waterproofing, and listening enthusiastically to the stories smugglers and dead men found floating. at Death Creek.
The skies are pebbly with high clouds, skeins of brant geese descend on the mudflats, and the terracotta sails of other barges draw the eye upward into these plains. Lunch arrives, a seafood platter of prawns and smoked salmon pate, prepared at the nearby Maldon Smokehouse. I drink Wilde Samphire gin with a touch of sea salt and rosemary slivers floating on it. It’s a moment of connection as I get a taste of the land we walk through.
We circle around Osea Island, once a temperance colony established by the brewer’s son, Frederick Charrington. He had a revelation after trying to save a woman beaten by her drunken husband outside one of the family’s pubs. Unfortunately, the locals didn’t quite share his vision and set up a lucrative business of transporting contraband liquor to inmates who were supposed to dry up. Today, the island is a luxury retreat that still presents itself as a place to escape a troubled world.
Back on dry land, we head to our hotel, the Blue Boar in Maldon, a 600-year-old inn that features in the Apple TV series. To create a Victorian feel, the road outside was covered in dirt and packing crates were used to conceal modern street furniture. Inside, it’s easy to feel transported to another era. Portraits of noblemen in frock coats hang on the oak-panelled walls, and armor guards the doors. The bedrooms have chandeliers and wardrobes in which you could travel to Narnia.
The next morning we drive through spring-coloured lanes to Mersea Island. Cudmore Grove Beach is popular with families enjoying a moment of sunshine. We are here to look for fossils in the cliffs, in imitation of Cora Seaborne, the heroine of Perry’s book. In the story, Seaborne becomes enthralled with tales of a recent earthquake which is rumored to have awakened the Essex Serpent. In fact, an earthquake, one of the most devastating ever recorded in Britain, rocked the Essex coast in 1884 and 300,000-year-old fossils, including hippopotamus bones, were discovered along these coasts.
Sand swallows graze our heads as I search the cliffs, searching the pebbles at their base alongside teenagers looking, with more hope than luck, for shark teeth. Shortly after, I find a pebble with a dark stain embedded in it. Turns out, fossil hunting is easy – much harder figuring out what you’ve found.
“I think it’s a crustacean,” said one of the teenagers, encouragingly.
I think he’s just nice.
My mother uses a different technique. She lies on the beach, sifting sand between her fingers and humming fossil poetry in hopes of charming an ammonite in her palm. I don’t blame her; after all, the beach looks almost tropical… the trees are falling to the shore and the children pass by with armfuls of oyster shells.
We leave for lunch at the Osea View Cafe Bar in Heybridge Basin, which overlooks the river to Northey Island. My mother loves cream tea with Tiptree strawberry jam, produced for over 150 years in the local factory.
The tide rises as we arrive in Tollesbury, our final destination. This shipyard and marina, located in the middle of the salt marshes, created another atmospheric backdrop for the series. Through the workshop doors I see roof beams hanging from tools and tanned men wiping things down with oily rags. We have ice cream at the Loft Tearoom and we walk along the sea wall. The white-planked sailmakers seem poised to float with the rising tide. Two boys shrimp fishing from the decks of a blue cornflower houseboat; the hot air is honey scented with hawthorn flower; gulls turn and dive to fish. Today the marshes are benign. On a different day, in a different light, I can see that this land might hold secrets amid the meandering streams. As we drive back to town, I hear of porpoises swimming at the mouth of the Blackwater. Perhaps in that faraway haven on the Essex coast, the serpent has returned.
Blue Boar accommodation (doubles from £95) and Blackwater River cruise (from £30) were provided by Visit Essex