Oyster ceremony back on dry land after 200 years

A TRADITIONAL ceremony to open Colchester’s famous oyster fisheries has been held on dry land for the first time in nearly 200 years.

The annual event which marks the beginning of the oyster season is usually held on board a boat in the Pyefleet Channel, but this year it took place by the beach because the mayor gets seasick.

Mayor of Colchester Borough Council Sonia Lewis said she had offered to stand down because she was unable to fulfil the custom which sees the mayor dredging for the first oysters on the first Friday in September.

She was eventually persuaded to take part in the event on dry land at Cudmore Grove Country Park in East Mersea because of the historical significance of the location.

“We are near to the old Blockhouse which is where they held trials for fishermen who dredged for oysters between April and September,” she said. “It is also where they held the first opening ceremonies for the oyster season.”

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“I enjoyed the ceremony very much and it was all the more special because, during my 22 years on the council, I have never been able to attend before. I have a disability which means I get disorientated on tidal waters.

“I don’t think we are breaking with tradition because what anchors this event is receiving the proclamation and that is what we have done. I have finally been able to pay my respects to the oyster fishermen.”

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Colchester Borough Council’s ownership of the fishery dates back to the Charter of 1189 and the traditional opening ceremony dates back to 1540.

Historian Andrew Phillips supports the idea that when the ceremony originally took place 470 years ago it was on dry land and moved to the sea about 180 years ago.

He said: “Not many people realise that the event used to take place in the Blockhouse and then there was a dance on the beach afterwards. This practise stopped in the 1830s before gradually becoming a ceremony held at sea.”

The Proclamation, an ancient tongue-twister, was read by Chief Executive Adrian Pritchard to officially declare the fishery open for the season. The Mayor then raised the loyal toast to The Queen, accompanied by drinking gin and eating gingerbread.

The mayor of West Mersea John May offered the first oyster to his Colchester counterpart which she ate and described as “an interesting experience”.

The Mayor, Chief Executive and the Town Serjeant were decked out in full regalia and it was formally witnessed by around 50 guests.

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