There is heavy ice on the windscreen in the complete darkness of 6.30am. I labour with numb hands to scrape it clear before setting off. All the way through Kent and Essex, the land is white and thick with mist, eeriely unpopulated, even on the motorways. I am travelling to meet a friend at Old Hall Marshes for a winter’s day birdwatching on the marshes of the Blackwater Estuary. This is not till later though, and I have other plans first.
I arrive at Woodham Walter before sunrise; a small, picturesque village to the east of Chelmsford with a distinctive redbrick church – reputedly one of the first purpose-built Reformation churches from the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign (1563). This type of morning is my favourite of all in any season, and I am excited to be out early: frozen, silent, a sense of the land transformed and hushed under the white frost. Most would argue now that wilderness does not exist, that there is no land in our crowded island that is not owned, worked, managed, plotted, spoiled or mapped. Certainly not the flat farmlands of Essex. At moments like this, however, you can at least feel that even the most agricultural terrain can’t possibly be more beautiful and pristine. Woodham Walter lies quietly down country lanes by arable fields, as it has for centuries. I drive them carefully, sliding on occasion because the sun has yet to melt ice and frost. The mists and and close horizons are like ghosts this morning – they put me in mind of the early medieval past, when Anglo-Saxons and vikings fought a bloody battle near Maldon, a short distance from here where the fields become saltmarsh on the Dengie Peninsula and the Blackwater sweeps out to the cold North Sea.
Woodham is a village that became part of my knowledge and history suddenly, a few years ago, when I was researching my father’s ancestry. That first visit was in winter, too; heavy floods and droves of fieldfares ranging the drab ploughlands. I have come again just before the new year, and it occurs to me afterwards that I indulge the imaginative notion that the dark, cold end of the year raises the past far more evocatively for me than any other season or weather. A good time for hunting one’s own history. Before the Great War, before the rural migrations to cities in the 19th century, my forbears worked the land around Woodham Walter for two generations, and in Polstead, Suffolk, before this. The censuses show the family’s address as Burnt House Street. There is no record of this road name now, but there is a ‘Burnt House’ on a little-populated road (Stivvy Road) leading north out of the village which looks to be from the 18th century. What tale was sensational enough to be memorialised in a street name? A fire, would seem the obvious answer, perhaps in this very house. The buial register in St Michael’s church lists some of my family in unmarked graves.
This morning I park up opposite The Bell Inn. The air does not feel immediately cold so I set off in my new herringbone blazer (a Christmas present from my brother) and scarf. The cold bites quickly and I regret the decision, but carry on past the graves down the left side of the church and out across the iron-hard loamy fields either side of a narrow grass path leading to a thin band of mixed woodland. I am constantly in mind of my ancestors amongst so much arable land. Not much can have changed in the near two centuries since they worked long and wrenching days out here. My great, great grandfather, James Warren, who moved the family from Polstead, was still labouring in the fields at 77 years of age. Come the next census in 1881 he has moved to Great Baddow to live with his daughter Sarah and son-in-law, James Linn. My breath plumes, dispersing into the lingering mists that the sun will soon burn away. As I reach the woods, the sun just crests the bare tree line to the right of me. I take pleasure in being entirely alone here when the winter land and light is at its most glorious. It inspires an urgency, a desire to capture the always-escaping experience, before the rich world of amber and shade and crystalline hoar on every stem are gone. At the moment of sunrise you feel it most because it happens in minutes, seconds even – the time of day when you visibly see the world roll away below the sun. Mist still smokes from the field as though dreaming warmth. This is J.A. Baker’s world, author of that nature writing classic, The Peregrine – the unnamed, mythical estuarine and arable flats ‘as profuse and glorious as Africa’, across which he seeks the peregrine for a decade. Remarkably, a peregrine wings with speed and purpose over the woodland, heading east, as I turn back towards the church.
Later that morning Jeremy and I met as usual in the car park at RSPB Old Hall Marshes for our biannual saunter round the peninsula. Amongst the barn owl and bittern and bearded tits, we delighted most at the sight of shorteared owls loping up and down the sea wall pastures on languorous wings. One perched, fence post-still, atop a small hawthorn shrub for a long while, staring at us intently with its All Hallow’s glare. Baker uses the word ‘soothed’ to describe their action. That sounds about right. They appear so silently and unannounced from the grasses as to make their colours and forms seem indistinguishable.