To paraphrase the old Led Zeppelin song: There are two roads you can go by which in the case of getting from Ashingdon to Paglesham is certainly true. You can either go by the Brays Lane route which is probably the more direct and is about four miles or, alternatively, you can go via Canewdon Road which takes you on a convoluted route through twists and turns and down the snake wiggle of Scots Hall Road adding at least another mile to your walk. If you ignore taking a right you would eventually come to South Fambridge, a nice enough place and one to tell you of at some other stage but today it is not the target destination that I had in mind. So then, Brays Lane it is. Having relieved my aching bladder (ask no questions, get no lies), I leave the peaceful seclusion of Saint Andrews Church, Ashingdon and toddle off down the road of my choosing and onto Paglesham.
Still sunny although with that deceitful spring chill that runs up and nips the back of your neck when you least expect it. I simply turn my collar up against the cold air and walk on. The first set of houses I come across on the way are quite unremarkable and very typical of the area. Stand alone bungalows or semi-detached, three to four bedroom houses most of which have been built in that blinding white light technology of decades – the sixties. Not unpleasant just lacking any signs of individuality whatsoever. Like the old song by goodness knows who, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky and they all get put in boxes and they all come out just the same. As I move on from here the first change that I notice is that the pavement disappears and in its place I find a grassy kerbside with ramshackle, tumble down hedgerows full of prickly branches and starlings nests. It is easier to walk on the road than try to clamber across the uneven surface of the pock marked turf. I have to be careful though and keep a wary eye open for the odd car that comes hurtling past. Why is it that as soon as you find an English country road you always get some Billy boy racer who wants to turn a ton in his motor? Hark at me though, the old wise man who used to do precisely the same thing not so long ago. Something about country lanes and cars that brings out the racing driver in all young peoples hearts. The next thing I note is that the houses are now further apart. The distance between them has grown and the architecture has gone from the common place to the idiosyncratically, diametrically opposite of the first homes I saw. These are many yards apart and are all of a different build. Not just a cosmetically designed difference either but a bona fide individuality that has to mirror the original owners personalities. Most of these homes were, at some stage at least, small holdings or farms. A great many may still be used for that purpose but at least half, I would guess, have different applications now and, judging by some of the cars parked on the drives, the other difference is that some of these places are moneyed. That is the people living in them are reasonably well off unlike the farmers of old. There is a lot of history in this region; in fact there is a confusion of history, a mix and mash, crash of historical styles. Much of the history goes way back to the days of the Anglo Saxon invasion but there is more modern too and by modern I from mean Henry VIII to the swinging sixties. Two homes I pass are perfect examples of this odd clash of ages. On my left is a Scandinavian style homestead with a chalet look. It has a rough stoned fronted arched doorway that somehow transmogrifies into a chimney so that the whole structure looks like an upside down Y. Either side of the Y are two large windows that, typical of Scandinavian design, allow in lots of light into their respective rooms.. Sitting behind this home is a lot of land which I have to assume belongs to the property I have described. Directly opposite this Nordic looking building is an ancient Tudor farm with a rickety roof and black painted wooden beams. The whole edifice seems to be on the tilt, either that or I am drunk and as a drop hasn’t passed my lips (I swear) then it must be the house. To see such different buildings facing each other like eras past separated by a ribbon of tar is both wonderful and incongruous. A bit like London, which is the only city I know of that has that organic feel of having age after age built side by side. This isn’t quite like that as these structures are spread apart but it has an echo of London somehow and yet also brings to mind America. Not the land, nor the styles of houses; one is older than that continent and the other simply of another continent entirely but the idea of being able to build just what the hell takes your fancy is very much of the lUSA I visited back in the seventies: an expression of individuality. The further I walk the further apart the houses get. Some are at least a quarter of a mile distant and because Essex is so flat you can see them sitting away from each other like aloof, estranged peasants who having toiled the fields have fallen out and no longer are on speaking terms with each other. The only communication they have is via the birds that twitter on branches and roost in their eaves. Again I imagine the mists coming in from the chill waters. Flowing across the land like spectres leaving a cold hand of frost on turf and turnip. A ghost mist of loneliness that haunts the space between the houses spread so far apart.
You will see from these ramblings that there are two major ways we Brits measure distance in the countryside: by the pubs we pass or else the churches. Around here we have dozens of bloody pubs and all with quaint little names too. The nearest old market town is Rochford which has no less than six public houses in it. I am just about to pass the first pub of my walks and it is the Dog and Shepherd which was built circa 1935 but this isn’t the original Dog and Shepherd; the original is another Tudor building but much bigger than the last one I passed and far more rundown than that too. Apparently it is occupied but it doesn’t look that way to me. I have seen it many times before of course and have often wondered what it must be like to live in something that old. A thought that reminds me of something one of my kids said about my body recently on the occasion of my fifty fifth birthday.
At this point of my journey, with pub to my left and ‘Ye Olde Tudor House’ to my right I have a choice to make. The road directly ahead leads on to Canewdon whilst the road to my right goes to Paglesham. To the right I go still feeling light of foot and now warmer than when I first started. I pass more houses on the way, all of them as different as the others. One hangs back in the distance and away from the road. It has a paddock where horses can run. Another is closer to the road and as I walk by two large boxer dogs come raging at me. Teeth bared and snarling a warning but fortunately there is a high wire fence between them and me. I walk on. Next I come across a tall house of unknown age which has a glass tower that grows from the topmost part of the roof. It looks like a Victorian observatory but I think that is just my wild imagination working overtime. It has character though and I could see myself living there. Finally there is the east end of Paglesham and the Plough and Sail which has been my target destination all along. By the way, the Paglesham population is about four hundred which in itself is fine but the place has two public houses which strikes me as a little over the top but who am I too argue with the ancients? The one here in the East End is owned by TV chef Jamie Oliver’s family, The Plough and Sail and the other over at Church End, The Punch Bowl which has a history as charming and as dodgy as the smugglers that used to frequent it:
The Punch Bowl
From the middle of 17th Century into the 18th Century, the town of Paglesham [Paglesham is one of Essex's oldest fishing villages. ] was a notorious smugglers ' haunt in Essex. In the later part of the 17th Century William Blyth , known as 'Hard Apple' to his friends, led a smugglers' gang mostly made up of members of his large family of fishermen. By day Blyth was a respectable member of the community; he was a member of the Parish Council, a shopkeeper, an oysterman, a constable and he may have been a magistrate too. On dark nights when the weather permitted, Blyth and his fellow smugglers would launch their cutter, the Big Jane and head across the sea to Dunkirk, where Frenchmen would be waiting with contraband.
Some smugglers preferred to risk navigating the treacherous sandbanks to the north of the Thames estuary, where the low-lying coastal land was criss-crossed with dykes at Foulness Island and Crouch .
Hard Apple? William Blyth, the stuff of legend and myth but what a fantastic myth, what a fabulous legend!
The Plough and Sail
Smuggling was so vigorously pursued in the Rochford area that the region's reputation persisted well into the 20th century. One writer commented in 1909 that
'The whole district is honeycombed with traditions concerning smuggling...The tower of Rochford Church was used to store gin, Hollands and tea — the cavity under the pulpit was known as The Magazine'
At Paglesham, most of the population was alleged to have been involved with the free-trade in one way or another
Several locals were ship-owners, and used oyster-fishing or legitimate cross-channel transport as a cover for smuggling: in 1783 the Maldon custom house reported that William Dowsett of the village owned two vessels which he used for illegal trade, and that his brother-in-law, Emberson, also operated a small ship. Another member of the Dowsett family traded from the Big Jane, a heavily-armed lugger that was frequently in skirmishes with the King's men. The most notorious figure, though was William Blyth.
• : in one he drank two glasses of wine in the local pub, the Punch bowl, then calmly ate the glasses.
• Another yarn has Blyth playing cricket on the local green with fellow smugglers Emberson and Dowsett. Though the men took off their coats for the matches, they took the sensible precaution of laying out their guns and swords ready for interruptions from the excisemen. In the course of one of these matches, there was an unscheduled break of another sort: a bull charged the team. Blyth grabbed it by the tail, and set about the animal with a cudgel. The terrified animal fled, with Blyth clinging on, vaulted over a hedge and ditch, then collapsed and died.
• On one occasion Blyth's boat was captured during a run, and the cargo transferred to a revenue cutter. On board the cutter, Blyth started drinking with the crew, taking full advantage of his legendary head for alcohol. Before very long, the officers and men were fuddled by drink, and Blyth restored his cargo to its rightful home.
This place would have been great when as a child I could have become, in my head and wildest fantasies, a pirate smuggler and one who eats glass and kills bulls with his bare hands.
Tired and thirsty from my walk I drop into the pub where I order some food and a whole pint of diet coke which I eat and drink in the warm noon sun. Trouble is, and to my cost, the coke fills my bladder and again, on my wandering way, I need to find some convenient place to pee. Perhaps some poor souls back garden? Goodness knows there are gardens to spare around here.
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.