Well, I came off my bike and twisted my knee and skinned my elbow, so I am taking only gentle exercise and don't feel too guilty about sitting at the computer even when not writing the book. Actually, I am a bit shocked at how long it is since I last did a post.
Last week (before I came off the bike) we decided to take a couple of days and see more of Essex. Essex doesn't sound that thrilling a destination if you live in London. Some of it has been swallowed up in London suburbia, and the rest of it is rather flat and agricultural, without all that many eye popping major tourist attractions. Which doesn't of course mean there's nothing to see - far from it - but it does mean you don't feel too crowded out, and there's the big advantage that it's little more than an hour from where we live in London.
I've written a few times about Essex, including here about the lost garden and here about Tiptree jams. My great grandmother lived there (although we could never work out why, since she'd always planned to retire to Ireland) and my mother had lots of childhood memories of the place, including travelling from Chelmsford station to granny in Tolleshunt Major in an old pony and trap, since there wasn't any public transport!
We based ourselves in a bed and breakfast in Maldon, an old sailing town. The house where we stayed is right on the quayside, where traditional Thames barges are moored. The pink arrow marks the house, which, if you are interested, is called 32 The Hythe.
Our room had windows on three sides, two of them overlooking the water and the boats, and the other overlooking the church. It was just about as perfect as a b& b could be, we thought. Lots of little goodies and even hens (who lived in a palatial coop outside the kitchen door), to provide fresh eggs for breakfast. And a telescope at the window to look over the estuary, which winds around for miles.
The boats were so picturesque, especially in the early mornings...
....and the evenings, when the local starlings would choose one particular boat for them all to roost on with a great chattering and cheeping.
Maldon feels like a good place, it is well cared for and interesting without being pretentious. It celebrated its thousand year anniversary in 1991 and the town possesses a huge commemorative embroidery stitched by local people, which I spent ages looking at. It's bold and vibrant, and it is on display inside a building which is also a unique late 17th century library donated by a local benefactor, Rev. Thomas Plume.
The books in Plume's Library mostly date from before 1800 and the library is still very much alive, opening for four days a week, (I am sorry to say this is better than some local council libraries these days.) A look at the catalogue shows he was a keen collector with wide tastes, but unfortunately I managed to visit just too late for the day's opening. Next time, I will be sure to go earlier, and might find out a bit about the secret influences, wiles and ways of bad angels in Henry Lawrence's "Militia spiritualis, or, A treatise of angels: handling the nature, power, substance and existence of good [and] evill angels : wherein is likewise shewed what incredible power, secret influences, wiles and wayes, methods and moods the good and bad angels doe daily exercise in the hearts of men though they little mind it."
I loved the embroidery for its liveliness and graphic style in telling the story of the town from its early Saxon days right through to the foxhunting protests of more modern times.
My eye was particularly caught by the building shown below. I don't know what "Pant" means, but the building, with a Celtic cross on one side, was from longer ago than the soldiers in the 991 AD Battle of Maldon who are shown to the right. In fact it is one of the oldest Christian buildings in the British Isles, dating from 654 AD, and it still stands near Maldon.
Of course T. and I decided to go and see it, even though we suspected it wouldn't be quite as multi coloured as the beautiful embroidery suggests. It's in a village called Bradwell, and has had a chequered history. It was first built by St. Cedd, a Celtic saint from the holy island of Lindisfarne, 350 miles to the North. Its name is St. Peter ad Murum, (Latin for St. Peter at the Wall) and it's build on - and from - the remains of a large Roman fort which stood on the site about 1,500 years ago, for this area had some importance in the Roman Empire.
There is nothing visible left of the fort except for a few stones, and I am sure the fort was a godsend to the locals wanting to build cottages over the past millennium and a half. The car park is over half a mile away and you need to walk along a country footpath to reach the chapel which is in an exposed position opposite the estuary.
The place had a real atmosphere. Take a look at this stonework below. You can be sure that the local Anglo-Saxons, who lived in little wood and mud huts, wouldn't have had the technology to cut stones like this, let alone bring them all the way to this silty, sandy and largely stoneless landscape. The Romans cut these, and they also made the red tiles which went on their roofs.
The chapel has had a chequered history, having at various times fallen into disrepair - it was once even used as a barn, but it always retained the story of its holy past. It would have made a very good barn, being high and long, but its most recent restoration has given it a modern altar containing three large stones from holy places, as you can probably see if you look closely.
There is no electricity, heating or toilets, and the chapel is left open all the time. Despite this, it is in good repair, clean and decked with flowers, and has weekly services, special services at Christmas and Easter, and open air services in summer, as well holding as an annual pilgrimage. A local Christian community, Orthona (which was the Roman name for the fort) lives in a nearby wood and also uses the chapel, so perhaps they are the ones who guard and care for it.
It's a really minimalist landscape, flat and big-skied, and T and I wandered along the dyke which protects the low lying land down the shore, admiring the sometimes strange effects of the shadows and light.
Maldon has a lot of old buildings but doesn't take itself too seriously. When we returned, we spotted an amusing plaque to a popular 18th century tradesman, Edward Bright, whose name still survives in a street in the centre of town called Bright's Path. Bright was known as the Fattest Man in England, and was quite a celebrity for it, which luckily he seems to have taken in a good spirit. After his death, seven local men undertook to fit into his waistcoat for a wager. In fact, the wager said "Seven Hundred Men" but the seven still won because each of them came from a place called the Dengie Hundred, which was the equivalent of the local county in which Maldon stands.
I was also amused at the sign for one of the pubs down by the water. The Queen's Head's pub sign features a 1588 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, the unaltered version of which you can see below.
She doesn't look that friendly even in the portrait, but someone has gone to quite a bit of trouble to get a couple of those eyes you stick on teddy bears and carefully glue them to Queen Elizabeth's eyes, on the pub sign, giving her a glare which to me looks icy enough to terrify any courtier.
Maldon's not far from the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Hyde Hall, and we called in there on the way home. Summer has started to fade, and Autumn has not yet arrived, so it is not a good time for gardens but there was some interesting planting, often mixing flowers, seed heads and decorative grasses (oh, and by the way, please can someone remind me of the name of the large red flowered plant below? I just can't remember it!)
I am a fan of grasses, so I liked this too
And this modern garden, designed to make you think of an overgrown topiary garden, intrigued me. Of course it is not overgrown, and is very carefully tended. The only flowers were a clump of huge yellow kniphofia, which looked startling against the dark yew.
More traditional were some beautiful gladioli, this one was such a pure perfect white
and this was an eye-shattering collection of new varieties of popular bedding plants, lent by their growers and breeders as a way of assessing public reaction. The display really was as bright as this, , including a almost fake looking light-and-dark pink rose just right of the centre.
I think I was keener on several of the plants which looked as if they had been hand-made out of wool or other textiles. A pumpkin-sized squash...
and giant-headed sunflowers, which were full of detail.
Back in London, we went out for a meal to a restaurant I was glad to discover. At last, a local restaurant that serves nice food and isn't too expensive! The food is Georgian, from the ex-Soviet Union, a place which one of our friends knew well. She assured us the region is renowned for its food. On each table is a cute little model showing the dishes you can order in the restaurant. Walnuts are a popular ingredient, and it's all delicious (except for dumplings, which I can never learn to love.)
I'd almost like to buy one of these little models and take it home. Which reminds me, it is time for me to make something if we are to eat tonight. Well, I'm glad I got this post done at last!