Pyefleet House, Strood Close, Strood Villa

PYEFLEET HOUSE
Researched & compiled by Geoff Gonella

The building
Pyefleet House is the last-but-one house on the Strood before Mersea Island. Over the years it has also been named 'Strood Villa', 'Strood Close' and 'The Vicarage, Peldon.' At the time of the 1884 earthquake it was Strood Villa.

It was built in 1860 of stone and brickwork, and called Strood Villa at the time of the 1884 earthquake. The photograph shows damage from the 1884 earthquake. The house should have 3 chimneys, but only one remains and appears to have completely split. Also at the time of the earthquake, the house was the residence of Mr Hugh Green, the highly esteemed and wealthy surgeon of the district. The official report of the earthquake states: "...the house is literally split from end to end - there is not a sound wall either inside or outside standing. All the windows are smashed, the cap stone to the porch at the entrance is down, as also are the chimneys..." (1).
[Note by the Compiler: In this photograph some of the upper windows look intact.]

Social history
In 1878 Mr Hugh Green was the first chairman of the Tollesbury & Mersea Native Oyster Fishing Company Ltd., (which built the original Mersea Packing Shed in around 1890).  He was active in buying oyster brood stock, and sometimes lent the organisation his own money because the paid-up capital was not sufficient.  It appears that he did not get on with a fellow director, a Dr Salter, and when they met one day in the Peldon Road, their differences were resolved in a fist fight! (2). James Wentworth Day, the highly respected countryman and author of countryside books, recalled this about Mr Green:

"A fine old country medico, he always rode about on a great sixteen-hand horse, dressed in a full-bottomed coat with a beaver hat on his head. He knew every fisherman, farmer, and wildfowler for miles. He brought their babies into the world, saw the parents out of it. and never dunned any man for his bill. His fees were counted in half-crowns, and his charity was abounding.

When this grand old sportsman , who hunted and shot to the last, finally went to heaven there was a sale of his effects. And the quantity of wines, gin, brandy, and rum found in his cellars was a matter for praise and thanksgiving." (3)

The Grimes family lived there from around 1945 until 1948. Son Gerald kept a Blog about his father's career, the paintings & illustrations he produced, and life on the Strood in those years. Below is a composite of his Blog posts (4):

"My father Leslie Grimes was a cartoonist and proficient painter, doing work for a London evening paper right through the war and beyond. Near to the end of the war he moved the family to Strood Villa, as it was known then.

'Grimey' at work in his studio at Strood Villa

James Wentworth Day, the highly respected countryman and author of countryside books, was a frequent visitor to the house. It was a beautiful, tranquil and completely unspoilt without a jet-ski in sight. I count myself very lucky to have spent my boyhood sailing boats in Pyefleet Creek and riding bicycles around the countryside.

Our family dog Roger was a mongrel black Labrador. With the cooperation of the local bus crews, he learned how to catch the bus to Colchester from the bus stop outside our house and spend a few days with his girlfriends before catching the bus back from a busy bus station! We would hear the bus arrive and he would quietly sneak in, tail between his legs, for he knew he was in for a couple of days on the end of a chain. He loved the water and would swim for pleasure, which was handy because he normally stank of mud. As he was so fond of the sea I would take him out in my sailing dinghy and he seemed to enjoy it. I had to take care though, because if I wanted to go alone he would try to join me in the boat. His other hobby was trying to catch rabbits on the far side of the field behind the house - he would charge in a straight line gathering speed all the way, but when he got near they would step aside, and as he was going too fast, he would skid and somersault for the next twenty yards or so just like in the Disney cartoons. A dog of all dogs...an Essex dog.

We moved there to be close to the Colchester military hospital, where my oldest brother was sent having been badly wounded during the Normandy invasion. For us youngsters it was heaven being surrounded by marshes back and front, and high tide sometimes coming up to a few yards from the front door. We sailed On the Blackwater and the Colne, both being within easy reach depending on the tides. The house had been fortified with sand bags to act as a checkpoint for the causeway, and after the war we children had to move the many hundreds of sandbags and several gun emplacements. It was hard work bringing it back into a decent state, but once it was done it was 'Swallows and Amazons' time again! In the 1940s there was only one other house there, and not many tourists. The locals would tell them the salt flats were highly dangerous and could swallow them up instantly, so it was rare to see anybody out there except the odd marsh-man. At certain high tides part of the road would be under water, and drivers would knock and ask if we had a phone (before mobiles); they didn't realise that the water was deep enough to flood their engines.

In the bad winter of 1947 a snowdrift covered the front of the house right up to the upstairs windows due to the heavy winds, and all was dark inside. We were cut off for a while until the road was cleared, but the marshes opposite were covered in thick ice bought in by the tide.

I even slept in our extremely cosy tack room, as I had very muddy boots on most of the time. One of my younger brothers ran away and lived in a tent out on the Pyefleet marshes for some months; I would have joined him but art school beckoned. It was a sad day when we moved to London and our paradise was sold."

West Mersea resident Anthea Wade looks back on many visits to the house in the 1950s and 60s:

'My grandparents Edward and Gwendoline Harding bought the house in 1948, and in those days it was called 'Strood Close'. My Great Grandmother also lived there, until she died in 1953.  Grandfather had a solicitors practice in Leicester, working there during the week and returning at weekends. He loved cars and driving, so he did not mind the drive back and forth, but during the Suez crisis he went there and back on a motorcycle as it used a great deal less petrol.  I distinctly remember the phone number of the house: Peldon 228.

Edward and Gwendoline Harding

Anthea Harding - on the wall that came down in the flood

A previous owner was an artist, Mr Leslie Grimes, who used the upper floor of the outbuilding as a studio. As a young child I found it quite intimidating to go up the stairs into the studio as there were red footprints painted from the top of the stairs up the wall and along the ceiling to the loft hatch.  Outside the side entrance to the house he had drawn a scull & cross-bones in the cement, as well as other things that I can't remember.

Grandmother, a vicar's daughter, was a very 'Victorian' lady, with strict house rules and routines to keep the substantial house and gardens in good order. She kept a warm friendly home and it was a delight for me to visit, usually many times a week when at school in Colchester. I often went in for tea, getting off the bus outside the house. My grandmother lived there for 20 years. She moved in 1968 in her late 70s, because she found the house too large for one person, my grandfather having died some five years earlier. She sold the house to the Church Commission and it became the Peldon vicarage for a few years while the one in Church Road Peldon was under change. The Church Commission eventually sold the house to a family called Tate.

Until the death of my grandfather, Christmas Day was always spent there and I have some wonderful memories of those days.

Next door is Strood House, which was occupied by the King family at the time my grandparents lived in Strood Close. They had several older girls but I was friendly with Priscilla as she was my age. There was also a son named Sebastian who was younger. They kept goats and gave my grandparents milk from them. Mr King was a dentist in Colchester. After the Kings the Bint family moved in.

Traffic on the Strood was very sparse. One Bank Holiday, Grandfather decided to count the cars over the afternoon. After counting 200 going in one direction or the other he exclaimed, 'It's too busy - we'll have to move'. Thankfully they didn't. The traffic back then included a Corona Man calling at the house to sell bottled drinks and top-up the soda syphon, and a milkman - I don't recall the company but it did not use a horse and cart.

Over the road was the bungalow 'Mehalah', although very different to the one that is there now. In the 1953 floods the people there ended up on the roof, where they spent the night until they were rescued.

Between Mersea Island and the mainland is Ray Island, which could be reached by a pathway which went across the marshes, starting opposite the house. It was always fun to go there for picnics or just for a walk to explore the island.  I remember the time it caught fire and the whole island was destroyed of its vegetation, despite the efforts of Firemen from Mersea who went across the marshes to try to fight the fire.  I believe this happened on several occasions over the years. Bonner's Barn did not exist in those days.

The view from the side of the house was of a large garden with a gardener and a high surrounding brick wall, which was a sea defence for the house. Beyond this was the Pyefleet Channel, looking more or less as it does today, but there were two boats - an old lighter in the field below the sea wall about ½ mile away that was full of adders in the winter (hibernating) and further on round the sea wall was an old boat with a home-made shed on it; an old man lived in there and he occasionally sold fish.

It must have been quite difficult for my grandmother when the 1953 floods came. Grandfather was away at work, so it fell on my grandmother to move furniture and other items on her own. The water was well over 3ft deep on the outer wall and 3 or 4 feet deep in the house in places.  The wall built across the garden near the bottom to make an enclosed vegetable plot came down as it was not strong enough to withstand the water.  It was never re-built.

On visits when there was a high tide, I would often sit at the top of the steps to the cellar and watch the water come into the cellar from a tidal stream that ran under the house. There was a hole in the floor and the water would sometimes rise to floor level, sometimes over the floor to the first steps that led up into the hall of the house and occasionally it came up two or three steps. All very exciting for a small child but must have been very worrying for my grandmother as in the flood of 1953 this was the way the water first came into the house, not through the outside doors. This stream has now been diverted and no longer runs under the house. The wide dyke next to the road near Strood House was dug to provide spoil for the sea wall that runs behind.

As a youngster I was told of various tales about the Strood, including the ghost of the Roman centurian, and I loved reading the book 'Mehalah, A Story of the Salt Marshes' by S. Baring-Gould."

Note by the Compiler: The old man in the shed was known to children as 'Old Mushy'. He taught some of them how to set nets for flounders. (5)


Sources of information:
(1) Mersea Museum lantern slide, ID IA004741
(2) Mersea Island Packing Shed Trust: www.packing-shed.org.uk/history.htm
(3) 'Marshland Adventure' by J. Wentworth Day, 1950, pages 212-13.
(4) Gerald Grimes's blog 'GERALDGEE' - geraldgee.blogspot.co.uk (controlled, and occasionally used, by son Jonathan Grimes).
(5) In conversation with Councillor John Jowers, 2017.

Author: Geoff Gonella

Related Images

 Anthea Harding sitting on the wall at her grandparent's house - 'Strood Close' on the Peldon side of the Strood. This wall came down in the 1953 flood.  AW02_001_126AW02_001_126
Anthea Harding sitting on the wall at her grandparent's house - 'Strood Close' on the Peldon side of the Strood. This wall came down in the 1953 flood.
Before February 1953
 Gwendoline and Edward Harding outside their home - Strood Close, The Strood, Peldon. They named the house Strood Close. They had bought the house from cartoonist Leslie Grimes 1948/49. When they sold it in 1969, it was to the Church of England, and the house became The Vicarage, Peldon 2 or 3 years. The Tate family later named the house Pyefleet House.  AW02_003AW02_003
Gwendoline and Edward Harding outside their home - Strood Close, The Strood, Peldon. They named the house Strood Close. They had bought the house from cartoonist Leslie Grimes 1948/49. When they sold it in 1969, it was to the Church of England, and the house became The Vicarage, Peldon 2 or 3 years. The Tate family later named the house Pyefleet House.
1950s
ID: PH01_PFH


This item is part of the Mersea Island Museum Collection. The information is accurate as far as is known, but the Museum does not accept responsibility for errors.