A BABY seal wriggles away from its mum, bombs it down the mudflat and plops into the water, where it swims with surprising grace.
Sitting on a 24ft sailing boat, doused in sea spray and surrounded by a vast colony of seals, it’s hard to believe that we’re only two hours away from London.
Sunset on the beach at West Mersea, Essex[/caption]
But there’s not a vajazzle or slot machine in sight on our trip. We’re here to explore unspoilt estuaries and quiet coastline — the unexpected side of this county.
Our weekend starts with a hearty breakfast in the beautiful Victorian Pier Hotel in Harwich, the northernmost coastal town in Essex and where the Mayflower set sail from on its voyage to America.
Stomachs stuffed with fry-ups and pastries, we step straight out on to the jetty opposite and head for the Hamford Water Nature Reserve for some seal watching.
The company promises “see seals or your money back”, but they can’t be giving out many refunds, as we are quickly surrounded by a group of harbour seals. Their cute, puppy-like faces bob out of the water, their fur stained orange by the iron-rich mud of the Thames Estuary.
Fire pits . . . hot tubs
In a nature reserve of more than 5,000 acres — made up of salt flats, marshes and creeks — the seals certainly have plenty of space to splash around in. Arthur Ransome set one of his novels here, and the place does have a very Swallows And Amazons feel to it.
We’re asked to keep our voices down — no mean feat for my boys, Ralph and Rufus, aged four and six and blessed with voices like foghorns — as we go closer to a colony of grey seals, so as not to disturb the newborn pups.
Incredibly, Britain is home to almost half the population of the world’s grey seals, but the closest we’d come to seeing them until now was at London Zoo.
The boys excitedly peer out through the binoculars, spotting seals, buoys, boats and birds.
Idyllic clapboard cottage[/caption]
On the way back to Harwich there was a moment of excitement as our engine ground to a halt, but the crew managed to fix it well enough for us to pootle back slowly to shore, and we crossed our fingers that it wouldn’t totally give up the ghost.
Having worked up an appetite, we jumped in the car and drove an hour back across Essex to the Lock Tearoom at Heybridge Basin, where we took in a view of the canal with our scones, clotted cream and jam.
Afterwards we headed south towards Maldon and the Osea Meadows campsite, set next to the stunning Blackwater Estuary. Water was definitely the theme of the weekend, but sadly this extended to the weather and the heavens opened in the evening.
We stayed in a cosy wooden hut called a Malvern Pod. Every pod comes with a barbecue and a fire pit and some also boast hot tubs and large decked areas — the perfect place for an evening drink.
The next day we drove to the Essex Outdoors Centre for a boat trip across the Blackwater Estuary.
Colourful beach huts at Mersea Island[/caption]
We hopped aboard a motor boat, which roared through the water, much to the delight of my sons, who thought they were in a James Bond film — until the boat broke down. This was turning into a recurring theme. Fortunately, our skipper Meyrick radioed for back-up and we were quickly rescued by a slick white sailing boat.
We tacked across the estuary towards Mersea Island, with Meyrick patiently explaining to the boys what the different ropes do.
Our six-year-old was beside himself with excitement when he was allowed to take the tiller and steer us into Mersea Island.
We moored 50 metres from the jetty, surrounded by small yachts, and the odd paddleboarder. From there we had a good view of Mersea, which is connected to the rest of Essex by a causeway which is sometimes covered by high tides. With the rain thankfully holding off, we had a go at crabbing. The boys loved throwing bacon over the side, waiting for them to take the bait then carefully hauling up the lines teeming with crabs.
We caught 66 but instead of turning them into crab sandwiches, we put them back before tucking into the picnic Meyrick had brought.
After stuffing ourselves with sandwiches and yet more scones and cream, we headed back across the estuary. Diving into our car just as the rain began, we headed back to London, sure of one thing: When it comes to weekends by the sea, the only way IS Essex.
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STAYING THERE: Two nights in a glamping royal pod at Osea Meadows starts at £164.
FOODIE FUN: Enjoy fresh fish at The Pier Hotel, Harwich. see milsomhotels.com/the-pier/
Lucca Enoteca offers decent Italian fare, see luccafoods.co.uk.
The Lock Tea Room serves up afternoon tea, see tiptree.com.
The Mistley Thorn has award-winning dining.