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Due to continuing covid restrictions, Brightlingsea’s Blessing of the Waters on Sunday 30th May was without crowds or the usual colourful procession of mayors from the Cinque Ports and Essex coastal ports. There was no service at the Hard or the flotilla of historic boats dressed in flags and pennants.

But it was still important to keep alive this historic tradition of the Cinque Port of Brightlingsea, even if it could not be announced as usual (for those who don’t know, Brightlingsea is the only Cinque Port north of the Thames). Activities took place in a much-reduced manner, but properly carried out, plus some modifications that kept the spirit of the event so that those that normally take part could still be involved. The activities taking place were filmed on the Sunday, and then shown in a special Zoom event two days later on Tuesday 1st June.

The Sunday began with a covid-compliant maritime church service at St James church in the High Street, led in a very colourful face mask by Rev Caroline Becket the vicar and chaplain to the Cinque Port Liberty of Brightlingsea. The Cinque Port Deputy, Frank Pomroy took part also with face mask, plus his robes and chain of office.

Last year was the first covid-restricted Blessing of the Waters, and people had decorated their houses with flags, as if they were boats, or made and decorated “boats” in their front gardens. This had worked well and allowed people to take part from their homes, so it was repeated in 2021. The vicar with the Bishop of Colchester, Rt Rev Roger Morris, went round the town ‘blessing’ the decorated houses using large water pistols, to be socially distanced! The Cinque Port Deputy and Lady Deputy accompanied them, with some Deputy’s Assistants and myself. The route and times were not made public to avoid attracting numbers of people.

Brightlingsea’s Sailing Club was the next location, where a race of small boats was scheduled. Bishop Roger and Rev Caroline blessed them with the water pistols, and the Deputy oversaw the proceedings from the new control building.

Instead of parading along Brightlingsea Creek in numerous historic boats, smacks sailing barge and others resplendent in pennants, to avoid drawing crowds we went out in just one of the smaller vessels that normally takes part, the Bawley Blackbird. It could be managed by one man, its skipper Brian Croucher. On board was the Deputy, the Bishop and myself as chairman of the Blessing of the Waters committee. Blackbird was accompanied by just two ribs with the vicar and Deputy’s Assistants in their red gowns on board. We headed off towards where the Creek meets the Colne where the key blessing normally takes place each year. But as we approached the spot the engine coughed & stopped. However, even that did not stop the proceedings as Rob White’s rib nudged the Bawley forward into place!
The Bishop and vicar blessed Brightlingsea’s waters by dipping tied bundles of rosemary and bay into a brass bowl, and sprinkling its water onto the sea. The Deputy laid a willow cross on the creek. Then the traditional din erupted with bells, horns and whistles to firmly Beat the Bounds (boundaries) of the Cinque Port Liberty. On the return journey, & further up the Creek, moored boats were blessed by water pistol as we passed along beside them.

Historically, Colchester had attempted to claim Brightlingsea Creek, but with strong support from the then Lord Warden, the Duke of York (later James II), Brightlingsea retained its rights to its own waters.

We were delighted the present Lord Warden and Admiral of the Cinque Ports, Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Boyce took part on the Tuesday evening in the semi-virtual Blessing of the Waters’ Event on Zoom. This event retained the pageantry of the procession of a more normal year as the Cinque Port mayors from Kent, local Essex coastal mayors and other dignitaries wore their robes and chains of office for the Zoom just as if they had been physically present. From the Cinque Ports we were joined by the Mayors and Mayor Deputies of Sandwich, Hastings, Deal, Margate, Fordwich and Sarre, and from Essex the Vice-chairman of Essex County Council, Chairman of Tendring District Council and the Mayors of Colchester, Maldon and Wivenhoe.

The Deputy presented the Lord Warden with his “droit” (or right) of a ‘box of oysters,’ - virtually! Later, he did receive real ones which he said were excellent, courtesy of oysterman Richard Haward.

Toasts were made, introduced by the Town Sergeant of Sandwich, who spoke from the historic Courtroom in Sandwich Town Hall. Sandwich is Brightlingsea’s Head Port in the Cinque Ports. The toasts were given by the Mayor of Sandwich, Cllr Paul Graeme and the Mayor Deputies of Fordwich and Sarre, Cllr Adrian McCarthy and John Kent, of our fellow Limbs of Sandwich. This was the Mayor Deputy of Fordwich’s first official duty in his robes, as he had just been elected to the post. Everyone joined in with a glass at home.

Then the we all enjoyed watching the film of the Sunday real activities that had been edited by the vicar. The Lord Warden sent congratulations and a cryptic nautical message of two signal flags “BZ”, which means “Well Done!”

You can watch the film here.

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