The rhinoceros stood majestically on the muddy riverbank, his gaze sweeping across the flatlands spread out beyond. He sighed glumly and nudged the fairy beside him, who was busily adjusting his tutu. Both squinted through horizontal grey rods of rain. “Trouble is,” muttered the fairy, brushing raindrops from his beard, “the river’s swollen. It’ll play havoc with the monks’ cassocks — they’ll go down like bricks.”
For the first time, Essex’s Maldon Mud Race would be run along the riverbank rather than across the river, due to the dire weather. Organisers hurried between serried ranks of goblins, Santas, assorted livestock, clergy, Beefeaters and superheroes, reiterating the new course. It was little comfort to the shivering, bikini-clad Viking trying to gain a shred of warmth from her furry, horned headdress.
Along the promenade, a giant statue commemorating a thorn in the side of the last lot of Vikings to wade up the muddy banks glared down at the proceedings. Once, this place was the site of an infamous battle between the Nordic invaders and the valiant Brithnoth, commemorated in the poem The Battle of Maldon. Now, the silent bronze behemoth of a man stands guard at the River Blackwater’s entrance, staring belligerently towards two islands, Osea and Northey, where many lost their lives in 991.
Nowadays, visitors prepared to dash across the muddy causeways at low tide can explore the pristine bird-watchers’ paradise without fear of encountering the wrong end of a poisoned spear. Essex Man is more welcoming nowadays: pubs huddled along Maldon’s harbour spilled cheery beer-drinkers onto the narrow pavements to encourage bedraggled race participants struggling to beat the cold, thick mud.
Several Thames barges provided an iconic backdrop for photographers, framed against a picturesque church that clung to the hill above the exhausted, mud-splattered contestants nearing the end of their peculiarly British ordeal. A Japanese game show host trotted triumphantly past, flicking mud from his bandana, followed by squealing ranks of assistants who seemed flummoxed by the mingling of such barmy madness in this serenely traditional setting.
On the quayside, the fairy grimaced as he slipped off his sparkly wings, grabbed a beer towel and tried to rub off the slime squelching from his Doc Martens. “Next year,” he told a unicorn confidently, “I’ll start quicker so I don’t end up on the churned-up mud behind the leaders.” The unicorn nodded encouragingly. “It’ll be easier in our mankinis,” he replied sagely.
The winner will be announced on natgeotraveller.co.uk tomorrow