By Stephen P. Nunn

We are really fortunate in the UK in having some truly breathtaking and hugely diverse countryside.

From rugged coastal cliffs and towering mountains to wild moorland and ancient woodland, we have a complete range and variety of landscapes.

People (understandably) rave about the Highlands of Scotland, the Lake and Peak Districts, the Yorkshire Moors and Dales, Northumberland and the Norfolk Broads, and many other special locations.

But for me there is a place much closer to home that is just as important, but nowhere near as well recognised, or visited.

I am talking, of course, about the Dengie – a secret, almost hidden coast that stretches from Sales Point, off St Peter’s Chapel at Bradwell, in the north, down to Holliwell Point, at the mouth of Burnham’s Crouch, in the south.

It is a wild, lonely, open and very beautiful stretch of coastline that changes its appearance with the seasons and contains an abundance of both natural and man-made history.

It takes in St. Peter’s and Dengie Flats and the Ray Sand, Marshouse and Grange Outfalls, the Bradwell, Tillingham and Dengie Marshes, a network of snaking brooks, rills and creeks, and is dotted with lonely farmsteads, halls and cottages with incredible histories and ancient stories to tell.

It has the remains of Decoy Ponds where our ancestors snared wildfowl and Red Hills where they extracted salt from the sea.

Not to mention a veritable cornucopia of flora and fauna, some of it very rare indeed and unique to this part of East Anglia.

Only the other weekend I was sitting in the convivial surroundings of the award-winning Station Arms in Southminster and talking to my friend about this over a pint of real ale.

He is well qualified to comment as he once lived out on the marshes, experiencing them first-hand from his house, Montsale.

That homestead alone is mentioned, as “Momsale(wyk)” in an account of 1438.

A wyk, or wic, was an early trading centre, specialising in salt or (as in this case) dairy farming, particularly linked to the production of cheese (including goat’s cheese).

There are other examples of the name including Weatherwick at Tillingham, Bridgewick (“Briggewyke” in 1506) at Dengie, Northwick, Wraywick (“Le Raye” as it was in 1539) and Middle Wick (the” Middlewyk” of 1438) at Southminster, and West Wick (“Westwickehall”,1536) and East Wick (“Estwyke”, 1543) at Burnham.

Writing of that Dengie cheese trade in 1586, William Camden, in his opus ‘Britannia’, says “…men milk the ewes. Here are made those cheeses of an extraordinary bigness, which are used, as well as in foreign parts as in England, to satisfy the coarse stomachs of husbandmen and labourers”.

It is hardly a glowing culinary recommendation and although he goes on to say that “…the grass here is excellent good, and it is well stocked with cattle”, he spoils it again with “…the air (is) none of the healthiest”.

He was probably right, however, as there is stark confirmation that this was still the case some 136 years later.

In 1722, Daniel Defoe was on his marathon ‘Tour through the Eastern Counties of England’. He visited the Dengie which he described as a “damp part of the world”.

He also noticed with some curious concern that it was “…frequent to meet with men (there) that had had from five or six, to fourteen or fifteen wives” (not at the same time I hasten to add!).

The reason for this, he discovered, was that the men “being bred in the marshes themselves, and seasoned to the place, did pretty well with it”, but their “young lasses” were not and “…when they came out of their native air into the marshes among the fogs and damps, there they changed their complexion, got an ague (malaria) or two and seldom held it above half a year, or a year at most”.

As a result, he said, they (the men) went to “the uplands” (in other words places like Maldon) to “fetch another”.

As well as the wicks there are other Dengie place-name clues to the past.

Not far from Montsale is Turncole, referenced in a fine of 1248, Caidge, derived from the old-French for “an enclosed piece of land” (a park) and the even more curious Bitchhunters.

Another friend of mine, when I was in my early 20s, had her family home a bit further inland at Ratsborough, which was a sort of early (14th century) nickname for “rat’s castle” – the mind boggles.

There is no doubt that this heritage of exciting marshland adventure is entirely unique to these parts and, in that respect alone, regardless of the questionable background of bad cheese and poorly wives, we are so very lucky to have it on our doorsteps.