A helicopter thunders overhead as we wait for our lattes, and I find myself wondering which A-lister is about to be deposited nearby to join us. We’re in a secret sort of place you see: a privately owned island, just for those in the know. There tends to be a bit of a buzz about the people who turn up. And where am I, exactly? The Maldives, you might guess: full of tropical allure. Martha’s Vineyard, perhaps, for the US glitterati.
No: it’s a little closer to home. Essex, in fact. The island of Osea, in the Blackwater Estuary. The helicopter has likely travelled just 20 minutes from London to get here. It’s now now flying so low, it’s shaking the windows of the rickety wooden shack where we’ve waited half an hour for our caffeine hit and who might be on board quickly becomes the topic of conversation in the good-natured queue. All the island’s 24 rentable cottages are booked this weekend, and it seems everyone is right here in this line. Someone whips out a phone to google Osea’s former guests.
“Rihanna rents unlikely celebrity magnet in the middle of the Blackwater Estuary,” the chap behind me reads a headline aloud. “Adding to the already lengthy list of artists – Jessie J, Charlie XCX and The Weeknd – who have used the state-of-the-art recording studio slap-bang in the middle of its 380 acres.”
We all nod sagely, like we know who Charlie XCX is.
A low-key music studio
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Osea Island’s guest book should be so starry. Its owner is music producer Nigel Frieda, Sugababes founder and producer and brother of celebrity hairdresser John. He reportedly bought it for £6 million over two decades ago as his own New England-esque retreat, running it as an unlikely holiday destination since 2012. Perhaps more surprising, given its pedigree, is how low-key and lovely Osea actually is once you’re here. There is something genuinely magical about it, an atmosphere it shares with other islands in the vicinity. Close by is Northey, run by the National Trust, accessible to daytrippers March to September, and Horsey, which you can visit for a few hours with permission from the owner (or book its simple three-bedroom cottage).
Not that I plan to explore off-island on this trip: my home for the weekend is a cosy clapboard bolthole in a photogenic, flower-draped cluster (the properties range in size here from the grand Edwardian, Agatha Christie-ish, 10-bedroomed Manor House and the 1920s elegance of the Captain’s house to the tiny Sweetshop, a studio for two). The smaller cottages are pretty small, but the furnishings in all are well-chosen (think weathered leather sofas in front of log burners, Persian rugs, faux fur throws and roll-top baths) if a little well-loved.
What you are paying for here is to be pleasantly off(ish)-grid, not thunderous rainforest showers and room service. Because despite the one per cent connotations of a private island, this is not five-star luxury. But what it might lack in Michelin stars, luxury spas and Beckham children, Osea makes up for with an untouched, almost eerie beauty (although it seems likely that will eventually change as there is a planning application with the local council for an extra 30 cabins). There’s a reason The Woman in Black was filmed here, as well as HBO’s Wicker Man-lite The Third Day.
I’m here for a weekend-long research trip with my husband Paul – with whom I write novels under the pseudonym Ellery Lloyd – and our toddler daughter (who we have not yet engaged in the family business). We chose this place – or a fictionalised version of it – as the location of a celebrity private members’ club, which is the setting of our new murder mystery novel, The Club. Think Agatha Christie with a Soho House membership card and a supporting cast of homicidal superstars and housekeeping staff with dark dark secrets.
Under the radar
Having penned the vast majority of The Club during lockdown, it is a treat to actually visit in person – although the journey there is not without its blips. We stop to ask directions after overshooting the turning and are met with blank faces – even from those who live nearby. Osea is a well-kept secret, which may be in part because of the prohibitive prices (there is a two-night minimum, and it starts at £700 per night).
Our cottage is opposite The Puffin, a teeny-tiny pub of the sort I imagine Ed Sheeran has at the bottom of his garden. Goodness knows what born-again teetotal Frederick Charrington, who bought Osea in 1903 with his family’s brewing fortune and founded a temperance community here, would make of it (the island was, in fact, run as a secluded rehab clinic until 2010).
I’m delighted to find Osea as atmospheric as I’d hoped. The weather, blustery and salt-soaked, helps in that regard, as does the wild, flat and brambly landscape – although photos tagged on Instagram taken in the summer months show that it’s glorious in the sunshine too, when, from May to September, it is available for entire-island-hire only (it does a roaring trade in weddings and parties).
A tidal island, Osea is approached via a gate on the mainland (we come pre-armed with a code to punch into the system to gain access), then over a rocky Roman-built causeway that floods twice day – our tiny Toyota Aygo bounces over it no problem, even though it is loaded with an entire Ocado order’s worth of food (there is nowhere to buy essentials on the island).
Those more culinary-minded than us should consider a stop en route to take advantage of local produce – nearby Gardeners Farm Shop in Goldhanger is well-stocked and Paul Bloss in Maldon has Blackwater and West Mersea oysters from Osea’s waters (as well as glistening mounds of local Skate, Bass and Dover Sole). The wild food-focused London restaurant Native made excellent use of the forest, field and shore here in a pop-up they operated last year in the converted Torpedo Store (it’s worth keeping an eye out for future residencies as lunch or dinner is one of the few ways to access the island without an overnight booking). If foraging is your thing, you’ll be in heaven – but if you can’t be bothered with all that and don’t fancy cooking, The Shack does fire up its pizza ovens and barbecues at weekends.
Our car stays parked the entire time; the only way around the island is on foot or via bikes which you can borrow, making it the perfect place to allow our toddler total free reign. There is a distinctly Famous Five vibe here, which is clearly hugely appealing to families with little ones (when we visit, they make up the vast majority of the guests – and all are repeat visitors). On a rainy day, there are film screenings, DVDs to borrow, plus tennis and pool tables.
In good weather, there are two swimming pools too (one saltwater, “mainly for decoration” we are told, the other heated in the summer months), some friendly donkeys, a nightly bonfire and of course the full 360-degree coastline around which you can yomp or kayak. Props left on the island from the film and TV shot here also provide amusement – including a couple of clapped-out cars which our daughter takes great delight in driving (waggling the gearstick and shouting BRUM BRUM!) and some creepy murals that give it a slightly surreal edge.
Not quite as surreal, though, as bumping into Stormzy and entourage – presumably the helicopter’s passengers – while feeding the donkeys.
The Club by Ellery Lloyd is published in Hardback by Mantle, £14.99 and is out now.
How to do it
Osea island (oseaisland.co.uk) offers two-night minimum stays from £700 per night for a two-bedroom property. Whole island rentals only from May-September.
Five Great British island escapes
Agatha Christie fans, this is one for you – an Art Deco hotel off the Devon coast that was the inspiration for And Then There Were None. Built in 1929 but recently refurbished to ensure luxury of which Poirot would approve, you can book a room in the hotel or rent out the entire island for an event.
Book it: burghisland.com; doubles for three nights from £2,060
The Island Cornwall
Those afraid of heights need not apply: this astonishing home on a rocky outcrop is accessed via a suspension bridge across the sand. With astonishing views across Towan Beach in Newquay, this is a truly luxe weekend option, with a palm tree fringed garden that comes complete with flagpole (they can advise on flag makers if you’d like to fly your own colours at full mast).
Book it: theislandcornwall.uk; £3,375 for three nights
Set on the luxurious 8,000-acre Wilderness Reserve in Suffolk, two-person bolthole The Tabernacle is a retreat built for two (and their thousands of Instagram followers). The cabin, with its hot pink walls, kilim rugs and turquoise roll-top bath in the bedroom has a deck which looks out over your own private island, accessed via a rope bridge, in the centre of which sits a huge hot tub.
Book it: wildernessreserve.com; from £2,292 for a four-night stay in June
Splendid isolation, available just off the coast of Angelesey. Something of a TikTok star, this charming house on Castle Island has incredible views of the Menai Strait, swooping cormorants and seals on the rocks below. It has seven bedrooms, and is family friendly, cheerfully decorated and accessed by a causeway.
Book it: menaiholidays.co.uk; from £1,408 for seven nights
If you genuinely want to get away from it all, this private island in the Outer Hebrides is as off-grid as it gets – its tagline, fly drive, ferry, sail, should give you an idea of its remoteness. You could spend the entire weekend holed up in a cosy, five-bed cottage, or pull on your hiking boots and thermals and ramble, kayak or sail.
Book it: ronayisland.com; approx £200 per night; weekly rentals in spring & summer