In the Footsteps of the Swallows and Amazons: Crossing the Red Sea


Hamford Water with wreck of a barge [Photo by J Dean via, CC BY-SA 2.0]

You’ll start with a blank map, that doesn’t do more than show roughly what’s water and what isn’t. You’ll have your tents, stores, everything we’d got ready when we thought we were all going together. You’ll be just a wee bit better off than Colombus. And with all the practice you’ve had at exploring, I think you’ll do pretty well. But you’ll be marooned fair and square…

(Arthur Ransome: Secret Water)

So says Captain Walker to his children, after the First Lord of the Admiralty throws a spanner in the Walker family holiday plans (for a brief synopsis of Secret Water see my recent post) and the children duly get dumped on a tidal island with a blank map that they intend to fill in before their parents come back to collect them.

Unlike their first holiday in the Lake Disctrict in Swallows and Amazons, this is not mere ‘idle’ camping; it’s a full blown mapping expedition, often knee-deep in mud, with compasses and surveying poles. And if the resulting map perhaps is ‘not up to the standard of the ordnance survey’, as Ransome put it, it’s still fully recognisable when comparing it to a modern map of the area.

The Secret Archipelago Expedition

In my edition of Secret Water, the fully detailed hand-drawn map comes right after the title page. It is a meticulous pencil drawing and as soon as you look at the neighbourhood of Harwich – Ransome names the village of Pin Mill in the very first sentence of the book – on a modern map, you will be able to spot where Secret Water is located.

Secret Water

It is Hamford Water National Nature Reserve, south of Harwich, near the town of Walton on the Naze:

Hamford Water (Ordnance Survey map)

Since this is the story of a mapping expedition Ransome very handsomely provides us with the blank map of the area where the children are marooned as well as several of the later versions as the map is gradually filled in with more and more details. (Click to enlarge gallery.)

Hamford Water is an area of small tidal waterways and mudflats exposed at low tide with a large central island: Horsey Island, named Swallow Island in the book, where the children camp. The ‘native kraal’ (a farm) is still on the island as are the dykes where Bridget acted sentry. At high tide you can navigate around in a boat; at low tide you can reach the island on foot via a causeway leading to it from the south – from the direction of Kirby le Soken (follow the imaginatively named Island Road).

Hamford Water is also an area where seals like to hang out so you can visit it on one of the regular seal spotting trips out of Harwich harbour.

Crossing the Red Sea: The Egyptians

The bit of road with the four posts on it, in the middle of the Wade, was shorter than it had been. At each end of it was a widening channel of water… And the water was rising, rising fast. Crossing the Wade in the morning, Titty in imagination had been under water, looking up at the keels of boats passing overhead. And now they were not Israelites, crossing dryshod, but Egyptians. They were trapped there in the middle of the sea. They could go neither forward nor back and must wait there, watching the narrow island of the road shrink under their feet.

Those of you who have read Secret Water will no doubt recall the part in the plot when the children cross over the causeway to do some shopping in the nearby town – that would be Walton-on-the-Naze. They left the island at low tide, walking safely across the ‘Red Sea’ just as the Israelites had done in the Bible. A few hours later they returned to the island in two separate groups: the first group, being in time, crossed the Wade safely again, but the second, being too late, got cut off on the causeway by the tide, very much in the manner of the biblical pharaoh and his Egyptians.

She glanced over her shoulder towards the mainland and then forward again to the low line of the island dyke at the other side of the Red Sea. The mainland already looked a long way behind them, but the island seemed hardly any nearer than it had seemed before they had started over the mud.

It was going to be all right, so long as those two did not get frightened.

But already there was water in those curling channels in the mud. And out in the middle of the Red Sea she could see that the water was close to the narrow brown line of the road. Away to the east where in the morning the mud had stretched almost to the opening of the Straits of Magellan there was water. Away to the west a wide river stretched to Goblin Creek.

Gosh! If only they were more than half way across. She looked back again. Suppose they were too late and the waters met across the road, would they be able to get back to the mainland? If only she knew how fast the tide came in.

Crossing the Red Sea: The Israelites

Naturally, we could not leave the area without attempting the crossing. The seal spotting trip on Saturday was all very well but crossing the Red Sea was the real thing.

With low tide being at 8 o’clock we had to get up half six on Sunday morning to reach the causeway in time to be able to attempt the crossing. I’m glad to report that we crossed like the Israelites rather the Egyptians (it wouldn’t have been very funny to have to swim for it in December in the North Sea)!

This was a trip of Ransome aficionados (all right, Young Friend of the Elephants and myself are the aficionados, Mr Anglo-Saxonist was merely humouring us) and I wouldn’t recommend it to the general public. But the exposed mudflats turned out to have a wholly unexpected beauty in the early morning winter light and as we followed the causeway to the island and back we were accompanied by the distant barking of the seals. After our return to the mainland we even had a brief chat with the current ‘native’ of the ‘kraal’, who had just driven across the causeway in his Land Rover – he was surprisingly unsurprised that we seemed to have nothing better to do on a Sunday morning than churn mud on the Wade…

(Click to enlarge the gallery.)

If you’re a fan of Arthur Ransome’s Secret Water and ever find yourself in the vicinity… go for it!

How to Cross the Red Sea

1. Need I say it? At low tide. As Titty, Roger and Bridget found to their cost, the tide comes in very fast over the flats and some of the deeper channels in the mud never actually dry out. 
2. The crossing takes 20 minutes at a relaxed pace, stopping for photos. Obviously 20 minutes back as well, unless you want to spend 12 hours on the island (in summer perhaps)...
3. Local tide timetable: Harwich Haven Authority 
4. Unless you're happy to get your feet wet, you need ankle high, waterproof walking boots as a minimum; you might prefer wellies. Even at low tide, you will wade in ankle deep water and mud at several points on the causeway.
5. I wouldn't advise wandering off the causeway - the mud is really deep on both sides.
6. Afterwards it's a short walk to Walton-on-the-Naze where there is a train station; coaches run on the main road leading to Walton. Once in Walton, go for a bit of fossil hunting in the Naze or, weather permitting, a swim in the sea from its sandy beaches.

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One thought on “In the Footsteps of the Swallows and Amazons: Crossing the Red Sea

  1. Pingback: December 27th 2019 – Weekly Roundup of Members Posts | Blogging Meetup

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