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March 1st - 31st

The perambulation of the Forest of Writtle made on Tuesday the Feast of St Leonard in the year of King Edward Third after the conquest 22nd November 1358. It is begun at the holding once of Geoffrey de Reynes and now of Thomas de Welton for the whole of his life once the succession belongs to John, son of Robert de Bauroh “chevalier” and from there going direct by a certain lane on the south of the said holding as far as a certain riverbank running to Chelmsford and thus across the said river as far as a certain house called “le Waterhouse” of Thomas Hughe. And thus from there by the boundary of a certain hedge and ditch which separates the towns of Writtle and Chelmsford going by the said riverbank as far as a certain field called Westfield.. And thus rising by a certain ditch of the said field which separates the towns of Writtle and Moulsham as far as a certain great way which leads from Writtle to Chelmsford from the front of a certain croft formerly Thomas Vintners of Braintree called Balihurlesland and thus from thence going by the said way as far as a certain cross called Widford Cross which cross stands at the head of a certain lane which leads to a croft late of Henry Genett and thus from there by a certain ditch called Holliwelldiche as far as the land formerly of Walter de Burris and now belonging to the Manor of Widford and thus by a cert ain water running to the bridge called Widford Bridge (ERO D/DP L26 5 and 6).

Punctuation was obviously not a strong point of scribes in the fourteenth century (or possibly the modern day translator of the Latin original) but these opening few lines of a perambulation of 1358 (which probably repeats one that was made in 1297) describe the contorted boundary of the Forest from Lawford Lane, Writtle as far as the bridge over the River Wid, just below Widford Church. It is from the river that the area gets its name, Writtle being a modern derivative of Writtleoburna, from the Old English writol (adj.), writian, wreotian, meaning to chirp or chatter (Bannister & Bannister 1993, p.6). From Widford Bridge, and often quoting names that are still recognizable today, the perambulation skirts what is now Hylands Park and continues past Southwood, Coptfold (Margaretting) and Edney Common as far as the “Great Park of Writtle”. It then follows the parish boundary stream with Ingatestone from Redindyke Farm through Deerslade Wood to Monks & Barrows, the site of a medieval hermitage, and thence northwards along the edge of Birch and Parson’s Springs to Horsfrith Park, near Radley Green. From there it skirts the edge of Shellow Bowells and Berners Roding and passes close to Peppers Green en route for “Fouchers”, on the edge of Good Easter parish. It then bears east and after passing Farmbridge End and Great Newarks edges past the parishes of Mashbury, Chignal Smealey, Chignal St James and Broomfield before returning to its starting point outside Writtle. As is the case with Hatfield Forest, the perambulation of the legal Forest almost exactly coincides with the parish boundary at that time. At 13,568 acres it was the largest parish in Essex and has since been split into three parishes - Writtle, Highwood and Roxwell. Even today, seven hundred years on, it is possible to walk virtually all the perambulation using roads and footpaths.

In 1066 Writtle was a private estate belonging to King Harold and following his defeat at the Battle of Hastings passed into the hands of William the Conqueror. Domesday records that the manor had “woodland for 1200 swine” in 1086 (plus a further 200 on two private estates within the manor) and the main woods, then as now, appear to have been in the south of the parish. The three parishes abutting these woodlands to the south and east - Margaretting, Fryernng and Ingatestone - had a further 1340 swine, from which evidence Oliver Rackham has deduced that there were around three thousand acres of continuous woodland in the area, the fourth or fifth largest concentration of woodland in the County at that time (Rackham 1991). Writtle Forest was probably created in the late eleventh or early twelfth centuries as the first reference to it is around 1150 when King Stephen made a grant of a hermitage “in my Forest of Writela”. The grant was to one Robert the Monk (who later became prior of St John’s Abbey, Colchester) and the hermitage was situated in a clearing between Deerslade and Barrow Woods. At first known as Bedemannesberg, the site was later renamed Monks at Barrow and has since been corrupted to Monks & Barrows (Farm). In its heyday it was the residence of two monks who were paid four pence a day pocket-money, in return for which they had to “beseech the mercy of God for the salvation of the King and the souls of past Kings”. Monarchs were often in need of such services in those days, some of the things they got up to! (Newton 1970, p.7). The Forest is the twin sister to Hatfield Forest, both being compartmental Forests with a similar landscape of coppice-woods, plains, pollards, and adjacent parks, purlieu woods, village greens and wood-pasture commons and both had the same social fabric of Forestal, landowning and common rights. Hatfield, though, is situated on the chalky boulder clay while the principal woods at Writtle occupy a ridge of acidic sands and gravels overlaying the London Clay (Rackham 1989).

The Great Park of Writtle is thought to have been founded some time prior to 1230. It is situated in the midst of the eight springs (or compartments) which form the wooded part of the Forest; Great and Little Edney Woods (plus Edney Common) laying to the east and Deerslade and Barrow Woods, Ellis (formerly Hilly), Coppice (Copy), Birch and Parson’s Springs (plus Highwood Common) to the west. The two sets of woodland were once separate but are now linked by three coppices that were planted in the early nineteenth century, namely, Park Pond Spring, Hockley Shaw and Writtle Park Wood. Its 420 acres seem to have consisted largely of wood pasture and may have been used as a device for corralling deer. Both it and the rest of the Forest remained in Royal hands until 1230 when Henry 111 leased the estate to the Bishop of Chichester. Eight years later he bestowed the landowning rights of the Forest on Isabel the Bruce as a sop for depriving her of half an earldom which her father had bequeathed her. Her son, Richard the Bruce V1, created a second park of around 334 acres around Horsfrith, in the northeast corner of Writtle Parish, centred on a wood whose pedigree dates back to at least 1242. In 1306 Isabel’s grandson, the illustrious Robert the Bruce V111, was crowned King of Scotland. This did not go down too well in England (it was high treason) and his family were promptly deprived of their estates. The new owner of the Forest, Edward 11, bestowed it on his brother-in-law, Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex in 1310 and the estate remained in the hands of this powerful and turbulent family, with intermissions, (they also had a habit of committing high treason) until 1521, when Henry V111 lost his patience and the third Duke of Buckingham lost both his estate and his head - at more or less the same time (Newton 1970, p.29-41). Lack of patience seems to have been one of Henry’s abiding characteristics and when he finally lost all pretence of it in 1539 - on this occasion with the Catholic Church - the dissolution of the religious houses was the result. One of his ministers, Sir William Petre, purchased most of the parish of Ingatestone at this time; an estate which, according to Wilde (1913), had been in the hands of Barking Abbey since 950, when King Edgar granted it to them, a remarkably precocious act considering that he was only seven years old at the time and did not become King of all England until 959! As ruler, he certainly played a major part in the revival of the monastic tradition, a resurgence that included the restoration of Barking Abbey in 970, one hundred years after it was sacked by the Danes. This seems a more likely date for his bequest. In 1554 Sir William added Writtle Park to his list of properties and it has remained in the family until the present day (Wilde 1913 p.10).

Sir William Petre seems to have been a remarkable man. The son of a rich tanner from the village of Tor Bryan in Devon, he was a Catholic by birth but seems to have worn his religion lightly and rose to become secretary to Henry, taking an active part in the dissolution of the monasteries and acquiring large areas of land in the process. By the end of Henry’s reign he owned no less than 45,000 acres of land in Devon and Essex. He continued to act as adviser to Henry’s successor, the young but ailing Edward V1, and even helped formulate a memo which recommended limiting the Royal succession to Protestants. However, as soon as it became apparent that the King was dying and that Mary - a devout Catholic and enthusiastic persecutor of Protestants - was winning the battle to succeed him, he astutely tore up the memo and decamped to her party. In due course he helped thwart a plot by Sir Thomas Wyatt to oust Mary and place Elizabeth on the throne, as a reward for which he was allowed to keep his lands as long as he agreed to endow some almshouses in Ingatestone village and to pay pensions to the Abbey’s former dependants, whose livelihoods had been destroyed. It bears testimony to his diplomatic skills that he not only succeeded in hanging on to his lands during this turbulent period, but also his head, and he continued to do so during the reign of Elizabeth, who displayed less fervour for religious persecution than her half-sister but who nevertheless seemed to suspect a popish plot under almost every bed except Sir William’s (Wilde 1913,p.229-36).

The property he acquired at Ingatestone consisted of three principal farms and numerous smallholdings. He built a house - Ingatestone Hall - on the largest of these and lived there until the end of his life. The two other major properties were Woodbarns Farm and Handley Barns. Two pockets of ancient woodland survive on the former - Woodbarns Spring and Portsmorhall Wood - but it is the latter which is at the historical centre of the parish. The map of the parish commissioned in 1600 by John Petre, Sir William's son, was drawn by two of the greatest map-makers of the day, John Walker senior and his son, also John, and is not just a map but also a fine work of art. It lists all Sir John’s tenants and the land they rented and in the preamble to Handley Barns it states that “ The Manor of Handley Barns doth conteyn of arable and pasture, one hundred and thirtie-five acres, three roodes and thirtie-three perches; and of meadowe, ten acres, two roodes and twentie-six perches” while there is “of coppiced woodes and springs, twentie-six acres, one roode and twentie-six perches” : the loss of one wood - Langer Hedge or Spring - having been complemented by the planting of another - Bushy (formerly Gust Leaze) Wood - while two small ancient coppices - Well Wood (formerly Apis Field Wood) and Box (alias Boxall) Wood survive more or less intact. There were a further 202 acres of demesne lands belonging to the Manor while the outlying woods and commons included what are now known as Stoneymore Wood and Mill Green Common, which abut the main Forest springs to the south. Many other small properties on the acidic ridge which extends northwards from Fryerning Church to the edge of the Forest are also outwardly little changed since 1600 Although Handley Barns may not be within the legal boundaries of the Forest it is both historically and spiritually at its very core and I have spent many a pleasant hour over the years sitting on the edge of Box Wood, coffee and sandwiches to hand, musing on the past lives that helped create the Forest as it is today.

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Walked to The Cricketers for lunch, returning via Box Wood, Handley Barns Farm and The Grove. Box Wood has always been something of a disappointment to me as most of the Hornbeam and Sweet Chestnut coppice stools appear to be puny affairs compared with those in adjoining woods and this gives the misleading impression that it is not very old. Yet its pedigree as ancient woodland is impeccable. As mentioned elsewhere, it is depicted on parish maps dating back to 1600 (when it was known as Boxoll Wood) while pottery shards that are identical in appearance to some found at Raleigh (which are thought to date from the first four centuries following the Conquest) have been found here, having probably been dumped from a pottery adjacent to the wood, a site now known as Potters' Row Farm.

Thus the anomaly between the evidence of the coppice stools and the historical record has always perplexed me. Today I solved the problem. What I had always taken to be loose clusters of individual stools are in fact part of a single, much larger coppice. Anything between five and ten such stools form a ring, the centre of which has long since rotted away, but dig down and you will find that all are part of the original coppiced tree. In his book ‘The History of the Countryside’ Oliver Rackham mentions ash stools of this type that are up to eighteen feet across and estimates that they could be in the region of a thousand years old (Rackham 1986, p.102). Sweet Chestnut stools of similar girth are thought to be a little less ancient but, even so, a few of those in Box Wood, which measure up to ten feet across, are likely to be in the region of five or six hundred years old - as are similar sized stools of Hornbeam - and this discovery has completely redeemed the wood in my eyes. Henceforth I will regard it with the same reverence and affection as others in the Forest!

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Conservationists are always going on about ‘iconic’ species but what makes them so? Is it merely personal choice? With many birdwatchers it appears to be raptors, probably because they were once persecuted to the point of extinction and most have now made a remarkable comeback. They can do no wrong. For me, a country boy, it is farmland birds; the likes of Kestrel, English Partridge, Barn Owl, Skylark, Whitethroat, Bullfinch, Linnet and those that say they would like “a little bit of bread and no cheese”. Toddler-hood to old age is full of memories of sitting under trees in the shade, chewing the cud and listening sleepily to the sound of Cuckoos “cuckoo-ing” distantly across the meadows and Turtle Doves (remember them) crooning from the blackthorn thickets while Swallows skimmed low across the wheat fields and Swifts feasted on flies sucked high into the sky by the billowing cumulus. But the most iconic bird of all for me was and is the Peewit and it has been accorded this accolade since 1954, or thereabouts, the year Grandad Smith showed me a nest near his house at Sible (no local ever added ‘Hedingham’ to that when speaking about the village); the same year, incidentally, that West Brom beat Preston in the FA Cup final and I became a supporter!

‘Lapwing’: as the male powers skywards at the onset of his display with strong slow flaps of his broad rounded wings. ‘Green Plover’: as he tumbles towards the ground, twisting, turning, the sun glinting emerald on his back and wings. “Peeeee”, a long falsetto descent; “wit”, a short ecstatic upsurge, ringing out across Round Marsh as he plummets and soars and flings himself across the sky. That was one of the great iconic sounds of my youth, or at least the most formative part of it in the 1950s and early 1960s. But for nigh on sixty years I have had to watch as many farmland birds have gone to the wall, or nearly so, among them the Peewit. It has long since disappeared from the fields at Sible and Ingatestone , and is even rare in winter. A sad decline. Then along came early retirement and a chance to volunteer at Blue House, an area I had known since the late 1960s but for much of that time, until the EWT took over in 1998, was an intensive sheep farm with no Lapwings. The joy of Blue House for me was that it was not just a nature reserve but a farm as well – my habitat of choice. True, like the rest of British agriculture, it was dependent on CAP subsidies to some extent to survive, but it was a farm nonetheless. It was also blessed with a warden, Nick, and an assistant, Tim, who allowed me to wander where I would, either to record the farm’s wildlife or simply lay in the grass listening to larks ascending, pipits descending and - once again after so many years - Peewits sky dancing. Bliss!

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Fencing is the main work of the volunteers at Blue House in March, replacing the old soft wood posts with longer lasting chestnut ones from Thrift in preparation for the arrival of cattle from their winter quarters. The bovine mind, convinced that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence and supported in this conviction by half a ton of muscle, soon sorts out any weakness in any fence line that is thwarting his ambition. Even rotting fence posts, though, are a useful wildlife habitat. At Blue House thousands of 16 and 22-Spot Ladybirds overwinter at the base of such posts, where they gather in large clusters in the air spaces between the rotting wood and the earth. Common Lizards and Smooth Newts also find sanctuary here during the colder months and on one occasion a volunteer’s spade was poised above the hole when a slight movement revealed a male Great Crested Newt in the bottom of it. Had the spade descended then a criminal record and a lifelong ban from Trust’s reserves would surely have followed for the culpable volunteer. Shame, as I have become attached to the place! 

Old Fogeys of my generation often bemoan the loss of freedom enjoyed by youngsters and how they seem to be discouraged from taking a hands-on approach to nature. The poor little kiddies probably have to wear life-jackets when pond dipping nowadays! Mind you, some freedoms are probably best lost, like the freedom to go bird-nesting. Not that I was very good at finding nests and I only ever took one egg from those I did find. Trouble was, I told my friends about them and they only took one egg too! Still, the regulations surrounding some so-called iconic species are irksome at times. Thou shall not roll up your trouser legs and wade into a pond (if you can find a decent one in the countryside nowadays) and catch Great Crested Newts in a net. Thou shall not take them home in a bucket and keep them in an old sink in a garden. Thou shall not take their eggs from waterside plants and watch them hatch and grow in an aquarium in your bedroom. Indeed, thou shall not touch, upset, otherwise disturb or even give them an untoward glance without a licence. What thou shall do, if you are repairing the A12 and there is a population in a nearby pond, is put up three hundred yards of newt-proof fencing in case they develop a suicidal tendency to migrate across the road while you are working there. Yes, yes, I know that they are one of the fastest declining amphibians in Europe but even so…………

Thus there is a certain vicarious pleasure to be had in observing the disrespect for the regulations shown by other wildlife. A Cormorant recently was very disrespectful indeed. It caught and ate over thirty of the hapless creatures – both Great Crested and Smooth – in little more than half an hour on one of the Fleets. A fluster of Black-headed Gulls bickering over a newt one of them had caught also provided a piece of theatre when they were ambushed by a Marsh Harrier, who helped himself to a free meal when they dropped their prey and fled. So too a Grey Heron attempting to swallow a large male Great Crested which seemed to have inflated and stiffened its body in an attempt to avoid this fate. Surprisingly, this ruse seemed to work as the heron dropped it back in the water as I approached. Grumblings apart, I hope it lived to be recorded another day – under licence of course!

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‘The Life Story of an Essex Lad’ is an autobiography by Isaac Mead, who farmed Waples Mill, Berners Roding towards the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th centuries and it gives a wonderful insight into what life was like for a tenant farmer at the height of the great agricultural depression. The son of a farm labourer, he was born at High Easter on January 23rd 1859, a village which at that time boasted no less than five self-employed boot-makers, one harness-maker, two blacksmiths, two master bricklayers, two grocers, one tailor & draper, two carpenters and two wheelwrights. Like most of the other children in the village he seems to have received at least a few years schooling but by the age of eleven he was already hard at work sheep herding, weeding and cutting up thistles on one of the local farms for a wage of eighteen old pence a week. Aged twelve, in October 1871, he fell out of a tree while gathering acorns to fatten his father’s pigs and broke his thigh. The leg was set and splinted by the local doctor while his parents held on to his arms and one good leg to stop him thrashing about! Alas, eight weeks later he slipped out of a chair and broke it again. It was set once more but a month later the doctor discovered that the bones had not knitted properly and had to break and set it for a third time. All without the aid of anaesthetics! For many weeks afterwards he had to lay on his back with his leg splinted from ankle to armpit and it was a further two months after that before, still limping, he could get back to work.

Farm work continued until he was seventeen, when he was given the opportunity to train as a miller at High Easter windmill. Four years later he moved on to Blasford Mill, Great Waltham and soon afterwards to Springfield Mill. Two years after that, newly married, he was offered the tenancy of Waples Mill. The rest of the book covers the trials and tribulations of a tenant farmer. He seems to have been an indomitable spirit and despite never having more than the proverbial two pennies to rub together appears to have remained, if not cheerful, then certainly positive minded throughout his life. It was appallingly hard work. For instance, to clear an eight acre field of twitch it had first to be ploughed – with a horse drawn plough of course. To accomplish this he first ploughed a furrow at four yard intervals across the field, which, because of the tangled roots of the twitch took him several days. Next, he ploughed further furrows at one yard intervals, but then left the land for several weeks until the frost had broken up the clods before completing the ploughing. In the spring he harrowed the land and off three acres of it, which he was working for oats, removed no less than seventy-five tumbrils of twitch! The remaining five acres were planted with tares, which he manured as well as he could afford. These grew tall and strong and smothered the twitch. After harvesting the tares for fodder he left the land fallow for a short while before, more than twelve months after he began, he was finally able to re-plough the land and sow it with wheat.

Disaster was never far away. In 1888 a thunderstorm caused the river to flood and he lost forty acres of new mown hay. A few years later the bottom fell out of a storage bin and deposited forty quarters of very fine barley into the weir pool. Then, in 1910, the mill was burnt down. It was not in use at the time but, needless to say, after keeping the building insured for twenty years he ceased payments a few months before the accident happened.

It was not all gloom and doom, however, and he relates one or two amusing incidents. In 1882, he had occasion to catch a train at Great Yeldham but on approaching the station found that the train was about to leave and had to run in order to catch it. Thinking himself fortunate not to have missed it, he was surprised when, after travelling no more than a quarter of a mile, it was brought to a halt and reversed back into the station. It turned out that it had been recalled by the Stationmaster – presumably by means of much flag waving – because a lady passenger had arrived to catch it just as it departed. He later learned that the staff on the Colne Valley line were very obliging but viewed through the cynical lens of the modern age one can only presume that the lady in question was indeed a Lady and not just a mere woman!

Isaac was a bit of a philosopher. His staunch but never bigoted morality and his positive attitude towards the vagaries of life shine through, his narrative being peppered with philosophical titbits. Take this for instance :

“The course of life is ever pleasure and trouble, day in and day out. Life is like the weather – continual changes. This is for our good. The man that never meets with a day’s illness never truly values health. The man that is never really hungry does not appreciate food, so if we never met with troubles we would all be lop-sided, and never have any sympathy for anyone. Country life is one continual change. We plough a field and sow some fine seed; prices promise to be favourable. Then just as one is about to reap the reward of one’s toil, down goes the whole thing. That which looks like being the means of enjoyment is a failure. A bright, lovely morning often brings a rough, stormy day, whereas a dull morning often turns out a lovely day; so one born in a mean and lowly station in life may, if he perseveres, rise and rise like a lark; but this needs grit. Some are born with no energy, others are born full of it; some give in at the first trouble, others rise by trouble or opposition. As I look back during the past forty years I can plainly see that my best friends have been those that have opposed me”. Or this :

“The rich man has to meet heavy expenses and as long as he has sufficient to pay his dues he should be contented and happy, and not have to pander to that craving for more. The poor man, too, has his own share of troubles, but by making provision for sickness and by thrift, not having too high ambitions, spending only what he can afford, he, too, can be contented and happy. But if the envious spirit is indulged in and one gives way to the spirit that is so prevalent today, of appearing wealthy without the means to be, so long will discontent grow. The more it is humoured the faster it grows, like any infectious disease, until everything it comes into contact with is destroyed”

Or finally this :

“I am, and always have been, a believer in every man striving to leave the world a little better than he found it. There are some who are willing to take but very rarely give. Now in the matter of trees and fruit, if out forefathers had neglected to plant there would have been none for those who came after them. When I was a very small lad, when a child was given an apple, upon coming to the seed, he used to nip it between his thumb and finger and say ‘pip, pip fly away, bring me an apple another day’. This was not meant to be an empty phrase, but a germ of truth to be acted on."

Perhaps I am being naive. When it comes to autobiographies I have long held the opinion that they should be required by law to contain a chapter written by the author’s spouse or partner! Could a hypocrite lurk behind the philosophy? I have no reason to think so, having met a few Isaac Mead’s in my time. Stubborn and bloody-minded at times they may be and given to expect the same high standards of others as they demand of themselves but in times of crisis where would we be without them?

He is, I believe, buried at the entrance to Hornet’s Farm, along the Willingale to Beauchamp Roding road, one of his former farms. The memorial is in the form of a stone plinth and the epitaph does not mention him by name but is dedicated to “An Essex Lassie”, presumably his wife, who died in 1924. Beneath this is inscribed a prayer which begins with the words ‘May the Grace of Christ the Saviour and the Father’s Boundless Love........’. A metal plate, which has worked loose, was originally attached to the plinth and on this a hymn has been printed, the first verse of which runs ‘When All Thy Mercies, Oh My God, My Rising Soul Surveys, Transported With The View I’m Lost In Wonder And In Praise’

Behind the memorial there are two or three much smaller un-inscribed crosses. Tucked away as it is in the corner of a field, few people who pass the spot each day probably realise who is buried there. It is at its best in early spring when the surrounding trees are bare and the ground between the graves is white with snowdrops. Later it becomes overgrown with cow parsley. But perhaps Isaac would approve of that.  May he rest in peace.

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Handley Barns Farm. A Chiffchaff was singing in Dog Kennel Lane this morning, in all probability the first of those returning from wintering grounds in southern Spain rather than a bird that has been with us all season. It moved ahead of me until I reached the stream, then took up residence in the tangle of bramble, black and whitethorn scrub that is trying to smother the cluster of young pine trees planted there, and here no doubt he hopes to attract a mate.

John Walker’s parish map of 1600-01 names all the fields on the farm. They range between the functional - Barn Field and Stack Field - and the descriptive - Thistly Field, Round Mead, Long Mead and Horselease - to the obscure - Staple Downe and Gustlease, while two are named after the woods that adjoin them - Box and Apisfield - the latter later renamed Well Wood. Field names, like those of woods, seldom stand the test of time, being renamed or modified as the old ones lose their meaning or change their function. Those at Handley Barns have fared better than most. On a map of 1819 Barn Field, Stack Field and Gus(t)lease are all still there; Apisfield Wood has had its name changed but the field alongside retains the old meaning, while Boxoll Field has simply been shortened, like the wood, to Box. Staple Downe has been replaced by the bland Great Ley (an alternative name in 1601), Long Mead has merged with an unnamed neighbour to become Great Mead, Round Mead has changed to Little Gustleys, Thistly Field is now a Stony Field, and Horselease is Astleys, the meaning of which is lost in the mists of time. Farmers have presumably continued to give their fields names up to the present day but there is little record of it; such names have no place on the Ingatestone tithe maps of 1839 and in a sale catalogue of 1936, when the Petres sold Handley Barns, they have been de-personalized to the numbers found on the ordnance survey map. Sad.

The names on John Walker’s map still have great meaning for me though.  Four hundred years on Thistly Field is still full of thistles and in late summer hundreds of whites, meadow browns, gatekeepers, skippers, peacocks and small tortoiseshells dance attendance upon them; so too in nearby Horselease, where charms of Goldfinches up to fifty strong feast on the thistles’ plumed seeds each autumn. Flocks of locally bred young Mistle Thrushes gather in Barn Field in midsummer to feed and socialise before dispersing and in winter Redwings, Fieldfares and Meadow Pipits forage the squelchy turf in search of worms and grubs. On sunny days a pair of Little Owls emerge from the hollow of an old ash pollard along one of the boundary hedges to bask in the noonday warmth for an hour or two; a hedge where three cock Ring Ouzels paused on migration one April morning a few years ago. And in October the grass is peppered with field mushrooms, among which a few yellow stainers inveigle themselves and try and fool the unwary. Boxall Field is where the Fallow Deer creep out of the wood to feed, the dappled sunlight playing across their backs; Staple Downe, which has merged with Stack Field since the intervening Wood - Langer Hedge or Spring - was grubbed out in the early 1800s, is awash with the Skylark song of my youth in early summer. In contrast, part of Gustlease was planted with woodland in the 1700s. Now known as Bushy Wood it is thick with Bluebells in May; other plants too - Dog’s Mercury, Primroses, Goldilocks, Early Dog Violets, Wood Speedwell, and, in late summer, the purple tinted greenish spikes of Violet Helleborine hiding in the shadows from the deer, which consider them a delicacy.

As for Long Mead, for some time I misread this on John Walker’s map as Long Marsh and during many a daydream imagined pressing a button and being transported four hundred years back in time to wander the marsh and surrounding meadows in search of plants. As long as the button worked in reverse, of course! I always envisaged it as an area similar to Hatfield Forest Marsh, with scattered trees and bushes overlooking a dense herbage of bromes and fescues, foxtails, sweet grass, rushes, sedges and gaudy yellow irises with perhaps the occasional rarity such as bladder and pale sedge finding a niche among them. In spring the still damp ground would have been knee-deep in kingcups, common spotted, early and southern marsh orchids, to be replaced in summer with lush stands of purple loosestrife, marsh mallow and hemp agrimony. Who knows, perhaps the stately marsh sowthistle flourished in the deeper water and lesser fleabane coated the slush filled hoof prints where the horses came to drink with a carpet of gold. The reality - I expect - was probably far more mundane : a squashy corner of a meadow, ploughed into a quagmire by the hooves of cattle, with just a few mud spattered tufts of juncus rushes along the stream. No matter. There is no harm in dreaming!

As mentioned above, by 1779 Long Mead had increased in size and been renamed Great Mead (or Marsh!) - which sounds even more promising. By the time the tithe map was published in 1839, though, the upsurge in agricultural prosperity had taken its toll and although the outline of the mead is still visible it has been upgraded from wet meadow to pasture, most of the water having been drained either into the stream or two ponds close to the house. It remained as such until after the 1939-45 war when it was upgraded still further to an arable field, continuing like that until the late 1980s when the father of the current owner, Chris Knowles, purchased the farm. Hotels and auction rooms are their forte, not farming, and they soon decided to dam the stream, by so doing creating a large lake which they hoped to turn into a profitable water sports centre. This plan was eventually thwarted by Brentwood Borough Council’s planning regulations so Chris decided to turn it into a fishery instead, the penetrating roar of jet skis being replaced by the gentle plop of bubble floats hitting the water. Around twenty years ago the fishery was extended, seven ponds of various sizes being added and an existing pond enlarged. In so doing they dug down into a broad seam of calcareous material just below the surface. The following spring the bare soil was colonized by huge numbers of arable weeds whose seeds must have lain dormant for many years. Among them were chalky boulder clay specialists such as Round and Sharp-leaved Fluellens, Small Toadflax, Dwarf Spurge and Stinking Mayweed, which are either rare or absent from most of the parish soils. Over two hundred plants of Broad-leaved Spurge appeared that first year, a nationally scarce and declining plant of arable land. As the annuals gave way to perennials a wonderful flower-rich grassland developed and for the past decade the banks have been awash each summer with dog daisies, st john’s worts, clovers, trefoils, medicks, melilolots, vetches, vetchlings, tares, hawk-beards, hawk-bits, willowherbs, wild carrot, bartsia, centaury and a host of others - a place where it is a delight simply to wallow and enjoy being alive! A few scarcer species have also appeared among them - dozens of Bee Orchids and elegant spikes of Yellow Wort - a species I had never entertained hopes of seeing in the parish. And then, of course, there are the hundreds of dragonflies and butterflies which the ponds and meadows attract, so my idle daydreams have not proved to be the fantasy I imagined but have turned into reality.

This, to me, is what landscape and natural history are all about. It is a place where the written word, personal experience and the imagination combine to create a greater meaning than either possess on their own. Handley Barns is such a place. It is the joy of poring over old maps and documents. Of reading about past lives, their troubles and joys. Of walking where many a generation has walked before you. John Walker and his son surveyed and measured the still thistly Thistly Field. There is great poignancy in that. So too in knowing that an oak - whose shelter from winter storms and midsummer heat you have enjoyed since a child - is an experience that your great-grandfather may have shared. It gives you a different perspective on the passing of time - a feeling of continuity that helps you realise the underlying truth of the oft repeated cliché about how the thousand years between the Conquest and present day is but an instant. One hundred and twenty years have passed since Captain H.G. Pilleau of the Royal Engineers and his faithful sidekick Lieutenant W. Wynne surveyed this area and beheld, made note of and - I like to believe - enjoyed the beauty of such oaks. So much of great import has happened since then. The birth of Grandad Horsnell occurred at Highwood in 1874. He married Frances Raynor from Castledon Farm, Downham at the turn of the century; moved to Ingatesone, where he worked as a gardener for the Sewell family at ‘Maisonettes’ for much of his life; fathered two daughters - Florence Kate (whom he outlived) and Kathleen Grace - and adopted another, Ellen Frances (otherwise known as Nellie), to whom his wife had given birth before they met; retired to his favourite chair in the back garden of 48 The Meads, and died there in 1956. His youngest daughter, Kate, lived well into her ninth decade and his grandson, me, is ten years into his early retirement. There has also been the relatively minor matter of two world wars, the invention of the internal combustion engine, the splitting of the atom, the discovery of DNA, the landing of the first man on the moon etc etc etc etc. Nevertheless, as I wander the fields and hedgerows it is the ghosts of Messers Pileau and Wynne who accompany me - caped up against the rain, resting beneath the shade of a roadside oak, or savouring a well-earned pint in the tap room of The Viper; and as I walk the village footpaths, Grandad John is there ahead of me - toiling in the kitchen garden of the ‘Big House’, puffing on his favourite clay pipe in the old wooden chair with its sleeve polished arms, or reminiscing about the “mean old buggers” he worked for who “never paid me more than a couple of quid a week all my working life”! They are among the cast of my history. The man on the moon can go hang!

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A flock of ten Mandarin Ducks were present on Harding’s Farm Ponds when I passed by this afternoon, eight resplendent drakes and two rather harassed looking ducks. In China this species is known as the Yin Yang Duck and is considered to be a symbol of conjugal affection and loyalty, happy couples often being referred to as “Two Swimming Mandarin Ducks”. This - plus the fact that they are reputed to be very bitter tasting - has probably saved them from ending up in the cooking pot in a country where they seem to eat virtually everything else but it hasn’t saved their forest habitat from destruction and some estimates put the native population as low as three thousand pairs. Thus, it is perhaps just as well that there is a flourishing naturalized population in England, focused on the London area and surrounding counties. In Essex the main concentration has long been centred on Epping Forest, in particular the area around Connaught Water. These birds are thought to be an extension of the population that became established at Virginia Water in Surrey during the 1930s and which have slowly expanded their range from there.

The birds in this area, though, have a different origin. Rosemary Upton, who owned Coptfold Hall, Margaretting, was President of the Essex Bird Watching & Preservation Society (as it was then called) for many years. She had quite a large collection of ornamental wildfowl, among which were many Mandarins. Soon after she died, in the late 1980s, Mandarins began appearing in the Ingatestone area for the first time. Along with them came several Wood Ducks, of which she also owned a good number. The latter bred in the area in 1992 - the first such record in Essex - but, alas, the site chosen, The Hyde Lake, was patrolled by a 13lb Pike and the ducklings didn’t last very long. The Mandarins thrived, though, up to 31 being recorded during the early 1990s, their favourite haunt being the series of four ponds where I saw them today. Numbers have gradually dwindled since then; not, I believe, because they have failed to breed but because they have spread out over a much wider area. I still regularly record them from ponds in the Writtle/Highwood area and in 2004 encountered a pair on a small pond at Tye Hall, Roxwell.

This species has specific requirements with regards to both food and nesting. The former includes chestnuts, beech-mast and other woodland seeds and they usually forage for these either at dawn or dusk. Food presents few difficulties for them hereabouts but locating an adequate nest site close to suitably shaded woodland ponds is more problematical. A favoured site are the old clay pits on Mill Green Common, where I flushed a creche of twenty-three ducklings and three adults in June 2003. When these are dry in summer - as has often been the case in recent years - they are forced to use less advantageous sites, one female choosing an ivy-covered oak pollard alongside a derelict pond at Dawes Farm. When disturbed, the ducklings have a habit of exiting the pond en masse, along with their mother, leaving a surge of water in their wake as they flee into the surrounding vegetation, behaviour which I witnessed on the old gravel pits at Beggar Hill one day last July. It can be very amusing to watch although to them, of course, it must seem - and often is - a matter of life and death.

Mandarins weren’t the only birds kept by Mrs Upton. She also had a flock of free flying Budgerigars. They had the run of the estate during the day but returned to an aviary at night to roost. It was only possible because Sparrowhawks were so rare in Essex in the 1960s. One morning I was cycling on my post-bike towards Park Lodge, where she lived, when one of the budgies flew out of the shrubbery straight into my front wheel, coming to an unfortunate end in a flurry of blood and feathers. I was only eighteen at the time and in a panic I stuffed the dead bird into my jacket pocket. As luck would have it she was waiting at the door for her post when I arrived. We chatted, as usual, but I could not help noticing that she was a little more reserved than usual. As I cycled away I happened to glance down and there was the budgie’s tail protruding like a flag from my pocket......... Happy days.

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