Saturday, 31 May 2008

The mystery of Wellfleet

Vagueness affected one of Essex’s best known oysters, the Wellfleet. There is no town called Wellfleet at all. It was an area of water which produced a green tinged oyster, reputedly the best in the area and commanded premiums at the London markets even if no one was too sure where it came from. John Gay, better known as author of the original Beggars Opera, mentions them in a poem written at the start of the 18th century

Be sure observe where brown ostrea stands,
Who boasts her shelly ware from Wellfleet Sands

But writing in 1594 John Norden, an Essex historian reported:

“Some part of the sea shore of Essex yealdeth the beste oysters in England, which are called Walflete oysters: so called of a place in the sea; but of which place in the sea it is, hath been some disputation. And by the circumstances that I have observed thereof in my travail, I take it to be the shore which lieth betwene St. Peter's chappell and Crowch the bredthe onlie of Denge hundred, through which upon the verie shore, was erected a wall for the preservation of the lande. And thereof St. Peter's on the wall. And all the sea shore which beateth on the wall is called Walfleet. And upon that shore on, and not elswher, but up in Crouche creeke, at the ende of the wall, wher also is an ilande called commonlie and corruptlie Walled (but I take it more trulie Wallflete) Island, wher and about which ilande thys kinde of oyster abonndeth. Ther is greate difference betwene theis oysters and others which lie ypon other shores, for this oyster, that in London and els wher carieth the name of Walflete is a little full oyster with a verie greene finn. And like vnto theis in quantetie and qualitie are none in this lande, thowgh farr bigger, and for some mens diettes better.”

Doubtless the oystermen knew exactly where the Wellfleet beds were, but were too canny to let on. Dengie 100 is a peninsula to the east of modern day Chelmsford bounded by the North Sea to the east, The River Crouch to the south and the River Blackwater to the north. It is recognised in the Domesday Book and has been settled since the Iron Age.

Ownership of land, however bloodily fought over has eventually proved decisive, but a few feet, even a few inches of water is enough to leave any tenure apparently open to perpetual dispute. The motives, good and bad, of the land based legislators evaporate on the water and where in the short term that has usually meant profit, in the longer term it is the beds themselves that have suffered. The Wellfleet vanished centuries ago.