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BBC History magazine had an article in its Christmas edition on the dangerous games played by children in Tudor England. With fond recollections of my own childhood games I was curious to see what mischief our ancestors got up.

True enough, some of the stories were very sad, recounting how children had met their unfortunate demise whilst playing, but the games themselves were nothing special or dangerous. Rather, youngsters then, as now, met tragedy in a pond or lake or with an item falling on top of them.

Somehow, on reflection, my own childhood games seem rather more hazardous. Weekends were an adventure playground.

There was “Stick Wars”, where four of us would split into two teams of two and roam the local woods, Coombe Wood, with its “Creepy Copse” or the “Sandy Hills” tucked away in a bushy enclave on Westley Heights and the product of centuries of toil by local badgers. (It was years before it was I realised it was “Creepy Copse” and not “Creepy Cops”, the tall pines giving me small-child nightmare images of evil tree-police ready to snatch us out of the evening gloom). There we would give ourselves a “time out” to gather suitably-sized and suitably-shaped sticks and twigs that could be flung at each other. These turned into mammoth reconnaissance efforts, donning second-hand army fatigues and wellies, buying walkie-talkies, and making clear to families and walkers up from the town and trying to enjoy a little countryside that these were our woods.

What little horrors we were.

My regular partners in games were my brother and two eldest cousins, Matt and Sarah, and we spent virtually every weekend together between the ages of six and sixteen. As the years went by, we added my sister Ellie and odd friends (odd as in random, not odd, though some were certainly quirky – eh, Bob?). It was either Matt and me or Sarah and me, never siblings together, and we could spend a goodly while deciding what mischief to get up to. Back then, 2pm to 5pm was a significant portion of a life-time and seemed to last forever.

We were lucky in that both families had extensive gardens with an adjacent field, very differently shaped, but both sporting a tremendous variety of sheds, trees, nooks, crannies, and hidey-holes.

Sticks were reserved for public spaces. For our own gardens, and depending on the season, we opted for acorns and apples, knowing that one of those catching you on the leg would sting like hell or leave a splendid, thumping bruise. We’d skulk about gathering windfalls and stashing caches of ammunition under bushes and in old coal scuttles. And then we would unleash the pain, always bemused when a glancing blow to the head reduced one of us to tears and drew down the wrath of one or other set of parents.

On one memorable occasion we were joined by Horst, a rather severe and strong German who was the brother of a friend’s friend, who rather missed the point of these games with their stealth and dexterously-flung missiles. Instead, he appeared on the brow of a hill carrying a tree trunk and yelling who-knows-what in German at the top of his voice as he charged us down. Thank goodness for Matthew and his Herculean strength, who managed to flatten him in spectacular style.

Elastic bands – the thicker variety that are rarely seen today – were strung together in threes, fours and even fives to make lethal catapults for firing gravel from the drive or grit from a felt roof. We perfected weapons with ranges of a solid two or three hundred feet, if the trajectory was suitably angled and the bands powerful enough. A careful watch was kept for parents who might not appreciate the stones peppering the lawn and dulling the blades of the Mountfield mower.

Field cricket was a potentially lethal affair. Many lazy days were spent playing cricket in “the field” under sweltering Summer suns, on a full length wicket with a makeshift backing net of fruit bush netting or chicken wire. We played with leather and willow, no fear – and no pads and gloves (except when Brian, my friend and neighbour, invested in them, tired of his bruises and in receipt of more pocket money than the rest of us). But the pitch was uneven and I liked to bowl. Having reached six foot early and being an adept strike bowler, I spent hours learning where the ball bounced best for maximum impact and avoiding the ditch on the run-up. When dusk became twilight and the light impossible for finding balls in bushes or under blackthorn we would retire scratched, exhausted and happy, ready to resume the next day.

Then, finally, there was “That Game”, so infamous we still recall it today with a wistful, evil glint in the eye, which is still spoken of in hushed terms, and which we wonder if even at our age we could perhaps play one last time. Were there any rules? Probably. I recall a violent combination of British Bulldog, the tag variants of off-ground touch and run-outs, and wrestling. It was best played in the dark, outside, torches both a boon and curse. How no-one ended up cracking open a skull on the stone wood bunker which served as a base at Matt and Sarah’s place I have no idea.

So. Sod the Tudors. Langdon Hills in twentieth century Essex is where the dangerous games were at.

We’re just lucky we survived.

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There is something quite bleakly beautiful about the countryside that lies against the Essex coast. The vast skies over flat scrub and grassland, the silhouettes of trees against the horizon as the sun sets, and the cold reaches of the Thames, snaking its way past Southend, Mucking and Tilbury, can conjure feelings of a romantic loneliness. It was the perfect surrounding for a New Year Day’s walk, a chance to walk and think and take in the beauty of the countryside I am lucky to live so close to.

At Mucking, the Mucking Marshes Landfill provided one of the largest landfill sites in Western Europe. Until very recently, the barges floating down the Thames, carrying London’s municipal waste in bright yellow containers, were a familiar sight. At the end of 2010, with the expiration of its extension on its waste license, Mucking Tip stopped taking waste. Now, the site has been capped and the amazing Essex Wildlife Trust has established its largest and most ambitious project yet, Thurrock Thameside Nature Park, creating a safe haven for dozens of birds and other wildlife, both common and rare. With a visitor centre providing stunning views over the Thames estuary and a café with welcome refreshments, EWT have  created something really quite special on this stretch of the Essex coastline.

Some photos from today’s excursion below.

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There is something deliciously primal about a decent bonfire.

The best take time and effort to build. The hours spent cutting wood in different seasons, from field and copse, heaped up on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. The brambles cleared from the hedge. The scrub cleared from the meadow.

That wood has its own unremarkable stories.

The branch of an old, dying pear tree, broken under the weight of its own fruit. It had lain there on the lawn like some skeletal limb bedecked with pears. I dragged it through the arch and slung it high.

A leylandii, a gift from a cousin, planted as a tiny sapling in 1976. Over the years it grew to a tremendous height but it cast such a dark gloom on the garden that nothing could grow in its shadow. Matt, who cut it down, said that no-one was really sure how high they grew in the UK, as they were always brought down before they reached their potential. It was a difficult decision to fell it, but, as it crashed down, light flooded in to coax new blooms from hitherto dead earth. We cut it up where it lay, tugging it from the slopes where it grew to its funeral pyre.

The magnificent birch that stood in the meadow but was claimed by the  Great Storm of 1987. It crushed Mrs Croft’s old iron roller as it fell. In time new growth sprouted and, like the old apple tree by the “camp” that was also claimed by the winds that night, it began a new life, growing horizontally. To clear round it I cut back some of those new branches, hanging over hedge and ditch.

These were just my recent efforts.

Underneath lay the results of earlier culls by other hands on other days. Birch, holly, fir, oak, chestnut, ash, blackthorn, bramble and nettle all heaped up together, weathering quietly in rain and frost and snow and under Summer’s lazy sunshine. As we lived our lives, so the wood seasoned, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year.

I don’t know how many times we postponed the decision to light that bonfire over the last two or three years.

Three times? Four?

As time passes, people enter and leave our lives. Some get caught up with other things. Some simply drift away. Each decision not to burn changes the configuration of companions who might eventually come together for that final striking of the match.

Tonight we gathered in the gloaming, the table laden with beer and jacket potatoes and sausages and toffee apples and cakes. We were a motley mixture of three generations, all young at heart, each of us missing family and friends who might otherwise have joined us – some of us more reflective than others.

Paths and our feast were lit with hurricane lamps, the smell of burning paraffin a strange comfort that evoked memories of past happy times.  Rod had set his moth trap on the lawn. The three youngest had carved pumpkins – eerie, flickering imps that watched us silently through the evening.

There is something about that sort of gathering that I love – the camaraderie, the friendship, the food, the excitement of children adventuring safely in the dark. Then there is that moment of nervous quiet as the match is struck, all those looking on willing it to catch properly. And finally, the cheers as the paper is lit and the kindling fired. When a little person tugged at my arm and looked up at me with big wide eyes, her words took me straight back to my own childhood. “This is my first ever bonfire!” she exclaimed, nervous and eager all at once.

It was a spectacular bonfire.

It caught from a single strike, the hiss and spit of the kindling soon becoming a roar as flames leapt into the dark, showering the meadow with sparks, and raging through the heap before us. The food was delicious and the beer refreshing. We talked and laughed against the whine and crack of the blaze and small hands held glow tubes and sparklers, colours dancing away like magic into the night.

Everyone there had lost someone.

Everyone there was missing someone.

Everyone there was enjoying the comfort of family and friends.

Before we finished, Rod checked his moth-trap. He called us over excitedly. Inside was a rare moth that in all his years searching on the hills he had never found: Merveille du Jour. How apt to end the evening with the Marvel of the Day.

Enjoy the pictures.

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And the video.

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Each morning the C2C trains trundle into London, beginning their journey in Shoeburyness, the end of the line that lies in close proximity to the secrecy-shrouded MOD facilities of the tidal island of Foulness. One hour and ten minutes later they arrive in Fenchurch Street, the oft-forgotten commuter terminal for East Essex that hides between the contradiction of gleaming office blocks and ramshackle reminders of older, darker London such as the East India Arms.

These trains pass through the seaside excitements of Southend, on past the old-now-fashionable fishing town of Leigh and then through the connurbation of Pitsea, which, with the closure of the Motorboat Museum, has almost lost its struggle to retain a sense of its own maritime connections. From Pitsea the journey enters the sprawl of Basildon, the brash young upstart neighbour of both Pitsea and Laindon, both of which were the principal local urban centres prior to the Whitehall social laboratory experiment which was the New Towns Act 1946.

Between Laindon and the sleepiness of West Horndon lies my favourite part of my daily commute: the Bulphan Fen.

Yes, I love the bleak industrial landscape of the detours via the loop line, forced on weary travellers by endless engineering works: the vast and towering complexes of Dagenham; the faded, crumbling decay of Tilbury’s dockside menace; and the empty mystery of Purfleet and its invisible military history. Yes, I love, too, the changing landscape of East London, where clean, proud new build sits between the higgledy-piggledy tangle of scrap-yards, brick-arch businesses and the shells of now-forgotten commercial giants of Britain’s imperial past.

However, for me, nothing touches the vast, rural emptiness of the Bulphan Fen for its capacity to reassure, by reminding me I have truly left the loud metropolitan chaos of the city behind me. Perhaps it is because it is the stretch I have travelled for more years than any other, the daily schoolboy journey to Upminster a daily and extravagant adventure that took me far from the country comfort of Langdon Hills. Whatever the reason, nothing gives me the calm reassurance of the prospect of home as much as this small stretch of a rural England that is quickly vanishing.

In Summer, the setting sun casts long, warm shadows that stretch from field to field, heralding barbecue-weekends, the easy company of family sharing a glass or two under the reaches of the old vine and the wistful strains of Finzi or Vaughn-Williams teasing our souls with the melancholia of English poems and promises.

In Autumn, tendrils of mist snake between the trees and hang low in the fields. They lend the landscape an ethereal shroud worthy of Tolkein that disguises agricultural purpose and hides the pylon sentinels in their silent vigil over this corner of South Essex.

In Winter, icy frosts glitter on earth as hard as iron. These last two years such frosts foretold the blizzards which saw our landscape reborn white and pristine, the dangers of broken road and path buried by snows that harbour their own cruelties and hazards.

And in today’s Spring morning, green fields sparkled with dew under cloudless blue skies and commuters burred quietly with refreshing wonder about the sunshine, its bold appearance vanquishing the greyness of February’s dying season.

I love the Bulphan Fen – and its enduring promise of home.

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Michael Condron emailed today with details of his latest sculptures.

Interested readers, and particularly those in the Basildon Arts Collective, may recall that at the height of the furore surrounding The Woodsman I blogged on several occasions about Condron’s works of public art, bemoaning the treatment meted out to Progression.

I’ve extracted the photographs from his email and placed them in the gallery below.

Enjoy them, admire them and appreciate a quite extraordinary local talent. And then question why it is that Basildon’s Conservative administration have consistently demonstrated such hostility to public art, including Condron’s own Progression.

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I’ve not heard any news regarding progress on rehousing the collection of rare boats formerly stored at the Motorboat Museum in Wat Tyler Country Park. However, a friend has sent me three pictures of some of the magnificent boats once displayed there.

Closing down the museum was an act of cultural vandalism – something that Basildon’s Conservative Party seem prone to.

Enjoy the pictures – and if you have any more, please send them through.

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It is good to see that the local and regional media have been taking an interest in the Motorboat Museum, even if Basildon’s Conservative-controlled Council is no longer bothered what happens to the nation’s foremost collection of motorboats. Interestingly, the Council have confirmed to me that they made no effort to find a private sponsor and set aside no money to promote the museum (the budget for promoting it came out of the general countryside services promotion budget – so I guess it didn’t get very much).

Most of us would not have much time for the excuses made by a company that complained about falling sales having not advertised its products, so it strikes me as a little rich for the Council to complain that visitor numbers were falling when they did nothing to tell people the museum was there!

Before going on, I think I should make it clear that I see this as a matter of political will and prioritisation – and not something that is the responsibility of a countryside services budget already stretched to capacity. To that end I think it appalling that in the coverage I have seen, no administration councillor has seen fit to defend this decision publicly, instead choosing to hide behind officials and spokespersons.

It is probably all too late, at least in terms of saving the collection in Basildon, but this local and regional media coverage has been impressive.

Sophie Edwards had a good piece in the Echo which featured George Sawyer, the former world record holder who lives locally and who is a member of the Friends of the Motorboat Museum. He sums it up very well:

“He said: “If the collection is broken it will be a disaster.

“Basildon has really lost something. This museum was the only one of its kind in the world, which traced the history and evolution of motor boats.

“Hopefully the museum won’t be lost altogether, even though it will be sadly lost to Basildon.””

I was rather less measured, not least of all because I am fed up of tip-toeing around issues which are too easily dismissed as a minority issue or of limited significance:

““I don’t believe the council has invested any serious effort in maintaining the integrity of the collection.

“I have nothing against taking funding from Government for a new green education centre.

“However, if the council was bothered enough, it could have sought to preserve this nationally-significant collection.””

ITV’s London Tonight programme visited Basildon yesterday and spoke to George and Nina Sawyer at the museum. Whilst it is not on their main website, ITN sells clips of its footage and you can see it as a preview on their page.

And today, John Hayes featured the fate of the Motorboat Museum on BBC Essex’s prime-time “Drive Time” programme. The three minute feature on the Motorboat Museum is exactly 43 minutes into the programme.

Until the end of last year, school kids on their curriculum museum visits could see examples such as the Fairey Huntress, the boat that James Bond and Tatiana Romanova use to escape from SPECTRE at the end of From Russia With Love.

That is one of the most iconic chase sequences in any Bond film and I remember it fuelling many a childhood secret agent fantasy.

Now?

I am left wondering sadly how on earth Basildon Council can rationalise that the preservation of a nationally-significant collection like this simply doesn’t matter any more.

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