Category Archives: Essex

February is the cruelest month

Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ achieves its haunting allure because the bird at its centre features an unresolved and disquieting contradiction. It is both everything we might expect a song thrush to be – tuneful, ‘full-hearted’, ‘ecstatic’ – and yet ‘frail, gaunt’, intimately associated with the ‘growing gloom’. It is a favourite of mine precisely because of this ambiguity – effortlessly simple but, like all great poems, endlessly regenerating new meanings. Originally titled ‘The Century’s End, 1900’, for instance, the poem clearly expresses some sense of fin de siècle anxiety, but Hardy could not have guessed how much more painfully ominous his words would seem following the advent of the Great War. The poem presents a restless mixture of despondency and hope which might carry all sorts of valencies, including perhaps, in the early 21st century, the ecological.

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I was minded to recall this poem today. Here on the Essex coast again, I walked at Tollesbury Wick along the Blackwater in late afternoon light. We had been out all morning, but with mid February now suddenly cold I am indulging a little winter solemnity while it lasts. Mornings have been below freezing – a hard frost, the ground brittle under hard glistenings. Out on the marsh, raised on the sea wall, the North Sea blast comes straight at you. There are huge flocks of huddled wigeon and teal on the reed bed pools, shifting lapwing and golden plover; on the other side, solitary redshanks on the exposed mudflats. I watch a barn owl quarter the banks way out on the grazing marsh. The bare hawthorns along the path have endured this for years – wind-beaten and crouching, aged with silver lichens that wreath the branches like dense fogs.

In these circumstances, I had not expected to be brought up short. But there it was. A single hawthorn in full bloom. I circled the shrub as though in ritual, brushed the white flowers. Then got in close to frame winter out – here was something wholly of spring, its delicate petals and scent, sweet green shoots lilting warmth and renewed earthly energies. I moved out, glanced up and across to Mersea where the clouds gusted, the colour of dented pewter. A small group of black-tailed godwits called overhead, all subdued greys.

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A week before, perhaps I would have not been quite so astounded. It’s been an exceptionally warm winter – record-breaking – with temperatures well into the teens through the Christmas period and into New Year. I noticed daffodils, butterflies in December, primroses in January; naturalists and writers all over Britain have been noting these strange occurrences (see here, and here). Swallows were recorded months after they should have departed for Africa, and have already been sighted again this year. What might this have to do with the swift I saw at the beginning of September? This is one pleasure (and consternation) in watching nature; you see things that go entirely missed by others, both that which is expected (the firsts and lasts of each season), and that which is out of joint.

It is staggering, quite incomprehensible to think that here at one spot in squelching mud on this stretch of a tiny peninsula in south Essex I might be witnessing some phenomenon, a possible link between this moment and extreme weather patterns all around the globe prompted by Pacific ocean currents; the El Niño, droughts in Africa, a disrupted jet stream, a dragonfly in November, and the premature blooming of one young hawthorn. Even in our modern age, when the causes for such events can be explained, thinking upon the implications still invokes the portentous. I do not know precisely what atmospheric influence or telluric force is at play here, but one single feature of the natural world has reminded me of the intimate and far-reaching interrelations of all things, and I  am embraced with it. I think of Hardy’s singing thrush. My hawthorn blossom in February’s ‘weakening eye of day’ conjures that ‘ancient pulse’, something ‘whereof he knew / And I was unaware’.

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Mysteries of the marsh

Marshes, levels, fens, bogs, mires, wetlands – these places, and the countless names for them, have long registered their eldritch presence in this island’s imagination. They are there in the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf – the looming morhopu [marshpool] from which Grendel, that mánscaða [evil being], lopes to seize his wretched human victims. They open Dickens’ Great Expectations, the first indelible landscape in child Pip’s ‘first most vivid and broad impression of things’:

the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and …   the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and … the distant savage lair from     which the wind was rushing, was the sea.

Pip’s ‘savage lair’ has something of Grendel about it. Intriguingly, recent historical interpretation of the epic has attempted to site the action in north Kent, in the territories where the early stages of Dickens’ novel is set and where I most enjoy birdwatching in the county. The Isle of Sheppey in winter still maintains a sense of wild down by the Swale estuary. The 11th-century name for Harty was Heorot (exactly the name of Hrothgar’s mead-hall in the poem) and the region itself was recorded as Schrawynghop in 1240, an Old English term, supposed to mean something like ‘marshland of malign creatures’. I cannot find anything convincingly academic on all this, but it’s an appealing notion.

At the end of October my partner and I spent time on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex. It’s become a favourite haunt – out east beyond the London fringe, the strain of M25 traffic, the crush of industry and towns with bad reps, out towards the flat miles and North Sea – where I meet a friend twice a year for a day’s walk round Old Hall Marshes. I wanted more time here, and booked a cottage nearby for a week. These days felt like ceremony or rite out on the coast, with the year finally turning bonfire colours, Ginny’s birthday, and the brent geese in from Artic colds. We went to embrace the solstice.

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Looking across to West Mersea

Seen from above or on a map, the estuary’s mazing channels, more complex here than anywhere along the Essex coast, appear like the brain’s lobal crevices, or a nutmeg cut open to reveal its woody fissures. The saltmarsh shares these intricacies, secrets. Its bewildering waterways belong to the birds and seals.

It is surely this foreignness of marshland that makes it most alluring. Either side of the seawall at Old Hall, the land at times can feel thrillingly treacherous: dense, shifting reedbeds on one side, and thick, clutching mudflats on the other. Although managed and shaped by humans for centuries, these spaces still retain a sense of the un-human and impenetrable, and can still be reclaimed by unpredictable tides, as they were in 1953. The birds match the mystery of their lands. Bearded tits are most often unseen in the depths of their close, vertical world, and the bittern is so accustomed and coloured to this environment, imitates its home so well, it is remarkable no origin myths have passed down to tell of how the bird sheared from reed, ripped up from the very same material in which it skulks.

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From the other side of the seawall, curlews and redshanks call in darkness. I fancy their songs sound desolate. They are not. But they are of the saltmarsh entirely, estuarine substance, coming to me along double-hidden creeks – out of view and under dark.

The year’s end on the Essex marshes: frost, ancestry and owls

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.

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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.

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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.