* Threading cotton through the eye of a newt *
* The Mystery of Layer Breton *
* The cluck, cluck, cluck of chickens *
* The Mystery of Layer Breton *
* The cluck, cluck, cluck of chickens *
Tollesbury slips behind me, the rumours of its past fade as I walk on toward Layer Breton. The thought of seeing where Margery Allingham lived as a child thrills me. I am still armed with the self-same tools that I started out with. A notebook and a pen; my camera, of which I am now using more and more; my music and my infantile imagination which, just like the old XTC song, is working overtime. The name of Layer Breton is also an excitement as it sounds so very old. Surely Breton comes from the ancient Celts? Isn’t Brittany connected to that old tribe and language? Unsure of my facts I trundle on. I have a thirst about me that could consume a river and so I look out for a public house. I think some food would be good too; maybe a ploughman’s lunch with a pint of something or other to quench my parched throat. Damn, it is hot today; it must be about 28% (80F) which is unusual for England. As a child, my family would often have these curious gatherings where my Eastend born grandparents would collect together with other members of my family and we would all sing an odd mix of Cockney songs and Irish melodies. Although I am neither a cockney nor Irish, both of these traditions have an appeal for me and are never far from my heart. And Irish wisdom is a good and wholesome wisdom.
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sunshine warm upon your face.
And the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His Hand.
And who could argue with that?
The roads I walk are hedge heavy. The hedgerow grows thick and tall about me and prevents, in many places, cars from passing each other comfortably but there are occasional passing places. These are small dips into the hedge with just enough room for a car to pull into. I keep an ever open eye on the road ahead of me in case a car comes roaring around the bend. The sun hovers overhead while a gentle breeze blows across the fields of rape so that they move like a golden tide. There is a song here but if there is I cannot bring to mind what it is: Stings beautiful ‘Fields of Gold’ maybe? Nature has its own divine poetry for which the human variant pales by comparison. I take a photo and keep my fingers crossed it proves to be a good one. The sounds of birds are hushed as though they are schoolboys in a public library; well behaved perhaps because the schoolmaster is with them. My I-pod plays Massive Attack’s ‘Dark Angel’. Ahead: Layer Breton
The Sail Lofts of Tollesbury
Music plays such a large part in my life and always has but the older I get the more I return to the time of my youth. The sixties have been turned into the golden age of pop but that isn’t the point I am making here. Even if the sixties were as good as it is constantly made out to be it is more its generous spirit that I look to and learn from. There was an all-encompassing feeling of general acceptance that allowed all forms of music, from Poe faced Rock to the obviously crass and commercial to coexist. Leaving both to sit side by side and not feel that either was better than the other. Intellectual experimentation such as the Soft Machine was no better or any worse than the songs of Englebert Humperdink. Personally, I am no fan of that gentleman but that is just a matter taste and I have no desire to look down my nose at acts or artists whose sole purpose is mere to entertain any more than I want to elevate artists who do what they do for the sheer love of it or to break new and unchartered waters. Both are fine to me and I listen to both. Now it is Massive Attack from their album Mezzanine which, although not the choice of purists, is one of my favourite albums.
I idly wonder whether the two things that separate us from the other animals, our creativity and natural spirituality, are in fact one and the same thing; or if both come from the same well source: our imagination? Our imagination is the engine room for our creativity for without it, we would not be able to visualise or hear or feel the things that form in our heads, the things we create. Imagination is another world entirely and one we co-exist in at the same time as we do this plane of reality, this life we lead. The immateria, the world of our imagination, is as real as the everyday, as concrete as the mundane chores we perform day in, day out, the only difference is that one exists in our hearts and heads whereas the other is the reality of our lives, the one we have to do simply to pay the bills, buy our food and to find fuel to feed our immaterial, creative selves. But if that is so then perhaps our imagination that fires our creativity, in turn, fires our spirituality. After all, there are those among us who believe that a supreme being gave life to us all, that all living things were created by the greatest artist of all: God. Others would argue that the very idea of a God has to have sprung from our highly active imaginations as there is no proof of God’s existence and that it all sounds, remarkably, like a myth. Having said that, I cannot conceive why God and spirituality is one and the same thing. Oh sure, they are connected but isn’t it a bit foolish, arrogant even, to surmise that to have spirituality you have to believe in a divine, omnipotent, force? We too easily forget the likes of Confucius or Lao Tsu both of whom spoke of a moral code that was bereft of gods and any form of organised religion and yet still had its own spirituality. I don’t think creativity and spirituality are the self-same things, connected perhaps but independent of each other. I think that the link between the two invisible forces is in part our desire to categorise all things, to conveniently box and label for the purposes of understanding those very acts of creation we can only mimic but never truly understand. It is the same for those who believe in a single creator, the monotheists. The concept of random creativity is just too alien, too without any form of order that comprehension of its randomness is impossible to fathom, frightening even. It takes away the desire to control our lives with a regimented form of discipline that negates all sense of order. Suddenly the rationale belief in things following a pattern is blown away as we are faced with acts that just happen but without thought of construction or any idea, they simply just occur.
Layer Breton is come by through a series of other villages all of which could be something from a Miss Marple novel. Easthorpe has a feel of old England, an encompassing feeling that is as much a statement as it is a sensation: here we are and here we have been since goodness knows when. There is a house which looks vaguely Tudor in design and another that has the quaint picture postcard look of a cottage of character; it even has a name board with a question mark hanging from it. There is no question about this village’s identity though as it whispers it in a faint burr of an accent that is true Essex and not the mockney so often heard these days: life passes here at a slow, more accommodating, pace.
House in Easthorpe
Cottage at Easthorpe
Birch too has that timeless feel. I cannot put an era to it. Part early Victorian maybe, part the early thirties. But even those guesstimates aren’t right as the country feel is of so many disparate ages that somehow are all joined by the singular thread that still exists, the thread of rural life; of hard work in fields, of early mornings and of ploughman lunches. In truth, I doubt whether the modern residence is involved in such work but even if they aren’t the area still has that quality about it. There are no supermarkets, no shopping malls or arcades, instead, there is a mini market that is the size of a very small shop. It is hard to imagine that anyone could get their weekly groceries from here as it is simply too small. And yet there are people leaving with shopping bags full so I guess it more than has its value.
Birch Church has a steeple that springs from the ground in peacock proud fashion, a single finger that points toward the heaven and the seat of the God that it worships. It has a clutch of house’s that orbits its celestial presence and these too have a charm that is all their own: simple, rural, warm and friendly; less the desirable house and more the delectable home. These are the sort of homes one reads about in romantic novels where little old ladies sit knitting scarves of purest wool while the men folk toil for extraordinarily long hours all for the pleasure of a few pennies worth of wages, enough to buy the food for the table with a little to spare for an evening pint. Churches are fine places to locate and then recount old local histories. Great Birch church is no different.
In fourteen ninety-one, John Kyrkby left ten shillings to an honest priest to celebrate a trental for his soul and a further cow, which was worth another ten shillings, so that the church would forever more celebrate his birthday, his stab at immortality perhaps. And for those who don’t know what a trental is, and seeing as how I now know having researched the word, let me tell you that a trental is to have thirty masses for the dead read for you. Another farmer, William Tey of Leyer-De-La-Haye, in fifteen hundred left to the church thirteen shillings and four pence. Richard Colyn who desperately wanted to be buried in the sanctity of the church ground paid six shillings and eight pence for the privilege. Suddenly these ghostly faces come, by means of reading about them, briefly back to life. They are all somehow entwined in the fabric of the villages existence; threads of their lives forever woven into the then and now of Birch.
Some of the vicars and rectors of the church are worth a mention even if it is only so as to see their odd surnames that in reality are no more odd than our own, in fact, their names give the impression that little has changed for hundreds of years in terms of forenames.
. • John Wytcherche 1369
. • Thomas Frating 1371
. • William Sharnbrooke 1431
. • Richard Baldwyre 1544
. • Francis de la Motte 1678
. • George Kilby 1752
No matter what your beliefs, a church has an aura about it, a certain feeling of reverence, largely psychological I am certain but still I find a calmness drips from the silent gables and creeps into your soul. The church would have been the hub of village life where families would have gathered every Sunday to worship together but it was and still is the local public house that took more money on its plate.
The Hare and Hounds public house
A stalwart of village life was the local blacksmith and wheelwright Isaac Munson
A blacksmith was vital to a village from medieval times until Victorian. He not only created the shoes for the horses to wear but also fixed and made wheels go onto the wagons, tools for the farmers. He was the man who not only turned swords into ploughshares but could also claim to be an expert on diseases which as far as the local farmers were concerned was a benefit worth paying for. The local blacksmith also provided a worthy meeting place where villagers could meet to exchange news and bits of gossip. From what can be gleaned from the past, it would seem as though Isaac Munson was a well-liked man who was described as having a tender heart. But a village wasn’t just a blacksmiths, there were also corn millers, schoolmasters, butchers, bricklayers, parish clerks, shoemakers, shopkeepers and, of course, farmers; lots of farmers. I am sure that much of the past is seen now through rose coloured spectacles and life wasn’t, couldn’t have been, as good as it is now. Not so much the quality of life as much as the way of life. Today we are fortunate to have medicines and knowledge that they didn’t have then and today we are able to keep alive vast amounts of people that then would have simply died. I still, like many others, yearn for those less pressured times; times when life, hard work though it undoubtedly was, could be lived at a pace that suited the individual and not industry. I have always admired the French for their work to live rather than live to work ethics but I think even the French are succumbing to the corporate world. With that thought in mind I wonder if, with the advent of computers and the oncoming vogue to ‘work from home’, we might not soon return, in part, to a time when people, if still under the pressures and demands of modern life, will be able to live in the villages again in much the same way as before? It is very conceivable that many of us who now work from offices could still do the same roles at home. The only ingredient needed is a bit of self-motivation and that might be the flaw in my scheme. However, with all this in mind there are scant few truths in life; one is that you are born and the other is that you die but the third, clichéd but true, is that in between you pay your taxes.
Back in sixteen sixty-two, a tax measure was passed to ensured a twice-yearly tax collection. This tax was in aid of paying King Charles II a wage and it was called Hearth Taxes. Like many an old tax, it sounds the work of fiction and makes you understand why the Pilgrim Fathers left for the America’s. This particular tax was called a ‘Hearth Tax’ and was another form of ‘heat’ tax. The tax was collected twice a year: once at Michaelmas which fell on the 20th September and again on Lady Day, the 25th March. It was hoped that £160,000 could be raised to be given to Bonny King Charlie for him to whore away and keep his spaniels well watered. Like many a tax in those days and many a tax today, it was an outrage and depended on how many hearths could be found in an area. In sixteen sixty-two there were one hundred and thirty-nine hearths in fifty-five properties, many of which belonged to the poorest. Layer Breton was, and still is, much smaller than Birch and in sixteen sixty-two had only twenty-one dwellings. Neither size of home nor wealth made much difference as the tax had to be paid.
Layer Breton looms into view in a most unexpected manner. Almost as though it was there in waiting but hidden from sight it suddenly, and very quietly, slides up before me. The Breton family came in with William the Conqueror and they had lands here. It was from the Bretons that the manor passed onto the Walden’s and then, in sixteen seventy-seven it became the property of Sir Isaac Rebow esquire, the then Lord of the Manor.
The village of Layer Breton lies six miles South, South West of Colchester and a little East of Kelvedon. It is a fragile place with strong character. There is a tombstone near the church, missing its effigies which were stolen, that contains the remains of the wife of Nicholas Breton who died in thirteen ninety-two. She died on the 6th May.
The old church at layer Breton was demolished in nineteen fifteen during the Great War and all that is left is the original site and the churchyard. There had been, before this, a church that had stood there since Norman times. The new church, as pictured above, was finished being built in nineteen twenty-three and was dedicated to Saint Mary-the-Virgin. The old rectory, now Shalom Hall, was once the home of Margery Allingham, the author I spoke of previously. She lived there with her parents from nineteen hundred and nine until nineteen sixteen. The family moved there when she was four years old. She seemed to be rather lonely during her time here although she only praised the place in her autobiography. I can quite easily see how she incorporated the area into many of her Albert Campion novels of which, I still haven’t found a one.
I rest awhile here and take several shots. I never know how good these snaps will be as I have little or no confidence in my photographic skills. The roads around here are lanes that are formed into tunnels by the growth of the hedgerow and trees that create an effect of merging into a corridor of green. Quite picturesque to behold and typically English. The fields flow from the roadside like a river from a narrow bridge; their undulating patch worked, patterned earth strung with little culverts where the seeds of this or that vegetable grow. It is like the scene of Eden; blessed, bountiful and dirt brown beautiful.
I imagine, in my mind's eye, the scene as it may have been one hundred and forty years ago at about the time my paternal Grandfather was born, eighteen seventy-eight. A large man is trailing a horse drawn farming vehicle. The three horses in front have their heads down and are breathing heavily through flared nostrils. They shunt along like animated locomotives, their breath coming in sharp blasts. Behind them, a cloud of dirt has billowed up and gathers into a plume of dust. Following behind is a murder of crows which pockmark the sky with their dark bodies: black birds on a pale sky. The carrion fowl of creation give chase for the chance of small pickings. On the common chickens range free pecking at the grass while a solitary egg lays waiting for some child to pick it up. Nature has such a way to make us, the human race, seem so small, at least, that is how I feel in light of all that surrounds me; a small part of a larger Tao. My feet ache a little and my throat feels dry what with all this walking and the thought of all that dust being kicked up by the bones of long dead farmers. I have bought two bottles of Cherry Coke with me, now my favourite cordial if indeed Diet Cherry Coke makes it as a cordial? I don’t know, cordial sounds so old and so of another time which is somehow befitting the countryside I walk in.
I take a couple of swigs from the plastic bottle and the fact that it is plastic brings me back to the now with a bang. I remember when Coke bottles were made of glass. Who was it that decided to make them plastic? They certainly didn’t ask me and now we are told by PC environmentalists that plastic is bad for us all. But no one asked me. I wouldn’t have wanted plastic over glass; same as those awful plastic carrier bags. I didn’t ask for supermarkets to create and give them to me and yet I now am being patronised by the likes of Tesco and others to not use plastic bags which is all very fine and good but why did they create them in the first place? And why are they acting so saintly now having caused the problem in the first place? Sheesh!
Hobstevens cottage is a little wonder, a chocolate box pretty country cottage that sits where it has for the past four hundred years. If there were gingerbread men or wolves and girls with hoods of red then this is the home they would have sprung from. Defying modernity in a frightfully polite and inoffensive English way, it shyly snuggles back away from the road as if embarrassed by its own good looks and hearty disposition. The tale of Hobstevens cottage can be traced back to fifteen twenty-three when a wealthy clothier left in his will a tenement that he owned, along with the land attached to it, should be held in trust and that all income that came from it should be used to maintain the bridge at Nayland. The bridge was called Plod Bridge but as changed its name many times over the years and is now known as Anchor Bridge due to its close proximity to a pub. (Yep, another one.) Another thought occurs when I look at this residence that has seen so many inhabitants over the years and it is this: have there ever been any murders committed within its wall or, failing that, in the neighbouring villages? The answer, as you all rightly guessed, is a resounding, yes.
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.