Sunday, February 28, 2010


No rain on Saturday so we were out, this time Nounsley, a small hamlet near to Hatfield Peverel. The lanes were running with water, small streams trickled across, and ditches were full of muddy water. Nounsley has only houses and a pub on offer, but pretty nevertheless. The pub we had been to only a couple of weeks ago to have whitebait (which was a speciality). Good yes, though a great plateful with the salad was rather too much, and their tiny black eyes looking reproachfully through the batter was a bit offputting. Anyway the beer seems expensive so I'm reliably informed, and when we there this saturday, a tv with the match of the day was on, which rather spoils conversation, but it's a nice pub to sit out on a summer's day, and watch the people walk by with their dogs.

There are many footpaths round this area, an ideal place to come and live if you want to walk the dog and exercise every day. The photo above shows the small River Ter in flood, the water is up to the three and half feet level, so no car could get through. The river was racing under the walkway, muddy swirling waters, eddying away down to the River Chelmer which it joins further on. But you can see how the fields are flooded everywhere which must mean that crops will go in late this spring.

This elegant barn in Nounsley belongs to a 'big' house, probably a farmhouse in former days. The roof is thatched with wire netting on to keep the birds out, there is something rather beautiful with the copper leaved beech hedge against the old black timbers, such barns are surprisingly common in Essex.

A willow standing in its flooded field, happy I suspect to have its feet in water, the branches are beginning to tinge that golden colour as the sap rises for spring.

The swirling waters, fascinating patterns

This formal willow was much more forward, I think it is the Japanese 'torturosa' willow, but its colouring is very different to the one I had., the louring sky behind and the green of the fir show up the orange of the willow.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Summer is not icumen in

It goes on and on and on, maybe spring is around the corner, but the wind buffets the windows this morning, rain yesterday and the days before interspersed with snow, more rain forecast, two weather fronts battling out over Britain. Up north in Scotland the deer are dying of starvation with all the snow around - wretched weather!
Some summer photos to cheer the day...

This purple rose gets darker with age

Blue bugle, its 'blueness' lit by the sun

white campion

a wood full of ramsoms

White campion; Geoffrey Grigson gives a splendid history of white campion, its virginal colour belies the fact that it was thought of as a death flower that could kill your mother, if you as child picked it. Apparently it was pollinated by moths at night, so I suppose the eerie spectacle of shining white flowers with moths fluttering around had that effect. Of course red campion had the same effect on your father! But these harmless flowers also had other virtues, they were 'thunder flowers' as well, if you picked them as a child in North Germany you would be killed by lightning.

He also goes on to say that they can be found on Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, this I presume because such sites are protected from the worst ravages of modern farming. I have tried to grow them but they soon disappear, the red campion grows quite easily, its stoloniferous? roots moving forward like the nettle plant, the red campion is always with you. Not so white campion which is very fickle.

Bugle; As Grigson says you find it in colonies in wood or damp grass, 'it is a blacke herbe and it groweth in shaddowy places and moyst groundes' - William Turner. Or perhaps 'of a sky and changeable colour'. Though Gerard called it 'Brown Bugle', or Wodebroun (14th century); its a wound herb, and I think the little blue bugle that grows in lawns must be a smaller version of it. But the above photo shows the dark colouring of the flowers as they emerge from their sheath.

Ransoms; Grigsons writes,' in blossom or leaf ramsons is one of the beautiful plants', as the above photo shows. It has a white star flower, and can be smelt very strongly if you pass by a wood in the car. The OE name was hramsa, hramsan is therefore a double plural - Ramsey in Essex, Ramsbottom etc....

Geoffrey Grigson; The Englishman's Flora (my Desert Island book)

At Christmas I bought Grigson's The Shell Country Alphabet for my partner, now this has the sub title From Apple trees to Stone Circles, the book has recently been republished. So a taste of his Apple Trees entry;

Less particular about soil, then plum or cherry, more reliable in yield than pear trees, apple trees in blossom around a village are so characteristic that it may be recalled that apples were eaten by the neolithic people, the first farmers and herdsmen of England, who visited the Causeway camp or moot on Windmill Hill outside Avebury, in Wiltshire, 4000 and more years ago. Pips were found on pottery, possibly from native crabs, which would have been sour in the neolithic no less than a modern mouth, but perhaps from the sweet fruits of Malus sylvestris Ssp mitis. which the Windmill people could have bought with them from overseas. This sub-species native of south-east Europe and south-west Asia, is the parent of garden apple, and may have been grown already in neolithic Europe.. Apples were held to be revivifying and rejuvenating, and there are stories to that effect from the Irish and Norse mythology, as well as from the Near East. Loki, for instance, stole the apples which the goddess Ithunn kept for the gods to eat when they grew old, and gave them to the giants. The gods withered and wrinkled with age, and Loki was forced to get the apples back. ..Most of the exquisite blossoms around the church towers and spires turn to a very dull fruit..

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hobbit rewriting human history

This article from The Observer on sunday eluded me, though I actually did buy the paper! but a couple of words in search and up it comes. Perhaps I was too busy reading Rauwnsley's extracts on Brown's bullying tactics, which has descended into farce by now.
Anyway far more interesting than politics are these little creatures half human half ape who managed to survive a million years on their island, probably a longer survival rate than homo sapien will achieve. Small Stegadon elephants and giant kosmoda lizards add to a vivid picture of a time long ago, though they seem to have died out only 17,000 years ago...

Sunday, February 21, 2010


13th century chest

Embden geese

West Hanningfield Church

West Hanningfield church has little history, the earliest going back to the 12th century when it was presumably built, it is very Norman inside. The outside displays a typical Essex church, wooden tower, and reused materials in the stone work. It has been hideously plastered over in the front of the church building, I suspect that happened when it started to fall to pieces in the 19th century and was restored. The back shows signs of cracking and subsidence, inside was an enormous 13th century wooden chest, made out of a solid piece of oak, and with all ironwork still intact. The grave yard was pleasant enough with primroses (just starting to come out) tucked neatly in a sheltered spot.

The Hanningfield reservoir was quiet, plenty of birds around, and the geese rushing along furiously for bread. The one above 'talked' very gently all the time, funny creatures geese, highly protective of territory but very ungainly as they waddle.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Welsh Valentine or Dwynwen the Saint

I came across the legend of this 5th century Welsh female saint called Dwynwen last week, who became a sort of Welsh 'Valentine'.
Her story goes that she was a daughter of Brychan, and as a virgin moved to Anglesey, where a young man called Maelon wished to marry her. Not so Dwynwen, and she prayed for deliverance, in her dream, she partook of a drink that cured of her longings for him (mmm) and turned poor Maelon to ice. Rather surprised by such a turn of events, Dwynwen prayed for three things, that Maelon was unfrozen; that all true lovers should succeed in their quest for love, or be cured of their passion and that she should never wish to become married - so obviously she was perfectly aware of temptation!, though there is another legend which states that she was turned down in love.
But be that as it may, she apparently built an oratory on the Island of Llanddwyn which is cut off from Maltreath Bay in Snowdonia, and which is the part of the story I am interested in. You can still see the ruins of the St.Dwynwen's Abbey and also the well named after her of which the following legend is told. Pilgrims coming to the small church would sprinkle breadcrumbs on the water of the well and covered them with a of piece cloth, now if the eel (who lived in the well) took the cloth as well as the breadcrumbs, the pilgrim's loved one was unfaithful. Another story, that if bubbles appeared during the ceremonies lovers would find happiness. Even late into the 19th century sick animals were brought to the well to be cured.
A rock shaped like a bed on the island called 'Gwely Esyth' if you slept on it would cure you of rheumatism, and another boulder on the edge of the cliff with a strange 'spy-hole' in it had opened up for the dying saint so that she might watch the last sunset over the Irish Sea.
Another tale tells of Treslian Cove, where unfortunately, at least for the Breton pirate, Colyn Dolphyn, who was buried up to his neck there to await the incoming tide, this time a huge fissure known as the cave of Dwynwen. There is a natural archway in the cave called the Bow of Destiny, and local people used to throw a stone before they passed over the arch, if it took ten years to throw a stone over the arch then it would take ten years before you got married!

refs; Photos taken from Creative Commons - Wiki;
The Book of Welsh Saints - T.D.Breverton ( a mine of information)

notes from Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics - Celtic

That monastic heads of the early celtic churches were nearly always related to one of the small ruling tribal kingships of Wales, of which Brychan (Brecon king) of course was notable, but also and that the "headship of these communities and participation in their property and privileges continued (even up to the 12th century) to be limited to those who, by means 0f their valid pedigrees, could show kinship with the founder."

1) population was also controlled by the insufficency of cultivable land.
2) Monasteries were largely centres of co-operative industrial activity, i.e.agricultural and other arts.
3) Lay interests probably had a larger place than the later Lives of Celtic Saints written under Benedictine influence
4) Early celtic monasteries were essentially a school - children were foster-children of the church, paid for of course.....
5) Eremites, or anchorites were a later stage of development. The year 595 ad movement was at its height.

Which of course is why we see the early storytelling tales of the female saints, as being somewhat contrived in the telling by the later Benedictine monks. Celtic female, of high birth status if she could not marry, was forced to become celibate and a nun, though Dwynwen seems to have 'chosen' a way out of marriage - unsuitable suitor?, or was there simply no other choice in early medieval society...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


"Memorable for its obstinate refusal to conform to conventional notions of what is beautiful... it is full of layered meanings and visual pleasures to those who give it the time and attention it deserves" Ken Worpole.

"Essex, sweet Essex" so starts Robert Macfarlane's article in the Saturday Guardian review, in a hymn of praise to this much maligned county. Well I quite agree with him, coming back to it after living in other parts of the country, the first thing that strikes you is the essentially English feel to its landscape. Its land is cultivated, but its willow lined rivers are a delight, small woods edge the fields with a promise of some secret treasure within. Pheasants stalk the little lanes, fighting at the moment to establish dominance over females and territory, grouse potter around along the line of the woods, rabbits also, their small grey furriness reminiscent of a Beatrix Potter 'Cotton tail' creature.
Large houses dot the countryside, for this is a wealthy county, but driving among the villages and the painted timber houses with their pargetting is a delight; these house nestle amongst more newly built ones but it is time moving on, a thatched cottage sitting comfortably with its neighbour.

So to quote Macfarlane and some figures..
"At 350 miles, its coastline is the longest of any English County. Its medieval field systems, grazing marshes and ancient woodlands are amongst the best preserved in Britain. Marsh harriers cruise its skies... and bitterns pick their way through its reed-beds.. In Epping Forest stages bell and rut, on the Dengie Marshes (which I have written about often) a vast coastal prairie of sea-lavender and glasswort"

When I lived here, I would ride out to Epping Forest occasionally, where I met the great hornet that so terrified my horse. Also Hainault Forest, an ancient place, riding there one evening, I took the wrong path and ended up lost in the gathering gloom. Now who spooked who I don't know but my horse sensing my fear took off at a gallop with me clinging down by her neck worried by the low hanging branches as we thundered along the path and eventually arrived into the light. Hatfield Forest has the memory of a 'Hansel and Gretel' cottage in its centre, that my grandfather went to look at for renting when we first moved. It was beautifully set snug amongst the trees, but sadly we never got to live in it.

So I have good memories of Essex, though there seems more roads now, but drive off the beaten track and follow a little lane and there is something to be found as we did the other day when Bulford Mill greeted us just around a corner.

Macfarlane wrote the book 'Wild Places' and many people would argue that the only wild places (if such a thing exists) to be found are in Scotland or Wales, high up on a mountain, and Macfarlane quotes Derek Jarman who called Essex "modern nature - the mixed up, messed up post-pastoral landscape in which most of us now live". Dengie Marsh with the brooding power of a squat ugly nuclear power station nestled in the corner of its flat lands illustrates this perfectly, but it is that meeting of sky, land and man made shapes that make a landscape. How often do we look from a train window, and see a tall spire of a church nestled within a framework of trees and long to go and explore this secret landscape, to find out its history and touch the trees.

As snowflakes are gently falling at the moment, a reminder of summer greenery

Sunday, February 7, 2010

More Time

More time to stand and stare is probably what I mean, to gather in the small detail and brood.
Being stuck inside for what seems ages, we went out on friday for a walk along the river before heading back to the Fox and Raven (one day I shall write about all these pubs). At Barnes Mill everything is dark and dank, vegetation droops in the water, but there are signs that spring is on its way, as the willow branches colour up to a soft reddish hue. There is plenty going on at the mill and by the bridge three, if not four moorhens paddle softly and then walk on the thick matted vegetation in and out of their little den.

The waters at the mill and river are dark and muddy, the water rushes furiously over the little weir, as the snows and now the rain runs off the land.

Saturday and the day was sunny, so we took off to look at Witham, and my partner then remembered Cressing Temple, two magnificent medieval barns, sadly I had forgotten my camera, but the place was shut anyway. But we got lost on the way and drove through some tiny lanes to try to find it, and a rather extraordinary thing happened. We came round a sharp angled bend and there on the left was a mill which I recognised from a book I had read years ago.

Bulford Mill had been owned by Roger Tabor, apparently a cat expert, and he had written a book about restoring the mill, but he also, being a naturalist, wrote about all the plants around the mill, and the annual chore of clearing the weed choked waters in the mill pond and the River Brain that must have turned the great wheel of the mill. It was probably one of the books that set up my great love affair with water and wild plants, the marvellous annual cycle of flowers that appear through the year still to be found if you look carefully in the wild, undisturbed places.

The River by Ted Hughes

Fallen from heaven, lies across
The lap of his mother, broken by world.

But water will go on
Issuing from heaven

In dumbness uttering spirit brightness
Through its broken mouth.

Scattered in a million pieces and buried
Its dry tombs will split, at a sign in the sky,

At a rending of veils.
It will rise, in a time after times,

After swallowing death and the pit
It will return stainless

For the delivery of this world.
So the river is a god

Knee-deep among reeds, watching men,
Or hung by the heels down the door of a dam

It is a god, and inviolable.
Immortal. And will wash itself of all deaths.