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The Oystermen of Essex

Read the following article and collection of photography by Nicola Moyne, a writer and photographer, who talks about her connection to the sea, and when she captured oyster farmers off the Essex coast.

The ocean. I’m drawn to it. Magnetically lured like the moon into its inky swells and salty whisperings of something other. As a travel writer and photographer; sailor and would-be surfer, the endlessness of a tide-layered horizon is the linear frame that threads my adventures together. Whether I’m diving into the glittering emerald coves of Sardinia or slicing through Suffolk’s raw-edged ripples of silver, in the water is where you’ll find me. Which is how I came to capture the seafaring farmers of Maldon Oysters one crisp, sun-drenched morning. Arriving outside the packing plant in Cock Clarks just before dawn, the amber-shot sky and rising tendrils of mist remind me of early fishing expeditions I once enjoyed with my dad as a child. Born in London but bred in Essex, I grew up crabbing off the rocks in Leigh-on-Sea and swimming the sludge-coloured creeks of Canewdon, so shucking oysters on Maldon’s mud flats feels like something of a natural progression.

Though still low, the light falls in waves beyond a fringe of surrounding farmland and industrial units to reveal the 3,500 acres of salt marshes that map out one of the UK’s largest oyster beds. Commercially farmed since 1960, molluscs here are immersed in the grey-green waters of River Blackwater – a wide, meandering Essex estuary on loan from the ocean – for up to three years before being shipped off to the likes of Borough Market for a hit of lemon and tap of Tabasco. Hopping into a boat after taking a tour of the factory, I’m struck by how wild this corner of the county still feels; each stitch of sky, sea and land weaving its way into nature’s narrative. Shooting the farmers as they turn the beds and tread the briny channels and load their shell-sheathed wares into weatherworn crates, I envy this otherworldly everyday. We’re just 10 miles from Chelmsford’s buzzy city centre, but the watery terrain feels refreshingly untamed and my focus turns to capturing portraits of connection. The men speak little English. I know zero Polish. But as the heat of the morning sun bears down on our necks and our little rib bobs silently on a shimmering estuary surface, this ribbon of river unites us and the landscape becomes our language. Together, we hum along to an orchestra of birdsong that floats from upstream. We watch a sky smudged blush pink transform into a carpet of blazing blue. We smile at the dancing swallows that dip and dive in sun-dappled shadows beside us. Afterwards, I’m offered the largest oyster from the day’s catch to shuck fresh off the boat and, as the farmers sweetly clink their shells against my mine to toast our morning in the marsh, I realise I stopped shooting this seafaring series long ago. Because that’s the thing with connectivity, isn’t it? You have to be inside the frame to truly see.

Words & Photographs by Nicola Moyne | @nicolamoyne


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