Take a trip to the tiny island that time forgot
AS THE River Blackwater retreats, the forbidding landscape reveals an ancient causeway snaking its way through damp mud flats and slimy green seaweed to Essex's best-kept secret, Osea Island.
Lost in time, the environment seems eerie, even haunting. A battered sign reminds you that nature rules here with the warning: "Danger, tidal causeway. Authorised vehicles only."
Since the rocks were first laid on the 1000-yard path during the Roman conquest of Great Britain 2,000 years ago, the tiny island has captured the imagination of visitors.
In its past Osea has been a Viking burial ground, a secret World War One navy base used to train elite motor torpedo boat captains known as 'scimmers', an exclusive rehab clinic visited by the late Amy Winehouse, and now a secluded holiday retreat offering a real castaway-style experience.
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The ephemeral pathway is the only road linking the island to mainland Essex open for just two four hour periods each day while the tide is out – once you're on the island the rest of the world is nothing more than a memory.
Horror movie plot lines jump into your head as you approach the island – a misguided journalist turns up on a secluded island on the hunt for an exclusive, but after a showdown with the hostile natives will he ever make it out alive?
But all thoughts of misadventure and cold-blooded murder are promptly dispelled on meeting Nigel Freida, the brother of celebrity hairdresser John Freida and proud owner of Osea.
Nigel owns a string of recording studios in London where acts like The Rolling Stones, The Smiths, Bryan Ferry and Oasis have all recorded their albums, and the father-of-four spends his time between Osea and London.
And although legally binding, ownership is a conflicting idea for the music mogul.
"I see myself as the custodian, not the owner," Nigel declared. "I want the island to be enjoyed by plenty of people, I understand that I am just the latest page in the island's history."
White picket fences and closed boarded houses line the tiny village on the island – this is the Essex that us Essex folk have been telling everyone else about for years.
Osea boasts a ten-bedroom manor house and 17th century farm buildings which are clustered together at the centre of the island, set 30 feet above sea level.
Through its history Osea has seen a number of transformations – from barracks to "drying out" clinic to nursing home, and now a bustling holiday resort frequented by families and couples who are attracted to the idea of that extra bit of privacy and freedom.
"More than anything, Osea provides space for visitors to clear their heads and reconnect with what's important," said Nigel. "We say to people that it's a place to come and reboot the soul.
Nigel has owned the island on the River Blackwater since 2004 when, panic-stricken by the news his favourite holiday destination would be sold, he bought the land for around £6 million from The Coles, an eccentric old couple who were moving to the mainland.
Mr Cole used to live in the large house on the island built during the First World War, which was also lived in by Captain AJ Agar who won the Victoria Cross while living in the house – now a 16-sleeping dwelling still named 'The Captain's House'.
Mr Cole bought the entire island in 1966, but sold it to Cambridge University ten years later before buying it back in 1984 – he retained the Captain's House until 2012 before selling his home to Nigel.
"When I heard that the island would be sold I just thought 'oh no, I can't visit the island anymore' and with that in mind I just went ahead and bought it with no real long term plan. It was rushed but I couldn't let it slip into the wrong hands," said Nigel.
His love affair with the island started after local singer-songwriter Colin Lloyd-Tucker turned up at one of Nigel's studios talking about a small village near where he lived that was surrounded by the river.
"After Colin had told me about it I felt I just needed to visit out of curiosity and after coming once I was determined to keep visiting.
"With no light pollution here you can see every star in the sky – it's truly spellbinding," added Nigel.
Creative types have escaped to the island for over 100 years, with artists and painters visiting from London for a slice of peace and quiet. This was before it was bought by Frederick Charrington in 1903 and used as a retreat for Londoners seeking help for alcohol. As the story goes, Frederick Charrington, who owned Charrington breweries, sold his part in the business after seeing a man attack his wife outside a Mile End pub underneath a Charrington sign. Faced with the realisation of the pain he was causing he decided he couldn't continue owning the brewery.
During Word War One the island was requisitioned by the Admiralty for use as a top-secret naval base, denominated S.S. Osea (the ship that never sails).
So secret was its mission that people on the mainland had no idea of its existence until well after the war was over, despite having over 1,000 sailors billeted on the island. S.S. Osea was a base for elite motor torpedo boats, often referred to as 'submarine chasers' or 'scimmers'.
These 'scimmers' would attack enemy bases in the Baltic by travelling at speeds of up to 50mph, jumping over barriers used to protect their ports. They would aim to cause as much damage as possible before returning to the UK.
More recently the island has earned a reputation as a party island for the young and well-heeled, bolstered by recent national newspaper stories about celebrity gatherings.
Back in August actress Jaime Winstone, daughter of hardman actor Ray Winstone, socialite Poppy Delevingne and Ronnie Wood's son Tyrone Wood, were pictured enjoying a private party on the island, but this is a reputation Nigel is keen to dispel.
"Yes I admit the island is a superb place to throw a party," Nigel concedes.
"But that's a limited and superficial view of the island that reflects a few small events. It's perfect for privacy and to get away from it all. If you want to have a party then great. But most custom just comes from people who want to get away from it all, if even for a short while," he added.
Osea's tidal causeway was featured in the film remake of the famous theatre show, Woman In Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe and a new movie 'Creditors' is due to be shot there in the winter.
Film producer Ben Cura is making and starring in the film, based on a play by August Strindberg set in isolated northern Sweden, when a depressed husband, Adolf, is visited by his new friend, Gustav.
Adolf confides in his new friend Gustav about the suspected infidelity of his wife Tekla but what he doesn't know is that his new friend was once married to Tekla and now has come, like a creditor, to take her back.
Ben Cura, who starred opposite Rosario Dawson in Danny Boyle's Trance, said: "We chose the island because of its isolation from the outside world. Although it's just off mainland Essex, it feels remote and of a different time.
"It's a spectacular place, absolutely beautiful and perfect to film on. We see the island as almost another character in my story – that's how powerful the place needed to be and Osea truly delivered."
But Ben is not the only screen star to have visited the island; previous guests have included the actress Sienna Miller, while Andrew Lloyd Webber recently featured the island as the backdrop for filming 'Superstar'.
The island has two recording studios and artists like Jessie J, Tinie Tempah, McFly, Noah and the Whale, have recorded albums on the island in the last year, with Razorlight rock star Johnny Borrell taking a holiday here.
Osea's more recent history includes a more unfortunate episode when Brendan Quinn ran a £10,000-a-week rehab clinic on the island and was accused of mistreating vulnerable patients at the then called Causeway Retreat.
He has been suspended as a nurse and faces disciplinary action from the Care Quality Commission, which has been delayed until June 2014.
"I want to draw a line under that episode," says Nigel. "They were renting and have now left for good."
Osea, which has a circumference of just four miles, has a special ecology. It's the only place in the UK that is home to all five native species of owl, and depending on the time of year you might see any number of rare birds.
"The wildlife here is fantastic we have so many different types of birds. Also the island is great for fishing – the sea bass here are plenty and I love to fish here," enthused Nigel.
The unique fauna of the island has also won some high-profile fans. "I know of a restaurant in London where they serve an 'Osea cocktail' with freshly picked damsons from here. Isn't that great?" he says excitedly.
After such a colourful past what now for the future of Osea, under the supervision of Nigel?
"We know that a place like Osea needs to be shared but also protected. It's a great place to do outdoor activities so we can host children's Ray Mears style parties where kids can get in touch with nature and fall in love with it.
"We also want to take part in more culinary events. We know that Essex is a place for real foodies so we want to try and host culinary weekends – we have some restaurants in London that are interested in creating a pop-up restaurant here, with food all from Osea," added Nigel.
It was time to leave the Island – I had walked halfway around Osea in just a couple of hours.
And on leaving I become aware that I should saviour these moments – at the edge of Essex and stuck in time.
Driving back across the bumpy causeway the 21st century, with its e-mails, conference calls and angry motorists, hits you in the face and you remember just how wonderful it was to feel so isolated from the rest of the world.
Visit oseaisland.co.uk The management are keen to hear from anyone with history on the island before 1950.