It is always fun, on the first day of the year, to see what plants are still in bloom as when the frost is in abeyance a surprising variety can be found contributing splashes of colour to an otherwise dour winter scene. That number has tended to increase during the past ten to fifteen years as global warming has led to the current run of namby-pamby winters but it is still partly dependent on a lack of frosts during November and December. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when winters were much more severe, a dozen species in flower on New Year€™s Day would have been a good haul but a couple of years ago I found twice that number during the walk along the River Wid to Margaretting with which I usually begin the year. Until a few weeks ago January 1st 2016 looked like surpassing that total with ease as an incredible number of plants were still in flower including, bizarrely, both Dog Rose and Common Dog Violet! A week of frosts put paid to them, however, and I knew when I set out this morning that I would need a bit of luck to set a new record today.
A walk round the garden set the ball rolling with Chickweed and Petty Spurge. Next was Guernsey Fleabane, on waste ground in Norton Road - a species that I would not have found in the 1980s. The cricket pitch at Fairfield added the good old Common Daisy and the railway bridge on the edge of the field contributed three more - Yarrow, Prickly Sowthistle and Red Deadnettle. Gorse was also in bloom on the railway embankment. A further trio - Shepherd€™s Purse, Groundsel and Common Field Speedwell - which, like the daisy, would probably bloom whatever the weather threw at them, were flourishing on the banks of the river, where I also found a single surviving umbel of Hogweed. A lingering flower-head of Autumn Hawkbit caught my eye along the courtesy footpath between Stock Lane and Margaretting Church while waste ground alongside the latter produced White Deadnettle, Scentless Mayweed and some very precocious Cow Parsley. Sixteen down, only nine to go, but I had to wait until I reached the set aside strips on the field margins at Handley Green before adding Curled Dock, Thyme-leaved Speedwell, Creeping Buttercup, Common Mouse-ear and Hedge Mustard to this tally. The banks of one of the stock ponds at Handley Barns fishery yielded Hairy Bitter-cress, Celery-leaved Buttercup and a site specialty, Broad-leaved Spurge, to bring the scores level. An even more un-seasonal find, Grey Sedge - on the raised embankment in Fryerning Lane - broke the record while just for good measure there were Hazel catkins in €œpollen€ on the banks of the A12. It is invariably the first place I see mature catkins each year : perhaps the heat from the passing traffic creates a kind of micro-climate that raises the temperature a degree or two above that of the surrounding countryside. The same is certainly true of towns and a friend, Steve Wilkinson, later phoned to say that he had found no less than thirty-six species in flower in the parks, gardens and roadside verges of Chelmsford, which rather puts my final total of twenty-seven to shame
Blue House Farm EWT Reserve is split between three parishes. The western half, Blue House, is in the parish of North Fambridge whereas the eastern half, known as Hydemarsh, is in Latchingdon. A third area, the 50acre field known as Round Marsh €“ now the main wader breeding area on the farm €“ formed an outlying part of Purleigh, separated from the home parish by several miles. Such outposts were not uncommon in the past and were designed to share out meadows or hayfields more fairly among parishes. At one time Hydemarsh was a separate farm, the farmhouse being situated almost directly opposite the BWA hide (the one nearest the seawall), close to where the owl box now stands (TQ873972). This week we were lucky enough to be paid a visit by eighty-nine year old George Ager, who as a boy lived with his parents on the farm for eighteen months in the mid-1930s. Although over three quarters of a century had passed since he was last there his memories of that time were still fresh. They were the memories of a boy : of how he walked to the top of the lane each morning to catch the bus to school at Purleigh and of how he and his siblings trudged through the snow for weeks on end during the bitter winter of 1934/35 in order to attend Sunday School at Fambridge. They were not allowed to take the shortest route, across Blue House, but had to plod up the long lane to Uleham€™s Farm and thence along the Woodham-Burnham road to the village; not a road you would want to walk along nowadays! There were around a thousand sheep on the two farms €“ which is quite a high stocking level even by today€™s standards €“ and other memories were of cold, sleepless nights spent helping with the lambing early in the year. The farmhouse, which was built of wood with a tiled roof, seems to have been quite a substantial building, having a large farmhouse kitchen, a lounge and three bedrooms. Water was obtained from a pump in the yard but the sanitary arrangements appear to have been a little basic €“ €œbucket and chuck it€ was the way George put it!
On Friday evenings he and his mate used to tour the farm making sure that all the gates were closed. This was because the local Fox Hunt worked the area on Saturday mornings. It was not that they were budding hunt saboteurs, rather that they were tipped by the huntsmen for opening the gates for them. It was a Hunt tradition only to tip in silver and their reward was the smallest such coin at that time €“ a silver three-penny bit; the expression on George€™s face, if not his words, suggesting that in his view they were a tight fisted bunch but perhaps the huntsmen were well aware of George and his mate€™s little ruse! Another memory was of walking the fields on dewy October mornings collecting the abundant mushrooms, which his father later sold in Maldon market. He also had to collect €˜clams€™ from Cockle Pond, at the eastern tip of the reserve. To do this his father cut a beer barrel in half and George paddled this makeshift boat around the pond, using a rake to collect the shellfish which, from his description, were probably Swan and Duck Mussels. Neither is considered edible nowadays but those were hungrier times.
George and his family appear to have been the last people to live in the farmhouse as shortly after they left the two farms were amalgamated and run from Blue House. It stood derelict for many years before being accidentally burnt down. In the 1950s it was common practice to control the vegetation in the ditches by burning them and one such fire got out of control. Pity the poor Water Voles in those days! All that now remains to indicate that people once lived there is a large clump of Horse Radish in one corner of the site and a few plum and damson trees on the perimeter. And George€™s memories of course.
Such memories, when shared, become part of the experience of those they are shared with. On a reserve such as Blue House, which has been farmed since the marshes were first drained €“ a process thought to have started as early as 1592 €“ experiences like those of George€™s are as an integral part of the landscape as the Water Voles in the ditches, Yellow Wagtails flitting between the legs of the cattle, and the tumbling display flights of the Lapwings above the meadows in early spring. They help build a picture, enhance the appreciation, and add to the beauty of a landscape. Certainly, I will never again pass the site of the old farmhouse without thinking of George and his family in general and (human nature, or at least my nature being what it is) the bucket in particular, while Cockle Pond will be forever inhabited by George in his beer barrel boat!
It is a little known fact that sheep do not like to get their feet wet. They can swim perfectly well but when stranded on small islands of higher ground amid floodwater €“ like the Dorset Longhorns pictured here at Blue House Farm EWT Reserve recently €“ they prefer to wait patiently for the water to subside rather than attempt to brave the flood. This is an admirable trait compared with the behaviour of many motorists. A much maligned animal is the sheep. The contempt we have for them springs from their flocking behaviour and instinctive desire of the more submissive animals to follow the dominant members of the group. In Turkey recently the leader of a flock attempted to leap a fifteen foot wide ravine - and all 399 of his followers followed suit, with unfortunate results. Following a Great Leader to perdition is unknown in human beings of course, hence the contempt€¦€¦€¦€¦
If you want to exploit an animal without worrying too much about it, it probably helps if you look on it as being stupid but recent research has shown them to be anything but. In Yorkshire, sheep have been observed lying on their sides and rolling over and over in order to cross three metre wide €˜hoof-proof€™ cattle grids. The lure in this instance was the cabbages and lettuce in village gardens as sheep, given the choice, prefer a varied diet rather than boring old grass. Research in Australia has revealed that sick sheep may actually be able to detect what nutrients they are deficient in and actively seek out plants that make them feel better, having developed a knowledge of which species are beneficial and which toxic. Perhaps that is what those Yorkshire sheep were up to! Researchers have also found that a sheep can recognize the faces of over fifty other sheep and familiar human faces as well; indeed, it is thought that they may be as good at picking out faces in a crowd as we are. They also form family and social friendships within a flock and ewes have definite opinions about what makes a ram€™s face attractive!
As for Icelandic sheep, they are a class apart, as I can vouch for myself. I was once savagely assaulted by an Icelandic ewe when I got between her and her lamb. The incident happened close to Lake Myvatn, in the north of the country. I had stopped on the road to watch a Gyr Falcon and was standing astride my bike when the ewe in question came charging up the gravel embankment and head butted me with such force that I was catapaulted down the other side, landing in a grazed and bloodied heap at the bottom. The humiliation of it €“ done over by a sheep! But now what do I find? There is a strain of sheep in Iceland known as Leadership. Leadership sheep are highly intelligent and have an exceptional ability to sense danger. Apparently there are numerous stories in Iceland of Leadership sheep saving many lives during the autumn roundups when blizzards endangered shepherds and sheep alike. There you are. I don€™t feel so bad about it now. In fact it almost feels like an honour €“ to have been beaten up by a Leadership sheep. Mind you, having read Rider Haggard€™s adaptation of the Icelandic sagas as a youth it should not surprise me that Eric Blood Axe and his compatriots€™ sheep are chips off the same block! (Thank you www.followyourdreamfarm.net/sheepbehaviour).
I€™m a vegetarian by the way. Thought I€™d mention it.
A wild wet day with frequent gales and bouts of heavy rain. Wind! It€™s a curse as you grow older and the legs grow weaker and the mind grumpier. That and the rain. But at least the latter brings in the birds. Many of the fields on the reserve, especially those close to the farm, have been harrowed and rolled to perceived flatness during two hundred years of cultivation so that little of their rumpled, creek-crossed marshland origins remain, but they are not as level as they look. Rain reveals many small dips and hollows and fills them and the runnels in the ridge and furrows of the old plough land with water. As the Land Rover drives over them everyone inside bounces up and down like a yo-yo, especially those of us clinging grimly to the seats in the back! There is so much water laying around at the moment that wellies or frequent fence hopping is required to get round the reserve dry-shod. The rain soaked ground bulges with worms and the more productive fields draw in flocks of birds to feast on them €“ Rooks, Starlings, Lapwing, Golden Plovers, Black-tailed Godwits, Curlews and Redshanks €“ while the larger pools serve as a salon for groups of Brent, Canada, Grey Lags and Shelduck, intent on a wash and brush up. At such times the sky is full of movement as flocks of birds commute between fields and the air hums with light, colour and sound, succour for the mind when so much other wildlife is deep in winter sleep.
The warm rain is also favourable to fungi and the dead elms in the lane sport several winter mushrooms €“ Turkey Tail, Velvet Shanks, Jelly Ear and the beautiful Wrinkled Peach, once so rare but now more widespread, its name descriptive of its colour and appearance. Jelly Ear is reputed to be edible and over the years I€™ve tried many ways to make it so - frying, roasting, stewing, steaming, grilling, boiling and casseroling; even grating it raw on a salad - but my efforts always resemble, both in taste and texture, a plateful of elastic bands and all I€™ve really succeeded in doing is generating a dozen different ways to acquire indigestion.
2,000 Lapwing rose as one from Round Marsh and departed for the surrounding fields. An adult female Peregrine appeared. A single Lapwing (the only one remaining) took flight and was immediately attacked by the falcon. It dodged a dozen or more short stoops by the Pergrine, swerving to left or right an instant before impact, the two birds weaving an erratic pattern across the sky. A second Peregrine arrived on the scene, this time an adult male. He and his mate attacked the Lapwing in tandem; an unfair contest. He won the prize but the weight of the Lapwing dragged him down, predator and prey spiralling slowly earthwards. As they hit the ground he lost his grip and the Lapwing bounced free and took flight. The female Peregrine resumed the assault. Her would-be dinner crash landed in the deep water channel that crosses the marsh, then dived. The falcon hovered above the water, lunging at the Lapwing each time it was forced back to the surface to breathe. Three, four, five, six times she snatched at its head but on each occasion the Lapwing eluded her and re-dived. Then she gave up and retreated to a fence post to preen. The Lapwing continued 'downstream', still repeatedly diving, emerging from the water after fifty yards or so and seeking sanctuary among the rushes. Initially I thought that the Lapwing must be poorly (or dimwitted) to remain on the marsh when all its companions had departed but, ill or not, its performance demonstrated an extraordinary will to survive and I saluted it.
A friend once told me of a similar incident that took place while he was sailing his dinghy in the Blackwater. On this occasion the assailant was again a Peregrine, its intended victim another wader, a Turnstone. The latter was obviously physically spent and on the point of being killed when it saw his boat and changed direction towards it. It arrived just ahead of the Peregrine and dived into the water, resurfacing beneath the prow, where it hid, treading water. Frustrated, the falcon circled low overhead, hoping the Turnstone would panic and resume flight, but after a few minutes gave up and flew off. Shortly afterwards the Turnstone emerged from its hiding place and headed off in the opposite direction. On another occasion, friends watched a Redshank being pursued by two Peregrines, a Merlin and a Marsh Harrier at Mayland. Remarkably, the Redshank eluded all four of them, again by diving into the water, re-emerging after a few yards, flying a short distance and then repeating the procedure. Even so, it is unlikely that it would have survived had not the superabundance of raptors pursuing it decided to bicker among themselves, giving it time to make for the cover of the saltings.
Waders have evolved to wade, not to dive underwater (although most can swim tolerably well when feeding in the shallows) but it would appear that new tricks can soon be learned when it comes to the survival of the fittest.
Two wildfowlers were shooting on Bridgemarsh Island when we completed the monthly WeBS count between North Fambridge and Althorne today. My head, being of a pragmatic disposition, tells me that I have no objection to wildfowling when it is carried out responsibly; and many wildfowling clubs do behave responsibly - insisting on the use of steel rather than lead shot, implementing bag limits, and improving habitats. The last may be done to improve their shooting but it benefits other wildlife as well. I have my doubts about the use of baited flight ponds on farms, which are leased €“ all too often - to clubs whose membership consists mostly of city types who roll up in their 4x4s, sit behind blinds in their posh new Barbours and pot gullible young Teal that circle round and round like plastic ducks on a fairground stall (I have heard of 30-40 being shot in a single evening); then drive back to the City, with 'duck shooting' now on their CV's! But anyone who is prepared to sit for hours on the edge of the saltings during a freezing January dawn or dusk probably deserves a few birds for the pot - or so my head tells me - and you hope they may gain something more from the experience than the shooting of a few birds.
And yet! Why is it then that whenever I hear a gun go off I swing round and scan the sky for sight of a falling bird or a gundog running across the marsh, and when neither is evident sigh with relief. He missed! At times too I am inwardly screaming at approaching birds - who are unaware of the guns below - to gain height; my relief almost audible when they do, my heart sinking when they do not and I see a bird fall. The truth is I find it difficult to understand the desire to kill anything unless it is to fill a hungry belly (mine, most certainly, is not), protect my crops or defend my person. Wildlife in general and birds in particular have brought great joy to my life and I have lost count of the number of times during the past fifty years when I have crawled on my belly up an Essex seawall in order to view the wildfowl in a creek beyond as they bathe and preen, squabble and socialize, and then to creep away again unseen. You feel privileged. It is still the best way to see them €“ bird hides are for softies! One of the wildfowlers today shot a female Teal. It crash-landed in Bridgemarsh Creek, one wing broken, and tried frantically it make for the Blue House bank using its other wing. The shooter ran along the saltings parallel to it and eventually blasted it on the water, his dog then retrieving it. It must have been riddled with pellets. And there is but a morsel of flesh on a Teal - barely enough to cover a slice of toast. It seems sad to destroy something that moments before was so vibrant with life. So much for pragmatism!
What is a Snowdrop? Many of those growing alongside the lake at The Hyde are of an old fashioned variety, the outer tepals barely overlapping the inner and giving the flowers a flat faced look. Nevertheless, they create a fine display each spring, their white flowers and grey-green leaves in bold relief against a backdrop of sombre Yews in this, their most natural setting in the parish. When or by whom they (or their predecessors) were planted is open to conjecture but given this species long history as a much loved garden flower it is not unreasonable to hope that it was the creator of the lake, Thomas Brand-Hollis, who first placed them there. It was his father, Timothy - a London merchant - who bought the land in 1719-20 and built a grand house on the site. Previously, the estate had consisted of a multitude of small fields, at the centre of which stood €˜Hickes at Hyde€™, the property, on the earliest parish map of 1600, of one John Bond, Gent. It is listed as €˜Ye Hide Hall€™ in the parish registers of 1624 and even then was sufficiently imposing to warrant its owner having his own pew in Ingatestone Church. The name itself has more humble origins, being derived from the term for an age-old form of land measurement. In 1731 Timothy commissioned a map of his estate by an otherwise unknown surveyor, William Patten, who lived in Chelmsford. He refined his work with a painting of the house and grounds, the beauty of which can only be appreciated on the full-size original in the Essex Records Office. Thomas later changed his name to Brand-Hollis in honour of his friend, Thomas Hollis, a well-known Whig reformer who was described by the €˜Gentleman€™s Magazine€™ at the time as €œone of the most liberal-minded, public-spirited men this age has produced€. They travelled widely in Europe together, collecting antiquities, and on his death the latter bequeathed his estates in Dorset to his companion, hence the name change. It was Thomas who appears to have been largely responsible for landscaping the grounds of the house. The result was a classic eighteenth century vision of nature perfected. Visitors taking their ease on the terrace could enjoy restful views of the narrow, zig-zag shaped lake (then known as €˜The Canal€™), beyond which acres of rippling grass, artistically strewn with ponds, spinneys, thickets, avenues and informal clusters of trees stretched to the edge of his domain. A herd of cattle, also artistically arranged, and perhaps a few Fallow Deer, would doubtless have completed the scene. This creation seems to have been a mirror-image of the man who created it. An old print, depicting him in profile, suggests a prototype hippie, his long hair (tied at the nape of the neck) trailing almost to his waist. He lived prior to the Victorian work ethic - the lucky fellow - and when not swanning around Europe appears to have enjoyed playing the role of country gentleman. Unfortunately, he also had a hankering for politics and attempted to buy a Parliamentary seat (at Hindon in Wiltshire), a practice that was widespread at the time but nevertheless illegal and which caused him to be fined and imprisoned for corruption. As was the custom of the age, though, his wealth enabled him to carry on living in some style while residing at His Majesty€™s Pleasure!
Between trips abroad and spells in clink it is not difficult to imagine such a man enjoying the luxury of his grand home and its elegant views across the lake and park but it was probably members of the Disney family, who inherited the estate on his death in 1804, who were the first to enjoy the shade from the many trees he planted. A few survive to this day including several Yews and two magnificent Lucombe Oaks (Quercus x crenata); the latter€™s dense dark domes of evergreen foliage, deeply ridged, spongy bark and mossy acorn cups reflecting the characteristics of both parents - Cork (Q.suber) and Turkey (Q.cerris) Oaks. Betwixt house and lake stands another fine tree - a Cedar of Lebanon. It has shed a few branches in recent years but those that remain still proffer a pleasant shade and the trunk is a comfortable backrest on a hot summer afternoon. Ah, the refined family picnics that must have taken place here in the estate€™s Victorian heyday! The Disneys were descended from an old Norman family, who took their name from the barony of Insigny in France, and their main place of residence in England was Norton Disney in Lincolnshire. Reverend Dr John Disney, who had been a close friend of Thomas Brand Hollis, was a minister of the Unitarian Church at Essex Street Chapel, near The Strand in London, at a time when such churchmen were a force in the land. His children and grandchildren appear to have been equally stalwart; ideally suited for those elegant, fashionable picnics depicted in brown, fading photographs in so many family albums. It is the women in them who speak most eloquently across the years with their whalebone corsets, starched lace, multi-layered petticoats and broad-rimmed hats adorned with fruit and three veg and an occasional grebe or egret plume. And at ninety degrees in the shade too! There is a sadness in the haughtiness of women of this class, with seemingly nothing to do but twirl their parasols and look as elegant (and just about as purposeful) as the deer in the park! Perhaps it was one of them who planted the later varieties of Snowdrop to be found by the lake, including a beautiful flore peno with long, curved inner tepals. I like to think so.
The estate remained in the Disney family from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. In 1818 John Disney had the public roads re-routed away from his house, as previously they had passed so close that the local riffraff could peer in through the windows! He and his descendants were true to the spirit of the age in which they lived and some of the older people alive today can remember, even as late as the 1930s, when servants were only allowed to approach the house along one of the several paths that led to it lest they spoil the view for the owner and his guests! The Disneys did, however, permit the village to hold its annual flower show (and occasional fairs and horse shows) in a field on the estate, to be followed afterwards by dancing and other celebrations in the grounds of the €˜Big House€™. That world came to a close in the 1950s when the estate was sold. The park - which was extended by the Disneys and in its prime occupied much of the land currently enclosed by the two branches of Little Hyde Lane and the B1002 - was rapidly converted to arable farmland and many of the hedgerows, spinneys and trees grubbed out, while in the late 1950s it was sliced in two by the construction of the by-pass across the southern corner. Meanwhile, the house - which had been turned into a private school €“ was allegedly burned down by a disgruntled member of staff in 1965. The lady in question - the housekeeper - was disgruntled because she had just been made redundant (or given the sack as it was known in those days). The late Gordon Francis, who lived on the estate, saw her lugging a can of paraffin back to the house from the village on the day in question but didn€™t give it a second thought! All that now remains are the foundations and a short section of wall surrounding the old terrace, the latter draped in the scented blooms of Italian Honeysuckle in high summer. A fine new house has recently been built by the present owner on land nearby.
Many people who have only recently arrived in the village are probably unaware of the estate€™s former glory but a few relics of those days still remain. Among them are the line of oaks that screen Seymour Field from the B1002 and the Horse Chestnuts and Scots & Corsican Pines that border Little Hyde Lane. The lake, though, is the real treasure. A narrow zig-zag in shape, it is flanked to the north and east by trees. They hide what remains of the so-called €˜railway€˜. As it is depicted, and named as such, on estate maps of 1805 and 1818, it obviously predates the railways proper and was perhaps a carriage drawn by horses along rails. Either that or they tied one of the servants between the shafts! The full beauty of the surviving trees is currently muted by the sycamore and other scrub that encroach upon them while both ends of the lake were until recently stagnant and overgrown. Even so, it remains one of the richest wildlife sites in the parish. The lake is not stream fed and even in winter the depth of water seldom exceeds four or five feet : during hot dry summers it becomes so shallow that the backs of the larger carp regularly break the surface as they force a passage through the thick tangle of Canadian Waterweed and Rigid Hornwort that choke most of it. The dense fringe of marginal plants includes such species as Water Horsetail, Common Reed, Panicled Sedge, Common Spike Rush, Creeping Jenny, Flowering Rush and Ragged Robin, which occur in only a few other sites in the parish. In midsummer it is a lazy, hazy kind of place, the water milky beneath the sun, insects dancing in the hot sunshine: an ideal spot in which to drowse in the long shade cast by the trees and to idly watch the world go by, lulled to sleep by dragonflies patrolling back and forth across the shallows. On a cold winter afternoon it has an altogether bleaker aspect. The trees huddle around the lake, trying to protect it from the windswept prairie farmland that encroaches upon it, the roots of their outermost defences regularly torn from the soil by the plough each autumn. The cold economics of cost effectiveness saved it from destruction during the two decades following the 1939-45 war, a period aptly described by Oliver Rackham as The Locust Years. They did not save it from neglect, though, the local fishing club did that. It is largely thanks to them that it still survives. On a cold grey afternoon full of wind driven drizzle it is almost too sad for words - a forgotten relic of an abused and unappreciated historical landscape. Only the Snowdrops relieve the gloom, a broad swathe of them on the edge of the wood gamely resisting the sudden blasts of wind as they nod towards the old house and the ghosts of its former occupants. There were rumours a few years ago that plans were afoot to turn much of the estate into a golf course, a development that could well have benefited wildlife if handled sensitively. Many of the existing features, including the lake, would have presumably been incorporated into the course. Thus, in years to come golfers may well have been found lounging in the members€™ bar, where the old terrace now stands, and gazing - like those corseted ladies of old - across the lake towards the Snowdrops nodding on its banks. A few many even have wondered when they were planted. I do hope so. It is what local history and natural history are all about.
A Drone Fly Eristalis tenax was basking in the sunshine on a sheltered wall of Margaretting Church this morning, no doubt lured out of hibernation by the un-seasonal warmth. This is one of the relatively few species of British hoverfly that have been found on the wing in every month of the year. The larvae apparently live in organically rich - and often polluted - ditches and drains, being especially partial to the vicinity of sewage pipes and the putrefying run off from manure heaps. Needless to say, I have never seen the larvae and have no intention of looking! A pity really, as they have one of the most curious adaptations of all insect larvae, namely, a telescopic breathing tube which can extend up to eleven inches and which enables the grub (known as the Rat-tailed Maggot) to remain hidden beneath almost a foot of gunge while still being able to breathe fresh air. It must surely need some!
Work parties for the Blue House Farm volunteers in winter alternate between three EWT reserves €“ Thrift Wood, Bicnacre; Shotgate Thickets, Wickford and Stow Maries Halt, near Cold Norton, the farm normally being too wet for much work to be carried out there. Felling fifty year old stands of Hornbeam and Sweet Chestnut coppice to encourage the growth of Common Cow-wheat, the food plant of the reintroduced Heath Fritillary, is the main work at Thrift; scrub clearance and grassland restoration at the other two. The work presents a peaceful, age-old scene on a winter€™s morning, albeit the buzz of the chain saw has largely replaced the thud of the axe. But the groan and thump of falling coppice; the steadily accumulating piles of logs and brash; the wisps of wood smoke curling slowly up through the trees; and the chat of the woodsmen (us volunteers, in case you were wondering) as we sit round the fire at lunch time, is a scene that has been re-enacted countless times in past millennia. It is good to be a part of something like that.
Not everyone agrees though. Some see the felling of even a single oak tree as a sacrilegious act. No amount of discourse about grassland restoration, the loss of nearly all our species rich meadows in the past fifty years, or even a last desperate appeal that they should consult that great oracle of the modern age, Google, does any good. In the end we volunteers leave such pedants to the warden. He seldom has much luck either. The conversation usually ends with an adamant €œI don€™t care what anyone says, I will never change my mind€! On this and much else in their lives I would bet. For ever and ever. Until Amen. I know quite a few people like that! Still, I too was unaware the important part played by coppicing in maintaining our woodlands and the wildlife therein until enlightened by Oliver Rackham, so I should not crow too loudly.
Thrift Wood is ancient woodland and may well have had a regular coppicing cycle in the past but unfortunately no one bothered to record it; either that or such records have been lost. Not so Stoneymore Wood, Mill Green. It - along with the Forest springs at Writtle Park and other major woodlands in the area - had probably been coppiced on a regular basis for several centuries before Sir William Petre acquired the estate in the mid-1500s as there are wood sale accounts in the court rolls dating back to at least 1396 (Rackham 2003). However, the practice was not spelled out in detail until a survey of 1781, when it was stated that :
€œIn the woods€¦€¦.after the cutting of the Copse Wood, Lord Petre has the right to enclose them for the space of seven years, after which it is thrown open to the tenants of the manor for a further space of ten years, when it is again cut down as Lord Petre€™s property€
The seventeen year coppice cycle implied by the 1781 survey was not strictly adhered to and in practice ranged between eight and nineteen years, with a tendency to lengthen in later decades. For instance, Rackham (2003) states that Great Edney Wood was coppiced in 1691, 1703 and 1711 while surviving wood-books from the late 18th to the late 19th century list Great Stoneymore as being coppiced in 1787, 1800, 1819, 1836, 1850, 1864, 1877 and 1888-89 and Little Stoneymore in 1788, 1800, 1817, 1835, 1848 and 1863. The majority of these, of course, were years of major coppicing, when the entire wood was harvested, but smaller transactions would undoubtedly have occurred in other years. An account book of 1800 kept by one William Robertson gives a detailed breakdown of the costs and profits involved. John Clarke & Co was paid £36. 8s 0d for felling 52 acres in Great & Little Stoneymore Woods, at 14s per acre. They also received £77 4s 0d for providing 386 rods of hedging and ditching for use in the same , at 4s per rod, and £8 13s 7d for sundry other items. Solomon Stubbing charged his Lordship £18 8s 6d for 20,000 quicksettes for the new fence and William Mullnicks £5. 5s 0d for 500 bush faggotts. William Cocks & Co claimed £2.15s 10d for stopping gaps in the fence separating Deerslade from The Mores and for digging post holes in the two Stoneymores while John Otley employed two men for twelve days ditching up gateways in the woods and for this service charged Lord Petre £1. 6s 0d. Finally, John Dawson was paid £1 9s 2d for gate irons and John Bannister 15s for two padlocks In return the Petre Estate received £794 from Messer€™s Collins for the coppice wood from Great Stoneymore and £804 from Messer€™s Tindel for that in Little Stoneymore. In addition, Henry Finch paid £51 18s 3d for eight loads and twelve yards of bark and Joseph Hills £5 16s 0d for one load and eight yards of oak timber. Thus the income amounted to £1655 14s 3d and the outgoings £125 4s 11d, a profit of £1539 19s 2d. It sounds a lot but, of course, it had been thirteen years since the previous coppice and £1540 divided by 13 = approximately £118 10s per annum. According to Measuring Worth.com, £1 today would have been worth £68.40 in 1800. At school I always viewed mathematics as one of the dark arts but Google makes it easy! According to them, £118.50 x £68. 40 comes out at around £8,105, a relatively modest annual return but a cheque for the equivalent of £105,000 (8,105 x 13) after 13 years would have kept his Lordship in ermine for many a day!
One of my fellow Blue House volunteers recently went to the Doctor€™s to pick up some pills and was asked to fill in a questionnaire about his activity levels. The nurse asked him whether he got much exercise. €œWell€, he replied, €œI do a lot of walking €“ in the mountains as often as I can €“ but mostly along the Essex coast. €œAnything else€? €œLots of gardening and also conservation work for the EWT€. €œWhat does that involve€? €œIn winter, when we are coppicing we have to cart a lot of heavy logs around; at other times it involves scrub clearance, brush cutting & raking, fencing, repairing culverts, digging holes, hedge laying, ragwort pulling, Water Vole surveys, bird surveys €“ things like that€. She studied the boxes on her form and said €œDo you cycle€? €œI like to take my bike when on holiday in Belgium€. €œGo jogging€? €œNo€. €œVisit the gym€? €œNo€. She pondered over her boxes some more then concluded, €œI think we shall have to put you down as inactive€€¦€¦€¦€¦€¦€¦€¦
One of my New Year resolutions is to learn a new natural history discipline and I quickly decided on lichens as I have long been fascinated by this group of organisms, which as Frank Dobson puts it in his €˜Lichens - An Illustrated Guide€™ (1981 p.V) are €œstable, consistent and identifiable combinations between an alga and a fungus€. That they may be but they can still be bloody hard to identify! Fortunately, there is also a multi-access key on CD Rom by the same author and book and disc combined offer a reasonable chance of making an accurate identification, even for a beginner. Just to be on the safe side, though, I intend sending my specimens to John Skinner, who is the Lichen recorder for the Essex Field Club.
A few years ago, when coal was the main source of fuel both in the home and in industry, there would have been little incentive to take up the study of lichens in this area as a century or more of sulphur pollution had resulted in the elimination of all but the most resistant species. I well remember being fascinated as a boy, when camping with the Scouts in Wales, by the €œreindeer moss€ and other lichens which festooned the branches of the gnarled and stunted oak trees in the woods on the mountain slopes. They gave them a creepy, Wind in the Willows wildwood feel, full of imps and elves and the ghosts of druids. In contrast, the trees at home seemed tall, aloof and horribly tidy. I have never liked tidiness! That has begun to change during the past couple of decades - the trees that is, not my dislike of tidiness - and the trunks and boughs of many - especially willow and ash in humid situations - have developed a crust of pale green and grey and yellow and orange, a blessing to the eye during the dark days of winter.
Where to start, though, that was the problem. The decision was made for me by the wind. It had blown several small branches off the ash trees in Little Hyde Lane, many of which sported an array of lichens. One caught my eye. It was big and bushy with forked branches, like a green bladder-wrack seaweed. The Group Key in Frank Dobson€™s book offered me only one obvious choice, No.7 Fruticose, which he described thus : €œRadially symmetrical, coarse, lacking a distinct upper and lower surface, branches rounded or flattened, attached to the substrate at one point only€. So I moved to the key for Group 7. This gave two further options : €œThallus hollow or orange€ and €œThallus solid not orange€. The second fitted the bill, which choice presented me with ten genera to pick from. The description of Evernia matched my specimen perfectly, namely €œUpper surface yellowish-green, lower surface white. Lobes less than 10mm wide with faint network lines€. It then informed me that - as the mention of a lower surface implied - that I had chosen the wrong group key! First lesson. Read the words - don€™t be misled by the pictures! And when you read them, absorb them : the thallus was flat, not solid! So I went back to the beginning and chose Group 6 Foliose, to whit, €œFlattened and leaf-like, often large. Distinctly dorsiventral species belong here€. Dorsiventral eh! Apparently it means with a different upper and lower surface. The key for Group 6 offered me six choices, of which €œThallus attached only at the centre or by a single basal holdfast€ seemed the appropriate choice. Six genera here, Evernia again appearing, with exactly the same description. Page 94. Blessed be - there is only one British species, Evernia prunastri €œThallus strap-shaped, pendent, yellow to green-grey above, white-cottony underneath. This light undersurface separates it from Ramalina species, which are approximately the same colour all round. Very common on deciduous trees throughout Britain€. And to think that this is one of the easy ones, with no conclusive chemical tests needed to confirm identification.
Anyway, the book went on to inform me that €œit has been used by man for many purposes including, as €œoak moss€, a fixative for perfume, as a dyeing agent, ground up to make a hair powder and as wadding in shotguns! The usnic acid it contains can be used to produce an antibiotic but it has also been known to cause an allergy in woodcutters. Long-tailed Tits greatly favour this species to line their nests€. I shall try and discover this summer whether the last is true. After the birds have left, of course!
A bitter, icy dawn; the blustery north-westerly gale scattering my dandruff and the horizontally driven arrows of slush rasping the exposed skin on my face and hands to pink numbness. The line of saplings which enclose the garden of The Crown stood blackly against the sky, their slender branches trembling, during the momentary lulls, in fearful anticipation of the savage shaking that would engulf them during each prolonged icy blast. Perched in one, seemingly unconcerned by the wind€™s furious attempts to hurl it from the tree, was a Stormcock, the faint echoes of its song that reached me each time the gale paused for breath soon being fragmented by the gusts that invariably followed.
Mud, nothing but mud! Ankle deep, slurping, sucking mud, liquefied in puddles of slush and causing every footstep to splash, slip and struggle to grip. Then the rain - sheets of it, sweeping across the fields and drenching like a pressure hose, igniting expletives under the breath and - when no one was within earshot - above it; at times exploding into a rant against the heavens. It finally cleared mid-morning to be succeeded by sunshine,a more gentle north-westerly breeze, and even the odd touch of warmth.
I cannot remember a time when there was so much standing water in the fields, especially the pasture. Although there are no animals remaining in these fields, their hoof prints (from a time when the ground was merely soft rather than sodden) are awash with water, like mini-puddles, and at every footfall a jet of cold water shot up my trouser leg. Ditches that have been dry for years are now flowing with water and ponds are appearing where there were no ponds before - at least within living memory. One such - in Elmfield Farm Copse, between Fryerning and Little Hyde Lanes - has a predecessor depicted on the 1876 OS map of the parish, only on the opposite side of the track from where it has formed during the past couple of days. In this copse, too, and elsewhere, the leaves of Lesser Celandine, Lords & Ladies and Bluebell are pushing through the mud - a welcome sign of spring. As I paddled along the edge of this new pond at dusk, on the last leg of my journey home; head low, limbs weary, and sodden boots heavy with lumps of thick Essex clay, I was startled by a pair of Mandarin Ducks, which rose noisily from the water and clattered through the latticework of overhanging branches, their yelps of surprise contrasting with the raucous quacks of the three Mallard that accompanied them.
My walk had taken me along the banks of the River Wid from Ingatestone Hall to Margaretting Church, via the Sewage Works and Margaretting Hall Farm Reservoir, thence along the bridleway to Fristling Hall and Margaretting Tye and back home by way of Little Tressell€™s Farm, Brook Farm and Handley Barns. There were a few birds along the river : 60 Teal, 40 Snipe, a Green Sandpiper, 15 Moorhen and a wintering Chiffchaff at the Sewage Works; 90 Skylark (an impressive number by the standard of recent years) and a dozen Meadow Pipit in a field of rotting potatoes at Margaretting Hall; 300 Wood Pigeon and 80 Stock Dove scoffing oilseed rape in another field close by; 36 Wigeon, 23 Gadwall and a fine drake Ruddy Duck on the reservoir, and a well fed female Sparrowhawk which I flushed from Margaretting Churchyard, her crop a grotesque egg-shaped bulge in profile.
I dined on coffee and cheese & pickle sandwiches in the churchyard, finding a memorial bench out of the wind. A cluster of cup fungi were growing on a pile of sand at the base of a nearby gravestone : they keyed out later as Peziza badia, one of the commoner members of this group, distinguished by the nut-brown interior of the cup and spores ornamented by a broken reticulum of forked and anastomising ridges. So there! A further find of note was a gathering of Coprinus cinereus on a steaming dung heap at Little Tressell€™s, the caps of the younger specimens covered in a network of white fleecy scales, those a few hours older already dissolving into black ink. The various field guides all claim that this is a common species but I had never seen it before, probably because steaming dung heaps are something of a rarity themselves in this area nowadays.
Paused awhile on the railway culvert at Brook Farm, idly scanning the numerous initials carved into the crumbling brickwork. It soon became apparent that a fragment of social history is imprinted there. JL loves PB 1983 may not be of much interest yet but how about SM loves MJ 1945, or even better, BW loves TY 1911. Who were they one wonders. Could BW really be Beth Wright, that sad, dirty, sharp-tongued but kind-hearted old biddie who used to live in Wantzfield Cottages and who died of hypothermia one cold winter€™s night in the 1970s. Couldn€™t ever forget Beth, if only for the time she invited me in for a cup of tea. She had been cleaning the fire grate that morning - I know that for a certainty as when I had finished drinking my tea I noticed that there was a big, fat, greasy, soot encrusted thumb print in the bottom of the cup€¦€¦€¦Hard to imagine her as a young lass sitting arm in arm with her beloved on the culvert wall in the evening twilight all those years ago. Even harder to believe that Harold Thompson did his courting there. Harold of the loud voice, who never spoke, only shouted. Funny thing about human conversation. If someone whispers to you, you tend to whisper in reply, and if someone shouts, you shout back, even though it€™s completely unnecessary. It is an embarrassing phenomenon sometimes. One morning I met Harold in Margaretting High Street, which - in the 1970s - was often crowded with people at that time of day. I was just finishing my postal deliver while he appeared to be doing some gardening in the grounds of Peacock€™s Cottage.
€œHOW YER DOING BOY. ALRIGHT€ he boomed as usual.
€œI€™M NOT COMPLAINING€ I trumpeted in reply.
€œNOT COMPLAINING. WHER YER BEEN BOY. ROUND THE TYE€?
€œDO YER LIKE IT€?
€œBEST JOB IN THE WORLD€
€œBEST JOB IN THE WORLD, IS IT. WHAT YER BE DOING NOW€?
€œI BE GOING HOME TO BREAKFAST. WHAT BE YOU DOING€?
€œI BE HAVING A PISS IN THIS ERE HEDGE€!
Yes. Well. As I was saying. It€™s difficult to imagine Harold getting romantic. He and his fiancÃ©e would have had to stand a hundred yards apart. Perhaps that€™s why he never married. Even so, it might help cure the arrogance of youth if some of the current generation of brick carvers could put faces to the initials of their predecessors.
Despite the sodden ground there were still cattle in the brook side meadows between the railway line and main road and I was accompanied on this stretch by a retinue of inquisitive heifers. They thundered along behind me, breathing hot steamy air down my neck, but became suddenly bashful whenever I turned to confront them. When I stopped to look at a cluster of the trumpet shaped fungus, Lentinellus cochleatus, on a rotting oak log they too gathered round to examine my find. I was glad to get out of that field!
80 Chaffinch, 4-5 Brambling and two Yellowhammer were feeding in one of the game cover strips at Handley Green Farm and around 80 Fieldfare, 30 Starling, 16 Blackbird and a dozen Redwing in flooded pasture at Handley Barns. As I sat on the edge of The Grove, drinking a final cup of coffee, I was entertained by the strange antics of a Fallow Deer doe. She emerged from the trees a few dozen yards away and immediately picked up my scent as the breeze was blowing from me to her. Instead of fleeing, as I had expected, she came closer, sniffing the air, grunting her displeasure and concern. Losing courage, she hastily backtracked a few yards, then regained confidence and approached me once more; cautiously, darting away from shadows, the grunt becoming a loud bark. When this failed to elicit any response from me she performed a circular dance, changing from goosestep to leaping springbok to prancing horse and back again, stopping every so often to grunt and stare, observing my reaction. Finally, she retreated up the hill to the far end of the wood, reluctantly, frequently pausing to gaze back over her shoulder. Her behaviour suggested the presence of a fawn nearby - an impression given credence by the fact that she was on her own (unusual at this time of year) - but it is surely too early in the year - isn€™t it? Who can be sure, now that we have entered the age of Global Warming.