For me not so much No Song No Supper more No ride No supper. This is yours truly at the start of the EA Hairy Biker ride (A fundraising cycle ride through 30 years of Eastern Angles venues and stories). Before you do anything please pop over to my fundraising page here and give it a quick face book like and if you feel like it donate something – however small!
Now before setting off I had promised various friends and colleagues three things – one that I wouldn’t fall off, 2 that I wouldn’t break or loose anything and 3 that I wouldn’t do anything stupid. Even by the end of day 1 I’d broken 2 of those promises and I guess as a result the third one too! I also discovered at least four of the golden rules of long distance cycling. …But more of all that later.
Back to the glamorous surroundings of Debdon London Underground station ..which happens to be the closest point on the central line to High Beach, right in the heart of Epping Forest.
But before I got there I’d already discovered two of the golden rules:-
Rule 1 – that when you go wrong you invariably end up at the bottom of the hill – and re tracing your steps always involve a long, annoying climb (this happened three times today!!!)
Rule 2 – things never go to plan
The solution was something akin to that childrens song ‘We’re going on a bear hunt‘ with me clambering round and over security fencing and scurrying through forest undergrowth. The result was not very dignified.
But it was worth it. This is Holy Innocents, High Beach church
and beyond High Beach this is the glade where I stopped for a while. Behind me was Fairmead Camp Site and a little along from that the Suntrap Field Centre. The Centre is on the site of Fairmead House ‘a private establishment for Insane persons belonging to Dr Matthew Allen’. It was here of course that the peasant poet John Clare ( the inspiration behind Eastern Angles The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare (2012/3)) came in 1837. Even today it is a surprisingly beautiful and tranquil spot – and must have been even more so then. No wonder Clare wrote:-
I wonder here hid in a palace of green
I’m not the first person to try and recreate the Clare Journey (he escaped from the asylum in 1841 and walked back to his home in Helpston)
but not all have been complementary about the switch of use from asylum to field centre. Here is mytho geoographer and writer Ian Sinclair who wrote in 2004:-
Nature studies (woodcraft for recidivists [I had to look that word up!] and malefactors) have replaced the trade in lunatics (returned to their communities). Clare’s fascination with creepy-crawlies, fungi, ferns is now proposed as therapy for a sick city.
My guide for today is though more sanguine. LSH Young grew up in and around High Beach and his essay guide to the area is fascinating. He has me seaching for the letter L of High Beach landmarks of Clare.
the ‘Owl’ (the pub) stands at the top of the down stroke, Leppits Hill Lodge at the bottom of the down stroke with across the road Springfield. Fairmead House is two thirds along the horizontal stroke and Fairmead Cottage (buildings of the asylum) at the end.
Not surprisingly I end up at The Owl (not the original pub, although it still retains the name) which affords a view over the lands where Matthew Allen’s asylum once stood (not I’m afraid a particularly good photograph).
My guide, the afore mentioned L.S.H Young, is certain it was here that Clare wrote sections of ‘A Walk in the Forest’
I love the forest and its airy bounds,
Where friendly Campbell takes his daily rounds,
I love the breakneck hills that headlong go,
And leave me high, and half the world below.
It’s here I must leave Clare – the next time I encounter him will be when I arrive in Peterborough (my route is a very different one to his – only its start and end points bear any resemblance). But not before I’ve risen a glass ( a half pint of course) to the man who just recently has come very much part of Eastern Angles life.
But it’s also here that I start to break my promises. Whilst supping my Screaming Reels Best Bitter (4.2 ABV) – a golden, refreshing clear ale made out of traditional English hops, very drinkable – I realised I was missing my sun glasses. Couldn’t find them any where so off I pop back down the hill to Springfield to have a look around. Think I spot them over the road so leap off my bike and discover I’ve mistaken a twig for a pair of sun glasses. As two cyclists dawdle by I give it up as a bad job and leap back onto the bike.
Only I don’t. In glorious slow motion I miss my footing on the pedal and the bike goes one way, with me going the other. So thats two of the promises broken – I’ve lost my glasses and fallen off (I also discover later that though I’m fine my fall has damaged my audio recorder..so thats both a loss and a break…prize idiot!!)
Desperate to leave the scene of my embarrassment I break golden rule 3 of the long distance cycle ride:-
Rule 3 – never assume you know where you are going (especially if blesssed with Matt Linley’s sense of direction)
Convinced I know what I’m doing – and eager to get away I head off. I think I’m heading in the general direction of Epping – but twenty minutes later I discover I’m actually heading in the opposite direction – towards Waltham Abbey. Net result I find myself on a busy A road with the M25 to my left hand side. Not what John betjeman had led me to expect…
Essex is a large square with two sides water. It is a stronger contrast of beauty and ugliness than any other Southern English county…Most of inland Essex, east and north of Epping Forest, is undulating and extremely pretty in the pale gentle way suited to watercolours. Narrow lanes wind like streams through willowy meadows past weather boarded mills and unfenced bean and corn fields
Needless to say I was somewhat relieved to arrive in Epping where my push onto Chelmsford began.
and once I joined for the first time Sustrans National Cycle Network route 1 I did at last experience what Betjeman was talking about. You can just make out the house name here – Muggin – for some reason it rather tickled my fancy!
almost every half a mile or so there were scenes like this (its Fyfield by the way):-
and was very tempted by this place – but I needed to push on!
to eventually arrive in Chelmsford (via one of the best cycling routes in and through a city I have ever rode). The route takes you right into the heart of Central Park and through the very impressive 18 arch railway viaduct – one of three viaducts which were required to bring the railway into the city.
As I arrived a flock of ‘big sing’ participants were flooding out the venue all concerned about where they were to eat as they only had a 60 minute break.
so I pushed on in the general direction of Maldon. Still on route 1 you were never far away from the hum of the A12, the whir of the railway and glimpses of industry. Even so it still provided plenty of moments of beauty (and relics of a once critical transport system!).
As I cycled away from Chelmsford I was very aware of being on the fringes of the part of Essex which in the 1850’s (so not long after Clare left High Beach) was swept by the religious phenomenon -the Peculiar People (follow this link to listen to the bible verse from which their name was taken).
The Peculiar People – founded by one time drunk James Banyard – preached a puritanical form of evangalism – and continue in the 19 chapels that remain today in Essex under a new name. I hope to visit two of the chapels tomorrow.
In 1991 Eastern Angles toured A Peculiar People (still one of Penny our stage manager’s favourite shows). Like The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare there were parallel stories – set in 1890 and 1990 respectively.
James Baynard would have been proud of me – I was tempted by this place but I didn’t give in.
Mind a little earlier I had succumbed to the temptation of watching a cricket game. In Little Beddow the game was reaching its denouement. For some reason, even though clearly the fielding side were going to come out top (though not bowl the opposition out), all thefielders heads were down! Curious. I left with the batting side requiring 50 odd in 4 overs with 5 wickets left. I did stay long enough to eat my sandwiches and was then surprised when I felt much better afterwards.
Rule 4 – you have sandwiches in your bag for a reason. eat them – you will feel better!
And so onto Maldon but not before travelling down this intriguingly named lane!
Maldon itself (one of our regular venues) is not without its curiosities -its gloriously old fashioned police station for starters
……and rather over dramatic church.
but by now time was pressing so I had to push on. Witham was my next and final stop. Witham is a newer venue for us at EA but its proved remarkably popular. As I passed the Public Hall the doors were flung open for that evenings performance of Mindgame. But Greater Anglia trains wait for no man so I had to pass on the opportunity and head straight for the station!
On Day 2 (Sunday) I head from Witham to Brightlingsea and am looking forward to chatting to one of our playwrights, a very regular audience member and someone who will tell me a little more about a Witches tit. If you’ve enjoyed this blog please do check back for regular updates on the ride – and consider supporting me on my travels. My fundraising page is here
PS I leave this one in just for my colleagues back at Eastern Angles – and before you ask – yes the Goddard Way – was the right way to go!