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A Tale of Two Habitats

December 21st-31st

The Winter Solstice. When King Edgar the Peaceable, who reigned between 959 and 975 re-consecrated Barking Abbey in or around 970 €“ a hundred years or so after it had been sacked by the Danes €“ he presented the Abbess, Wulfhilda (who had earlier spurned his amorous advances), with an estate in Essex that was later to become the parish of Ingatestone. Within that estate was the demesne Manor of Handley Barns; €˜demesne€™ being the Lord€™s own land or domain, which in theory was farmed directly by him and not held by tenants. In practice however it was often managed by him when agriculture was profitable and handed over to tenants when it was not! Anyway, William the Conqueror allowed the Abbey to retain the land and they held on to it for a further 500 years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 when it was purchased by Sir William Petre, Secretary of State to Henry V111. Handley Barns Manor was sold separately, to Elizabeth Hill, widow of Richard Hill, who sold it on to Sir William for £133 4s 6d.

In 1600-01 Sir William€™s son, John (later the first Lord Petre), commissioned a map of the estate from two of the leading cartographers of the day, John Walker and his son, also John. That depicted demesne land attached to Handley Barns Manor as including Redindyke Farm, properties at nearby Handley Green, and what are now called Mill Green Common and Stoneymore Wood but which at the time were known as Handley Common and Great Handley Wood. In time, Common and woods became part of the Writtle Park estate, purchased by Sir William from Queen Mary in 1544. Handley Barns Farm has changed very little in the five centuries since then. In 1600 the farm comprised around 145 acres of meadow and pasture and three small ancient woodlands, Box and Well Woods and Langer Hedge. The first two remain, the last has gone, but was replaced in the late 16th or early 17th centuries with Gust Leaze Wood, later renamed Bushy Wood. Field boundaries have been tweaked and land use has changed in line with agricultural fortunes (the marshy meadows alongside a stream have recently been replaced by the largest in a series of fishing lakes) but in 2015 it is essentially the same farm as in 1600 and quite possibly 1066 as well, or even earlier. One of the fields on the farm is a designated Roman site, possibly concealing the remains of a villa, and finds there in the past have included coins depicting Hadrian (117-138), Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and the latter€™s wife, Faustina, who does not appear to have been a very nice lady at all, to put it mildly! This is what makes Handley Barns such a special place.

When I was at primary school in the 1950s we had a teacher for a few months called Dave Sorrel. One day he took us for a walk to Box Wood and we spent a couple of hours happily rooting around in the leaf litter digging up shards that had been dumped from a pottery which once existed on an adjoining farm. On returning to school we cleaned the shards and he identified them for us, teaching us a little about the era in which they had been made. If I had but realised it at the time he prised open a window on a subject that interested me; a window that was slammed firmly shut in Secondary School but which, in later life, was flung wide when I stumbled across the books of Oliver Rackham. These were a revelation. There was I, a country boy through and through, who had walked the parish fields and woods hundreds of times with his parents when a youngster, and bird-nesting friends as a boy, yet was completely unaware that the landscape I was walking in had a history. Suddenly, woods and meadows, hedgerows, pollards, ponds and coppice stools had context and meaning. Not only that but the plants that grew in them, the birds that nested in them, the butterflies and moths that supped nectar from their flowers and whose caterpillars fed on their leaves, the dragonflies that danced above the ponds; even the mushrooms that I picked in the meadows, all were inextricably linked to the history of the landscape in which they lived. Birds had always been my €˜thing€™ since I was knee high to a grasshopper but Oliver€™s books opened my eyes and broadened my interest so that natural history and human history became indivisible. A walk would never be the same again. I cannot thank the Professor profusely enough! 

Anyway, Handley Barns was where I was today, completing a Winter Thrush Survey for the British Trust for Ornithology. Ground nesting birds such as thrushes have benefited from the recent rain; worms, forced to the surface, almost giving themselves up so sodden is the soil. And there is still plenty of food in the hedgerows and on the woodland floor. That is where most of the thrushes were feeding today; over two hundred cackling Fieldfares foraging for haws in the hedge alongside Great Mead along with sixty or more Redwings and a dozen dusky-billed continental Blackbirds. Elsewhere, a pair of Stormcocks were furiously defending a berry laden Holly bush on the edge of Box Wood from a raiding party of Redwings and a couple of Song Thrushes were among other thrushes rooting among the leaves in the interior of the wood. They and other birds seem to be already looking forward to the spring; Mavis, Tom Tit, Redbreast, Hedge-e-Bet and Jenny Wren having all been prompted by the mild weather to make their first contributions to the dawn chorus.

And finally, as an addendum: you never stop learning, or at least you shouldn€™t. I have even learned to love Brussel Sprouts, after refusing to go near them as a kid unless they were buried in Bubble & Squeak. What I do not seem to have learned is that if you trip or slip while sauntering along with your hands in your pockets the first thing to hit the ground is likely to be your nose! At least the ground was soft.


Piercing screams from the vicinity of the landing indicated that my sister had stumbled across a spider, the pitch and persistency of the screams indicating that it was a very large spider. I sped immediately to the unfortunate arachnid€™s aid, hoping to save it from the fate usually meted out to spiders found lurking indoors, namely, being bundled up in a duster and thrown from a great height. It proved to be a female Tegenaria gigantea an attractively patterned species with parallel lines of grey flecking on either side of the chestnut abdomen and a dark brown thorax, striped with pale grey. It had spun its sheet-like web behind the bookcase, where no doubt it had resided for some considerable time, doing no harm to anyone, before being disturbed by Homo domestica€™s bizarre tendency for spring cleaning in December! The remains of a slightly smaller spider lay alongside the web and at first I thought that it was the mortal remains of an unfortunate male, who had been unaware of the old adage about how €œsex will draw you further than gunpowder can blow you€ and had made a false move while courting, as a result of which he had ended up on the menu. It appears, though, that in this family of spiders the two sexes often live amicably side by side on the same web (although they occasionally squabble over whose dinner belongs to whom) and it is only when the much shorter lived male succumbs to old age that his spouse eats him. Which is very ladylike of her I€™m sure.


Christmas Eve. Sitting with my sister in Ingatestone Church, awaiting the start of the midnight service; feeling a bit of a fraud. I neither a believer nor a non-believer be but am forever wobbling from post to post along the top of the fence, fearful of falling, being pushed, or worst of all, stepping resolutely to one side or the other. The Neo-Darwinists, led by scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Colin Blakemore, are fond of claiming that religion is the root of all evil. I disagree. The root of all evil is to be found in minds that are full of certainty and free of any kind of doubt; it really doesn€™t matter much whether that certainty is religious, political, racial or whatever. Individually, such people are a pain in the nether regions; collectively, they can be downright bloody dangerous! Atheists like Pol Pot, with their political certainties, can be just as evil as their religious counterparts, Osama Bin Laden among them. I am all for conviction politics among our leaders as long as their minds retain the possibility that, absurd as it may seem, they might, just might, conceivably, in some hard to envisage circumstance, be wrong! After all, what€™s amiss with a little bit of doubt in this life if, as a result, it leads to a little bit of humility in face of the unknowable?

My reveries were interrupted by the appearance of the Vicar and his entourage, one of whom placed the Bible on the polished brass lectern €“ a mighty eagle with wings wide spread. Not just any old eagle €“ not to the child I once was €“ but a Golden Eagle; a lordly creature that was depicted surveying the glens from high on a Scottish mountain crag in my cherished copy of €œThe Observer€™s Book of Birds€; a bird of myth; one remote from my worldly horizons €“ which barely extended beyond Mill Green Common at that time €“ and thus confined to dreams and longings that I had little hope of being fulfilled.

The Vicar began the service with a short prayer. I realized a little shamefacedly that I couldn€™t recall his name; indeed, I would be hard pressed to name any of Ingatestone€™s vicars since the death of Canon Hudson in the 1970s. He was the vicar of my childhood; lordly, like the eagle, sweeping along the village streets in a flowing black and white cassock. A vicar of the old school, inclined to preach that the poor and humble should be content with their lot; a world view resented by some of the adults around me, including my father, the descendent of a long line of farm workers. He was largely benign to a child of my age, though; whether sitting attentively as we stuttered our way through the Lord€™s Prayer at school or smiling benevolently from a great height as he presented books (it was always books) to the lucky winners at the School Prize Giving, which was always held, rain or shine, on his garden lawn. I only ever won prizes for Good Conduct €“ a goodness that owed more to timidity than virtue €“ but dear old €œSkip€ Seymour, my headmaster at Ingatestone Boys€™ School, always ensured that my prize was a bird book; on a couple of occasions one written by his friend and neighbour, Rosemary Upton of Coptfold Hall (which I still own), but in 1959 €“ the final year for both of us at that school €“ Roger Tory Peterson€™s €œField Guide to the Birds of Britain & Europe€ €“ a wondrous tome full of exotic creatures that fuelled my ornithological dreams for many years to come.

The prayer was followed by a hymn. I opened my mouth but restrained my larynx, hoping that the sound of my voice would travel no further than my immediate neighbours. Any pretensions regarding my singing abilities fell at the first hurdle when I was turned down for the Church choir while at Primary School. Not that my desire to join was motivated by religious fervour, rather by the sixpence that was paid out each time you attended choir practice! Anyway, it appeared that my lack of confidence was shared by many others in the congregation. A few voices, both male and female, rang out clear and true, bouncing off the walls and spinning up towards the divine, but the underlying murmur suggested a middle-class congregation of a certain age desperately trying to let themselves go but not succeeding. The result was that our rendering of €œHark the Herald Angels Sing€ sounded more fitting for Christ€™s funeral than his birth!

More prayers. A lesson, read by the Verger. The three Wise Men had seen a message in the stars and were on the move. A second hymn. The vicar€™s sermon €“ on the meaning of Christmas.  How to find God among the baubles, tinsel, flashing lights and other pap that blocks our view. Most of it, ironically, made in atheist China. Comparing God with Father Christmas; the latter descending from the skies bearing material gifts to provide us with pleasure, the former gifts of love and understanding and unending joy. I was a devoted fan of Father Christmas and his trusty steed, Rudolf, when I was a lad. Even as an eight year old I remember passionately defending his existence against the taunts of more cynical €“ and knowing €“ classmates in a debate at Primary School. I had seen him €“ so there! And he brought gifts like oranges and nuts, tin cars, painting books, marbles and plasticine. He seems to have gone a bit up market since then. A friend€™s eight year old grandson recently presented him with a shopping list of a dozen items ranging in price between fifty and two hundred pounds plus notes on the websites that offered the best deals on all of them. And my friend one of the least materialistic people I have ever met. Too late Vicar! We do not really live in a secular age but have merely swapped one set of beliefs for another. Religion is no longer the opium of the masses, consumerism is. Now I really am beginning to sound religious!

A further hymn. A second lesson €“ the Wise Men have reached the stable and are singing the infant€™s praises. Further prayers. I sit gazing at the polished wooden panels of the pew in front, trying to instil meaning into meaningless words. Both eyes and mind are distracted by a movement on the large brick pillar close to where I am sitting. A Daddy Long Legs Spider Pholcus phalangioides, descending the pillar, has encountered a Giant House Spider, Tegenaria gigantea, who is in the process of ascending it. They view each other warily, palps twitching, each assessing the possibility of an evening meal. The former scuttles to the left; the latter copies his movements a couple of inches below. A scuttle to the right meets with the same response. Half a dozen scuttles are replicated exactly but slowly the Daddy Long Legs Spider begins to give ground. He seems to have decided that he is more likely to be the dined upon than the diner. Finally, he breaks ranks and legs it up the pillar, past a smear of bat droppings, towards safety. En route he disturbs a Herald Moth, perhaps awakened from his winter hibernation by the heat emanating from the gas fires in the aisles. He flutters up into the roof and is lost amidst the rafters€™ dingy light. My eyes seek him out, to no avail, but as they become accustomed to the lofty gloom they discern several €“ six €“ eight - no at least a dozen dark shapes clinging to the underside of the beams €“ Peacock butterflies sleeping the winter away.

The final prayer. The Lord€™s prayer. No need to read this one from the book. I know it off pat. This is a prayer with meaning for me. Every morning for two years we assembled and recited it to Mrs. Williams, the headmistress at Ingatestone Infant€™s School, and each morning for two years it was followed by a test in the times tables. Once heard, neither forgotten. Indeed, for decades afterwards I could never encounter her in the village street without mentally breaking into a chant of €œseven sevens are forty-nine, eight sevens are fifty-six, nine sevens are sixty-three€ and so forth, and continue chanting them all the way home!  Happy days.

For a horrible moment towards the end of the service I feared that the Vicar was going to ask us to hug our immediate neighbours €“ a recent faddish innovation dreamed up by the Evangelists to show how much those in the congregation love one another.  I would rather die than indulge in something so excruciatingly un-British! Perhaps it was relief that the moment passed un-hugged that caused me to sing the final hymn with gusto, or at least until the third verse when my nerves calmed and a proper restraint resumed. My inner debate had finally drawn a conclusion, the conclusion being that although I accept as probably true the Darwinian notion that we live in a meaningless, amoral, uncaring universe I find myself living my life as if the opposite was true - that it does matter how you behave on this earth. Logicality was never my strongest point. Is this the wishy-washy Judeo-Christian morality with a Godless veneer of the Humanist? The trouble is, what is morality without a legitimate moral authority, or one you consider to be legitimate? It becomes just another invention of the human mind, like God to an Atheist; take it or leave it -your choice. To quote Mr Pascal: €œIf there is no God and there is no Heaven then anything goes€.

So I kind of don€™t believe in God and I kind of do believe in a meaningful universe. I€™m happy with that. But as I sat in my pew mumbling prayers of little meaning for me and croaking hymns of half-hearted rejoicing my spirits did soar as I watched Tegenaria gigantea and Pholcus phalangioides shadow boxing on the pillar above me; saw the Herald moth fluttering in the warmth from the gas fires; and dimly perceived the stationary, shadowy forms of the Peacock butterflies slumbering their way to a spring awakening. Praise be the Lord! Or Evolution! It€™s all the same to me. The Earth is astonishing. May it continue to astonish me until Paradise or Oblivion beckon.


A Christmas Day tale. Peter the Tramp arrived in the village several years ago, pushing a battered bicycle that had neither tyres nor chain and to which were tied the necessities of his life - a few sacks for bedding, a couple of tin cans for cooking in and eating out of, a sheet of polythene to shelter him from the rain and, more surprisingly, several discarded cardboard boxes, the canvases for his pictures. He had a penchant for drawing ships and was definitely an exponent of the so-called primitive school of art, most of his pictures consisting of the outline of a squat, tug-like boat with one deck, one cabin, one mast and one funnel, from the last of which a squiggle of smoke would usually be rising. This nautical theme to his work may have been partly responsible for the rumour, soon doing the rounds of the village, that he was the son of an Admiral. According to this story, his childhood had been spent in comfortable middle-class surroundings and at the outbreak of the Second World War he had followed family tradition and enlisted in the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, incurable seasickness, allied to some disease he picked up in the Far East, meant that he was soon invalided home and remained unfit for active service for the remainder of the war. This imagined disgrace so played on his mind that he decided to go into self-imposed exile from the rest of his family and after drifting from one dead-end job to another he eventually ended up on the streets, where he had remained ever since.

In all probability this was a fairy tale but it did serve to create a lot of sympathy for him in the village. From being a nasty, dirty old man he was transformed into a respectable, dirty old man and henceforth his life improved dramatically. His story, which was certainly not spread by him, as he stubbornly refused to talk about his early life to anyone, brought out the best in people. To begin with, his abode on the banks of the River Wid, close to Stock Lane bridge, was a crude shelter made out of sticks and branches, with his polythene sheet for a roof and the walls lined with plastic bags, fertiliser sacks, bits of old carpet and other rubbish which, sadly, can nowadays be found along most Essex country lanes. However, after a particularly heavy spell of rain one autumn, the river burst its banks and his home was swept away. Fortunately, he wasn€™t in it at the time! Some anonymous benefactor promptly bought him a tent. A few months later this too was washed away and someone - possibly the same person - provided him with another. Other people used to leave him fruit or vegetables from their gardens; or bake him cakes and pies. When the weather turned cold someone made him a simple wood-burning stove so that he could heat up his meals; others gave him blankets or took him flasks of hot soup or tea. He accepted such charity with good grace. The life he led furnished proof of what suffering the human body can be trained to endure. He lived rough throughout the grim winter of 1978-79 and it was only during Christmas 1981, when temperatures fell as low as -15`C in southern England, that he was persuaded to seek shelter for a few days in a Salvation Army Hostel. Soon after this he decided that he had had enough of village life - perhaps he felt he was becoming soft - and decamped to a railway arch in Romford, where he finally succumbed to pneumonia in the winter of 1987-88. Happy Christmas.


One of those quiet December days when the sun remains but a suggestion of warmth behind a high, thin ceiling of cirrus cloud and the breeze fails to elicit even the faintest rustle from the clusters of keys that still cling stubbornly to the branches of the roadside ash trees. The autumn leaves no longer crinkle underfoot in Stoneymore Wood but subside uncomplainingly into the mud and there is little in the way of sound or colour to penetrate the veil of soft grey light that surrounds the trees and which inclines the mind towards reflection.

Wood-banks lend themselves to reflective thoughts. The longest, straightest and mightiest of those that enclose the ancient coppice in Stoneymore is the medieval bank that still forms part of the parish boundary with Highwood. When first constructed it, along with the other banks in the wood, may have been topped with a dead hedge of brash and its ditches periodically cleared of leaves and fallen branches but its original purpose, which was both to define ownership and keep grazing animals (particularly deer and Commoner€™s sheep and pigs) from the young coppice within, have long been obscured by neglect. Most people coming across them nowadays would be likely to assume that they are natural features rather than the work of man. Built by men they certainly were but what kind of men? What were they like, those medieval woodsmen who struggled with mattock and shovel to create these once mighty banks? Were they freemen or villeins? Paid for their services by the Lord of the Manor or paying off a debt to him with their toil? What did they think about? Talk about? What were their hopes and fears? At times there seems to be an unbridgeable gap between their age and ours. Ian Mortimer, writing in €œThe Time Traveller€™s Guide to Medieval England€ opens his chapter on €œThe Medieval Character€ with a horrendous story about Sir John Arundel €“ younger brother of the Earl of Arundel €“ that involves the violent abduction of a group of nuns who, later, are callously dumped overboard when his ship, bound for France, looks like foundering in a gale. He goes on to portray a society where men and women were more €œfearful, guarded and violent€ than the one with which we are nowadays familiar. It is a world where people have few qualms about inflicting pain on children and animals and where blood sports €“ Cock Fighting, bull and bear-baiting - are sure to draw a crowd €“ while the medieval sense of humour revels in the humiliation and misfortune of others. Superstition is rife. Anything is possible. Iron can be turned into gold and Hobgoblins inhabit the woods. It is a frightening age indeed.

I€™m not sure though that the 14th century has much to teach the 20th about barbarism, more likely the reverse. And as for cruelty to children and animals, or revelling in the misfortune of others, they are, if not habitual, still commonplace in our society. As for superstition, most of us, even today, have a wonderful ability to believe in what we want to believe from time to time, irrespective of the facts, so it is hardly surprising that our medieval forebears believed what they did when they only had their imaginations to guide them. They may have believed that there were Hobgoblins in the wood but, then, only last week a district councillor in the Midlands was sacked for claiming that the recent floods were linked to the legalisation of gay marriage! Human nature doesn€™t change that much, would that it did! Its more positive aspects may occasionally come to the fore, depending on the age and society In which we live, but the 14th century is never far below the surface. As I sat on the bank today, coffee cup to hand, viewing those medieval workmen from my elevated vantage point of 600 years, I could at least make a brief nod of recognition in their direction. Doubtless some worked hard while others were loafers; some were garrulous, others taciturn - either ready with a smile or never far from a scowl; some, upon raising their eyes to gaze at the latticework of branches against the sky, were content; others, frustrated by what they saw as the harshness of their existence, gazed at the sky with indifference, hostility even. They probably laughed, swore, larked around, argued, discussed village politics, gossiped and swapped crude jokes. And is it too much of a whimsy to suggest that like the English working class to this day they probably moaned endlessly about both their work and the weather!

Were those medieval woodsmen to return to Stoneymore today it would, perhaps, give them pleasure to find that their workmanship had survived for six hundred years but they would undoubtedly be shocked at the condition of the coppice their labours had been designed to protect. It fills me with sadness too. When €œSkip€ Seymour, my headmaster at Ingatestone Boys€™ School in the 1950s, led us pupils on our weekly €œnature walk€ to Mill Green the wood was full of the song of Nightingales; over thirty pairs he once told me. A dozen pairs remained a few years later, during my bird-nesting youth, and ten or more in the 1970s when my nest finding talents were put to more constructive use on behalf of the BTO€™s Nest Record Scheme. Today it is possible to gaze for hundreds of yards through the trees with nary a bramble leaf or blade of bracken to interrupt the view. Nightingales have not bred there for many years, their song slowly fading as the undergrowth in which they nested disappeared.

Still, the resumption of commercial coppicing during the past three winters gives hope for the future and, derelict or not, there is still much to enjoy, even in mid-winter. Hard Ferns, like these pictured here, have established their parish stronghold on the wood€™s medieval banks, while in damper areas nearby the winter green leaves of Scaly Male Fern catch the eye; the truncate apex to the leaf pinnules - most with a prominent €˜tooth€™ on each €˜shoulder€™ €“ serving, among other features, to identify it as ssp. borreri. There is beauty too in the bark of the Douglas Fir €“ the survivors of another period in the Wood€™s history €“ whose canopies, far above, now top those of the surrounding oaks when viewed from afar. Surprisingly, a fair number of fungi have survived the few frosts this winter €“ Buttercap, Wood Blewits, Glistening Inkcap, Common Bonnet and Peeling Oysterling among them. Bracket fungi too are plentiful. The family Postia is not one to set the pulse racing, most species forming spongy white (occasionally blue tinted) blobs on dead wood but Postia leucomalella cuts a prettier picture as many of the brackets are tinted a delicate buttermilk yellow and flow together to cover rotting conifer stumps. Nearby, a common winter species, the Scurfy Twiglet, seemed to be flourishing on an old bonfire site on one of the wood-banks and I hardly gave it a second glance until I noticed the deeply decurrent gills. It proved to be Omphalina pyxidata, otherwise known as the Bonfire Navel, the €˜navel€™ being the button-like depression in the centre of the cap.

As I paused for a final cup of coffee before returning home a male Tawny Owl roosting in a Scots Pine close by let out his tremulous territorial call, a challenge that met with an immediate response from a rival male on the far side of the wood. For the next ten minutes each tried to out-hoot the other and then their mates joined in, exchanging a sharp €œkew-wik€ with their rival€™s spouse, a swapping of pleasantries that continued as I left the wood and plodded home towards the New Year along the road.