Tuesday 28 May 2024

Island 515 - Packing Shed Marsh Island, West Mersea, Essex

Packing Shed Marsh Island is a small island of shingle and shells sandwiched between Cobmarsh Island and Sunken Island half a mile south west of the town of West Mersea on Mersea Island.  The Mersea Fleet flows to the east of the island and the Thorn Fleet flows to the west.  The island is 300 metres long at low tide and at high tide most of the shingle is covered with water. The remains of oyster pits can still be seen in the middle of the island.  These provide nesting sites for herring gulls and oystercatchers.

In the late 19th century huge quantities of oysters were sent from Mersea Island to Billingsgate Fish Market in London in barrels on Thames barges. They were also exported to Europe.  The Packing Shed was built on the island, which later became known as Packing Marsh Island, by the Tollesbury & Mersea Native Oyster Fishery Company Limited c1890.  It was used for cleaning, grading and packing the oysters, which had been dredged up from the local oyster beds.  The island was owned by Willoughby John Bean, who also owned much of West Mersea, from 1887 until 1891 when he sold it to Albert Barker.  Barker sold it on to the Tollesbury & Mersea Native Oyster Fishery Company Limited in 1914.

The original Packing Shed was blown away in a storm in the 1890s but a replacement was built in 1897.  This shed was used continuously, apart from during the Second World War, until the late 1950s when the oyster industry collapsed, due to diseased oysters.  An additional smaller shed was built to the north of the main Packing Shed in 1912, but it was destroyed during storms and floods in March 1949.  

After the 1950s the Packing Shed was used occasionally by the Tollesbury & Mersea Native Oyster Fishery Company Limited for storing fishing gear, but it gradually fell into a derelict state. By the end of the 1980s all that remained of the Packing Shed was part of the roof and some wooden wall cladding.  It was further damaged by two storms in September 1990.  It was then restored by a group of local volunteers and it reopened to visitors in 1992.  The island and the Packing Shed still belong to the Tollesbury & Mersea Native Oyster Fishery Company Limited but they now lease it to the Packing Shed Trust.

In the inter-war period American slipper limpets were competing for food with the oysters and so tons of limpets were dredged out of the oyster beds and dumped on the island, which helped to stabilise it.  However, storms in 1987 and 1997 moved some of them and the island is gradually eroding away.

The Packing Shed Trust holds open days once a month during the summer and on those days they run a ferry service to and from the island from the hammerhead quay at West Mersea.  A cream tea is included in the price of the trip, which in 2024 was £8.

Packing Shed

Packing Shed

Shingle beach

Inside the Packing Shed

Seating outside the Packing Shed for cream tea eaters with West Mersea in the background

Remains of the oyster pits and nesting herring gulls

Cream tea on Packing Shed Marsh Island


Saturday 2 December 2023

Island 514 - Drake's Island, Plymouth Sound

Drake's Island, which is also known as St Nicholas's Island, is located in Plymouth Sound 0.5 miles south east of Western King Point and a mile south west of The Hoe.  It has an area of 6 hectares and the highest point on the island is 25m above sea level.  

The island is made of Devonian limestone and fossilised rhyolite volcanic lava and ash (tuff or tufa).  Drake's Island was joined to Mount Edgcumbe on the Cornish coast until c3,000 years ago when sea levels rose after the last ice age and flooded the land bridge.

There was a chapel dedicated to St Michael on the island in the 12th century. Drake's Island used as a refuge by Protestants during the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549.  The island was first fortified c1550 to safeguard the maritime approaches to Plymouth.  The chapel was demolished at this time and the stone was reused to build two artillery towers. 

The fortifications were upgraded c1601 by Federico Genebelli for Elizabeth I.  Barracks, firing platforms and store rooms were built on the top of the island and walls were built around the island's coast.

During the English Civil War of the 1640s Plymouth supported the Parliamentarians and the island played an important role in helping the city withstand a 4 year siege by the Royalists.

After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Drake's Island was used as a prison for 25 years.  Prisoners included Leveller Robert Lilburne and General John Lambert, both of whom died on Drake's Island.

The strategic importance of Drake's Island increased after the Royal Naval Dockyard moved from Cattewater to the Hamoaze (Tamar estuary) in 1691.  In 1715 or 1717 Colonel Lilley surveyed the defences on Drake's Island and reported that they were in a very poor condition.  In 1720 a guardhouse and barracks were built on the west side of the island. In 1780 the defences were modernised. A south facing battery was built on the top of the island.  A barrack block and officers' quarters were built constructed at the west end of the island. The barracks were upgraded and extended in the 1830s and 1840s.

In 1860 work began on fortifications on the orders of Lord Palmerston.  An arc of 21 casemates were constructed on the south west side of the island for 9 inch 12 ton guns, along with a complex of tunnels and magazines. In 1870 five 12 inch 25 ton guns were delivered and hauled to the Upper Battery. From 1898-1901 three new batteries were built on Drake's Island - Eastern, Centre and Western Batteries

During the First World War Drake's Island had 9 guns in 3 batteries and a garrison of up to 300 men but the guns were never fired in anger.  Lady Nancy Astor opened a recreation hut for the soldiers on Drake's Island, which had been funded by her husband Waldorf Astor.

During the Second World War Drake's Island was equipped with guns and searchlights to protect the Royal Navy's base at Devonport from sea borne attacks.   The jetty, which is still in use, was built in 1939. Up to 490 men were stationed on the island but once again the main guns were never fired in anger, as the Germans attacked Plymouth from the air.

In 1961 the War Office handed Drake's Island back to the Duchy of Cornwall.  They leased it to the National Trust, then the Mayflower Trust and finally Plymouth City Council. It was run as an Adventure Training Centre from 1963 until 1989.  Trees were planted on the island during this period.  A mains water pipe was laid from the mainland to the island in 1964.

In 1996 Dan McCauley, businessman and former owner of Plymouth Argyle FC, purchased Drake's Island from the Duchy of Cornwall.  His plans to build a hotel and leisure complex on the island were turned down by Plymouth City Council.

Local businessman Morgan Phillips bought Drake's Island in 2019 and it is currently open for pre-booked guided tours in conjunction with Plymouth Boat Trips.  The ferry departs from the Barbican landing stage.  When I visited in September 2023 the guided tour cost £18 and the ferry was £7.50.  The guide who showed us round was excellent and I thought it was very good value for money.

Tudor wall on the north side of Drake's Island

Upper Battery - 25 ton guns

Palmerston era gun remounted

Upper Battery: Palmerston era guns




Inside the casemates

Doorway to tunnel

Guardroom, Master Gunner's Quarters with the modern day toilets in front

Soldiers' Barracks

Ablution block and cook house


1970s Boathouse in a very dilapidated state, with the Tudor fortifications behind it

Entrance gateway to the island

Stores underneath the western gun emplacement

Drake's Island Ferry

Barracks from the jetty
Drake's Island from the jetty

Officers' Quarters

Odd mural in one of the former magazines 
I was told this room was used as a bar during the Adventure Training Centre era

Steps down to the casemates

Ventilation shaft

Brittany Ferries' Pont Aven sailing by

Side of the Soldiers' Barracks

Guard Room and Master Gunner's Quarters

Centre Battery

Friday 1 September 2023

Island 513 - Ramsey Island, Essex

Ramsey Island on the north coast of the Dengie Peninsula and south bank of the River Blackwater in Essex is no longer a true island. It used to be separated from the mainland of Essex by a tidal creek known as The Wade but the entrance to the creek was closed off with a sea wall in the late 19th/early 20th century.  Part of the village of St Lawrence is located on Ramsey Island.  There is a pub called The Stone Inn and the Stone Sailing Club on the island.

An Ordnance Survey map of the area, which was surveyed in 1874 marks oyster beds in the area where the Stone Sailing Club is now located but fewer than 10 houses on the island.  A few more houses had been built along Tinnocks Lane by the early 1920s but by this time the oyster beds had become disused.

The Stone Inn

A-Frame houses

Public table tennis table

The sea wall and beach at low tide

The oldest houses on Ramsey Island - traditional weatherboarded cottages

Stone Sailing Club

Sunday 20 August 2023

Island 512 - Cromane Island, County Kerry

Cromane Island is a small tidal island at the end of a sand and shingle spit attached to the north coast of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry.  It sticks out into Castlemaine Harbour and nearly meets up with Inch Beach, which is a sand spit attached to the south side of the Dingle Peninsula.  A public road runs up the west coast of the Cromane peninsula.  Cromane Point at the north end of the peninsula curves round to the south east and Cromane Island is on the east side of the spit and sheltered by it.  There is some kind of industrial building on the island, presumably something to do with the shellfish industry. There is grass on part of the island and a few other low growing plants, e.g. sea beet, bird's foot trefoil and sea campion.

Cromane Island

Cromane Island - looking NW towards Cromane Point

Industrial building on Cromane Island

Wildflowers on Cromane Island

The tidal causeway - looking SE towards Cromane Island

Small fishing boat on Cromane Island

Tuesday 8 August 2023

Island 511 - Great Samphire Island, Fenit, County Kerry

Samphire Island is joined to the mainland of County Kerry at the village of Fenit (rhymes with "seen it") by an 800 metre long pier and it forms part of the harbour, marina and port.  The original wooden pier was constructed 1882-1889.  It was replaced in the 1950s by the current concrete pier. The main items exported from Fenit are cranes and other products manufactured by Liebherr in Killarney. The harbour is also used by local fishing boats.

The south west corner of Great Samphire Island is accessible to the public and there is a small heritage park with a picnic table, bench and various sculptures and replicas of ancient artefacts. Most of the sculptures were made by Eoghan and D'Ana O'Donogue-Ross of Glenflesk, County Kerry.

A  12 feet high bronze statue of Brendan the Navigator, who was born at Fenit c484 AD, was erected on the island in 2004.  It was sculpted by Tighe O'Donoghue-Ross of Glenflesk, who died in May 2023 aged 81.

A fishermen and sailors' memorial was unveiled on the island in 2013. The statue, which was sculpted by Seamus Connolly from County Clare, depicts a fishermen who is mending his nets and gazing out to sea. The memorial is dedicated to local fishermen and those whose last part was Fenit who lost their lives at sea.

Sea campion, thrift, bird's foot trefoil and alexanders were growing on the island when I visited in mid-May 2023.

Pier from Great Samphire Island

Harbour Office

Working Harbour

West coast of Great Samphire Island

Yachts on Great Samphire Island


RNLI collection box

Mermaid sculpture

Fishermen's Memorial

Memorial plaque remembering the men who died on the French fishing boat An Oriant, which set sail from Fenit and was lost at sea on 1st October 2000

Memorial plaque remembering 8 local fishermen who died between 1965 and 2009

Fishermen and Sailors' Memorial

St Brendan the Navigator

Picnic site

Statues of the 12 apostles


Replica Ogham Stone

Sculpture of an Irish abbot

Relica of a beehive hut

Replica of a beehive hut

Replica of a Bronza Age wedge grave

Sculpture of Neolithic bull├ín stone

Replica Reask Stone from Ballyferriter

Replica tri-circle sculpture from Newgrange, County Meath

Plaque commemorating a boating accident in 1894

Little Samphire Island from Great Samphire Island