The Tollesbury salt marshes are situated at the estuary of Essex’s River Blackwater
ITV’s psychological thriller series Liar wowed audiences with its labyrinthine plot twists as it followed the fallout from a first date between schoolteacher Laura Nielson and surgeon Andrew Earlham.
The performances of the actors who portrayed them – Joanne Froggatt of Downton Abbey fame and Ioan Gruffudd, who first made his name in the naval epic Hornblower – also impressed the critics.
But one of the most memorable sequences in the six-parter that ended with a bang last night did not feature anyone holding an Equity card – it was the stunning aerial footage of the Tollesbury salt marshes.
The irregularly shaped mud banks topped by samphire and sea heather and surrounded by water resembled the patterns of the human brain and few viewers recognised the location as native to these shores.
The marshes are situated at the estuary of Essex’s River Blackwate
In fact the marshes are situated at the estuary of Essex’s River Blackwater, where it meets the North Sea near Mersea Island, and since the series got under way last month visitors have been flocking to Tollesbury Saltings marina to see for themselves this eerie, almost lunar, landscape.
A worker at the Harbour View bistro and bar, sited at the marina, said this week: “We’ve had a lot more tourists than usual arriving since the start of the series in September. Lots of visitors have been telling us that they have come to explore the area after seeing it on TV.”
The marshes’ distinctive topography is caused by the disparate flows of water created by the area’s large tidal range forming a wide array of channels and creeks.
During high spring tides the mud banks are submerged.
The bright red lightship moored on the river Blackwater at the Tollesbury salt marshes
The history of the Tollesbury marshes dates back to the Iron Age.
During that period and the Roman era that followed, they were part of a thriving salt production industry.
In the days before refrigeration, salt played a vital role in preserving meat for winter use, especially the pork beloved of the Celts.
Our primitive forebears would collect seawater in pottery pans typically measuring 2ft x 4ft and evaporate it to the point where it became a strong brine.
Tollesbury salt marshes have become a popular destination for tourists interested in water-sports
This was then transferred to pottery vessels or “briquetage” for boiling over a hearth to make salt cakes.
One by-product of this process is a succession of mounds known as “red hills” that survive to this day.
Formed from the detritus accumulated by generations of salt-makers, they derive their colour from the rubble of the clay structures that were scorched red by the fires used to evaporate the sea water.
However these days the area is best known as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of its importance to migratory birds.
Joanne Froggatt plays Laura Nielso, and Ioan Gruffudd plays Andrew Earlham in ITV’s series Liar
So how did the film-makers come to choose the Tollesbury marshes?
It turns out that Liar was originally intended to be set in Bath but the director James Strong was keen to find a “more visual” location.
Over to producer Eliza Mellor: “Two places we really liked were Deal [in Kent] with its pier and these marshes in Essex. On one of our first recess we had our cameraman Matt Gray with us and he had one of these small drones. He said, ‘I’d love to send it up and we can see what it looks like from a height.’”
Mellor continues: “He put the footage on his phone and we looked at it there and then. It looked so amazing. Because they are so tidal you get the water coming in and covering those marshes and then going out and leaving that muddy estuary. It does look extraordinary so we decided to combine the two locations.”
The performances of Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd have impressed critics
In addition to the bird’s-eye views of the marshes that accompanied Liar’s opening titles, viewers got a sea-level perspective as the camera followed Froggatt as she exorcised her impotent fury with her attacker by going for solitary kayaking trips.
And kayaking is not the only leisure pursuit that is big around Tollesbury.
Dinghy sailing is also popular as is stand-up paddle-boarding and creek jumping – or “getting as muddy as possible” as one local puts it.
One of Tollesbury’s most visible aquatic landmarks is Trinity, a converted floating lighthouse run by Fact – the Fellowship Afloat Charitable Trust – that offers a wide range of water-sports including rafting, rowing and power-boating.
The first serious attempt to kickstart the tourist trade in the area was made more than a century ago in 1904 with the construction of a 1.75-mile extension to the “Crab and Winkle Line” that ran between the villages of Kelvedon and Tollesbury.
However the route to Tollesbury Pier never attracted the passenger numbers it required and after being requisitioned by the army in the First World War to facilitate troop training on the river it was closed in 1921.
It was succeeded by a freight-only service from Kelvedon to Tiptree but this too was closed in 1962 because of the growing cost-effectiveness of road transport.
On the side of the last goods train to make the journey, someone chalked: “Crab and Winkle, sorry to say, you died because you did not pay.”
Given the impact of the Liar effect, perhaps it’s now time to revive the route.