The secluded Essex island has been a playground for record companies and corporate events, but now it’s opening up, writes Sophie Morris
Osea Island, formerly Osey, is an inhabited island in the estuary of the River Blackwater
Rare seabirds pick across the thick mud of the Blackwater Estuary - between Maldon and Mersea Island - as we bump over the rugged causeway, a track pitted with waterlogged potholes and lined with bladderwrack. The Romans built the tidal road to connect Osea Island, a green lozenge of meadows, orchards, woodland and salt marsh 1.5 kilometres square, with the Essex mainland. But it’s only accessible at low tide, for around four hours each day and our taxi driver is concerned we’re cutting it a bit close. He tells the story of a recent near miss when a film crew using the causeway blocked his route. He didn’t recognise the man telling him he’d have to wait to cross back to the mainland. He has been doing the crossing for more than a decade and refused. It turned out to be Jude Law, who stars with Naomie Harris, Emily Watson and Paddy Considine in The Third Day, a psychological thriller set on Osea which begins on Sky and NOW TV tomorrow.
The island is owned by the music producer Nigel Frieda - John’s brother and Jordan’s uncle - and often used as a filming location. Both the 1981 and 2012 adaptations of The Woman In Black employed this bleak stretch of estuary as the fictional Nine Lives Causeway. In The Third Day, Osea is starring as herself for the first time, and delivers with aplomb. We make the same journey Law does in the first episode, but don’t watch if you’re prone to nightmares.
The Third Day has more than a flavour of The Wicker Man about it and Osea has a surreal, fixed-in-time quality which makes it perfect for the macabre story and hyper-real aesthetics. Thankfully, if you do miss the tide you can hop in a water taxi and from nearby Witham it’s a 40-mile, 50-minute journey into London Liverpool Street.
A secluded isle is an alluring prospect, and Osea blends a taste of Hamptons glamour with a British sensibility. Until now the island has been largely hidden from the public eye, hosting music industry parties and corporate functions. Last year Rihanna rented it to record her upcoming album. Given the impossibility of holding big events, Osea is opening up to civilians (me and you) with more self-catering accommodation and a new restaurant and oyster bar, which you can visit for the afternoon and evening. It is the first time day visitors have been permitted on the island. Its near neighbour Northey Island is run by the National Trust. Once over the causeway we drive to the “Village”, a collection of clapboard cottages decorated with a luxe, seaside-y aesthetic. After a brief walk along a shaded road we emerge to the sandy south shore, where an outdoor swimming pool, surrounded by white Adirondack chairs, deepens the sense we’re closer to Massachusetts than Maldon, but the food in Osea’s new restaurant is as local as can be. Native, a small London restaurant known for its ethical focus, has taken flight from its London Bridge base to overwinter here.
The plan is to tell the story of the island’s biodiversity through a multi-course tasting menu. We begin overlooking the water with some of the area’s plentiful oysters - salty, creamy and large - with pickles, fig leaf cream and a glass of Nyetimber. Next we’re ushered into a walled orchard and served chicken liver toasts with beads of damson jelly.
Native is run by chef Ivan Tisdall-Downes and front of house Imogen Davis. Their ambition is a “closedloop” restaurant where the dining experience is as local and as seasonal as possible. If this sounds fussy or restrictive, it isn’t. The whole thing is much more an adventure than a lecture, and when the restaurant opens fully at the end of October guests can come to Osea for the full menu experience at a cost of £75, or £95 including transport across the water.
Osea is refined but not prissy. Families cycle round the coastal path and there’s a range of accommodation including a clubhouse, apartments and two large properties sleeping up to 22.
There is also an underbelly to the island’s reputation; the Causeway Retreat rehab centre - accused of duping its celebrity clients, which had included Amy Winehouse - was closed by the Care Quality Commission in 2010. The island has a history of supporting addicts, and in 1903 was bought by Nigel Charrington, a member of the brewing family who had switched allegiances to the temperance movement. He offered free treatment until Osea was requisitioned by the Navy.
It is to the secret torpedo factory which operated here through both world wars we migrate for the sit-down part of dinner, and tumble through a harvest festival menu of land, sea and air: smokey beetroot haché and squash minestrone with a pillow of focaccia, cod with a golden shard of skin and gleaming purple venison. The blackberries, samphire and sea purslane are foraged. The Native crew are finding and preserving what they can while setting up their own garden. There is an apple and pear sorbet with kombucha and rum baba is served in a huge oyster shell, bringing the menu full circle.
The Third Day had hoped to break new ground in televised drama by incorporating an “epic theatrical event” from the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. The plan had been for 1,000 participants to come to Osea to become part of a live episode, but Covid-19 has of course ruined that and the event will take place online only.
Instead, it will be guests that come to experience this Essex anomaly, whether to eat at its newest restaurant and explore its shores, or to stay overnight. You never know who you might meet on the way in.
HOW TO GET THERE The closest station is Witham, from where Osea can be accessed by taxi.
WHERE TO EAT Native’s tasting menu is £75pp or £95 for Island Pass including transport on and off Osea. Optional £55 wine pairing. Taking bookings for 22 October onwards, nativerestaurant.co.uk/bookings
WHERE TO STAY Double rooms from £245 (two nights minimum), oseaisland.co.uk
WHERE TO VISIT Northey Island has reopened to visitors, who must book in advance, nationaltrust.org.uk/ northey-island
MORE INFORMATION visitessex.com Travel essentials HOW TO GET THERE The closest station is Witham, from where Osea can be accessed by taxi.