Nestling quietly on the River Blackwater at the base of the Thames estuary, this secluded oasis is now open for discovery by those seeking a little bird’s nest soup for the soul
As the road starts to peter out, you notice that the night sky is particularly black, punctuated by millions of tiny stars and resembling a wartime window with black-out paint which has failed at myriad points. Approaching the causeway, you wonder if maybe someone has got the tide times wrong, and whether the clippity-clop of your tyres trundling over the uneven track – sounding for all the world like a ghostly horse and trap – is merely a prelude to you careering off the narrow, twisty, winding road, which has become enveloped in a sudden sea fret, and into the murky waters to either side.
It may sound like fictional melodrama – and indeed, Susan Hill’s now famous novella, The Woman in Black, was set partly on this very causeway when filmed originally in 1989 and more recently in 2010 – but there’s no escaping the almost tangible air of mystery and intrigue as you slowly, carefully pick your way along the rough track leading to one of Essex’s greatest secrets, Osea Island.
For many years a retreat for the addicted rich and famous and out of bounds for the likes of you and me, Osea is now re-inventing itself as a fully-fledged resort island where, as the strap-line suggests, nothing else exists. Almost hap-hazardly populated by an assortment of dwellings, this little island paradise feels a million miles from the grinding hubbub of everyday life; when you stay on Osea, you take what few meagre trappings you need to survive right along with you.
We chose to stay in the Sweet Shop, a quaint little pied-a-terre offering a romantic haven for couples, its modest yet adequate open-plan accommodation sporting a four poster bed, wide screen tv with Sky, kitchen and shower room. Situated centrally, and just inside the island’s main security gate, this rustic apartment is perfect as a base for exploring this natural wildlife habitat which has been officially designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
You can, thank goodness, forget the car while on Osea. On arrival, you unload your belongings and then you must park in the courtyard, parting company with your carriage until tide and time allow you to leave. It’s best, believe me; this is one place you can most appreciate on foot or by bicycle, the latter being available to hire once you’re safely aground.
Having arrived to coincide with the late Friday tidal retreat, it was Saturday morning before we could explore properly. Heading straight for the beach, we decided to walk east towards the Manor House, a stunning home as stately as you could wish for, beautifully appointed on three storeys to accommodate up to ten couples, each floor boasting its own kitchen. Complete with private salt pool, this palatial residence would provide an opulent backdrop to an event that craves a little magic; I could well imagine a special birthday or anniversary being imbued with a certain stylish, almost child-like sense of adventure if played out here, privately, cosily and perfectly.
During our stay, we managed to circumnavigate the entire island on foot, picking our way dreamily along the driftwooded, raggedy beachline of its eastern flank on our first full day. Our perambulation afforded us welcome glimpses into some of the natural occupants of this Blackwater marine sanctuary, where a lucky few may witness each of the five species of English owl, as well as many other rare birds and spectacular specimens of indigenous wildlife. Suddenly I was a boy again, playing in rock pools and among barnacled wrecks, indulging my lifelong passion for watching seabirds; it’s that sort of experience that infuses your soul with a warm smile, reassuringly forcing you to accept pleasure on the most basic level, being at one with yourself, your environment and your lot. These are the moments your well-being craves.
Sunday gave us time to more briskly explore the farmland of west Osea, offering that inner sense of satisfaction sought by all completists, simply the ability to journey in full around the entire coastline of an island. It’s like collecting a set, or ticking off an achievement and brings with it its own reward, but with Osea comes the added superiority of having discovered something very special. This unassuming little island hideaway, snuggling quietly and adjacently to the Thames estuary, is by turns one which you feel compelled to share yet determined to keep secret, a dichotomy which is balanced perfectly by the outlook of resort manager Joanne Day. “Osea is very special,” she tells me, “and while we want to develop it as a desirable destination, it’s a very discerning, understanding type of guest we hope to attract, one who appreciates the island’s natural vagaries and nuances.
“It’s not the Hilton, and it never will be, but that’s not what we’re striving for. Osea has a natural beauty which we’re desperate to preserve, and the accommodation available is of a very high standard, but totally in keeping with the environment.”
It’s true to say that from the rugged, down-to-earth opulence of the manor house right down to the shabby chic of the sweet shop, every property on the island has been furnished and appointed sympathetically, with an element of love and care that could only be lavished by someone who really cares; someone with a superb eye for detail and impeccable taste. You feel comfortable but not cosseted, adventurous but not challenged. Facilities are good, and include a gym and saunas, but for me there’s an unspoken, emotional appeal on Osea that is more visceral and outshines any of these albeit welcome trappings of comfort, and this was never personified more for me than by my Sunday evening in the slightly rundown club house. This has already slipped into memory folklore, and I relive it over and over again. Although just twenty yards from our beloved sweet shop, this rambling youth club for adults was an inspired piece of perfection, although I suspect this is more by happenstance than design, at least I hope so. Sitting here on that Sunday evening, drinking a good bottle of Shiraz over the tender echo of Radio 2, occasionally rummaging through the vast collection of vinyl LPs, was a few hours of perfect bliss; it was as if I’d been allowed to relive someone else’s memory of the 40s, I was my very own Captain Jack in the war, imbued with all the romance and adventure of a bygone era I had hitherto never known for myself. It might sound dreamy and far-fetched in the retelling, but trust me when I say that moments like this are rare in anyone’s lifetime, and not to savour and exploit them would be a crime against oneself.
When the time came to leave Osea Island early on the Monday afternoon, our departure was with heavy hearts. We knew something very special had just happened, and that it would be a very long time before a discovery of such significant magnitude would come our way again. But the magic of this tiny island Arcadia lives on in my heart, and one day – if spared – I will return. I only hope not a pebble on its beaches changes in the meantime.