The deepest Essex few explore

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Where steepest thatch is sunk in

flowers

And out of elm and sycamore

Rise flinty Fifteenth century

towers

– Betjeman

IT was sombre news which prompted this week’s column. Our ash trees are in danger. The Forestry Commission has declared a national emergency, after die-back was discovered in East Anglian ash trees. The chalara fraxinea fungus, in only seven years, has wiped out 90% of Danish ash trees.

Once upon a time, about the time that your correspondent – still in his wayward teens – returned to Essex, we witnessed the end of another stalwart of forest and field: the English Elm.

The elm, if not exactly a native tree, has been with us for a very long time. It was a tree of traditional uses. It was, for instance, the timber of choice for coffins.

Elm also behaves well under water, so it was often used for the bottom strakes of Essex fishing smacks, as well as in the pilings of piers and jetties.

A quaint characteristic of elm, so a shipwright once informed me, is that it stinks of cow-dung when you take a saw to it.

Essex, immortalised in verse by the poet John Betjeman, was once known and loved for its elm-lined lanes. A virulent strain of Dutch Elm Disease, a fungal infection spread by beetles, began to devastate our elms in 1967.

Within a few short years it had pretty much done its work and by 1973 was moving steadily north.

Although I can barely remember the great Essex elms, I do clearly recall the “Plant a tree in ’73” initiative which the damage wrought by DED had been responsible for triggering. Although many of the trees planted in 1973 are approaching maturity by now, the elms themselves have never recovered. Even the base shoots which sprang from the cut-down elm stumps themselves succumbed to the fungus after 20 years.

I realised, therefore, that it was 40 years ago this month that I finally returned to the flat bosom of rural Essex. I was underweight, ill and generally under a bit of a cloud. It had been agreed by everyone who still loved me – and a few who didn’t – that if I returned to the family home in the village of Goldhanger, near Maldon, and calmed down a bit, then it might be quite a good idea. I agreed, unconditionally.

After a period of standard teenage stupidity it was nice to see my family again.

Soon afterwards I found a job as a paintsprayer at Bentall’s factory in Heybridge. Before I could even start the job, however, I went down with a fever and severe bronchitis – the legacy, we assume, of self-neglect – and was told that I wouldn’t now be able to start work until the New Year.

Whilst I was recovering, I began walking Goldhanger’s lanes and footpaths, which at that time I hardly knew at all.

Colchester and some of its surroundings I knew slightly better, as two years earlier I’d worked briefly on a pig farm near Ardleigh. Whilst I was away on my travels, however, my family had moved from Colchester to Goldhanger on the River Blackwater.

From the outset I liked the village. At the top of Head Street was an old phonebox which still featured its ancient, broken Button B. Near this call box was the old village pump. There was a bus stop and a pub, The Chequers. Up the road was another pub, The Cricketers. Down nearby Fish Street was a turning onto a footpath.

About a third of a mile along the footpath was the seawall running to Tollesbury. Looming up out of the December mist was the mysterious Osea Island.

Osea Island has a long and curious on-off relationship with fame and with the recuperation from its ravages. It’s reasonably well-known, for instance, that the late Amy Winehouse stayed there in 2008. Less well-known is that in 1970 The Who’s Pete Townshend also sojourned briefly on Osea.

Nowadays, the island, its manor house and its outbuildings are hired out for health breaks, corporate events and private parties.

In the last weeks of 1972 your bronchitic correspondent used to walk the old Roman causeway to Osea at low tide and wander along its beach. I never went too far into its interior, however, because although I rarely saw another soul, the island always felt to me as if it was private.

Osea was and still is cut off by the tide twice a day. A tradition, at least well into the 1980s, was that if you happened to be an Osea resident drinking in the Chequers and you found yourself cut off by the tide, Jack and Mary, who were then the publicans, might let you sleep in the pub.

The Chequers today remains one of the finest pubs in England and has won awards to the effect.

A nearby road running from Goldhanger to neighbouring Tolleshunt D’Arcy, so legend has it, was once reputed to be a Black Shuck hotspot. A working midwife in the late 1930s reported that she had been followed by the great ghost hound as she cycled home from a visit one winter night.

That whole area, in fact – especially the by-ways around Maldon, Tollesbury and Tiptree – possesses an odd haunted charm all of its own. The elm trees, though, for so long a feature of our county’s lanes, are long gone.

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