In 1814, British marines made their way up the Connecticut River to this waterside village and burned 28 ships in the harbor. There has been a hot time in this elegant little town ever since.
Sparing the village, the British officers moved into the Griswold Inn, already in business since 1776, and established the idea of Sunday hunt breakfasts. They also slaked their thirst in the Tap Room, which they ordered kept open for their pleasure.
Today's invaders bear neither arms nor ill will. They come from all over to marvel at this manicured community that has been a salty town ever since the Oliver Cromwell, first warship of the Continetal Navy, was built here in 1776. They came to buy ice cream and penny candy at Sweet Lisa's, vitamins and health foods at the Jolly Sprout, silk flowers and perfumed soaps at the Forget-Me-Not Flower Shop.
Most of all they crowd into the old Griswold and, if they can get a table, dine on straight Yankee fare under a celebrated collection of marine art. Not all the pictures are sailing ships and paddle wheelers. Some old-timers will cast a memory-filled glance at a cross section of the old Leviathan, once the world's largest ship, which crossed the Atlantic under the flag of the United States Lines in the '20s.
At night sea chanteys or banjo strummers echo in the Tap Room where British officers once quaffed their ale. English ale remains on draft in case they come back.
The Sunday hunt breakfasts begin at noon every Sabbath and continue until 2:30. To the tables come sausages, grits, creamed chipped beef, lamb kidneys, smelts down from Maine and, of course, eggs and bacon and ham.
Dinner reservations are often at a premium at the Griswold; on a recent summer Saturday, just at twilight, the headwaiter was quoting 10:15 as the time the next table would be available. Not to worry. Essex also has the Gull.
On the water overlooking a forest of yachts, the Gull stuffs crepes with shrimp, mussels, crabmeat and scallions. It serves swordfish with bearnaise sauce, and sole poached with shrimps and mussels. With a limited liquor license, the Gull can serve drinks only to those dining here, but while waiting for a table, guests imbibe on a rooftop terrace overlooking the grand Essex fleet.
A walking tour of Essex will lead past carefully tended gardens, flower-edged mews, assorted shops done up in colonial style and a scattering of historic houses. The white house at 42 Main St. was once the Old Post Road House, built by John Hayden in 1774. Stagecoaches traveling the Boston Post Road stopped here to change horses and sometimes to find lodging for their travelers for the night.
The Dauntless Club on Main Street was built by one Abner Parker in 1740 and later was run as an inn. The Yankee taletellers like to say that during the Revolutionary War an American spy was hidden under one of the staircases.
At the landing at the foot of the village, where the British marines came ashore, Essex is finishing its most ambitious restoration. It is called Steamboat Dock, dominated by a grand white clapboard building that is the Dock House, a "restoration in progress." Ultimately the Dock House will portray "Life at the River's Edge." Among the exhibits now on display is a working model of the Turtle, America's first submarine, built in 1775. The Hayden Chancellery, next door, is currently showing an exhibit called "Mr. Madison's War," a fracas with which Essex was vitally connected.
The Steamboat Dock areas can trace its seagoing history back to 1656, when it was a port in the West Indies trade dealing sugar and molasses. After Mr. Madison's war, regular steamboat service began between Hartford and New York. The boats carried passengers and transported finished goods until steamboating on the Connecticut River ended in 1931.
When the steamboat Middleton tied up for the very last time at the beginning of the '30s, Steamboat Dock became in turn a restaurant, nightclub and, at one point, a roller skating rink. Now, under the Connecticut River Foundation, it will be a house of history, with a riverfront part at the water's edge now nearing completion.
Landlubbers (and in the autumn, leaf-watchers) can ride the Steam Train that chuffs out of Essex Depot on its way through the marshes and meadows of this valley of southern New England.
Up at Haddam, near the Goodspeed Opera House, where many Broadway musicals begin, New England Steamboat Lines has begun trips across Long Island Sound aboard the 500-passenger Yankee Clipper. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays the Clipper sails down the Connecticut River, and at Saybrook crosses Long Island Sound to Greenport on the fringe of Long Island.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays it sails down river again, threads its way through the fishing boats off Plum Gut, crosses Gardiner's Bay and lands at noon in Sag Harbor. It stays for three hours, time to visit the whaling museum, shop for antiques and for lunch.
On the seventh day the Clipper doesn't rest. It puts out for a three-hour jazz cruise on the Connecticut River. Bring your own picnic or buy food and drink on the boat. It costs $8 for the outing and, to say the least, it's a toot.