Musings on the Essex islands

Beautiful Essex

Beautiful Essex - Credit: Archant

Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, grew up in Leigh on Sea. In this Essex Life column, Stephen shares an insight into his experiences across the county

When it comes to titles, I’ve always been slightly envious of the Scottish bishop whose diocese is Argyll and the Isles. Couldn’t I be the Bishop of Chelmsford and the Isles? After all there are 19 islands in Essex.

Some of these islands are large and populated, like Mersea and Canvey — I love the oysters on Mersea Island. Some are small and uninhabited like Rushley and Lower Horse. Bridgemarsh Island was a source of clay for many years — there were brickworks nearby. Foulness Island is owned by the Ministry of Defence. Horsey Island features in the Swallows and Amazons books and Wallasea Island is mainly farmland.

There is a magnificent wildness to the Essex coast line. All the islands are places of great natural beauty and home to many birds, particularly some protected species like avocets. The National Trust looks after Ray Island and its abundance of plant life and bird life.

It is a place that seems brimming with mystery, its big skies filling our imagination as well as the horizon. And when the tide is out, it is a place of silence. It draws us back: it is lovely to walk along its causeways and sea walls and I have walked along the southern sea wall of Wallasea Island and down to Paglesham Creek for as long as I can remember.

All islands serve a hugely important environmental purpose. Meteorologically they are a buffer between land and ocean. But this means they bear the brunt of storms and floods and absorb all sorts of weather. Everyone in Essex, but especially island dwellers, will remember the great floods of 1953 and the many lives lost. Last week I was on Canvey Island, where many of those people died. It is a place I love to visit. I was born in Leigh on Sea, and grew up looking out over the estuary to the flaming chimneys of its petrochemical plants. I was also a big Dr Feelgood fan.

I was there to take a wonderful confirmation service in a thriving church. But driving home across the causeway I reminded myself that although I love these islands, as John Donne famously reminds us, I am not an island myself. Every one of us is part of the continent of humanity, belonging to each other.

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That is what the confirmation meant: people pledging themselves to something beyond themselves. It is what we badly need if there is to be peace on earth. Meanwhile, I rejoice to be Bishop of Essex and the Isles.

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