In yet another unique scoop for Walking the Essex Coast, we are proud to present, free, a series of artist-designed covers for books that haven’t yet been written, reviewed by periodicals that don’t even exist! We invite you, the readers, to fill in the gaps between the covers and see if you can match the reviewers hyperbole!!! See end of blog to meet this exciting challenge!
8th May 2012
St Peter-on-the-wall, Bradwell – Burnham on Crouch
If you had a fanciful turn of mind, and also had absolutely no geography, you could imagine the seawall stretching the circumference of the earth and coming back to meet your behind. The distant pylons of Foulness might remind you that this was not the case, and, if on the day that you were walking the seawall, the private company that the army sub-contract to experiment with munitions on that island were blowing up experimental munitions, as they do regularly, your illusions might be blown away by the shock reverberations that can be felt from Clacton to Ramsgate.
The land is flat, and the path, on top of the sea wall, is straight. There’s a kink in the wall, and the path is straight again, and the land is flat. For several kilometers, the path is straight, and then, the land is flat, again. The skyline to our right is a broad expanse of dark green, curving away to the south for several kilometers, eventually horizoned by a strip of bright yellow, lying beneath a curtain of undifferentiated grey. The green is large fields of young corn, wheat or barley; the yellow is distant oilseed rape; the grey is the sea and the sky, from this distance, the difference cannot be discerned. If you are moved by craggy mountain peaks, glacial valleys and rushing waterfalls; if the sight and sound of pounding breakers crashing against granite cliffs thrills you; if you yearn for the exotic, the colourful, even the dangerous, it’s probably best that you don’t come to Dengie. “There is nothing else here,” wrote J.A. Baker in The Peregrine “It is just a curve of the earth…”.
There is something about this landscape, the way in which it bestows an awareness of being a small person on the curved surface of a small planet, that appeals to those who tend to link human mortality to a concept of the immortal; from St Cedd on, Bradwell has attracted those of a religious persuasion. Since the second world war there has been an active non-denominational faith community working from the site of St Peter’s chapel, founded by an ex- RAF chaplain; the chapel, a sign announces, monologically, that, “In this place, the word will be revealed to you”.
It was this isolated chapel which Norman Motley discovered soon after the end of the war. He was fired by the vision of a new type of community centre one which people could use for a week or more at a time, to meet together for personal discovery and renewal. He had sought a place rich in Christian history, but free of the quarrels, trivialities and divisions which hinder so much of the life of the church. As he said at the time, “the moment I entered St. Peter’s I knew we were home.”
So Norman and his companions took the name ‘Othona’ and established their community close to the chapel. Since then thousands of people have experienced that same sense of homecoming, and the Community still uses the chapel on a daily basis to share worship and spiritual experience.
It isn’t just the religious who are transfixed by this landscape; Authors and travel journalists too, wax eloquent; “End of the world landscape” (apparently H.G. Wells was inspired to write War of the Worlds here); “Miles of salt marsh and milky sky”. Alfred Hitchcock, I read, filmed part of The Birds here, which is strange; I always recollect that as being set in small-town America (Northern California. Ed.). The outer Dengie peninsular is, however, as man – made as Rice Krispies; reclaimed farmland lying behind sea wall, below the level of the outlying salt marsh and of the sea itself. At some time, possibly the 16th century, a political decision must have been taken, by some authority, to build the wall on the salt marsh, enclosing the land behind it in order to make it cultivable, probably destroying the livelihoods of eel-catchers and fishermen in the process. To our left, the salt marsh extends, in places, perhaps 2 kilometers out from the wall, and then, approaching the Crouch estuary, the wall is reinforced with concrete; proper sea wall, with the water, today lapping gently, but directly against it. Elsewhere, there are much sparser widths of salt marsh, as the water levels rise, and there is no room for expansion against the earthwork of the wall, the outer reaches dissolve into mud. The land to our right thickens slightly, making a slight rise, and somewhere behind that horizon are the villages of Southminster and Dengie.
There is, despite Baker’s assertion, something else here, and that is the sky. Loads of it. The sky is nature’s Prozac; I was talking to a Londoner the other day who told me that he always looked to the sky a couple of times a day for a bit of uplift and so, given that Ebb Tide, Master F. and myself have been exposed to so much sky over the past few weeks, we are probably the happiest people you could wish to meet.
As well as the sky, there are surrealist juxtapositions; a series of symmetrical frames planted in the salt marsh, a loud generator, a cluster of containers, and something that Ebb Tide identifies as a microwave transmitter. We assume it is a radar mast, and I wonder if it was a relic of the cold war, built to detect the imminent approach of the soviet hordes, which no-one has quite dared to take down. This is my ‘bulwark coast’ formulation; however, as Ebb Tide points out, it could equally well be a device for tracking commercial shipping or civil aviation.
The surrealism and the sky, as well as the sight of two avocet, keep us going on the long straight stretches, and Master F. is hatching plans for book covers to describe our journey (no books yet, just the covers; see below). Having turned right, along the Crouch estuary, heading towards Burnham, we come across – Pillboxes. Loads of them, about six within the space of three-quarters of a mile. We are concerned that Master F’s sky-induced happiness might tip over into something transcendentally ecstatic, and, indeed it does when, a mile ahead, we spot a type 28. One of only two remaining (the other is in Oban, Scotland), this is a multi-storied magnificence with all sorts of different-sized holes to fire guns out of, heat rails in the kitchen, and climbing ivy on the walls. Ebb Tide and myself walk ahead in order to leave Master F. in solitary contemplation. Master F. has indicated that I am not giving an appropriately all-round perspective to the subject of pill boxes, and if anyone would like a more concrete discussion, they are welcome to contact him at; www.resolutionphotodesignaudio.com
As we come into Burnham, there is yet another pill box, this time with seats fixed on top of it, and we sit down and wait for Master F. to catch up and give us his opinion. By this time, he has hit the barrier; his feet are blistered, and his enthusiasm is dulled. We head back to the car. No time for a debrief at a suitable pub (of which we pass several), as Ebb Tide has to go toLondonfor a book launch. The sub-title of the book is “The paradox of progress”. A good theme for “Walking the Essex Coast”.
Late news, May 2016: The Essex Coast is excited to discover a new website devoted to the life and work of John Alec Baker, author of The Peregrine. Try it here.
Essex Coast Bookstore