Modern Essex is often thought of more in its southern urban areas adjacent to London. But the county is a real mix of urban and, particularly in the north of the county, a rural hinterland.
What is ‘The Essex Serpent’?
‘The Essex Serpent’ is a 2016 novel by British author Sarah Perry. A TV adaptation premiered on Apple TV in 2022.
The story follows the relationships of a group of Londoners, revolving around the fascinating widow Cora, and their interactions with the people and places of this part of Essex (roughly from the Stour to the Blackwater river estuaries).
It’s also about how they relate to reports of a mysterious riverine monster, the ‘Serpent’ of the title. Is it a myth? A real monster, or a living fossil?
Where is ‘The Essex Serpent’ set?
‘The Essex Serpent’ is set in north east Essex. Sarah Perry perfectly captures the feeling of this part of the county as a relative backwater in the late Victorian period. ‘What good is Colchester?’, asks a metropolitan character.
Perry brings alive the spirit of the landscape of small towns, villages, pink-painted houses, estuaries and marshes.
Here we look at some of the places from the book and filming locations in more detail.
Where is ‘The Essex Serpent’ TV show filmed? ‘Aldwinter’, Maldon and other locations
Cora stays with the family of a local vicar, Will Ramsome, at the fictional village of ‘Aldwinter’ on the Blackwater’s estuarine marshes or ‘saltings’.
If you’ve not yet read the book or seen the TV adaptation, I’ll avoid any spoilers on Cora’s interactions with the family members or encounters with the Serpent!
Since the village doesn’t exist, filming of ‘Aldwinter’ and its surrounding marshes and creeks for the TV series took place at Maldon, North Fambridge, Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Tollesbury, Alresford Creek near Brightlingsea and West Mersea.
Maldon and the area around it were Perry’s inspiration for the landscape of ‘Aldwinter’. It’s fitting that filming for the series took place at Hythe Quay, the adjacent (originally Edwardian) Promenade Park and other locations in the town.
There are several historic buildings near the quay, including Taylor and Son’s Sailmakers.
Filming also took in Silver Street and outside the Blue Boar Inn, an extraordinary complex of buildings whose oldest core goes back to the 14th century.
And although not central to the plot, we can’t let you go without mentioning that the actual historical Maldon was the scene of a battle between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in AD 991. The battle ended in a pyrrhic military victory for the Scandinavian invaders and a glorious epic poem in Old English marking a ‘moral victory’ by the Saxons.
From the book: Colchester inns and hotels
Many of the characters visit the largest town in the area, Colchester, staying in the George Hotel and the Red Lion, both located around the old High Street.
The George Hotel on the north side of the High Street was originally a medieval 15th-century building with two wings altered in the 17th and 18th centuries. The present frontage is from the 18th century, but it retains medieval beams and cellars.
While the more fashionable characters stay at the George, Cora and her possibly autistic son stay at the quirky Red Lion over on the south side of the High Street. This building was constructed as a townhouse around 1481 for the Duke of Norfolk. It was converted into an inn around 1500. It’s also said to be haunted.
Sadly many nearby fine old buildings were lost when a shopping precinct was built in the adjacent Lion Walk in the second half of the 20th century.
Colchester: Boudiccan references
Colchester was a major Roman settlement and might be England’s oldest recorded town. Its early incarnation was destroyed by the vengeful queen of the Iceni, Boudicca, and then rebuilt by the eventually victorious Romans.
Cora’s Bohemian appearance is compared to Boudicca when some characters meet in the town:
‘I would tell you it’s a pleasure to see you, though I never saw anyone more like a barbarian queen bent on pillage: is it necessary to emulate the Iceni just because you’re on their turf?’ … ‘Boudicca would be ashamed to be seen like this, I’m sure.’
Colchester: The Castle Museum
Colchester also boasts a massive Norman castle built on a Roman temple plinth, which houses a museum founded in 1860 with important collections. The characters, particularly the curious Cora, visit the museum during their stays in Colchester.
The castle was constructed to keep down the local Saxon population and defend against the threat of a specific attack from Scandinavia (which never materialised). In the masonry of the walls, you can still see the line of a preliminary battlement that was hastily constructed to meet that threat, then built over.
The castle site is not only fascinating in itself, but it is like a microcosm of many aspects of wider English history: Roman rise and fall, Norman castle building, besieged in the Barons’ Wars with King John, besieged again in the English Civil War between Royalist and Parliamentary forces, then used a prison for the innocent victims of ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins’ appalling persecutions.
The Colchester Earthquake
No, you didn’t misread that. There really was an earthquake around the Colchester area in 1884.
In the book, the main characters meet a man in Colchester who the earthquake has crippled. His house has been damaged too.
The earthquake damaged up to 1,200 buildings, especially at Wivenhoe, Abberton and Peldon.
In Colchester, damage included the collapse of the top of the Spire to the Church in Lion Walk. In 2019, a plaque was unveiled at the church to commemorate England’s most destructive earthquake, which was felt as far away as Ostend and Boulogne.
Cora’s fossil-hunting expeditions
Cora writes a letter to her friend in London explaining she’d been looking for fossils – ‘a sea dragon’ out at Walton-on-the-Naze and St Osyth (near Clacton).
We’re not told, but surely the observant Cora can’t have overlooked the Martello Tower at Walton, one of a network of towers built to guard against invasion during the Napoleonic Wars, or to have been charmed by the medieval ruins of St Osyth’s priory?
A gruesome decoration
When referring to an odd (fictional) carving of the Serpent in a church, the characters mention that it can’t compete with another more gruesome eastern counties curiosity, which is the supposed ‘skin of a Viking’ nailed to the door of Hadsctock church (in Essex but closer to Cambridge). There is also another alleged ‘Dane skin’ closer to home at St Michael’s, Copford, near Colchester.
These have recently been the subject of scientific analysis that has shown the skins to be animal hide rather than human skin, probably a decorative leather cover to the doors. I leave it up to you to feel either relieved or let down according to your natures.
Maritime wrecks and hulks
The wreck of the Leviathan outside the fictional ‘Aldwinter’ stands for the many blackened wrecks in estuaries and inter-tidal coastal areas that you can find around and off Essex.
Historic England’s maritime records recount the fate of vessels lost off Maldon.
The role of Historic England
Many of the beautiful old buildings and monuments mentioned are protected as listed buildings or scheduled monuments. You can find out more about them from the National Heritage List for England.