If you've heard of Mersea Island, chances are it's because you've seen shots of its iconic pastel beach huts plastered all over Instagram — well, that, or you've sampled its famous native oysters. A combination of rolling countryside, and beautiful, wild beaches make it something of a hotspot for day trippers, holiday makers and photographers.
The most eastern inhabited island in the UK, it has a total area of seven square miles, and a permanent population of around 7,000, though the island's holiday parks mean this population swells considerably in peak season. In a Famous Five-style twist, it's attached to mainland Essex by one solitary causeway, The Strood, which can become impassable at high tide. Whether that adds to the island's charms or is reason to avoid it is entirely a matter of personal opinion.
Mersea Island beach and beach huts
The beach itself is the main draw of the island. A mixture of sand and shingle interspersed with tufts of plants including sea holly and sea couch, it's hard to believe that it was mined and surrounded with barbed wire during the second world war. Views stretch over the Blackwater Estuary, to the Dengie Peninsula opposite, and the large warehouse-style building on the horizon, the Bradwell Power Station, serves as a reminder that the waters in this part of Essex are estuary rather than open seas.
The shoreline level varies quite dramatically between high tide and low tide, but there's always plenty of room for the scores of paddlers, swimmers and body boarders on the sand and in the sea. And then of course, there are those famous beach huts. The pastel sheds for which the island is known run eastwards from Seaview Avenue, but heading west along Victoria Esplanade also gives way to rows and rows of beach huts in charmingly mismatched hues — the island has about 400 huts in total.
Things to do on Mersea Island: East Mersea
Mersea Island is roughly split into two area; East Mersea and West Mersea. East Mersea is the less inhabited of the two, though that's not to say it's not worth a visit. Cudmore Grove Country Park is the main attraction over this side, home to wild coastal countryside suitable for birdwatching and beachcombing, and for those willing to hunt it out, the remains of a listed Tudor blockhouse (defensive structure) can be seen.
There's plenty of space for walking and cycling, though two-wheeled travel is best left to the more experienced due to some of the fast and narrow country lanes. Country pubs including the Dog and Pheasant and The Fox Inn offer bucolic pitstops, but in high season they do tend to get booked up in advance. Mersea Barns, a shop and cafe on East Road, is dog and cycle friendly, offering a light breakfast and lunch menu, and roast dinners on Sundays.
The centre of the island is home to Mersea Island Vineyard and Brewery, with a shop selling the vineyard's produce, and B&B accommodation on site if you need to sleep it off. The nearby Mersea Boating Lake is a relatively recent addition to the island's offerings, with a chance to try kayaking, windsurfing and other water sports on a manmade lake.
Things to do on Mersea Island: West Mersea
West Mersea is the livelier corner of Mersea Island, though it's still fairly sleepy compared to other seaside resorts. It's definitely a place where tourists fit into the local way of life, rather than the other way around. The main high street is home to a mere handful of shops and cafes, and, with the exception of a Tesco Express, is refreshingly chain-free.
Even the beach front has resisted over-commercialisation, with just a couple of cafes and ice cream stalls to satiate hungry beach goers, although each holiday park has its own on-site facilities for guests. Two Sugars Cafe is worth a peek, for architectural reasons — the building was constructed as a second world war gun emplacement, and had an anti-tank gun on its roof. The underground passages where ammunition was stored still exist, under the feet of oblivious sunseekers and off-limits to the public.
The Mersea Island Museum is tucked away down a blink-and-you'll-miss-it lane to the side of the church in West Mersea. It was closed on our visit so we can't vouch for its quality, and it operates on very limited opening hours, in summer only, so check before you make a special trip.
Browse the upmarket gift and vintage shops and boutiques, before tucking into a deli-style sandwich at The Art Cafe, a sugar-loaded brownie or cupcake at Twisted Treats, or a full-blown afternoon tea at The Gilt Rooms.
For a fuller meal, follow the Coast Road around to the west coast of the island. Pass the curiously named Monkey Beach and Monkey Steps, and a whole flotilla appears before you. Houseboats float alongside sailing boats and fishing vessels, offering a clue to the island's historic industry — fishing and oystering.
Restaurants including the West Mersea Oyster Bar (frequented by Fred Sirieix, don'cha know) and The Duke's Seafood sit directly opposite the quay and take advantage of their position by serving up all manner of fresh fish dishes — think oysters, crab chowder, seafood platters, grilled lobster, seafood rolls and fresh scallops. The Coast Inn too has a seafood-leaning menu, but offers alternatives such as burgers. The combination of fresh seafood and the produce from that vineyard has foodies far and wide begging for Mersea.
How to get to Mersea Island
Mersea Island is located on the Essex coast, about eight miles south of Colchester. There's no railway station on the island, though buses run regularly from Colchester. However you're travelling, bear in mind that the causeway onto the island (called The Strood) becomes impassable at high tides, so check tide times before you travel.
Take a look at these other seaside towns and islands to visit in Essex, including nearby Clacton-on-Sea. If it's beach huts you're after, Walton-on-the-Naze is well worth your time. See our Beyond London section for other day trip and weekend ideas.