The games we played – childhood’s adventures

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.

A bracing New Year’s Day walk… Welcome 2013

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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Bonfire Night and Halloween come together in Langdon Hills

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.

Reflections on a Spring morning’s commute

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.

Essex talent – Michael Condron’s latest public art creations #arts #essex #woodsman

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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The Motorboat Museum – pictures from the past #toryfail

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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Motorboat Museum closure makes the news – will the Council listen? #basildon #toryfail

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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Lord Hanningfield: suspended from Conservative Party; resigns as Leader of Essex County Council; faces criminal charges #essex #conservatives #hanningfield

Paul White, known to most as Lord Hanningfield and leader of Essex County Council, is to face six criminal charges under Section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 (Section 17 is the part of the Act that relates to “false accounting”).

He, along with three Labour MPs (Elliot Morely MP, David Chaytor MP and Jim Devine MP), have been summonsed to appear at the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court at 2pm on 11 March 2010. The maximum sentence that could be applied under Section 17 is seven years’ imprisonment.

As these cases have been investigated by the police, the authority responsible for prosecuting is the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Interestingly, although defence lawyers for those charged have raised the issue of Parliamentary privilege, the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC is clear in his statement that “the applicability and extent of any Parliamentary privilege claimed should be tested in court”.

Parliamentary privilege is an ancient privilege granted to parliamentarians, however the extent of its protection is both widely misunderstood and fiercely contested. When the Speaker made a statement to the House of Commons on 3 December 2008, regarding the arrest of Damian Green MP and entry into his offices, he reminded Members of Parliament  that, according to Erskine May (Parliament’s authoritative companion guide to procedure), parliamentary privilege has never prevented the operation of the criminal law. He also restated the position of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in its 1999 report that “the precincts of the House are not and should not be ‘a haven from the law’”.

In respect of the specific charges against Paul White (Lord Hanningfield), Keir Starmer QC said:

“The charges allege that between March 2006 and May 2009, Paul White dishonestly submitted claims for expenses to which he knew he was not entitled, including numerous claims for overnight expenses for staying in London when records show that he was driven home and did not stay overnight in London.”

According to the BBC, Lord Hanningfield has resigned his front bench position as Conservative business spokesman and stood down as leader of Essex County Council. David Cameron also requested that Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the Conservative opposition in the Lords, suspend the Conservative whip with immediate effect.

Keir Starmer QC’s closed his statement with the following:

“Can I remind all concerned that the four individuals now stand charged of criminal offences and they each have the right to a fair trial. It is extremely important that nothing should be reported which could prejudice any of these trials.”

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“Progression”: ‘extraordinary attitudes’ that did for “The Woodsman”? #woodsman

Following my post on “Progression” and “The Woodsman” I made contact with the artist Michael Condron, the sculptor commissioned by Basildon Council to make “Progression”. I thought it courteous to draw his attention to the fact I was blogging about his work. His response – which he is happy for me to share – is an extraordinary and depressing indictment of the lack of courtesy and general ignorance of Basildon Council (and by extension its Conservative administration) in its dealings with artists and issues of public art:

“The attitude Basildon DC has shown towards it’s public art is pretty extraordinary, and fortunately not the kind of behaviour I’ve come across elsewhere.

The relocation of my Progression sculpture was not something I was consulted on.  Whilst I’m not entirely happy with the new situation, it is better than the artwork rotting in a storage yard somewhere.

You mentioned NYC’s percent for art programme in the blog, and I wonder if you’re aware that Essex County Council also has a percent for art policy.  Many commissions have been funded by developers through “section 106” planning requirements, including my recent Life Cycle installation at Hanningfield reservoir.

Generally speaking public art is vibrant in Essex!”

What is particularly depressing is that, whilst Basildon’s Conservatives neglect and rip out our public art, the record of Essex County Council, another Conservative administration, is a national leader when it comes to supporting public art. As Condron notes, Essex does indeed operate a percent policy for art. Art in the Open singles out Essex as its case study for best practice in “embedding public art within Council-led capital projects”. The page on commissioning guidance states:

“Essex County Council (ECC) has been commissioning art in the public realm as part of its Capital Development Programme and Essex Design Initiative for many years.  It was the first County Council to develop and adopt the principle of a public art policy in the late 1980s.  In 2002 it adopted a Percent for Art policy and, more recently, has developed a central budgeting process to create a new fund, the Public Art Common Fund, that draws money directly from ECC’s capital programmes budget, enabling the public arts team to plan longer term.  This has lead to the development of a three-year programme of more substantial commissions under the banner of ‘Genius Loci’ (‘Spirit of Place’).  These commissions are predominantly permanent but also include some temporary work to help highlight and pave the way for the permanent.”

What’s more, Essex demonstrates that it truly understands the purpose of public art:

“ECC seeks to commission art in the public realm to:

  • Improve the aesthetics of the built environment
  • Enhance a sense of community and place
  • Foster community pride and ownership
  • Celebrate artistic achievement
  • Reflect a ‘spirit of place’”

To demonstrate how serious Essex is about supporting public art, Art in the Open explains how the County Council organises the staff that support public art:

“ECC believes in an embedded and informed approach to commissioning art in the public realm.  It runs workshops and organises study trips to support internal development and understanding; the public art team sits within the built environment department, ensuring a close working relationship across planning and development teams; a Public Art Strategy Group, chaired by a cabinet member and including officers from across the council, helps keep an informed overview; occasionally, external organisations are brought in to provide additional commissioning support.”

And the big question in local government is always the money:

“Funding streams:

  • Percent for Art: up to 1 per cent of almost all capital builds across the council. This has been consolidated for 2007-2010 as the Public Art Common Fund where 0.74 per cent, £2.14 million, has been designate for Genius Loci. The continuation of the Common Fund beyond 2010 is subject to approval by the Council and is depended on a successful bid from the Public Art Team.
  • Money can also be brought in through section 106 (however, this mechanism is dependent on the policy of the local planning authority not the County Council).”

To be honest, it is a pretty extraordinary commitment from a local authority and I applaud Essex’s seriousness in making public art accessible and relevant – not shoved away in corners as museum pieces to be visited.

So why is it, with such a leading example so politically and geographically close to home, that Basildon’s Conservative Party acts like a Neanderthal collective when it comes to  public art? I can’t answer that. However, I can only think that the “pretty extraordinary” attitude identified by Condron was a principal contributing factor to the appalling ruin of “The Woodsman”.

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“Men of the Hills”: Reflections on a Winter’s morning walk and the frosted beauty of Langdon Hills

Ever since my childhood, there has been an association between walking around Langdon Hills and Saturdays.

Autumn walks particularly are fixed in the memory, the family – not just parents and siblings – slipping into boots and pulling on coats and setting out into Coombe Woods an hour or so before dusk  (Coombe Woods is known to many as “The Bluebell Woods” for its stunning spring carpet of bluebells as far as the eye can see). Five youngsters with over-active imaginations would pass through the gate into the tunnel of trees that lead from Dry Street deep into  a darkly magical woodland kingdom that could only harbour wraiths, twisted goblins and other spectres between the creeping shadows and tendrils of mist.

We would march determinedly past the ponds, past “The Woodpecker Tree”, to the edge of “The Valley”. There, catching our breath, we would gaze out towards the pines that that comprise “The Creepy Copse”, standing tall in silent sentry over the winding path – far below them and us – that leads to “The Ski Slope” (what was then a broad and open slope, lined on each side with pines and with a glorious ancient oak at its summit). “The Woodpecker Tree” has long since fallen, but for years it stood as an object of wonder, its bark-less, limb-less trunk giving it an almost prehistoric appearance. It got its name from the holes that punctuated its upper reaches. Whether or not woodpeckers ever dwelt there I’ve no idea.

If we were feeling brave we would run down the valley into the trees, follow the path through its twists and turns, past “The Sandy Hill” (site of numerous stick battles and rope-swing disasters and not to be confused with “The Sandy Hills” of Westley Heights) before clambering up to “The Ski Slope” where we would follow the upper path towards the old cricket ground at the top of Dry Street. En route we would gather chestnuts from the piles of leaves to roast on the fire before heading back down Dry Street. The smell of creosote on the handrail of the newly-created ranger path was a welcome return to the safety of civilisation. The wraiths and goblins slunk back into the darkness, watching our descent under the comforting yellow glow of the street lights from from their lairs amongst the shadowy twist of brambles.

Reaching home and back indoors, fingers clasped around mugs of tea would ache with that satisfying gnaw of heat on bone. The fire would be lit and stoked to a blaze before chestnuts were roasted in the embers and crumpets toasted on an ancient fork and then buttered and piled high on an old plate, itself precariously balanced on a low brass stand by the kindling. Cousins – who despite their gender were all “Men of the Hills” – would plan their next adventure before settling back, bellies full and imaginations fired, to play and draw and, when we could get away with it, watch The Dukes of Hazzard.

Times change, of course, and “The Men of the Hills” are reunited for their walks less often, though I like to think that we all retain similarly fond memories of those childhood woodland adventures.

Saturday walks for me are now more usually taken in the early morning.

Yesterday, having not enjoyed such an excursion for quite a while, I decided to get up at 6am (something of a feat as I had only gone to bed at 3am!) and head out into the hills. Porridge and tea delayed my start, but at about 6.40am I set out from Gernons, wellington boots on and staff in hand and Radio 4’s Farming Today on my headphones. I walked across Eastley green and used the cut-through (that really must become an all-weather path – it is used by so many), heading down the college entrance road to Nethermayne. As I walked past St Luke’s Hospice and Basildon Hospital, the clouds above the estuary were a spectacular and angry inky swirl against a dark steel blue sky that only lightened towards the horizon.

Despite the day and the hour, traffic was already heavy and it was a relief to turn into Dry Street, the reassuring forms of Dry Street Farm – where so much growing up was done – quickly coming into view. From Dry Street I headed up past Dry Street Memorial Church towards One Tree Hill.

The view from One Tree Hill across the Thames to Kent and then up the river to London is one of the most spectacular I know. We too often take these places for granted, but such open and sweeping vistas are rare and, when the air is clear and the sky light, the views are inhibited only by the quality of your eye-sight. From One Tree Hill I headed through Northlands Woods, before picking up the bridleway through to Hall Woods. Here, switching off the Today Programme to listen to the morning chorus, I could hear a woodpecker drilling and I felt a thrill to be outside in such beauty, the sun now throwing a low and soft golden light on the frosted fields that I could see through the trees.

Walking the unmade roads past the settlements and farm buildings, I headed into Coombe Woods, past “The Ski Slope” and “The Creepy Copse” and stopping at the head of the valley – “The Valley” – to admire a beautiful sunrise on a now cloudless January Saturday morning. Finally, I headed down to Dry Street and the familiar outline of “Hillcroft”, detouring briefly around Northlands Approach and Coombe Drive so that I could enjoy the garden on my way to Mum and Dad’s back door.

As I opened the door I realised I had seen no-one at all until Coombe Woods, where I met a ranger making his way past the ponds, picking litter.

I am going to make the effort to walk this more often through the year, enjoying the very different ways it feels, looks, sounds and smells as season slips to season.

Even at 37 I realise that there are still adventures to be had for the “Men of the Hills” in their old hunting grounds – have your own and see what an incredible place we live in.

Below are the pictures I took as I walked.

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