THE INCOMPARABLE BLACKWATER

TIME was when I agreed with the popular, and the guide-book, verdict
that the Orwell is the finest estuary in these parts; but now that I
know it better, I unhesitatingly give the palm to the Blackwater. It is
a nobler stream, a true arm of the sea; its moods are more various, its
banks wilder, and its atmospheric effects much grander. The defect of
it is that it does not gracefully curve. The season for cruising on the
Blackwater is September, when the village regattas take place, and the
sunrises over leagues of marsh are made wonderful by strange mists.

Last September the _Velsa_ came early into Mersea Quarters for Mersea
Regatta. The Quarters is the name given to the lake-like creek that is
sheltered between the mainland and Mersea Island–which is an island only
during certain hours of the day. Crowds of small yachts have their home
in the Quarters, and the regatta is democratic, a concourse or medley
of craft ranging from sailing dinghies up through five-tonners to
fishing-smacks, trading-barges converted into barge-yachts, real
barge-yachts like ourselves, and an elegant schooner of a hundred tons
or so, fully “dressed,” and carrying ladies in bright-colored jerseys,
to preside over all. The principal events occur in the estuary, but
the intimate and amusing events, together with all the river gossip and
scandal, are reserved for the seclusion of the Quarters, where a long
lane of boats watch the silver-gray, gleaming sky, and wait for the tide
to cover the illimitable mud, and listen to the excessively primitive
band which has stationed itself on a barge in the middle of the lane.

We managed to get on the mud, but we did that on purpose, to save the
trouble of anchoring. Many yachts and even smacks do it not on purpose,
and at the wrong state of the tide, too. A genuine yachtsman paid us a
visit–one of those men who live solely for yachting, who sail their
own yachts in all weathers, and whose foible is to dress like a sailor
before the mast or like a longshore loafer–and told us a tale of an
amateur who had bought a yacht that had Inhabited Mersea Quarters all
her life. When the amateur returned from his first cruise in her,
he lost his nerve at the entrance to the Quarters, and yelled to a
fisherman at anchor in a dinghy, “Which is the channel?” The fisherman,
seeing a yacht whose lines had been familiar to him for twenty years,
imagined that he was being made fun of. He drawled out, “_You_ know.” In
response to appeals more and more excited he continued to drawl out,
“_You_ know.” At length the truth was conveyed to him, whereupon he
drawlingly advised: “Let the old wench alone. Let her alone. _She_ ’ll
find her way in all right.” Regattas like the Mersea are full of tidal
stories, because the time has to be passed somehow while the water
rises. There was a tale of a smuggler on the mud-flats, pursued in the
dead of night by a coast-guardsman. Suddenly the flying smuggler turned
round to face the coast-guardsman. “Look here,” said he to the
coast-guardsman with warning persuasiveness, “you’d better not come any
further. _You do see such ‘wonderful queer things in the newspapers
nowadays_.” The coast-guardsman, rapidly reflecting upon the truth of
this dark st-guardsman with warning persuasiveness, “you’d better not
come any further. _You do see such ‘wonderful queer things in the
newspapers nowadays_.” The coast-guardsman, rapidly reflecting upon the
truth of this dark saying, accepted the advice, and went home.

The mud-flats have now disappeared, guns begin to go off, and presently
the regatta is in full activity. The estuary is dotted far and wide with
white, and the din of orchestra and cheering and chatter within the
lane of boats in the Quarters is terrific. In these affairs, at a given
moment in the afternoon, a pause ensues, when the minor low-comedy
events are finished, and before the yachts and smacks competing in
the long races have come back. During this pause we escaped out of the
Quarters, and proceeded up the river, past Brad-well Creek, where Thames
barges lie, and past Tollesbury, with its long pier, while the high tide
was still slack. We could not reach Maldon, which is the Mecca of the
Blackwater, and we anchored a few miles below that municipal survival,
in the wildest part of the river, and watched the sun disappear over
vast, flat expanses of water as smooth as oil, with low banks whose
distances were enormously enhanced by the customary optical delusions of
English weather. Close to us was Osea Island, where an establishment for
the reformation of drunkards adds to the weird scene an artistic touch
of the sinister. From the private jetty of Osea Island two drunkards in
process of being reformed gazed at us steadily in the deepening gloom.
Then an attendant came down the jetty and lighted its solitary red eye,
which joined its stare to that of the inebriates.

[Illustration: 0313]

Of all the estuary towns, Maldon, at the head of the Blackwater, is the
pearl. Its situation on a hill, with a tine tidal lake in front of it,
is superb, and the strange thing in its history is that it should not
have been honored by the brush of Turner. A thoroughly bad railway
service has left Maldon in the eighteenth century for the delight of
yachtsmen who are content to see a town decay if only the spectacle
affords esthetic pleasure.

There is a lock in the river just below Maldon, leading to the
Chelmsford Canal. We used this lock, and found a lock-keeper and
lock-house steeped in tradition and the spirit of history. Beyond
the lock was a basin in which were hidden two beautiful Scandinavian
schooners discharging timber and all the romance of the North. The
prospect was so alluring that we decided to voyage on the canal, at any
rate as far as the next lock, and we asked the lock-keeper how far off
the next lock was. He said curtly:

“Ye can’t go up to the next lock.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s only two feet of water in this canal. There never was
any more.”

We animadverted upon the absurdity of a commercial canal, leading to a
county town, having a depth of only two feet.

He sharply defended his canal.

“Well,” he ended caustically, “it’s been going on now for a hundred or
a hundred and twenty year like that, and I think it may last another day
or two.”

We had forgotten that we were within the influences of Maldon, and we
apologized..

Later–it was a Sunday of glorious weather–we rowed in the dinghy
through the tidal lake into the town. The leisured population of Maldon
was afoot in the meadows skirting the lake. A few boats were flitting
about. The sole organized amusement was public excursions in open
sailing-boats. There was a bathing-establishment, but the day being
Sunday and the weather hot and everybody anxious to bathe, the place
was naturally closed. There ought to have been an open-air concert, but
there was not. Upon this scene of a population endeavoring not to
be bored, the ancient borough of Maldon looked grandly down from its
church-topped hill.

Amid the waterways of the town were spacious timber-yards; and
eighteenth-century wharves with wharfinger’s residence all complete, as
in the antique days, inhabited still, but rotting to pieces; plenty
of barges; and one steamer. We thought of Sneek, the restless and
indefatigable. I have not yet visited in the _Velsa_ any Continental
port that did not abound in motor-barges, but in all the East Anglian
estuaries together I have so far seen only one motor-barge, and that was
at Harwich. English bargemen no doubt find it more dignified to lie
in wait for a wind than to go puffing to and fro regardless of wind.
Assuredly a Thames barge–said to be the largest craft in the world
sailed by a man and a boy–in full course on the Blackwater is a
noble vision full of beauty, but it does not utter the final word of
enterprise in transport.

The next morning at sunrise we dropped slowly down the river in company
with a fleet of fishing-smacks. The misty dawn was incomparable. The
distances seemed enormous. The faintest southeast breeze stirred the
atmosphere, but not the mirror of the water. All the tints of the pearl
were mingled in the dreaming landscape. No prospect anywhere that was
not flawlessly beautiful, enchanted with expectation of the day. The
unmeasured mud-flats steamed as primevally as they must have steamed two
thousand years ago, and herons stood sentry on them as they must have
stood then. Incredibly far away, a flash of pure glittering white, a
sea-gull! The whole picture was ideal.

At seven o’clock we had reached Goldhanger Creek, beset with curving
water-weeds. And the creek appeared to lead into the very arcana of the
mist. We anchored, and I rowed to its mouth. A boat sailed in, scarcely
moving, scarcely rippling the water, and it was in charge of two old
white-haired fishermen. They greeted me.

“Is this creek long?” I asked. A pause. They both gazed at the creek
with the beautiful name, into which they were sailing, as though they
had never seen it before.

“Aye, it’s long.”

“How long is it? Is it a mile?”

“Aye, it’s a mile.”

“Is there anything up there?” Another pause. The boat was drawing away
from me.

“Aye, there’s oysters up there.” The boat and the men withdrew
imperceptibly into the silver haze. I returned to the yacht. Just below,
at Tollesbury pier, preparations were in progress for another village
regatta; and an ineffable melancholy seemed to distil out of the extreme
beauty of the estuary, for this was the last regatta, and this our last
cruise, of the season.

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