So to day 2 and I’m back at Witham to continue my journey though Essex. I started with a rather fruitless attempt to find the Witham UEC (successor to the Peculiar People) chapel -quite how I missed it I’m not sure. But my schedule was shouting from the depths of my panier bag so I executed a neat pirouette and headed out to Braintree via NCN route 16.
I couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant morning. An off road cycle path alongside a beck at Witham takes you into a housing estate and then onto a narrow track. Five minutes later you are on the smallest, quietest country lanes you could possibly imagine – lanes where cyclists out number road traffic 3:1. You pass fields of gold;
idyllic thatched cottages (this one was up for sale in Ranks Green yours for 450k):
and through rich green forests:
At one point on the ride a large bee settled on my track suit top and contentedly sat there for the next five or so minutes as I pedaled on. Not quite John Clare lying in the cowslips but I couldn’t help feel part of the landscape as I trundled through at a pace more akin to a canal boat than a train.
Needless to say any urban conurbation was going to struggle to live up to that prelude – and so I headed into Braintree. Not surprisingly I got lost on the way in (in one of those housing estates that agents call ‘ a sought after location) – and therefore passed the same speed walker three times. Morning was my first cheery call, followed by ‘oh hello again’. The third time I just felt her glare on my back as I passed in what I hoped was dignified silence.
As I arrived in Braintree (my 4th venue on the ride) it initially appeared that the only thing open was the Fake Tan store. In need of a cup of tea I reckoned I wasn’t going to be in much luck there. The surly tanner, fag in hand, rather re enforced that view so on I went to be greeted by this fine fellow (apparently its a memorial to King George V). Not all Braintree’s statues are still there – to mis quote another royal – one bird has flown.
My first impressions were a little unfair. Once I found the town square several shops were open and everywhere I looked the steely eyes of Mary Portas gazed down upon me. To escape I fancied a quick look around the Museum but that was closed so I was left wandering around the statue of John Ray in its courtyard. Later I would come across this ditty collected by Ray in his English proverbs (1670)
Braintree for the pure,
Bocking for the poor;
Coggeshall for the jeering town,
And Kelvedon for the whore.
Time to move on. After NCN route 16 the A120 was something of a shock. Did rather feel as if I had exited Braintree pursued by a bear. One that roared, splashed and got awfully close. It was with some relief I turned off some 5 miles later for the gradual descent into reputedly one of the most beautiful villages in Essex – it even has its own vineyard, as well as two national trust properties and almost 300 listed buildings.
Coggeshall was of course the setting for Eastern Angles 2007 show Peapickers and I caught up with its playwright Nicola Werenowska mid ride. Nicola explained how the spark for Peapickers had been a talk Ivan had given – about place and personal geography and using that as a starting point for writing and telling stories. That led to Nicola exploring the stories of her own parents and ultimately to the tales her grandmother told her about growing up in Coggeshall. Nicola told me about one particular story which became the basis for the play:-
One of the stories she used to tell me was about Peapicking in the 1950’s. Then Essex was a very white, very rural community but there was one little black child in the fields with the pickers. It just kind of struck me this image of a little mixed race child in rural Coggeshall in the 50’s and that became the foundation of the play.’
Nicola’s latest work (Hidden) can be seen in workshop form at Colchester Mercury later this month (20th July). Nicola finished by saying why she thought the work of Eastern Angles was so important:-
Really important because of the companies interest in local geography and history. And the fact you visit so many different places bringing theatre to people who wouldn’t be able to access theatre otherwise’
You can listen to the full chat here – but forgive me the sound quality is poor as I forgot to use the wind shield on my phone – and as you will hear – we recorded outside!
A quick climb took me to the 13thC Grange Barn (my 5th EA venue on the ride) but with a get out from the previous nights event taking place I couldn’t get in for a nose around so on I went.
My route now took me South East through Kelverdon (where I got so drenched it wasn’t possible to confirm or otherwise the validity of John Ray’s ditty) and onto Tiptree.
From there I rejoined NCN route 1, taking a detour to Layer Marney Tower, England’s tallest Tudor gatehouse. It comes complete with an over friendly cat (Marmaduke) and even its own nutty professor who Pied Piper style leads his exuberant young followers on a historic quest. But the real star of the show is the tower itself. 80 odd steps mid cycle ride is not really what the doctor ordered but it would have been rude not to. Reach the top and the views are yet another reminder that there is far more to Essex than TOWIE.
I’d have liked to spend more time really exploring but as far as I know Layer Marney has no Eastern Angles connection and my schedule was once again screaming from the paniers. Now route 1 heads into Colchester
Incredibly the bulk of the way is off road through tracks like these, taking you past Roman archaeological sites and right into the heart of the town.
First stop the castle, currently closed for renovation. From an EA point of view the castle is of interest for two reasons. Firstly its built on the site of The Roman Temple of Claudius – the same temple which was sacked by Boudica. Boudica’s story was of course a starting point for our 2002 show Boudica’s Babes (though I’m cheating here slightly as much of our tale with its focus on Boudica’s daughters was set in Mid Norfolk!)
Later (in the 1640’s) the Castle would play a key role in Matthew Hopkins (the self named Witchfinder General) witch hunt. The Castle housed many of the women as they waited trial in Chelmsford or elsewhere. The conditions were so poor many of them failed to survive the experience.
Over the road at First Site Sophie von Hellermann Cold as a Witches Tit is a grim and weirdly moving memorial to the 300 women who lost their lives to Hopkins zeal.
As we are currently exploring a possible new project about the East Anglian witches I thought I’d find out some more about the work from Bethan of the First Site team:-
[First Site are mid way through a witch themed programme of films and talks. 4th July at 7pm is a talk on the witch hunts themselves, 11th July a screening of The Passion of Joan Arc (Dryer 1928) and on 15th August Haxen – Witchcraft through the ages (Christensen 1922). Details at http://www.firstsite.uk.net]
Whilst there I took time to chat to one of our regular audience members, Bruce, who talked about seeing Eastern Angles work not only in Wivenhoe but also across the region.
They’re always fantastically acted, well written, clear and done with real integrity and passion. You’ve just got to get involved. I think that’s a really special experience.
Then it was ontowards Brighlingsea for the final venue stop of the day, following the Colne estuary
and onto the old track bed of the Wivenhoe – Brightlingsea Railway
which I mention because venue 7 – Brightlingsea Community Centre – is built on the former site of the Brightlingsea train station.
With no railway now there is no other way back to Wivenhoe than to retrace my steps. Which is the point the skies opened and so I got my thrid drenching of the day!
So by the end of day 2 I’ve visited 7 venues, the sites of 5 plays (including a ‘potential’ play) and covered just short of 100 miles. Only 300 miles to go. On day 3 I’m heading into the heart of Private Resistance country. Please do visit my fundraising page and donate if you can! and come back to the blog for day 3.