Mersea Island – the first 26 years (& virtual rally) | NOSTALGIA

Mersea Island is one of the longest-running scooter rallies in the UK. It’s literally set in stone that it’ll follow on from the Isle of Wight and it attracts as many rally-goers as many National Rallies, more in some cases. It also offers a slightly different format to the usual seaside piss up and pub crawl.

The rally always has a continental vibe, probably due to the race across the causeway at low tide, coupled with the usually good southern weather, its popularity with European scooterists, relaxed vibe and ‘all in one place’ rally site. In fact, as I type this I wish I could be riding down to Mersea this weekend. Sadly, like pretty much every other event, Mersea will exist in virtual format only in 2020 (more info on that at the bottom of the article).

Here’s a look back at the history of this vibrant event, brought to life with the design skills of the Colchester DVLC’s resident artist, Si Barber.

Iggy

The DVLC crew at one of the early Mersea Island rallies
The DVLC crew at one of the early Mersea Island rallies

Like all good stories, this one begins once upon a time in the East, well something like that. The Colchester District Vespa & Lambretta Club (DVLC) had been formed in 1992 when The Colchester Lambretta Club finally allowed Vespa riders to join. Jon Betts chaired the amalgamated club, he also ran successful Acid Jazz nights with his brother, Robin, at The Colchester Arts Centre under the banner “A Family Affair.” It was while doing his Acid Jazz events that Jon hit on the idea to organise a club rally. Jon searched endlessly for a venue, but they either had no camping, no bar, were limited on numbers – all the above, or the venue just said ‘no’. Fellow club member Phil Radio (nickname), told Jon of a youth camp on Mersea Island. Folklore has it that Phil did community service there. This was confirmed by another club member Tony Wright (Ginger Tony) who had attended bike and car clubs events at the site. Jon contacted the site manager, Doug Powell, who invited Jon down. They got on like a house on fire and very soon the idea for the very first Mersea Island Scooter Rally was devised.

To quote Jon, Well I love organising events and although I loved the other rallies, I thought something local with everything you need on a single site would be unique”.

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Starting small but thinking big

The rally would include more diverse music choice than the usual scooter events and have some daytime entertainment… all for a fair price (£10). Jon, along with members of the DVLC started making plans and checking dates. Back then, the IOW wasn’t on the calendar as it is now. Before very long flyers had been designed by Si Barber and were being distributed wherever the DVLC went. Adverts were placed in the scooter press and slowly interest grew. Patches were designed by Paddy Smith and incorporated one of Dave Oakley’s (Colchester DVLC club member) custom scooters. Before we knew it the date had arrived, the site was set up (as best we knew how to back then with no previous experience) and with a bit of common sense and a desire to give the punters a good time, the gates were opened.

We had just under 400 people in attendance at that first-ever Mersea Island rally. Blink, and the weekend was over. A great weekend had by all, hangovers and beaming faces abound, See you again next year… That was it, we’d started to grow something special.

A young Irish girl called Niamh soon became part of a winning team
A young Irish girl called Niamh soon became part of a winning team

It was at the first Mersea Island that Jon met Niamh. Numbers were exchanged and they quickly became an item. Niamh became Jon’s wingman (person) in organising the next Mersea, she had a wealth of knowledge from working the venue doors and campsite gates for the NSRA and later VFM. This knowledge proved useful when she started running the Mersea gate in 1994 and she’s been there every year since.

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So it started all over again, Mersea 1994, the ball was rolling: artwork created by Si Barber, flyers printed and handed out everywhere, adverts placed in the scooter press (who had reported favourably on the first rally), all built upon positive feedback from those that attended the event. This added to the interest of Mersea and the tickets started to sell. This format continued for the first seven Mersea rallies, with Jon & Niamh organising, alongside great assistance from the other DVLC club members. Jon and Niamh separated, Jon moving away from the scene.

New committee

Martin Leech was appointed chairman of the club. Martin discussed with other club members, Don Black (club secretary) & Phil Rudkin (work colleague) to decide whether the DVLC should continue with the Mersea Rally. Their thoughts were presented to the club at their AGM, a unanimous ‘yes’ was agreed but the club would need to form a committee to run Mersea to lighten the load and avoid the ‘JB burn-out’. Martin chaired the committee and other members of the club were recruited, each taking on specific rolls; security, gate, site set up, artwork, club stall, live music and dos. With more roles being added over the years, as more features were added to the rally. Martin & Niamh shared the role of chairperson for the Mersea Committee until Martin eventually ‘retired’ and Niamh was unanimously voted in to chair it.

Committee members have changed over the years but Niamh (on a technicality) Martin Leech, and Si Barber have been a part of the Mersea committee since the very beginning. Other members of the club including Dom Roche (incidentally Dom purchased the very first Mersea Ticket), Tony Wright, Gerry Stocks, Nigel Burnside (Birdy), Justin Ashworth, Roy Hooper and Kev Bird, have also been involved since the very first Mersea on-site and gate duties. Some of these members are now and have been on the Mersea Committee for several years.

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Over the years Mersea grew and grew. Gaining National Rally status for a while. The same principles have perpetuated from the very first rally. Organise a scooter event that’s in an unrivalled location, not expensive, has great music, good food and gives the punters a great time. We’ve introduced live music over the years with many bands treading the boards in the Mersea Marquee. We now have three music rooms, including The Darkside & Silent Disco.

Back in the old days (before everybody got into law suits) they used real scooters for the beer and banana races...
Back in the old days (before everybody got into law suits) they used real scooters for the beer and banana races…

It’s a knockout

The Saturday afternoon entertainment has come a long way over the years from the yard of ale, using club member Pete Backhouse’s potent homebrew (an acquired taste apparently) to Ginger Tony’s ‘It’s-a-knockout’ style games in the arena. The inspiration for the games being taken from the rallies in Holland in the late 80s, early 90s that Ginger Tony and other members of the DVLC had attended. Coincidently one of the organisers of the Dutch rallies now organises The Meltdown Rally in Germany.

Mersea Island – the first 26 years (& virtual rally) | NOSTALGIA

The entertainment throughout Saturday has expanded over the years, we’ve had 5-a-side football, mini moto and even scooter grass tracking. The entertainment now includes the dyno, a scooter ride-out, scooter dealer village, sign on points for both the Vespa & Lambretta Clubs of GB and the much-respected custom show, which has grown over the years to become one of the biggest on the scene – thanks to the efforts of Martin Meuser and the three Jim’s for taking control of this. The unique Mersea Roman soldier trophies are very sought after, but have to be earned.

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A moment in time – Princess Diana’s death

Iggy recalls Mersea Island 1997, “This particular year will always be remembered for the shocking news of Princess Diana’s death. The news filtered through to the campsite at dawn on Sunday morning. I was lying in my tent and heard early Sunday morning whispers about the tragedy. Remember, this was 1997, before the internet and mobile phones. News of her death came through on the radio or TV in one of the on-site cabins but wouldn’t be confirmed until we saw the first Sunday morning newspapers when filling up on the way home.”

Dave Porter had been DJing at Mersea until the very early hours of Sunday morning and took the photo above as he walked back to his tent “I took this when returning from doing the graveyard shift (DJing) on Sunday morning. On return to the tent the news hit that Princess Di had been killed…”

Mersea Island – the first 26 years (& virtual rally) | NOSTALGIA

TEECH about charity

Mersea’s popularity brought with it an increasingly hefty bill, the club paying the site £10 per head for each person that comes through the gate, site set-up which includes lighting, toilets & fencing, P.A. systems for all the music rooms and live music marquee, security, insurances, bands & DJs, printing & promotion, tickets & car park passes and the list goes on. Once everybody has been paid, what’s left is reinvested in the following year’s rally and donations are made to various local charities. One of which is a charity that club member Rob Brown is massively involved with, called TEECH. He travels to East European countries to repair and refurbish places like orphanages and children’s homes. It all started following the fall of communism in Romania. You might remember those shocking pictures of the handicapped children who had been abandoned in appalling conditions? TEECH now travel to other countries, such as Moldova.

Mersea Island – the first 26 years (& virtual rally) | NOSTALGIA

Rob works for Openreach and uses BT transport to get him there and back. He has been awarded “The chairman’s award” twice by BT for his efforts. Rob gets his hands dirty doing his charity work, he doesn’t just sit at home and throw money at a problem. Other DVLC members have been out to Eastern Europe to help Rob. The club also makes a donation to The Mersea Lions, a charitable organisation that donates to numerous charities. The Mersea Lions can be seen at Mersea manning the car park.

Mersea Island – the first 26 years (& virtual rally) | NOSTALGIA

Beer & banana

Many scooter-related businesses over the years have sponsored the music rooms and events, many sponsoring year after year. A big thank you goes out to all our sponsors. We’ve even had Lucozade sponsoring the games. Although I don’t think the representatives from Lucozade that turned up at Mersea as the infamous beer & banana race was taking place were overly impressed with their promotion of the games. Although I’m sure a few sicky tummies were settled with a glug of Lucozade, just as it did ‘When We Were Young’. . . See what I did there?

If you click on the image above it’ll transport you directly to ‘Virtual Mersea‘ where you can buy real patches and t-shirts and get involved in the 2020 Mersea Island experience from the comfort of your own home

With just under 400 at our first rally in ’93 Mersea grew and grew and within five years the average attendance was 2500+ scooterists, all converging on the tiny Island of Mersea from the four corners of the UK, Europe and beyond. It is now regarded as one of the best rallies on the calendar. Roll on the next 26 years, 26 ‘real’ rallies and one virtual rally in 2020. If you’d like to add to our story please post your Mersea experiences and stories on the Mersea Facebook page along with any photos. Thank you to all the Scooterists for your continued support. Ride & keep safe – The Colchester District Vespa & Lambretta Club.

Written for SLUK by Si Barber, with assistance from Niamh Pennington, Martin Leech and Jon Betts, (who’s idea spurned this 26-year obsession). Thanks also to Gerry Stocks and Dave Porter for additional photos.

Cheers: Si

More Mersea memories?

If you do a search on SLUK for ‘Mersea’ using the search function at the top right-hand side of your screen you can view our ralleries from the last few years.

Mersea Island artwork and flyers by Si Barber Designs

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