It is New Year’s Eve, twenty to eight in the morning. I am standing at the end of one of the seven wooden pontoons which project into the River Blackwater from its southern bank just upstream from the Maldon Hythe Quay. The masts of more than 150 yachts, barges, smacks and dinghies, which are moored along these pontoons and dry-docked in the boat yards, bristle into the pre-dawn sky. The fresh breeze gently agitates their halliards, ringing them against the masts.
It is nearly four hours since high tide, so the shrunken and still ebbing River Blackwater is now cradled by the silken and glistening esturine mud for which the Blackwater – one of the great east coast tidal estuary rivers – is famous. The mud has an intricate topography, with meandering and deep-scarred valleys that empty their catchments amongst the pontoons; rippled ridges where tributaries join; and delicately furrowed flats with a surface so smooth that they reflect the pale blue sky with a lustrously aquamarine glow. Across this whole oozing landscape are the roaming tracks of wading birds.
Twice daily, the crafts moored on these pontoons are gently lowered by the ebbing tide into the mud, their hulls sculpting a snug basin for themselves while their keels prospect for the mud’s pebbly strata. Almost all are laid up and under cover; the boat yards are, in winter, a hibernaculum. Beneath me, my wife’s family boat, Mirembe, a fifty-five year old classic Buchanan Bermudan sloop, on which the family spent almost every weekend and holiday of her childhood, is nestled into her own hollow like a hare in its form among the grasses.
Looking back along the pontoon and across the lane I can see the Blue House, the house my wife grew up in and in the garden of which we married. In the kitchen, I can see my wife, son and mother-in-law bustling about getting breakfast. Above and behind the Blue House crowd the roofs and chimneys of Maldon. The five note calls of woodpigeons and the three note calls of collared doves rise from the town gardens. The woodpigeons clap their wings in their display flights, launching from telegraph poles to glide down to television aerials. In the blue-grey sky above the town hangs a waning gibbous moon, with Jupiter close by, ailing in the brightening light. Deeper within the dawn’s amber, Venus’s brilliance fares better. Above the river is a scattering of delicate and benign cumulus.
A pair of mute swans labour their way through the mud to the river. They are watched from the water by dozens of serenely drifting black-headed gulls. A little grebe, with the help of the ebb, speeds downstream. Half its remarkably rapid progress is made on the water’s surface and half is made beneath it. It weaves its way among the gulls while it weaves between air and water. A pair of black-tailed godwit diligently work a rich seam of mud on the water’s edge, plashing and probing. A pair of cormorant power upriver and bank above me. A trio of knot race each other, glancing along the edge of the saltings on the opposite bank.
Through the masts, the distinctive white wooden steeple of St Mary’s Church watches over the Hythe Quay. The steeple is an eighteenth century replacement for a beacon that used to be lit atop the seven hundred year old flint-rubble and brick tower to guide incoming shipping home. Its bell strikes eight o’clock.
The saltings begin releasing small flocks of Canada geese that have been roosting on them overnight; they rise from the maze of creeks within the thin peninsular and head past me upriver, the downbeat of their wings rasping through the sharp air. Across the other side of the saltings, mouldering in the Back Channel, are the hulks of the Oxygen and Scotia, once-mighty Thames cargo barges. The Oxygen first sailed 120 years ago, carrying coal tar in massive steel tanks built within her hull between London and other east coast ports. Her younger sister ship, the Hydrogen, is moored on the Hythe Quay and still sails; my wife and I sailed our wedding guests down to Osea Island in her hundredth year, one bright June day nine years ago. But the Oxygen is now, and has been for as long as I can remember, a roost for starlings; disturbed by the geese, a murmuration unfurls from its wreck. It writhes, extends, gathers over the saltings, splits into two flocks then rejoins. As each bird turns in unison, the flock flickers against the pale sky, then crosses the river.
A great black-backed gull, considerably larger than a buzzard and not much smaller than a heron, lands on the mud of the far bank with a three foot long eel in its bill. The eel’s remarkable life history – a two year, 3,500 mile journey from the warm Sargasso Sea between Bermuda and the West Indies, and possibly a decade or more in this estuary growing in preparation for the return journey – is ended with three ravenous arches of the gull’s neck. Not stopping to savour what is now a rare delicacy, it immediately takes off to plunge at and chase away the godwits, seemingly for amusement. A kingfisher bisects this drama, skimming the mud the godwits had been harvesting, rounding the navy hull of Quintade beneath me at the end of my pontoon and disappearing upriver.
Half a mile downriver I can make out the bronze John Doubleday sculpture of Byrhtnoth, tenth century Ealdorman of Essex and tragic hero of the Battle of Maldon. Sword aloft, he faces Northey Island, the site of his death and the defeat of his Saxon army at the hands of an invading Viking force, immortalised in an epic Old English poem. Above the fringe of trees on the island, miles to the south-east above the Thames estuary, loom towering cumulonimbus incus, their swept and frayed anvil tops lit by the first sunlight on this last day of the year.