Monday, 14 December 2009

The Wilful Walks of C.J. Duffy part twenty four

* Dancing the Divine, with faltering steps, into Finchingfield *
* A begging bowl for pennies: The Almshouses of Essex *
* The House of many chimneys: Spains Hall *

Autumn arrived on September 16th with a wet wind and a chill heart. Summer was shut out as if by a giant grey curtain being drawn across the sky. Amazing to see how quickly one season can move into another as though a switch had been flicked. Of course England is like that. We Brits are known for our favourite topic of conversation being that of the weather but when you live in a climate that is forever in a state of flux it is hardly surprising. Leaves are falling now like embers from a furnace in colours both red and gold; they trickle to earth with a sigh as yet another year turns from warmth to the expected cold of winter. There is something delicious about an autumn day though with its rustic colours and fresh hours. Daylight becomes scarcer and you have to squeeze in as much as you can in the shrinking minutes of the day.

Today though it is warm, later it will be hot, almost as if the autumn has retreated for the course of my walk; today I have walked to Finchingfield, a gloriously positioned village straight out of a story book. It lies west of Halstead, north of Great Dunmow and away from the Essex/Suffolk border. We are now further into Essex, more central but still in the north of the county.
The path I am taking is a zig zag route; partly because I want to see places that I haven’t before, ones that are right on my doorstep, as much as it is a cathartic experience. Moving away from that border land, I intend to take in some other villages that speak of the past; cottages and wishing wells, haunted histories, folklore forgotten. Finchingfield is the first village on my points of interest. I remember coming here with my Mum, Dad and Nana when I was a child. As I recall there was a pond that sat in the centre with village life orbiting around it. I will have to see if that is still the case or whether it is just my childish memory playing tricks on me.

I have often made reference to, in several of my previous visits, Essex villages and how pretty, picturesque and delightful they are and how easy it would be to imagine photos of them adorning chocolate box lids or calendar pictures. With Finchingfield this allusion is correct for here is quite literally where the ideal Essex village exists. It has, on a great many occasions been voted the best of the Essex villages and the images of the village really are used for such decoration. I enter the village and know that I have by the nameplate that stands on the outskirts. Somewhere distant a church bell tolls. It is the sound of comfort, of welcome and of reassurance. It is the sort of booming sound a mother makes so that her children know precisely where she is and that should they need her she is there for them.
Accompanying the sound are others, less loud, background comforts, everyday sounds that are never faraway. A motorbike throbs by, birds call to each other with their ceaseless chatter, ducks squabble and, not so faraway, villagers greet each other with warm hellos and news. As I said, the sun is up and it is warm but at this stage of my walk there is still a chill in the air that nips at my finger tips as I write these first preliminary sketch notes. I have slung across my shoulder my camera, a bag with food and a drink, my writing pad and a pen. The music playing is that off Kate Bush. If ever a girl was given the gift of total originality if not the spark of genius, it is Kate Bush. Cloudbursting sounds as fresh, as unique, as good as the day I first heard it. It is a fabulous piece of music.

I see the village green and am instantly smitten. I think I may be in heaven. I throw my stuff onto the first empty bench I come across and sit down, mouth and eyes wide. This is the village of England that the rest of the world dreams of when they when they think of this country: quiet, reserved, peaceful, polite, rural, delicate, elegant, charming, and graceful. I sit on the green and, Kate Bush notwithstanding, my mind springs instantly to the Kinks song, the Village Green Preservation Society. I can best describe this place as virtually idyllic; virtually only because there is still traffic that passes irritatingly through it but apart from that is carries all the hallmarks you would expect of such an English village.

The pond is exactly as I remembered it. It still has that queer, uncertain triangular shape that stretches across the village centre but with a brick built bride that spans it allowing vehicles and pedestrians to cross form one side to the other. To the left is a curious shop, or rather a set of shops curiously built and placed together: G.W.Hardy & Sons, funeral directors, then an arch with an open wooden gate before the friendly face of the much larger Finchleyfields Flowers; a florist. There is another set of shops that connects to the first two but by now my attention has been taken by the windmill that stands like a cardinals hat only a short distance away.

It seems from where I sit that it is a stubby vision of a windmill and not at all like the ones you think of but just as I am mulling this odd building over my attention is again hustled away but this time by a family of ducks who, keen people watchers all, having spotted me are arguing over the man they have come across and who is now seated directly in front of them. He stands somewhere between five feet ten ad five feet eleven, wayward hair that looks as if it is the initial stages of receding, a cocky grin leaps from his face above which sits a large nose, dressed in a frock coat, faded blue jeans and ox blood Doc Martens. The big disappointment is that he is not carrying any bread crumbs.

I drag my concentration away from the ducks and continue to scan my surroundings with my camera. The ducks quack seeking to regain some sort of contact with me but I ignore them. A string of houses, full of aging charm curve away from the windmill taking my curiosity with them. Rising from the bench I follow the road up the slight incline past a broad alley that has two crusty old buildings that stand either side of the alley. They remind me of two housewives nattering across a garden fence.

Then I walk past a building that shrugs its old timbers at me; gnarled black gables now twisted and tired of supporting the weighty ceiling and floor above. This long, ancient building is what used to be an almshouse or home for the poor.

There are a great many of these to be found around northern parts of Essex and throughout the length and breadth of Britain.
Beyond the almshouse, standing as its neighbour, is the local church, Norman I would guess that hunkers squat but not unlovely while being surrounded by a collection of trees. I can hear voices singing in harmony which can only be the vocals of the locals gathered in worship.

A gentle wind shuffles the leaves about, they rustle as they dance, skirting around the gravestones and along the path. I feel a reluctance to leave here. Not the church but the place; Finchingfield’s magic has hexed me and I could quite easily stay, sat on a bench on the green, watching the comings and goings. I had a mind to move onto Thaxted, and then Saffron Walden but I could just as easily gather dust idling time here in Finchingfield. For a fleeting moment my heart flutters as I think of the one love, the only love I have ever had, wishing she were here with me now, walking with me through these blessed villages and towns, enjoying the delights that I come across.


There is nothing new about almshouses; they have existed in one form or another for a thousand years. The first almshouse in the British Isles was founded by King Athelstan in York around the 10th century. The oldest surviving almshouse is probably the Hospital of St. Oswald in Worcester that was founded in or about 990. The very name almshouse comes from the Christian tradition of giving alms, or aid or monies to the needy.

There are almshouses here in Finchingfield, as well as in Thaxted (my next port of call) and also in my home town of Rochford. These homes were created for the poor, ill or homeless people so that they could have some where they could live. The old English name for them was Bede house. The cost and upkeep for them was traditionally paid for by a rich benefactor who would dictate just who he thought were suitable candidates to receive help.

Originally these houses would have been built by monasteries in medieval times from where food and shelter were given. The almshouse would often have a chapel for prayer included in their construction where a priest would go to hold services. The self same benefactor would also supply money to pay for food, drink, clothing and fuel. One of the more obvious stipulations was that only

Christians could get alms there which rather defeat, in my opinion, the whole object of being a follower of Christ. Most almshouse, although architecturally different, are like the one in Finchingfield in that they are all very old. There are about 2,000 existent in the UK today with some 36,000 people housed in them and a society that supports them that has as its patron Prince Charles.

Thaxted Almshouse from the painting by James Youlden

Spains hall

Spains Hall sits a little distant from Finchingfield but is in the general vicinity of the village. The house is named after Hervey de Ispania who held the manor during the time the Domesday Book was compiled. Aged as old bones maybe but Spains Hall is largely thought of as being an Elizabethan house as the principal facade was refashioned in 1585 by William Kempe.

The family history is a long and lengthy one starting, as I have already said, with Hervey de Ispania but followed on by the Kempe family when Margery de Ispania married Nicholas Kempe in the early 1500’s. When the Kempe line failed, they were then superseded by the Ruggles when Samuel Ruggles brought the place in 1760. Much of the old building still has remains of a medieval past that includes a king post roof; so much history thrown in to each brazen brick.

The grounds comprise of some 7 hectares of land all of which were landscaped by Humphry Repton circa 1807. There also remains, in part at least, a moat that used to run around an earlier house. Nowadays the hall is used for functions, weddings, conferences etc. Even if this a bit of a come down for the old place, at least it is still standing. Maybe one day, when I have made me fortune, I will buy it up and take it back to its former glory days. Duffy Manor does have a certain ring to it.

The roads wind on and on and it suddenly strikes me, as I wander these Essex byways that the seasons too move ever on in their natural ballet as one shifts into another. I started these walks back in March 2009 when it was still spring. May moved softly into June and then, for the first time in goodness knows how long, the Wimbledon month of July came in with the sun and for once it stayed and didn’t rain. It was only a brief hint of what a summer could be though as August was limp, lame and rather wet. Now summer has gone and autumn, the fall, creeps swiftly onto winter.

The way these seasons change while still being part of the same cohesive whole gives me an insight into the nature of all things. I am a part of the same universal energy that allows the moon to tug and pull the tides, lets the breeze blow freely, carpet the sky with diamond studded dreams. Heaven and earth and I are of the same root, the ten thousand things and I are of one substance, one unified existence. All the principles of heaven and earth are living inside me and the words of Desiderata come back to me in bold and beautiful colours.

“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here.”

Einstein once said that “a human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affectation for a few people near us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

There is a part of his heart that is damp and dark and covered in mossy leaves that smell of soil and moonlight. If you brush your fingers across the acrid mulch it will part with a soft moist squelching sound and you will find buried deep within the pungent corruption a timid, frightened creature with large liquid eyes and a hot desire to love and to be loved; a creature with a savage bite and a wicked claw that it uses to rake a protest and to scar the heathen world with its fear, its fury, its loathing and its singular lack of comprehension for so brutal and ugly an existence. The stars spin, the oceans rise and life goes on relentlessly and remorselessly claiming victims in a vortex of unfeeling and disquiet as though all humanity can be reduced to a set of improbable whispers echoed in the still silence of a sterile dawn that blinks blindly into the shattered dream of universal longing.

We are not alone
Hold out your hands
We are not alone


all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.


GPV said...

I have received part 6 of 'The Wilful Walks', thanks again and let me wish you a Merry Xmas and best holidays. GPV.

C.J.Duffy said...

Glad you like the chapbooks. Have a great Christmas!

weirsdo said...

I like them too.
I think the italicized passage is quite powerful.
But you should not dress your nose, no matter how large, in a frock coat.

C.J.Duffy said...

weirsdo>>>Ha Ha Ha, me and my mother tongue eh? and to think I joked about having an American edit my stuff. Of course you are right. I will have to change the sentance structure, maybe start a new one. Mnd you, it is a bit Monty Python isn't it? A nose dressed in a frock coat!

anonant said...

Hey CJ!
Merry Christmas and may your New Year give you everything you need, want, and can handle. :)

C.J.Duffy said...

Anonant>>>The same to you mate!

Hobbes said...

Happy New Year, C. J.!

C.J.Duffy said...

Hobbes>>>And you too!

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A Utility Fish Shed Blog

A Utility Fish Shed Blog