AFTER the exoticism of foreign parts, this chapter is very English.
But no island could be more surpassingly strange, romantic, and baffling
than this island. I had a doubt about the propriety of using the phrase
“East Anglia” in the title. I asked, therefore, three educated people
whether the northern part of Essex could be termed East Anglia,
according to current usage. One said he did n’t know. The next said
that East Anglia began only north of the Stour. The third said that East
Anglia extended southward as far as anybody considered that it ought to
extend southward. He was a true Englishman. I agreed with him. England
was not made, but born. It has grown up to a certain extent, and its
pleasure is to be full of anomalies, like a human being. It has to be
seen to be believed.
Thus, my income tax is assessed in one town, twelve miles distant. After
assessment, particulars of it are forwarded to another town in another
county, and the formal demand for payment is made from there; but the
actual payment has to be made in a third town, about twenty miles from
either of the other two. What renders England wondrous is not such
phenomena, but the fact that Englishmen see nothing singular in such
East Anglia, including North Essex, is as English as any part of
England, and more English than most. Angles took possession of it very
early in history, and many of their descendants, full of the original
Anglian ideas, still powerfully exist in the counties. And probably no
place is more Anglian than Brightlingsea, the principal yachting center
on the east coast, and the home port of the _Velsa_. Theoretically
and officially, Harwich is the home port of the _Velsa_, but not in
practice: we are in England, and it would never do for the theory to
accord with the fact. Brightlingsea is not pronounced Brightlingsea,
except at railway stations, but Brigglesea or Bricklesea. There is some
excuse for this uncertainty, as Dr.
Edward Percival Dickin, the historian of the town, has found 193
different spellings of the name.
Brightlingsea is proud of itself, because it was “a member of the Cinque
Ports.” Not _one_ of the Cinque Ports, of which characteristically there
were seven, but a member. A “member” was subordinate, and Brightlingsea
was subordinate to Sandwich, Heaven knows why. But it shared in the
responsibilities of the Cinque. It helped to provide fifty-seven ships
for the king’s service every year. In return it shared in the privilege
of carrying a canopy over the king at the coronation, and in a few
useful exemptions. After it had been a member of the Cinque for many
decades and perhaps even centuries, it began to doubt whether, after
all, it was a member, and demanded a charter in proof. This was in 1442.
The charter was granted, and it leads off with these words: “To all the
faithful in Christ, to whom these present letters shall come, the Mayors
and Bailiffs of the Cinque Ports, Greeting in the Lord Everlasting.” By
this time ships had already grown rather large. They carried four masts,
of which the aftermost went by the magnificent title of the “bonaventure
mizen”; in addition they had a mast with a square sail at the extremity
of the bow-sprit. They also carried an astrolabe, for the purposes of
Later, smuggling was an important industry at Brightlingsea, and to
suppress it laws were passed making it illegal to construct fast rowing-
or sailing-boats. In the same English, and human, way, it was suggested
at the beginning of the twentieth century that since fast motor-cars
kicked up dust on the roads, the construction of motor-cars capable of
traveling fast should be made illegal. There are no four-masted ships
now at Brightlingsea; no bowsprit carries a mast; no ship puts to sea
with an astrolabe; the “bonaventure mizen” is no more; smuggling is
unfashionable; fast craft are encouraged.
Nevertheless, on a summer’s morning I have left the _Velsa_ in the
dinghy and rowed up the St. Osyih Creek out of Brightlingsea, and in ten
minutes have been lost all alone between slimy mud banks with a border
of pale grass at the top, and the gray English sky overhead, and the
whole visible world was exactly as it must have been when the original
Angles first rowed up that creek. At low water the entire Christian era
is reduced to nothing, in many a creek of the Colne, the Black water,
and the Stour; England is not inhabited; naught has been done; the
pristine reigns as perfectly as in the African jungle. And the charm of
the scene is indescribable. But to appreciate it one must know what
to look for. I was telling an Essex friend of mine about the dreadful
flatness of Schleswig-Holstein. He protested. “But aren’t you educated
up to flats?” he asked. I said I was. He persisted. “But are you
educated up to mud, the lovely colors on a mud-flat?” He was a true
connoisseur of Essex. The man who is incapable of being ravished by
a thin, shallow tidal stream running between two wide, shimmering mud
banks that curve through a strictly horizontal marsh, without a tree,
without a shrub, without a bird, save an eccentric sea-gull, ought not
to go yachting in Essex estuaries.
Brightlingsea is one of the great centers of oyster-fishing, and it
catches more sprats than any other port in the island, namely, about
fifteen hundred tons of them per annum. But its most spectacular
industry has to do with yachting, It began to be a yachting resort
only yesterday; that is to say, a mere seventy-five years ago. It
has, however, steadily progressed, until now, despite every natural
disadvantage and every negligence, it can count a hundred and twenty
yachts and some eight hundred men employed therewith. A yacht cannot
get into Brightlingsea at all from the high sea without feeling her
way among sand-banks,–in old days before bell-buoys and gas-buoys, the
inhabitants made a profitable specialty of salving wrecks,–and when a
yacht has successfully come down Brightlingsea Reach, which is really
the estuary of the River Colne, and has arrived at the mouth of
Brightlingsea Creek, her difficulties will multiply.
In the first place, she will always discover that the mouth of the creek
is obstructed by barges at anchor. She may easily run aground at the
mouth, and when she is in the creek, she may, and probably will, mistake
the channel, and pile herself up on a bank known as the Cinders, or the
Cindery. Farther in, she may fail to understand that at one spot there
is no sufficiency of water except at about a yard and a half from
the shore, which has the appearance of being flat. Escaping all these
perils, she will almost certainly run into something, or something
will run into her, or she may entangle herself in the oyster preserves.
Yachts, barges, smacks, and floating objects without a name are anchored
anywhere and anyhow. There is no order, and no rule, except that a smack
always deems a yacht to be a lawful target. The yacht drops her anchor
somewhere, and asks for the harbormaster. No harbor-master exists or
ever has existed or ever will. Historical tradition–sacred! All craft
do as they like, and the craft with the thinnest sides must look to its
Also, the creek has no charm whatever of landscape or seascape. You can
see nothing from it except the little red streets of Brightlingsea
and the yacht-yards. Nevertheless, by virtue of some secret which is
uncomprehended beyond England, it prospers as a center of yachting.
Yachts go to it and live in it not by accident or compulsion, but from
choice. Yachts seem to like it. Of course it is a wonderful place,
because any place where a hundred and twenty yachts foregather must be
a wonderful place. The interest of its creek is inexhaustible, once you
can reconcile yourself to its primitive Anglianism, which, after all,
really harmonizes rather well with the mud-flats of the county.
An advantage of Brightlingsea is that when the weather eastward is
dangerously formidable, you can turn your back on the North Sea and go
for an exciting cruise up the Colne. A cruise up the Colne is always
exciting because you never know when you may be able to return. Even the
_Velsa_, which can float on puddles, has gone aground in the middle
of the fair and wide Colne. A few miles up are the twin villages
of Wivenhoe and Rowhedge, facing each other across the river, both
inordinately picturesque, and both given up to the industry of yachting.
At Wivenhoe large yachts and even ships are built, and in winter there
is always a choice selection of world-famous yachts on the mud, costly
and huge gewgaws, with their brass stripped off them, painfully forlorn,
stranded in a purgatory between the paradise of last summer and the
paradise of the summer to come.
If you are adventurous, you keep on winding along the curved reaches,
and as soon as the last yacht is out of sight, you are thrown hack once
more into the pre-Norman era, and there is nothing but a thin, shallow
stream, two wide mud hanks, and a border of grass at the top of them.
This is your world, which you share with a sea-gull or a crow for
several miles; and then suddenly you arrive at a concourse of great
barges against a quay, and you wonder by w hat magic they got there, and
above the quay rise the towers and steeples of a city that was already
ancient when William the Conqueror came to England in the interests of
civilization to take up the white man’s burden,–Colchester, where more
oysters are eaten on a certain night of the year at a single feast than
at any other feast on earth. Such is the boast.
But such contrasts as the foregoing do not compare in violence with the
contrasts offered by the River Stour, a few miles farther north on
the map of England. Harwich is on the Stour, at its mouth, where, in
confluence with the River Orwell (which truly _is_ in East Anglia) it
forms a goodish small harbor. And Harwich, though a tiny town, is a
fairly important naval port, and also “a gate of the empire,” where
steamers go forth for Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden. We
came into Harwich Harbor on the tide one magnificent Sunday afternoon,
with the sea a bright green and the sky a dangerous purple, and the
entrance to the Stour was guarded by two huge battle-ships, the _Blake_
and the _Blenheim_, each apparently larger than the whole of the town of
Harwich. Up the Stour, in addition to all the Continental steamers, was
moored a fleet of forty or fifty men-of-war, of all sorts and sizes, in
a quadruple line. It was necessary for the _Velsa_ to review this fleet
of astoundingly ugly and smart black monsters, and she did so, to the
high satisfaction of the fleet, which in the exasperating tedium of
Sunday afternoon was thirsting for a distraction, even the mildest.
On every sinister ship–the _Basilisk_, the _Harpy_, etc., apposite
names!–the young bluejackets (they seemed nearly all to be youths) were
trying bravely to amuse themselves. The sound of the jews’-harp and of
the concertina was heard, and melancholy songs of love. Little circles
of men squatted here and there on the machinery-encumbered decks playing
at some game. A few students were reading; some athletes were sparring;
many others skylarking. None was too busy to stare at our strange lines.
Launches and longboats were flitting about full of young men, going
on leave to the ecstatic shore joys of Harwich or sadly returning
therefrom. Every sound and noise was clearly distinguishable in the
stillness of the hot afternoon. And the impression given by the fleet
as a whole was that of a vast masculine town, for not a woman could be
descried anywhere. It was striking and mournful. When we had got to the
end of the fleet I had a wild idea:
“Let us go up the Stour.”
At half-flood it looked a noble stream at least half a mile wide, and
pointing west in an almost perfect straight line. Nobody on board ever
had been up the Stour or knew anybody who had. The skipper said it was a
ticklish stream, but he was always ready for an escapade. We proceeded.
Not a keel of any kind was ahead. And in a moment, as it seemed, we had
quitted civilization and the latest machinery and mankind, and were
back in the Anglian period. River marshes, and distant wooded hills,
that was all; not even a tilled field in sight! The river showed small
headlands, and bights of primeval mud. Some indifferent buoys indicated
that a channel existed, but whether they were starboard or port buoys
nobody could tell. We guessed, and took no harm. But soon there were no
buoys, and we slowed down the engine in apprehension, for on the wide,
deceptive waste of smooth water were signs of shallows. We dared not put
about, we dared not go ahead. Astern, on the horizon, was the distant
fleet, in another world. A head, on the horizon, was a hint of
the forgotten town of Mistley. Then suddenly a rowboat approached
mysteriously out of one of those bights, and it was maimed by two men
with the air of conspirators.
“D’ ye want a pilot?”
We hardened ourselves.
They rowed round us, critically staring, and receded.
“Why in thunder is n’t this river buoyed?” I demanded of the skipper.
The skipper answered that the intention obviously was to avoid taking
the bread out of the mouths of local pilots. He put on speed. No
catastrophe. The town of Mistley approached us. Then we had to pause
again, reversing the propeller. We were in a network of shallows. Far
to port could be seen a small red buoy; it was almost on the bank.
Impossible that it could indicate the true channel. We went straight
ahead and chanced it. The next instant we were hard on the mud in
midstream, and the propeller was making a terrific pother astern. We
could only wait for the tide to float us off. The rowboat appeared
‘D’ ye want a pilot?”
And it disappeared.
When we floated, the skipper said to me in a peculiar challenging tone:
“Shall we go on, sir, or shall we return?”
“We ‘ll go on,” I said. I could say no less.
We bore away inshore to the red buoy, and, sure enough, the true channel
was there, right under the south bank. And we came safely to the town of
Mistley, which had never in its existence seen even a torpedo-boat and
seldom indeed a yacht, certainly never a _Velsa_. And yet the smoke of
the harbor of Harwich was plainly visible from its antique quay.
The town of Mistley rose from its secular slumber to enjoy a unique
sensation that afternoon.
“Shall we go on to Manningtree, sir?” said the skipper, adding with a
grin, “There’s only about half an hour left of the flood, and if we get
It was another challenge.
“Yes,” I said.
Manningtree is a town even more recondite than Mistley, and it marks the
very end of the navigable waters of the Stour. It lay hidden round the
next corner. We thought we could detect the channel, curving out again
now into midstream. We followed the lure, opened out Manningtree the
desired–and went on the mud with a most perceptible bump. Out, quick,
with the dinghy! Cover her stern-sheets with a protecting cloth, and
lower an anchor therein and about fifty fathoms of chain, and row away!
We manned the windlass, and dragged the _Velsa_ off the mud.
“Shall we go on, sir?”
“No,” I said, not a hero. “We ‘ll give up Manningtree this trip.”
Obstinacy in adventure might have meant twelve hours in the mud. The
crew breathed relief. We returned, with great care, to civilization.
We knew now why the Stour is a desolate stream. Thus to this day I have
never reached Manningtree except in an automobile.
And there are still stranger waters than the Stour; for example, Hamford
Water, where explosives are manufactured on lonely marshes, where
immemorial wharves decay, and wild ducks and owls intermingle, and
public-houses with no public linger on from century to century, and
where the saltings are greener than anywhere else on the coast, and the
east wind more east, and the mud more vivid. And the _Velsa_ has been