An exploration of two contrasting landscapes: Exmoor and the Essex Marsh

View from Dunkery Beacon at Holnicote Estate, copyright Mark Percy.
View from Dunkery Beacon at Holnicote Estate, copyright Mark Percy.

Last Wednesday I visited the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate on the northern edge of Exmoor.  From moorland to woodland and fertile farmland to shingle beaches, Holnicote provides a canvas of immense diversity of both landscape and character.  As I sat having my lunch overlooking the Bristol Channel I thought about the links this place has had with other places up and down the coast as well as its relationship with the rest of Exmoor National Park and beyond to other landscapes. I began to think, why is it that I find this place intriguing? Why do I see value in it when this is the first time I have visited? It has a multi-layered identity and my first visit provided an opportunity to try and begin to peel these layers back. It will require many future visits to discover the intricacies of the connections between these identities.

Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia)

Holnicote is a place rich in wildlife and there are opportunities to see Red Deer, Exmoor Ponies, various species of bat and even the rare Heath Fritillary. In my next visit I want to climb to Dunkery Beacon which is Somerset’s highest point, standing at the summit of Dunkery Hill at 519m. The site is part of the Dunkery and Horner Woods National Nature Reserve and from the summit one can look across Exmoor, a broader landscape that inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Coleridge Way, a walk that is also on ‘my list’, is a 51 mile footpath crossing Devon and Somerset, starting at Coleridge Cottage at Nether Stowey in the Quantocks and finishing at Lynmouth. It passes through Holford and Bicknoller as well as through the Brendon Hills, Dunkery Hill and Porlock, set  along the Bristol Channel. Even though I had not visited before it is a part of the world that has unknowingly influenced me, through the works of Coleridge. I want to get to grips with the landscape that influenced him and look forward to future visits.

Yesterday, in contrast to Holnicote, my brother and I walked in the flatlands of Essex, from St Osyth, a village renowned for being one of the driest parts of the country, to the small hamlet of Lee-over-Sands, where St Osyth Marsh opens out to Essex Wildlife Trust’s Colne Point Nature Reserve. As we left the road at St Osyth Priory, a building that has a fascinating history (not to be recalled here)and is in real need of restoration, we gradually left the day to day district as we know it. On the marshy soils leading towards Colne Point development is not an option although the land remains suitable for cultivation. The first part of the walk was distinguished by the hawthorn and blackthorn hedges, oil seed rape and wheat cropping and the large mill pond, moreso a lake, stretching from St Clere’s Hall Lane to the marshes of St Osyth Creek.


As we moved northwards, towards St Osyth Marsh, the landscape changed, the hedges removed from the experience and we were able to see all the way towards the sea wall, which marks the main line of separation between landscape and seascape. Sights, sounds and smells associated with the road – traffic, exhaust fumes, dog walkers and a child calling – were gradually replaced with the wind, waves crashing on the beaches to the north and the distinctive calls of lapwing and skylark. As we passed on to a rough track moving up towards the small hamlet of Lee-over-Sands we saw a kestrel hunting on the marsh along with a number of black headed gull and a short eared owl, sharing in the readily available hunting opportunities.

The trackway towards Lee-over-Sands

Eventually we came to Lee-over-Sands itself, a fascinatingly individual settlement, entirely separate from the nearest communities of Seawick and St Osyth and accessible only down the long track we had been walking along. It acts as guardian for the Colne Point nature reserve, owned by Essex Wildlife Trust and managed by reserve warden Bob Seago. It has its own blog site and has the rather odd feel of a frontier town or post-apocalyptic settlement. Both Sam and I fell for its distinctive character instantly, both the architecture and the setting making sense within a district that seems to be struggling with such an identity and moving in multiple directions concurrently. Debates relating to IMG_9774‘development’, which seem to dominate the rest of the district, and indeed the entire country at the moment, seem irrelevant. Yes, some of the buildings are a little run down and some might say require attention I felt that it adds to both the sense of place and sense of intrigue. Each building is unique yet together they create a statement of togetherness that is not felt within housing developments where each and every building has the same design. It was a lesson in the poetics of community architecture.

There remains evidence in the landscape of the site’s wartime history with pillboxes and concrete blocks spread linearly in front of the sea wall, dotted across the marshes. The IMG_9776various wooden structures and ‘manmade’ elements sit harmoniously within a landscape of wide open space, coastal marsh and mud flats. By the time we reached Wall Street, the main street in Lee-Over-Sands, the weather was beginning to cloud over and there was a definite sense that rain was on its way. We met a solitary walker who introduced himself as a fisherman from St Osyth who was scouting out prospective sites from which to launch his line. We walked with him to a bridge which crosses over to the Colne Point Reserve where by chance we encountered Bob Seago, the warden of the reserve and a local naturalist who I greatly admire. Bob is also warden at Great Holland Pits reserve in the village where I grew up. After a brief conversation we left Bob and the fisherman and crossed the salt marsh towards the sea wall aiming to get back to St Osyth before the weather turned poor.

After a brisk walk along the wall and then an access track passing through farm buildings we eventually accessed the main road and returned to the exhaust fumes and dog walkers we had previously left behind, back to the former Augustinian Priory gatehouse outside which we had parked the car. We returned home afreshed and inspired.
St Osyth Marsh. Copyright Glyn Baker.

Whilst some may see the Essex marshes as a decumbent landscape, it is full of colour – one is presented with an enormous range of greens, browns, blues and greys. I have grown up with the Essex marsh which is perhaps why I feel such a personal connection to it. Nonetheless there is something entirely unique about it and the unstable nature of the ground means that its identity appears safeguarded moving to the future. It is a place where built and natural heritage come together in a harmony that remains in some ways constant and in some ways entirely innovative and exciting. The landscape is fluid and always changing yet there remains a feel of unchanging spirit of place.

The sounds and smells of this walk encouraged reflection and imagination beyond the everyday space of the modern world in which most of my thoughts are generated. St Osyth Marsh is a place where community and ecology seemingly become one and although connected to the ‘outside world’ it appears distinctly disconnected. Certainly this is a walk that will not be forgotten.


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