* The Old and New of Harlow Town *
* THEM TREE’S are like a TANGLE of SPOOKS *
*The Vandals of the Highways: Robbers, Thieves & Cutthroats *
*Evan Andrew and the Haunting Truth *
Leaving the treasures of Saffron Walden nestling in the topmost north western part of Essex, I press on taking a road that leads me south, but still on the western side, passing a collection of villages and towns as I go. Stebbing, Barnston, Felstead, all to the east of me; Great and Little Easton, slightly more to the west. (In 1912 H.G.Wells moved to Little Easton; another celebrity of literature, one of the father’s of science fiction some would say, who lived and breathed right where I am passing) and then Great Canfield which lays a little south west of the twins of Easton. It would be easy to write about yet another quaint, typically English village but having already written on that particular subject I would find it boring to repeat myself, as I would, I suspect, bore who ever reads these journals. I also feel that I have visited enough quaint villages and besides, I wanted to visit and then write about a diverse set of Essex places and not just repeat myself ad nauseam.
October is shuffling along with November only a matter of weeks away. Leaves are gathering now wherever I walk, often scattered across the paths and pavements but also to be seen collected en masse leaning against walls and fences. There is a brief period during the day when the sun weakly shines through but its heat is waning, its power gone as the globe circles the seasons into their ritual cycle of decay and rebirth. The hungry night sneaks in earlier each evening to bite chunks out of the day.
The first treasure that I encounter is the unbelievably large common that is Matching Green. The green is part of a trilogy of areas that all collide into one village: Matching, connected to the village is the green and also Matching Tye. Matching sits some 3 miles east of Harlow, 4 and a half miles north west of Chipping Ongar and approximately 4 miles south east of Sawbridgeworth. However, it is the green that gives the village its edge even over the splendour of Finchingfield as the green is one of the largest in Essex. Triangular in shape and circled by a range of detached cottages and houses with some dating as far back as the 14th century.
There is an air of tranquil civility here, a nod to the old ways of England, of tea and buttered crumpets with cricket being played upon the green on balmy summer days, of men in white linens bowling leather balls at wooden wickets shouting Howzat while tossing their caps high into the air.
I have never understood cricket, I have always found it to be slow, complex and by equal definition completely unfathomable but as I grow older there is something about its quintessential Englishness, something understated in its makeup that so clearly defines our nation that I find myself warming to the idea of liking it even if I still haven’t a clue as to what is going on. Football is of course the bigger game, loved by hundreds of millions of people and without any doubt the biggest game in the world, played by more countries than any other sport but it is still cricket that singularly sums up the English.
It owes its origins to the wealthy, the upper class; it was always known as the game of gentlemen whereas football was always the game for the working classes. Nowadays though, things have changed and the heroes of cricket are of the people with the game being one that anyone can play and enjoy but its rules still baffle me.
As a child there was Ted Dexter who seemed to be the epitome of what a cricketer should be, well mannered, well spoken and polite. Obviously cricket was not meant for my sort at all. God bless the Aussies for bunging a spectacular spanner into that machine of pretentious twaddle.
Matching Green is a common where cricket should be played as somehow having a green is synonymous with playing cricket and playing cricket is the embodiment of being English.
Below Matching Green and a little to the east is Fyfield, a small village that has a delightful name but that withstanding, I am not going there today. To the west and therefore my right is Harlow; again I am not walking there today but Harlow is worthy on mention. After the second world war as London was being rebuilt from the ruin and rubble that effectively remained, many of its old inhabitants needed new homes to live in and so the British government built a series of satellite ‘new towns’ Among these were Basildon in south east Essex, Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire and of course Harlow. Harlow was designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd in 1947 with a conceptual style that was, at the time, thought of as being highly modern. The idea was to provide a self contained series of neighbourhoods that each had their own shopping centres, churches, schools and health facilities. Between each development there was to be a green swathe of land so that everyone living in Harlow had access to open space. Along with the residential plans there was also a plan for businesses to be located on two large industrial sites to the north and west of the town.
By and large the ‘new towns’ of Britain have been given a lot of bad critique with many people describing them as soulless and cold with little or no character. I understand this point of view and have to ashy in many cases this is true but no so with Harlow. There is something fresh about the place, with all the greenery that springs up, that adds a pleasant aspect to the region. There is also a degree of exciting art in terms of sculptures that decorate the area which in themselves elevate the surrounding area out of the new town definition into to something more substantial and lasting. I like Harlow; it doesn’t have the cold chill of stainless steel chrome town about it, sure it is without the spires and curved arches that give so many older villages their character but aging just takes time and I feel that now, as Harlow hits its sixth decade that the natural wear and tear of time is already adding a flavour of the newly past to the town. It already has, compared to more recent developments, started to show its age; not in a fading way but rather with a warmth of nostalgia for the time it was built, coming as it did out of a horrid war with its promise of better times ahead.
I am now headed toward Epping, the forest and the town, but it is the forest that really interests me. It has a history that goes back even further than that of Colchester, older than the tribes that inhabited this region 2,000 years ago. Epping Forest goes back to a time when Britain was covered in woodlands; when trees covered virtually every square foot of the land mass of these glorious islands. The forests are scattered now, civilisation must be appeased, farmers need land to plough, people need homes to live in. The woodland is under siege, surrounded by towns and cities the motorways running rings around them while tarmac tributaries slice through them allowing traffic the freedom to cross from one place to the next. There is still deep magic here though, still the rustling whispers of arcane voices. The Green Man is here in all his might and splendour.
Thousands of years ago these islands were covered from north to south, from east to west in trees. The land would have looked, had they then had the benefit of satellites, as though it were a floating forest of greens that, when autumn pushed summer to one side, turned to a profusion of burnt oranges, russets and gold’s. The trees grew thick and varied but mostly consisted of broad leaved trees; the oak being king among them but also elm. The forests were so thick that there was little room for any form of wildlife to roam and feed but nonetheless animals came and lived within the forests.
There would have been bears, wolves, badgers, foxes, red squirrels, deer and goodness knows how many variety of birds; rodents, insects, serpents and a nameless amount of flora and fauna. This would have been, as the Roman’s eventually called it, Albion or, as many centuries later, Blake would suggest in his poem Jerusalem, ‘this green and pleasant land.’
5,000 years ago Neolithic man arrived here and instantly began to clear huge amounts of forest. They needed the wood to build fires and to cultivate the land for their own purposes. We make these people sound like brutes with little or no feelings apart from their own natural urges. I am not sure I agree with that sentiment. Uneducated maybe, unsophisticated perhaps but so much nearer to the planet that gave birth to them than we are today, I don’t think I could exist without a morning cup of tea and I certainly have to take a shower first thing just to wash the sleep out of my head. I often dream of living a rustic, more natural existence but I am not sure I really could; too many years of being civilised has all but destroyed those basic instincts. Having said that, there is still one basic instinct I still enjoy.
500 years BC the Celts arrived from Europe bringing with them a new sophistication: agriculture which they, still in touch with mother earth, used to hone the fields to bring them crops of food and meadows for their cattle to graze in. MacDonald’s was just a wink away but still less than a twinkle in our forebear’s eyes.
Then the Romans came with their even greater sophistication and brought with them what we would now refer to as weeds but which in fact are simply wild flowers: corncockle, marigold, scarlet pimpernel, fritillary, spiked speedwell, meadow saffron and the poppy. Imagine, if you can, what a glorious sight those meadows would have been, a burgeoning burst of brilliant colours, a post impressionists dream. Epping, as large a woodland area as it is, is nothing but a smattering of what once was, a fragment of a larger whole that sadly, and understandably, has gone forever. The memories and the myths live on though and we all can add to that myth can’t we? We can all share in the distant, nearly forgotten tales of long ago.
Like demon toes they left their mark in the damp soil. The chicken strutted; tail feathers high; head tall and bobbing.
The forest was ancient. If a forest could have a memory then this forests memory would stretch back to a time before men, before dinosaurs, before gods. It lay in a valley beneath a tall mountain that in itself was covered by the escaping family of trees from the forest proper. There are times still, when a heavy cloud, pregnant with the promise of rain will descend upon the mountain and the forest like the portent of better days and shroud both mountain and forest in a moist mist; a mist that hangs like a veil over the face of a virgin bride. Today though was cloud free and sunny and the sun stole through the trees like a thief: silent and soft.
A small homestead stood in a green clearing. A family farm with some livestock and a love of nature. A chicken, a drab rooster, patrolled across the damp floor leaving satanic foot prints in the dirt, the chicken was watched by an old man and his granddaughter. Beyond where they sat and deep in the forest a wolf slipped through the trees. Her eyes shone deepest jet with flashes of hazel. She lifted her snout and sniffed the warm air. Somewhere near was her mate, an old male wolf as cunning as the coming of winter.
“I’m scared. I can see a wolf. Shouldn’t we go in doors?”
“Few are the times if any when a wolf has attacked a human, even a child. Do not be scared of wolves my pet be respectful.”
The chicken paraded; devils toes leaving devils prints in dirty soil.
“See the chicken my pet? See the way he preens himself? There are those who say that the chicken, stupid as we may think he is, is the bird of Satan; his spy in the land of men. See his feet? See how very much like the Devils own feet they are?”
The girl child nodded and smiled up at her old grandfather. His dark eyes, flecked with splashes of hazel sparkled.
“It is said the reason the chicken crows at the break of dawn is because the dark is the domain of the Devil and the coming of light is God’s. It is also said that to punish Satan for making the chickens his spies that God made man keep and eat chickens to forever show Satan that his spy birds were useless.”
The sun climbed higher and laid down more heat for to warm the day. The wolf watched the grandfather and the child. The chicken pranced, its head metronoming back and forth as it walked. Its chest puffed up with foolish pride.
“It is getting warmer. Why not do your old grandfather a favour and put the kettle on, Hmmm? Make me some coffee and while you are doing that I will go and chase the wolf away.”
The girl sprang up and ran inside.
“Be careful Grandpapa, of the wolf I mean.”
“She won’t hurt me child.”
The girl clattered about the kitchen filling the kettle with cold water and putting the kettle onto the heat of the stove. She placed two mugs onto the table filling one half with milk and the other with a spoonful of sugar. Her grandfather had a sweet tooth. She waited until the kettle had boiled and then she poured the hot water into the coffee pot. She poured the brew, strong and black into her Grandfathers mug and milky sweet into her own and then took them both outside to where her grandfather, now returned, sat waiting.
“Has the wolf gone?” she asked.
“For now yes, but remember she too has to live. She will always be out there so make sure you give her the room she needs and respect that she deserves.”
“Where has our chicken gone?”
“Maybe the wolf took her when I wasn’t looking.”
“You have blood on your chin.”
“I must have cut my self shaving.” said the Grandfather wiping his chin with the back of his hand. “Now then, where is that coffee that I can smell?”
The wind blew and a collection of feathers drew up like autumn leaves, spiralling in the breath of the breeze. They danced around the feet of the old man like confetti. The sun climbed higher into the sky and the pale ghost of the moon stole behind a slim puff of cloud. Overhead a gaggle of geese flew on heavy wings. The grandfather threw back his proud head to drink the coffee. His white teeth clashed against the side of the mug. The she wolf clung to the shadows and moved through the undergrowth with a whisper of grass. Before she disappeared altogether she glanced back over her shoulder at the old man and the girl and then she was gone like smoke on a lake.
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.