Mountaineering in Essex and Dancing in Donegal

Mersea Island on the Essex Riviera
Mersea Island on the Essex Riviera

As you are doubtless aware, Mersea Island is home to the 20,728th highest peak in the United Kingdom. At an elevation of 21 metres, altitude sickness is a real problem for those fearless mountaineers prepared to tackle its treacherous slopes. Situated on the subtropical island of Mersea, Barrow Hill, is one of Essex’s most understated but challenging mountains. The month of July presents a small window of opportunity where one might reasonably contemplate making a dash for the summit without necessarily resorting to oxygen or a team of sherpas. 

This summer, we have decided to take our lives in our hands and it is with immeasurable pride that I share with you the news that Teigan has decided to become the youngest person thus far to make it to the top. I understand that some of you will question our devil-may-care attitude and careless parenting skills. Some may consider our actions to be downright reckless, but it is important that safety considerations are tempered with a spirit of excitement and zest for adventure. For the purposes of this expedition, we have rented a caravan in East Mersea which boasts beautiful views of the muddy waters of the Colne Estuary and the greyness of the North Sea beyond. From ‘base camp’ we will wait for a clearing in the cloud and then embark upon our climb. Holidaying in the UK is full of such opportunities. 

In all honesty, the thought of holidaying in a caravan fills me with trepidation. One hears of horror stories – dramatic breakups or overflowing chemical toilets. If it is a typical English summer, then our holiday will probably offer a fantastic opportunity to watch drops of rain meander down the steamed up windows whilst we argue over Uno or Scrabble. For me at least, a holiday on the Essex Riviera is full of nostalgia and the opportunity to relive childhood memories. Moreover, those of our friends who have booked holidays abroad are waiting nervously to see if their flights will take off. The other day, one of our colleagues received a curt email from a travel company to inform him that his family holiday had been cancelled. Consequently, apart from a short trip to Ireland, we will be remaining in the UK throughout July and August. In any case, between the spectacular beauty of Cumbria and Fiona’s family farm in County Galway, there will be plenty for our children to enjoy. Barbeques, messing around on the lakes, trips to the Aran Islands, watching dolphins in Doolin Harbour, playing with cousins, staying up far too late as the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean – all of this seems more attractive than passing through Terminal 3 at Manchester Airport on the way to some overpriced and crowded hotel in the sun…..or so I tell myself. 

Barrow Hill - Mersea Island - Mountaineering in Essex
Barrow Hill – Mersea Island One of the few days of the year when the summit is clearly visible from ground level

All joking aside, our children just want to have a fun holiday and that means embracing new experiences and ensuring plenty of activities. For a five year old, everything new constitutes an adventure; whether that means camping in the back garden or staying a night at the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai. I think parents sometimes feel under pressure to take their children on exotic holidays and often run the risk of financially crippling themselves in the process. There is little correlation between financial cost and childlike fun. After a long year, the summer holidays provide an opportunity to reconnect as a family and simply enjoy spending time together. It does not need to be a time of frenetic international travel.

Working parents do an incredible job and it is never easy to juggle professional responsibilities with homelife. We deserve to give ourselves a break from time to time and, sometimes, that means keeping things simple and not travelling to the ends of the earth in order to seek what might be on our doorstep or in the mountainous terrain of north Essex. 

Those who do like the idea of a campervan should take inspiration from Fiona’s old university friend Carrie Buggans. She and her husband were something of a publishing sensation in Ireland last year when they published their bumper 60 meal-cookbook called ‘Camping Soul Food’. This book celebrates their love of soul music, appreciation of fine food and enjoyment of the campervan lifestyle. According to the Irish Mirror, ‘the book aims to re-stir that sense of adventure through its recipes which are all paired with a song so you can dance along while you cook’. I will have to try this over the summer. However, given that I am a poor cook and a worse dancer, the thought of doing both in combination is probably nothing more than a recipe for disaster. 

The Buggans Family 

Still, this sums up the difference between Fiona and me. Her friends publish achingly cool books about feng shui, soul music and fashion,  whilst my friends write books about the use of allegory in the poetry of John Dryden and Edmund Spenser. Opposites really do attract.


Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School


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