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A couple of weekends ago I decided to get up early on a Saturday morning and, with Farming Today on my headphones, take a walk around the Langdon Hills Ridge.

Occasional readers of Fragments and Reflections will have seen similar pictures before. However, no matter how many times I make this particular walk, and no matter how many times I photograph the hills, fields and footpaths, it looks different every time.

Some of these reveal just how beautiful the landscape is in our neck of the woods – and how vital initiatives such as Langdon Hills Living Landscapes and the campaign to protect Dry Street are.

I finished my walk at “Hillcroft”. My parents’ garden is as fine an example of an English country garden as you can find. And I am not sure you can get much more English – and welcome – a breakfast than toast and Marmite. There is a real sense of satisfaction in walking such a distance before 9am. I heartily recommend it.

I hope you enjoy these photographs as much as I enjoyed taking them.

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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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Life has its way of providing food for thought – sometimes more than it is reasonable to expect a person to digest. And much as a good walk can provide suitable repair after a heavy dinner, so a walk is often the best way to get one’s head around the various challenges that life throws up. Between national and local politics, happenings to friends, and other personal events, a long walk was long overdue.

I have a favoured route.

I walk along Nethermayne and past the hospital, turning into Dry Street. I head past the farm where I spent so much of my childhood, past my church and on to One Tree Hill Country Park. From there I walk through Northlands Woods, around Sutton Woods and in to Coombe Woods. Finally, I arrive back on to Dry Street, before ending up at Hillcroft for coffee.

On the way you can’t help but be moved by the beauty and serenity of the countryside. I think I have reflected previously that you could never imagine that you are just twenty-five miles from London. The sounds of traffic on the A13 is blocked out by trees and hills and fields. The sun was glorious this morning, and the sky blue. The rape fields were bright with their yellow crop. The bluebells are at their height, though they seem fewer in number than in previous years. A lack of sun, perhaps, or sustenance for the elusive muntjac deer that live in the woods?

Between Northlands and Sutton lie ancient administrative boundaries with interesting purposes and delineations. Thankfully, there are still a few people about the hills who know the stories of the past. Local social histories are fragile things and there seems less and less time for them in this increasingly busy and technologically-demanding world. With so much emphasis on the future, we often forget that there is a rich seam of learning to be had in investigating the history of the places about us.

Anyway, I thought I would share this morning’s walk in pictures.

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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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“All in the April evening,

April airs were abroad.”

On our way to dinner this evening, Emma and I decided to walk the hundred yards or so of unmade back lanes, arriving at Mum and Dad’s through the field beside Hillcroft.

April harbours beautiful light, a cacophony of Spring birdsong and distinct scents that each evoke fragments of memories like few other things can. The western verge of Northlands Approach had been cleared for the first time in years and the smell of damp earth bursting with fresh green life was heady. The sun had already slipped behind Coombe Woods, the clouds buffed in pink grey above the silhouette of trees. As we turned into Coombe Drive we could hear the birds in full voice before sundown, thrushes, blackbirds, robins, tits, finches and sparrows vying for air time, invisible yet at the same time more real and present in tunes than ever a band is on an MP3 player.

Walking up the field, it was great to feel the soft, damp grass under our feet, lush and spongy. Picking our way slowly to the top of the rise, by the woodshed, I stopped to take a picture.

Another perfect Sunday.

Sunset at Hillcroft

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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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