27 Feb

Window to the world: The Essex Marshes

Clear waters and grasslands combine to create a secluded coastal landscape which has captured the imaginations of writers, artists, and film directors alike. This month we look at The Snow Goose - the achingly sad wartime classic first published in 1940 by American author Paul Gallico - and the isolated, untouched Essex marshes in which the story unfolds…

First published in 1940 as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk was expanded into a novella which was on the shelves across the UK within a year. Set in the barren yet beautiful marshlands of Essex, it tells the story of Philip Rhaydar, a hunchback artist with a clawed hand who lives a solitary life in an abandoned lighthouse. The superstitious locals from the nearby fishing village are wary of him, suspecting the lonely man of having dark or magical powers. Shunning the world because of his disabilities, he prefers to be alone where he can watch over the wild birds and paint the salty, desolate landscape.

Fritha and the snow goose

One winter, a distraught girl from the village named Fritha carries a wounded snow goose to Rhaydar’s lighthouse, hoping that his magic can help. Blown off course from her migration route, the goose managed to survive through a powerful storm but was brought down by hunters with a gunshot to her wing. Both man and girl abandon their fears of each other and work together to prioritise the bird’s recovery, tending to the wound and strapping her wing in a bandage.

Fritha visits the lighthouse regularly to see the goose. A naturally curious yet uneducated girl, Fritha encourages the passionate artist to share his knowledge of the wild birds that visit the marshes, and as the winter progresses Rhaydar teaches her about their migration habits and behaviours. Their friendship blossoms as the snow goose starts to get her strength back, and Rhaydar finds that his own emotional wounds begin to heal as well.

For the next seven years both Fritha and the snow goose return to Rhaydar as the cold season descends, taking refuge in his lighthouse from the icy air and grey skies. As Fritha and Rhaydar’s quiet, unspoken relationship evolves during the cold depths of winter, war begins to stir in the outside world. The last third of the book is infiltrated by the unnatural chaos of WWII, coming to an end with the evacuation of Dunkirk. Hearing the call for volunteer ships, Rhaydar takes his small sailboat over to France to try and rescue stranded men. By this time, the snow goose is completely bonded to him and follows him out to sea.

Despite his act of heroism, Rhaydar and his boat are lost in his attempts to save the soldiers. He simply becomes another number added to the thousands of other people killed by the war. The snow goose briefly flies back to Fritha waiting in the marshes, who sees the bird and immediately knows what has happened. In that moment, she finally understands that she came to love Rhaydar, and feels his soul saying farewell to her.

Reflecting a darker message

The Snow Goose shows that mankind’s love and knowledge can heal and nurture, but our anger and ignorance can also cause phenomenal levels of pain and destruction. While the snow goose could withstand a storm, a powerful force of nature, it was a single bullet made by man which brought her crashing down to earth. The horrific damage that mankind can inflict is then shown to us in its full magnitude at Dunkirk.  

Many read this short novella in childhood, but the sad and complex emotional themes of unrequited love and war make it equally captivating for adults too. Westbury’s founder, Jonathan Hey, has deemed The Snow Goose to be his favourite book which he’s read many times. ‘It’s the saddest story you’ll ever come across. It’s a short novella so you can get through it in an hour, but it’s so heart-breaking it will stay with you for a long time after you’ve finished’. His passion for the wild and beautiful landscape featured in the book inspired him to base Westbury in the Essex countryside, right on the very outskirts of the marshes.  

Discovering the Essex Marshes

If you feel that you might appreciate the beauty of such a desolate, brackish landscape and want to experience the untouched stillness of the marshes for yourself, there is plenty to explore. These sea-drenched grasslands stretch all the way along the Thames Estuary.

Tollesbury is a fishing village surrounded by marshlands and is well worth a visit. While the lighthouse in The Snow Goose is fictional, this historic maritime village of Tollesbury certainly gives a sense of the environment that the story is set in. Just like the book, the village is right by the sea and its main trade since the late nineteenth century has been oysters.

Walkers and wildlife enthusiasts alike are drawn to Tollesbury for its beautiful, windswept setting. The BBC’s 2011 adaption of Great Expectations was filmed there, along with ITV’s emotional thriller, Liar. Spend the morning exploring, before heading to modern tearoom The Loft to warm up with a bowl of spiced parsnip soup and a homemade mint chocolate brownie to follow.

The Trinity lighthouse

While there’s no traditional lighthouse, Tollesbury does have a rather unique attraction in the form of the Trinity, a stationary lighthouse ship built in 1954 which is now used as accommodation for a charity called Fellowship Afloat.

With guest cabins, a saloon, and a galley kitchen, Trinity offers guests a rather novel experience, for not many people can say they have enjoyed a holiday where their hotel floats on every tide. The charity renovated the vessel into a head office and accommodation centre in 1990, carefully protecting the ship’s exterior appearance to maintain its unique character.

A haven for wildlife

Nearby, Tollesbury Wick Marshes is a nature reserve run by the Essex Wildlife Trust. With reed beds, saltmarshes, and mudflats, it’s a home to a diverse range of wildlife which has been encouraged here for decades using traditional methods.

Passing the sail lofts and sailing clubs, stroll along the seawall from Tollesbury Marina to fully take in the wild and diverse grasslands. A path leads to a bird hide at the lagoon where you can spend a few hours observing the thousands of wildfowl and waders that gather here over winter to feed in the rich waters, including large flocks of Golden Plover, Lapwing, and Wigeon.

In winter, you can see brent geese gathering and flocking together, and spectacular marsh harriers can be seen soaring through the skies at dusk. Exmoor ponies help to manage the freshwater grazing marsh in the most sustainable way possible, along with sheep and cattle.

In days gone by, salt used to be produced here by evaporating seawater. Rather amusingly, the badgers in Tollesbury Wick have been digging up archaeological finds like coarse pottery vessels and earthenware that have been dated back to the Iron Age.