I do hope you have come to this page by way of the previous entry where I walked the first section of the Essex Way from Epping to Ongar, or rather I didn’t exactly walk it. I had set out to do so, become completely lost before I had walked 50 yards, trespassed on private land and a railway line and nearly got killed on an unlit busy A road. There you are, you don’t need to read it now but I do hope you do if you haven’t already as it is an object lesson in how not to undertake a hike. This entry is not exactly textbook rambling but it is a whole lot better than the previous effort.
Following a bit of a medical hiccup in the autumn I had been told to take plenty of exercise which for me consists of walking, a favourite pastime. In years past I had completed both the London Loop and Capital Ring as well as the section of the Thames Path around London and beyond and I was on the lookout for new paths to walk. I had recently spent a couple of days on the Wandle Trail which you can read about here and then attempted to make a start on the Essex Way with the near fatal results outlined above. I decided to have another go, mostly just to prove to myself that I hadn’t lost it completely and could still master a section of a way-marked long-distance path graded as easy.
I made another reasonably early start and this time round there were three things in my favour which had been against me before. Firstly the weather, which had been abysmal on the last attempt and which was much improved, cold but clear and bright which boded well for both photography and decent light towards the end of the day. Secondly, I had actually managed to get some sleep the previous night and was not punch-drunk from insomnia leading to some terrible decision making. Thirdly, and undoubtedly most importantly, I had actually looked beforehand and found out where the Way actually started and roughly what route it followed.
The two images above demonstrate my flying start. You can see the commemorative but totally useless sign indicating the start of the Way which I had inexplicably managed to miss before and also the footbridge over the tracks which I had equally inexplicably failed to cross. I should have done really as that is where the Way goes.
After the briefest of walks through a residential area and past a school I found myself right in the country. I took the image above, not for any particular feature of interest but to demonstrate the fact that it had taken me exactly six minutes to walk from the Tube / Metro / subway system of one of the busiest capital cities in the world to this. As another little piece of trivia, if I had not left the station and crossed to the other platform then I could have undertaken the longest Tube journey possible without changing which is from here to West Ruislip, a journey of 34 miles, give or take. Obviously that would have been even longer when the line continued to Ongar which was precisely what I intended to do.
Right from the off, I found the way-marks that I had been searching in vain for before, although the way-marking was not of a uniform standard throughout the walk as you shall see shortly. In light of this I shall give brief instructions where you might go wrong if you decide to walk the path yourself but I shall not go overboard on it as this is not primarily a walking guide. There is an excellent, detailed set of instructions here. When you cross the first of the fields you will come to Stewards Green Road where you need to turn left and left again, almost back on yourself. The way-mark for the second turn is hard to spot and I initially missed it so look carefully.
Having discovered where I should be going, I found myself on a pleasant but fairly muddy path which wasn’t a major problem as I had the new walking boots on and was trying to field test them – literally. The mud was to be a constant feature all day. I am no geologist but my layman’s take on the soil around here is that it is very thick and very sticky when when!
I soon emerged into Coopersale Street which is even smaller than nearby Coopersale Common which I had traversed on my previous excursion. I did pause to take an image of the old-fashioned roadsign you can see which features such quaint place names so common in Britain. They almost begged an old fashioned folk song so get your finger in your ear and try this to tune of your choosing. “Forty Shades of Green” works well but don’t try it with “Fifty Shades of Grey” or anything might happen!
“As I roved out from Toot Hill,
For Fiddlershamlet bound,
To catch the morning stagecoach
For dear old Harlow Town…………………….”
OK, so my future doesn’t lie in traditional folk lyrics but you get the idea.
The barn is quite typical of an old style once common in the Eastern parts of England and I think it looks fantastic. Of course, every “Olde English” hamlet requires a village pub and there it was, in the form of the Theydon Oak which looked very inviting but was thankfully shut or the whole expedition could have ground to a halt there and then.
From the mental map I was vaguely carrying around with me I knew I was due a left fairly soon and there it was, a public footpath. Brilliant. Brilliant but wrong. I strode off along it and soon enough came to my old nemesis, the M11 but this time there was a bridge over it. This must be the right path as there are not that many bridges over the motorway, they cost a lot of money to build. I have included a couple of images to show exactly how busy it is.
As I was crossing I saw a large and obviously expensive SUV coming towards me so I gave the occupants a cheery wave and wondered at the slightly puzzled look the lady passenger gave me. This looked like a road and I wanted a footpath so I took the only obvious one on the right. After a while this just ended so I went back to the small road and carried on. No more climbing into farmer’s fields for me, thank you very much.
Up ahead I could see a very fine building which was obviously where the road led to and I carried on, taking the image you can see. I got to a fairly imposing electronically controlled gate and looked around for the footpath. There wasn’t one. Right. Not wanting to heap mistake upon mistake as I had stupidly done the last time, I took stock and decided I had better bite the bullet and go back to the last place I definitely know I was right, which is what I did and it was all the way back to the last pub. On the way, the same large SUV passed me again with both of us going the other way and the lady in the vehicle had upgraded her appraisal of me from slightly puzzled to downright suspicious. In truth, I don’t blame her as I know I do look a bit rough and certainly incongruous in this setting. I was half expecting the police to turn up at any moment.
Before we regain the lost path, let me tell you about the big house which is called Gaynes Park Mansions. It is now a wedding venue and eye-wateringly expensive residential accommodation. A flat there sold for £776K in 2015 and has risen an incredible 42.5% in five years with a current (February 2020) estimate of £2.3 to £2.8 million! No wonder the locals were looking strangely at me.
For that kind of money you would expect a bit of history and you would not be short changed. There are records of a manorial dwelling here back to the 14th century and the will of Earl William Fitz-William in 1534 bequeaths 50 shillings to build a road between here and Chigwell. There have been various structures here over the years and this incarnation is Victorian as the Gothic style suggests although there are apparently a few features of the earlier 1770 mansion still evident, or at least they were before the recent redevelopment. I couldn’t possibly comment as I didn’t get within a hundred yards of it. There is an interesting article here about what it looked like before it was done up.
Back at the pub, it was time to start again and here is another quick navigational tip so you do not make the same mistake I did. You should take the first path on the left past the pub car-park, literally twenty or thirty yards on. It is hard to see and you almost double back on yourself.
Another short field walk brought me back to Gernon Bushes where things had gone so badly awry before although I did not know I was back there again at the time. All those Essex woods look the same to me! Hindsight is undoubtedly 20/20 vision, which is a fitting thing to write in the year 2020 with tomorrow being 20/02/2020 or 02/20/2020 if you follow the American system. Either way, it is pleasing on the eye. I allowed myself my first sit down of the day on the thoughtfully provided bench which is on a bit of a rise and affords pleasant views.
As I was stumbling about finding an as yet unidentified (by me) archaeological structure and trespassing on some poor farmer’s land the previous time, I had been only a few hundred yards from the Way but had I not got lost I would have missed North Weald. I am surprised the Way does not visit it and there are certainly enough existing public rights of way to make it feasible. It has plenty of interest with the old airfield and the heritage railway but the LDP (Long-Distance Path) avoids it completely. A net loss for the rambler who actually uses a map but a net gain for me. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.
Once again my unplanned diversion had cost me time but it didn’t bother me. I was having a good walk, out of London in the fresh air, testing my new boots which were muddy by this stage but not letting in, and thoroughly enjoying myself.
The path crosses the M11 yet again and by now I was getting a little fed up of this damn road but that is the price of progress I suppose. Dick Turpin, the notorious highwayman, used to ply his trade in the woods hereabouts and I wonder what he would make of this “highway”. I’d love to see him try to stop a 40 foot articulated lorry whilst on horseback and brandishing a pair of muzzle-loading pistols. Good luck with that one, Dick.
Once over the motorway, Gernon Bushes becomes Birching Coppice and then Mount Wood and in all of them there are numerous paths and anything but numerous waymarks. I just kept going the way I was going and eventually, probably more by good luck than good judgement, I emerged into the charmingly named Toot Hill as featured in my recently and hastily penned folk song opening verse above. It was now gone 1400 and I thought I had earned a pint which was not going to be a problem as I has spied the Green Man and Courtyard pub a few yards off.
I did the proper thing and took off my muddy boots outside to enter what was a lovely old-fashioned pub which had obviously been relatively recently done up and was wearing it’s Xmas finery as befitted the month. It was equally obviously a bit upmarket and definitely in the gastropub category as the menu and the group of “ladies who lunch” in the front room attested but my scruffy looks and unshod lower extremities did not have me shown the door. On the contrary, I was engaged in friendly conversation by the two delightful ladies behind the bar. Whilst Epping is still comparatively urban, Toot Hill, despite only being a few miles distant, has a much more country feel and I am sure they are used to people who have been out for a trudge over the fields.
After my pint I left to get back on the path and on the way I spotted the charming sign for the local Folk Club. I briefly toyed with the idea of bringing the guitar along for a bit of a session but it is just completely impractical as there is no way I could get home. A pleasant thought, though.
I regained the path where I soon encountered a man with his small and excitable dog. The canine was of, shall we say, very mixed pedigree and like so many of his ilk was adorable although he did have to be dissuaded from jumping up on me with his muddy paws. This time round I had taken the precaution of tucking my jeans in my socks to keep some of the mud off and it was working pretty well. Fido could easily have ruined the whole plan.
We wandered on and chatted of this and that in a very sociable fashion and I wondered again, as I often do, about the difference between urban and city life. I know it is something of a generalisation but, had I tried to strike up a similar conversation near where I live, the other person would undoubtedly have been on the defensive and thinking I was either insane, begging, or about to attack and rob them and not without justification. It is sad really.
You may be wondering at the lack of images in this latter section of the day’s walk but, if you have read my recent entries you will know that I was using a new Samsung compact camera which has the most appalling battery life and I wanted to save some of it for a little treat I knew was coming up.
I left the gent and his best friend at a road where he had parked his car and he gave me instructions how to get to the hamlet of Greensted and the treat I mentioned. What I wanted to see was the Church of St. Andrew which is the oldest wooden church in the world and possibly the oldest wooden building in Europe still standing. Worth a look, surely.
I came to a road junction, knowing from my new friend’s instructions that I needed to turn right but I didn’t and, no, I haven’t gone crazy again. I saw a woman all dressed up for a walk emerging from a gate and, with my ramblers head on, stopped to have a chat. She indicated a route on a path the way she had come which would take me to the church. Looking at a map now, the road was marginally shorter than the path but the path was undoubtedly better. Also, it actually put me back on the designated path which I had somehow got detached from whilst walking with one man and his dog.
It wasn’t too far until I could see the church ahead and whilst it is not particularly impressive in terms of size I knew it was something special. The fact that it is Grade I listed proves this. I have spoken of listings often before and this is a “big boy’s historical building”. The definition of Grade I listed buildings is very simple, they are “buildings of exceptional interest” and Greensted Church certainly is. Let me tell you about it.
Parts of the structure you see today was long thought to date back to 845 but in 1995 more advanced dendrochronological (I love that word) techniques moved it to a period 1063 to 1108. If it is the former, it pre-dates the invasion of England in 1066 by William the Bastard and his Norsemen defeating the English King Harold Godwinson (very English surname!) and his Norsemen to take over the country. You may have heard the story as William the Conqueror, 1066 and all that but it wasn’t quite so simple. I have spoken of it before here and won’t go into it all again but the facts are worth looking at if you like that sort of thing.
Other archaeological evidence suggests either previous structures or at least a place of worship here possibly dating back as far as the 4th century which is indeed the very dawn of Christianity in the British Isles. I now give fair warning that as unerringly as I had strayed off the Essex Way we are now going to stray into my pet subjects of “everything is connected” and “every day is a schoolday”. You have been warned!
I learned today whilst researching this that the body of King Edmund, later St. Edmund the Martyr, rested here in 1013. Edmund had been King of Anglia in the late 9th century when the Vikings invaded and he was either killed in battle or, according to legend, martyred by them for refusing to renounce Christ. His martyrdom (if it ever happened) was particularly gruesome involving being beaten, shot with arrows and beheaded. The Vikings were nothing if not thorough.
As a further aside to an aside, I am composing this in a busy pub in Ramsgate and literally two minutes ago, as I was typing, a comment drifted over from a group at the next table which I quote exactly, “That William the Conqueror has a lot to answer for, hasn’t he”? I swear I am not making this up, why would I? It just gives me more typing to do. Strange things keep happening to me but back to Edmund.
Whatever his fate, the King was buried at what is now known as Bury St. Edmunds. Go figure, as the Americans might say. In the years following his death, a cult grew up around him to the extent that he became England’s first patron saint. The present patron saint, the Turkish St. George, was introduced at the time of Edward III who was effectively a Frenchman. At least Edmund was English while George never even visited the country.
Fearing further Viking depradations in 1010, Edmund’s remains were disinterred and taken to London for safe keeping and it was on the return journey three years later that Greensted features in the story.
That was the schoolday bit now here is the everything is connected bit. Regular readers will know that I knock out a few chords on my guitar and warble a bit and possibly the largest crowd I ever played to was in Islington in 2009 on the 175th anniversary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It seems to be a piece about martyrs here. I played on the same stage as Martin Carthy, Leon Rosselson and Billy Bragg which was a huge thrill as they are all heroes of mine. I shall tell you, briefly I promise, about the men of Tolpuddle.
In 1834, agricultural workers in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle formed a trade union which was by then legal. This was prompted by the advent of new technology which had meant cuts in pay and life was very hard. Obviously, the “powers that be” didn’t like the way the wind was blowing and the “Martyrs” were prosecuted, not for forming a union but for taking an oath of secrecy which was an illegal act. Six of the leaders were sentenced to seven years transportation to the then penal colony of Australia despite huge public outcry and a large march in London which was what the gig I played was commemorating. The March was 100,000 strong and departed from Copenhagen Fields, which was where we played all those years later, to Parliament.
The public pressure on Government eventually paid off and the Martyrs were returned early to England in 1837 where they were granted tenancies in and around Greensted. One of the Martyrs married the daughter of another in this very Church and the record of the marriage remains intact. That is the potted version of the Martyrs and the inevitable asides and so back to the Church.
The Church authorities are obviously used to the mud in the area and the occasional booted rambler like myself dropping in and so they have very kindly provided plastic overshoes of the type favoured by forensic crime scene types which saves the bother of removing your boots. I did check first if the building was open because so many churches are not as I have mentioned. I was overjoyed to find that the wooden door gave way nicely.
Again I will let the images do most of the talking here but I will quote the first line of a prayer written by the vicar on the excellent Church website which is, “Lord, as I sit in this ancient church I can feel that it is a special place”. I am not at all religious but I would not disagree. I could not leave without buying one of the wide variety of jams, preserves, chutnies etc. on offer. I chose one that involved ale as I thought it would go well with cheese. I haven’t tried it yet but I’ll update here when I do.
The light was still good but I knew there was not much of it left so I put my best foot forward and headed for Ongar – again! I knew it wasn’t far and the walk was unremarkable except for the muck. The Essex countryside had saved the worst for last and it was awful. When I got back onto the paved surface in Ongar I spent a good amount of time trying to wipe it off on the grass at the side of the road with limited success. I didn’t fancy going into a pub with them on and was even a little concerned lest the bus driver turn me away but he didn’t and I got back to Essex and home in good order.
That then was the first portion of the Essex Way done more or less the way it was intended and I looked at the next sections of it but I don’t think I’ll bother. Most of the interesting things I had discovered were stumbled upon when I was not even on the path and the walking, whilst not unpleasant, was not overly inspiring. I can think of other places within a similar radius of my home that offer better possibilities. Added to this, public transport options become very limited further on for long stretches so I’ll probably give it a miss.
In the next entry I go for a leisurely stroll near my home and end up embarking on another walking project, plus a vegetable falls in love with me so stay tuned and spread the word.