Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Rural rides a lot different in these days when car is king

Pea-pickers hard at work in days gone by

Pea-pickers hard at work in days gone by

Welcome to The Joy of Essex 312, which may not mean much to you, but to me means that I’ve been writing these weekly columns for six years.

I’d considered writing a retrospective piece, reflecting upon the changes since autumn of 2007. But it was such a lovely day that I chucked the bike and myself onto the nearest Wivenhoe to Great Bentley train, having decided to wend my way home to Wivenhoe through the back lanes. You can do that kind of thing when you’re a roving writer. “Field research”, I believe they call it, although sometimes, if you’re not very careful, it can blur into poetic reverie. Poetric reverie is great but nowhere near as useful to your readers or to your editor.

Tendring’s rural lanes, which comprised most of my nine-mile meander homewards, haven’t in themselves changed much over the decades in which I’ve known them. In autumn the hedgerows are still blinged-up with hips and haws, the trees wear their leaves like ingots, and those very distinctive galleon clouds which Constable made famous still sail that broad canvas of an Essex sky.

Does anyone else remember, as I do, a series of children’s nature books published by Ladybird – What To Look For In Autumn, for instance? Written by EL Grant Watson and first published over 50 years ago, the slim volumes depict rural Britain and its flora and fauna throughout the seasons.

The illustrator, CF Tunnicliffe RA, however, did not just capture nature in transition; he also unwittingly took a snapshot of the countryside just as the people who still worked there had begun to drift in significant numbers away from it. Many never returned.

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Here, within the pages of these books, are the hop-pickers, the potato-pickers, a shepherd looking up at a louring sky, labourers forking sugar beet into a box and a farmer sorting out his hedges.

You won’t, nowadays, see many people involved in hedging or ditching. They and their knowledge are long gone. The people gathering up the spuds or picking apples today are unlikely to be English. This is nothing to do with any EU edicts but, as almost any farmer will tell you, they just can’t find any locals who’ll do the work. Nor will you see a doughty countrywoman cycling along a lane in her wellies and big coat, delivering a basket of eggs to the local shop. This is a) because there may not be a local shop and b) because these days she’ll usually be driving her own car.

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In my whole hour-long ride, I observed evidence of farm work – the farmland looks tended enough – yet I hardly saw anyone actually engaged in it. Somewhere between the Great Bentley side of Thorrington, going towards Frating, I passed a field where a tractor was cutting grass, possibly for sileage, though it was a bit late. The scent of it across the fields seemed incongruously summery for a late October day.

From Thorrington down Church Lane, I sped past Frating’s former church, which was long ago converted to a house. Now I turned the corner, passing wide fields with woodland at their edges.

One of the loveliest lanes in Essex suddenly reached its end and I found myself standing by the side of the A133 Clacton to Colchester road. Forty years ago, as a racing-snake of a youth, I’d have blithely cycled nearly all the way from Great Bentley to Colchester on it. A nippy dual carriageway, even back then, it was never exactly a cakewalk. For any cyclist today, however, it’s very much sportier.

Luckily, although no pedestrians ever seem to use it, there is actually an old pavement on one side of the road, running nearly all the way from Frating to Elmstead Market. Once upon a time, you see, before everyone had a car, incredible as it now seems, people actually used to walk those two country miles between Frating and Elmstead.

The pavement, from long lack of use, is narrow, weed-choked, encroached upon on one side by brambles, and strewn thickly with acorns. But it’s still perfectly traversable by bike.

Technically, it’s probably illegal to use it as a cycleway but it’s much safer than the racetrack A133.

Now I come to the audit. The chief changes of recent decades have been wrought more by universal car ownership than by almost any other factor. I swear I’m not trying to wave the green swastika here, but the situation does seem insane.

At Elmstead Market, as I turned left into School Lane, I came to Marketfield School. Here, nearly every school day, is a parental parking confusion of almost festival proportions. I realise, of course, that the pupils, some of them, will have come from relatively far away, but then I also thought: “A tiny fleet of buses – minibuses, maybe – doing pick-up and drop-off? Would it be so impossible?”

What do I know, though? Only that, in the autumn of 2013, the Essex countryside by daytime seems an almost deserted place. This is apart from its roads, which are filled for much of the time with people in motorised transport, nearly all of them travelling rather too fast. The countryside is also a place where anyone travelling from A to B on foot or by bicycle, not clad in the prescribed walking or cycling attire, may at best be viewed as an eccentric and at worst as a nuisance.

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