Tuesday 29 September 2020

Woodland Wanderings

 It's a day for a walk in the woods around the quiet Hertfordshire village of Bramfield.

Bramfield is not really on the way to anywhere and is another of those places only reached by narrow, winding roads; though in this case I suspect that many of the people here work in London - or they did till present circumstances dictated that they work from home.

We were soon following sunken paths leading through ancient woodland - a magical place.

This strange deep cleft in the woodland floor goes by the name of Sally Rainbow's Dell. A few centuries back one Sally Rainbow lived in this out-of-the-way place and was reputed to be a witch. It's said that local farmers used to give her food so that she would refrain from casting spells on their crops and livestock. You might think that Rainbow is an unlikely surname, but there are still a few families of that name dotted around East Anglia.

Autumn hasn't really got going just yet, but we did find one or two clusters of golden leaves lurking among the greenery, and being picked out by the late-September sunshine.

Then we were out in the open again, near to Great Gobions Farm. Gobion is an old Anglo-Saxon family name, so I presume it gets its name, directly or indirectly, from them.  

The footpath runs between the farm buildings and right by the rather smart farmhouse.

We carried on through open country on quiet roads and tracks before diving back into the woodland once more.

The next few pictures are fairly self-explanatory so I'll tell you the true story of The Hertford Pie-Man, Walter Clibbon:

During the eighteenth-century most of the trade in the country took place at regular markets and fairs. Hertford had a regular weekly market as well as four annual fairs where a lots of money changed hands. However some of those who had profited at the fairs never reached home with their gold, having been roughly set upon along the lonelier stretches of road. 

The thieves had their faces blackened with soot so that they could not be recognised. Anyone who put up a fight against them was murdered. It was soon realised that only those who had done particularly well were attacked and robbed; clearly the robbers had some kind of inside information. 

In 1782 the gang attacked a farmer's son, very near to where we are now, as he made his way home. The young man wisely let them have the money and escaped with his life, fleeing to his uncle's house nearby. The young man, his uncle and a servant then went off to try to find the villains and a fight ensued on the road between Bramfield and Datchworth, during which the leader of the gang was shot and killed, causing his accomplices to run off. 

The leader of the robbers was found to be Walter Clibbon, the pie-man who sold his wares at Hertford market and took the opportunity to overhear the conversations of the traders. He was buried at the side of the road where he died, and a stake was driven through his body to prevent his ghost from wandering the roads at night.

The original stake is long rotted away but a modern post has been erected in its place and has "Clibbon's Post" and the date "December 1782" carved on it. We drove up and down the road, after we'd completed our walk, in search of the post but didn't manage to find it - let alone any ghosts!

What we did see, albeit rather distantly, was the old house known as Queen Hoo, which is where the uncle in our story lived.

And so we wandered on, undisturbed by any highwaymen or footpads, through this grand piece of countryside, until we once more came within sight of Bramfield church. You can just make out its spire, between the foreground tree and the more distant poplar in the photo below.

Take care.

Thursday 24 September 2020

Touching The Past

The ancient Celts spoke of "thin places", where there was little distance between the real world and the spiritual world. I've never experienced that feeling, but I'm convinced that there are places where the present and the past are in close proximity and it's possible to feel your way back through the centuries.

The village of Hawkedon is connected to the modern world by only the most delicate strands; narrow by-ways that snake through the countryside, etched deeply through years of use and overhung by high hedges and spreading oaks. We passed a huge modern tractor in a field gateway and were thankful that we hadn't met with it along the road.

Although English villages can vary enormously in their size and layout, it's difficult to bring to mind any that are quite like Hawkedon. There are other settlements built around a village green, but here the green is large and the few farms and houses gathered around it are widely spaced, like a gap-toothed grin. And there, right in the centre of the green space, there's the church standing in its walled churchyard, completely surrounded by grassland.

There's something about the isolation of the church, away from the houses in an elevated position, that suggests that this is an ancient site, quite possibly an old pagan centre that was taken over at the very birth of Christianity in this country. The view from the south revealed a nicely proportioned church with a rather attractive little porch. Lets look inside.

It's difficult to explain, but there's an atmosphere of deep harmony and history here. Just stand there for a while as the dust motes are lit by the slanting sunlight, the warm light reflecting off the stone walls and illuminating the dark woodwork, and you'll realise this is a special space. And there are clues to its complex story everywhere.

The ends of every bench bear what are known as "poppyheads", upstanding decorative carvings many of which are difficult to interpret. Those three oriental gentlemen in the centre may perhaps be the three wise men, though they appear to be wearing some kind of hoods rather than the crowns which are more usual. That one on the right must be some kind of angel. But what's that on the left picture. Well, they may be lions, though they have very human faces. That's often the trouble with medieval carvings - the craftsmen who made them had never seen the things they were depicting.

And what's this strange beast at the end of an enormously heavy chain? I've no idea and I can't explain what he's doing in this remote Suffolk church. Just because you feel history is near doesn't make it any easier to figure out (any more than having a foreign language shouted in your ear makes it any easier to understand)!

Then there's this odd memorial to Richard and Dorothy Everard. The rather ugly cherubs and skulls are normal enough on a seventeenth century memorial but the inscription is unusual in its blandness: all it tells us are their names and that the memorial was paid for by their two son-in-laws - nothing about their lives, no mention of "resting in peace" or other common platitudes and, most surprisingly no mention of God, heaven, angels or anything religious at all.

In the east window there are panels made up of small pieces of medieval glass. These fragments are what survived destruction by the Protestant iconoclasts, reassembled at a later date though inevitably with many pieces missing.

Up above there a later pieces of stained glass showing various saints.

Turning around we can see the west gallery, where in days of yore a small band of musicians would have accompanied the hymn-singing. The organ now resides up there.

And there was nothing to stop me going up there for a view down onto this atmospheric and beautiful old church.

But I'd also heard that there was another interesting but little known church just a mile and a half down the road in Denston, along another of those delightful country lanes.

Denston is a slightly larger place with a number of interesting farms and cottages in the vicinity of the church.

This was turning into a brilliant day full of subjects for the camera.

The church is a beauty too; a complete example of the style known as Perpendicular with many windows allowing lots of light in. And from what I'd read it has been little changed since the time it was built. Unfortunately a small brass padlock on the door prevented any further investigations. Never mind, it'll be somewhere to visit another day.

Take care.


Tuesday 22 September 2020

Down Narrow Lanes

Nowhere on these small, crowded islands can truly be said to be "remote", certainly not in East Anglia. However there are places, away from the major roads, where few people travel unless they have business in these tucked-away villages. Their connections to the rest of the country are narrow, twisting lanes, often with steep banks and high hedgerows. Most drivers try to avoid such routes - though satellite navigation systems seem inordinately fond of sending you off on hair-raising sorties along them.

Despite this we found ourselves in the Suffolk village of Hartest on a recent misty morning. In a just world Hartest would be a famous picturesque destination with its large green surrounded by quaint buildings.

It's expected to brighten up by the time we've completed our stroll, so perhaps there'll be time for a few more pictures later.

This is farming country with scattered farms and hamlets tucked into the folds in the low, rolling hills. Footpaths are mostly quite clear and skirt the recently harvested fields. Even where a bit of road-walking is necessary there are often paths running along the field-edge behind thick hawthorn hedges.

The village of Boxted is no more than a few isolated dwellings, a church and a big manor house.

Like Hartest it's only reachable on minor roads, many of them barely wide enough for two cars to pass, lending a sense of seclusion and tranquillity.


Here's Boxted Hall, standing in the valley of the infant River Glem which has been dammed to create a small artificial lake.

On the hill, overlooking the Hall, is a neat little church in its sequestered churchyard. I was immediately attracted to the red-brick extension on the north-east corner.

It turned out, as such things often do, to be a chapel dedicated to the memory of the owners of the Hall and its surrounding lands, with some mighty memorials to the past Lords and Ladies. The church had some interesting features but was much less grand. We went outside and passed between the worn and broken stones of the village dead. It all seemed a very neat metaphor for the lives of the Lords and their labourers, though in reality things were a little more complex than that.

The sun was just beginning to break through and shed a little watery light over the land. The  church tower at Glemsford could be glimpsed on the horizon.

Once the cloud began to clear it was amazing how quickly the scene was transformed, within a few moments we were walking along in blazing sunshine beneath a clear, blue sky. It was time to sit down on a fallen branch and take a swig of drink before tackling the next slope and the rest of the walk.

It's supposed to be turning cooler later in the week so we were keen to make the most of this brief Indian summer.

We had to do a little walking on the road passing a vineyard, orchards and this fine old farmhouse. Yes, a vineyard in England; there are several small wine businesses here and there.

The footpath, descending through fields and back to Hartest, was waiting for us exactly where the map said it would be. Those are some of the newer houses around the edge of the village.

Everything was looking so much brighter and sunnier than when we'd departed a few hours earlier. Of course there were modern cars parked right outside every rustic cottage, but that's how it has to be; you'd be rather stuck living in a place like this without transport.

Behind the village's war memorial there's an elegant building in the Arts and Crafts tradition known as Hartest and Boxted Institute, built as a reading room to facilitate the education of the working men in the area. It was paid for by the family who lived in Boxted Hall.

And there we'll end our brief tour of this little-known corner of Suffolk, though there are more treasures to be found nearby which we'll investigate as soon as we've eaten our packed lunches on that convenient bench overlooking the village green.

Take care.

Friday 18 September 2020

A Pretty World

When I was a student in London I used to hitch-hike home along the A10 road. Being a student of Geography with an interest in the historical development of our landscape, I probably knew I was travelling on the line of an old Roman road. The road in those days went straight through a number of towns and villages and the rides I thumbed often deposited me in these places. So there was more than a little nostalgia as we left the new dual carriageway by-pass and took the original road down to the twin villages of Wadesmill and Thundridge.

There was something I wanted to see before starting the walk. Long before I made my way along here as a student, another young man was travelling from Cambridge University back to his home and sat down by the roadside to rest. Whereas I was probably thinking about meeting up with friends for a beer, he resolved to change his life and influence world history. He'd recently written an essay, in Latin, on the topic of slavery. What he had learned troubled him deeply and it was here that he made his decision to spend as long as it took to persuade people to abolish the slave trade.

His name was Thomas Clarkson and the decision made him an important figure, but also made him many enemies and the effort he put into the struggle damaged his health. The monument above was paid for by the local landowner here, when told the story of Clarkson's decisive moment.

My brother and I set off alongside the little River Rib which divides Wadesmill from Thundridge, along an old lane now used mainly by dog-walkers and runners, but once of local importance in that it led up to the manor house and parish church.

The manor's long-gone, though you can still make out the old moat, and all that's left of the church is its semi-ruinous tower. I was glad to see that it still stands as, although it's a protected building, no one is particularly keen to pay for such upkeep as it needs. It also has a reputation for ghostly hauntings and witchcraft - difficult to imagine on such a bright, sunny morning.

But then there were raucous screams echoing around the tree tops - a sound quite foreign to the English countryside. We had disturbed a number of Ring-necked Parakeets, a species which has made itself at home here in the last half century or so. Urban myth has it that they are all descended from the pet birds owned by Jimi Hendrix and liberated by him in Carnaby Street in London. (Incidentally it was 50 years ago today, Sept 18th 1970, that the guitarist died).

Another invader from foreign shores was lining the river banks. Although looking rather less threatening than banshee parakeets (or even Hendrix's screaming guitar) Himalayan Balsam has become something of a pest in this country. It crowds out other wildflowers and clogs up the river banks. However it seems less noticeable in recent years, possibly as it is killed off by spring and autumn flooding, of which there's been more lately.

After losing the path temporarily we regained our intended route and passed through Sawtree's Wood.

The wood suddenly changed character as we entered a patch of coppiced woodland where the trees have at some stage been cut off near ground level. The trees then respond by sending up new growth which can be harvested a few years later.

We emerged from the wood at the hamlet of Barwick Ford, which always sounds to me as though it ought to be in a classic novel, Thomas Hardy or George Eliot perhaps, and pretty enough, in part at least, to be in a painting.

And that's the ford that gives Barwick Ford its name. It's quite deep even in September and we were glad there was a footbridge alongside.

This is still the River Rib and, once across it, we will climb up through agricultural land and parkland to complete our circle.

We passed by Home Farm with its old threshing barn still being put to some kind of use amongst the modern farm buildings. There are countless farms called "Home Farm" in England and they are almost all associated with large country houses. They existed to keep the land around the mansion tidy and to provide milk and meat for the table of the rich landowner. Often the land was also used for hunting foxes or shooting game-birds.

Usually a flock of sheep would be kept in the parkland surrounding the house to keep the grass nibbled flat, a purpose which they serve to this day.

We made our way through the grounds of the big house known as Youngsbury without getting a view it. There were some magnificent old trees, many of which were exotic species perhaps planted when Capability Brown laid out the landscape of the park.

There was time to photograph this rather beautiful fungus before making our way back to the road. There was someone I wanted to see before we went home.

And here she is, as she has been for several years, summer and winter, outside what used to be the Fox and Hounds pub. Next to the old pub is a shop advertising "Affordable Junk".

I haven't been very good about remembering to include some music on my Friday posts and you're probably expecting me to include something by Jimi Hendrix on the 50th anniversary of his death. But I'm afraid I'm going soft in my old age and this charming little video keeps popping up on my YouTube page. Possibly the only drummer to ever upstage a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo or to include an impromptu geometry lesson...

Take care.