The word “wilderness” or “wild place” can mean different things to different people. For some, it conjures up images of soaring peaks, or dense and gnarled woodland. For most, I think there is a sense of it being a place untouched by man, somewhere that we can step away from the influence of humankind and allow our perspective to be refocussed on something untamed. Over the past few years, I’ve found that wilderness is as much a state of mind as it is a characteristic of a place – after all, there are so few landscapes on earth that are actually untouched, and many of our most beloved natural places have been utterly transformed by man. Venturing into nature is, for me, an escape. I do it to see, experience and reconnect, both with myself and on a spiritual level.
Essex is a bustling, sprawling mix of dense urban centres and vast tracts of farmland. It also features the second longest coastline of any county. Tucked away amidst creeks, marshes and dykes is a small village that was described to me as being “gloriously inaccessible”. Tollesbury isn’t in and of itself a particularly wild place – but it sits amongst an expansive collection of saltmarshes and creeks.
Walking away from the harbour along the dyke and it’s not too long before you’re alone amongst the reeds and the sky. The saltmarsh stretches out of sight, a labyrinthine pattern of banks, pools and channels. Here and there, long-abandoned boats jut like rotten teeth, strung with green weed. The call of seabirds punctuates the air. Whilst walking, I disturbed an egret sitting below the saltmarsh. It loped into the air and lazily sculled away.
The coastal fringes of Essex are very much an end-place. The land peters out into the sea almost without effort. Even the North Sea itself seems unimpressed, lazily lapping at the mud without enthusiasm. It’s at once strangely static, and overwhelmingly dynamic. In some small way, every visit to Tollesbury is the same. The same wide-open space, bright skies, twisting marshes. The same gull standing atop a water-marked wooden post, with the same judging glare. The same boats, turning in the shifting tide. The familiar red lightship, stuck fast in the mire. In many other ways, the marshes change every time. The tides bring different moods, the water sucking gently past the mud and creating new runnels and passages. Different times of the year bring different birds – plover, rail and oystercatcher. The weather brings new flavours – blue reflections in tidal streams, wind-scoured clouds. This is an exposed landscape – there’s no topography to get in the way. Nearer the harbour, the high winds causes the masts of the moored yachts to scream and bang, from a distance sounding like a ghoul.
But quite aside from all this, it is a contradiction: it is an empty place, yet rich with detail. A place to be alone, and to experience. To lose oneself in the distant horizon.