ESSEX in the SNOW
2013 January 20 - Sunday
It is January the 20th, 2013. Snow has covered the whole of Britannia. It’s just below zero and nothing and nobody seems to be moving. What an excellent day for a 6 to 7 mile walk to the Hanningfield Reservoir. The walk itself is an invigorating winter experience: the snow pounding on one's face; the fresh air circulating through one's lungs. The “Great Outdoors” can really work wonders for one's health!
Apart from the essential physical exercise, this walk introduces you to the rich tapestry of landscapes and history that provide one of the little known gems of the Essex countryside between Wickford and the southern fringes of the Hanningfield Reservoir. The route takes you past the Grange and Downham Church and on through Downham village and Crowsheath Wood, before you get to what I think is the largest man-made lake in Essex, with its pretty nature reserve and bird sanctuary, namely Hanningfield Reservoir. With a fresh fall of snow, the landscape takes on a special magic of its own - a delight for walkers and photographers alike.
The walk starts on the bridle path leading to the Grange. Bridle paths take their name from equine connections and today can legally support walkers, horse riders and vehicle drivers - but being un-metalled, are not every car driver's cup of tea. The bridle path I am taking was probably an old drovers' road. In the Middle Ages, and earlier, main travelling routes across the country often took the high ground, so as to offer some protection to the traveller against rogues, vagabonds, thieves and highway men who might lie in wait and pounce unexpectedly.
In that respect, we probably live in safer times. So I reach unscathed the entrance to the Grange. The Grange has a chequered history. It is a rambling Edwardian pile, built for the Keddie family, who grew wealthy on the income from their store - suitably named Keddies - in Southend. It passed in sucession to a number of owners including a snow board manufacturer with connections with southern Italy. One knew when he had guests from that part of the world when the surrounding area would be decked out with notices proclaiming "Parcheggio" to help the guests from the deep south. The present owners appear to own a company of highway and motorway contractors doing work for local authorities.
From outside the entrance to the Grange, one gets the first glimpse - through the snowy mists - of Downham Church, whose history is anchored in Tudor times. To the left of, and down the hill from, the church is Downham Hall, bearly visible from here today in the snowy mist. The significance of church and hall - clergyman and squire - was very great in days of old, for together these two individuals would hold sway in the local community, keeping all and sundry in their social station. The First World War would cement a passing of this centuries old rural order.
From the Grange, I pass Downham Rectory, and the site of the former picturesque traditional signpost, to reach Downham Church itself. This time-honoured place of worship perches on a prominent spur jutting out into the landscape which rolls away to the Thames. On a clear day - but not today - it is possible to see from the churchyard the hills of Kent trying to hide beyond the distant oil refineries.
Dodging the tobagganers enjoying their winter thrills on the sloping field near the church, I do a "down and up" across some fields and reach Downham village itself. The village, like so many other villages in Essex, is some way away from the village church. Before the age of the car, Sunday worshippers often had to show their devotion by walking to church.
The affluent village of Downham was originally in the domain of the De Beauvoir family, whose French name is one of many in the South-East and probably harks back to Norman times. The village sign near the pond proudly displays the De Beauvoir Arms, but the nearby and erstwhile pub of that name has now become a restaurant specialising in Asian dishes.
One must look carefully to find the footpath leading to Crowsheath Wood, which has been dedicated to the public by a generous land owner. The winter snow paints majestic silvery-white wonders in Crowsheath Wood - a veritable photographer's paradise.
Eventually I reach Hanningfield Reservoir, formed in the early 50s from a natural valley in the landscape. It was built with the aim of providing a reliable water supply to at least 1.5 million inhabitants in South-East Essex. It does this by taking water from the rivers Chelmer and Blackwater. The price for this was the destruction of several farms, a hamlet and a Jacobean manor house. The preservation of history was not seen as that important in the immediate post war era. However, as a sweetener to the locals, a nature reserve, a Visitor Centre, a Fishing Lodge and, of course, actual facilities for fishing, were all incorporated into the scheme.
After a very wet 2012, the reservoir is full. The wind whips up waves in the water. The ducks and sea birds at first look a bit dejected, bobbing up and down on the stormy water. All changes, however, when a beneficent couple come along with lots and lots of bird feed. What an avian commotion! What an excellent photographic opportunity!
The return walk follows a more direct route, but still takes in Crowsheath Wood and the Grange. The hill in North Wickford is another favourite with tobogganers and sledgers, and their joyous cries and shouts echo in my ears on the final homeward stretch.
This was an invigorating way to spend a Winter's Day. Far nicer - if your physical health allows - than sitting in front of the "goggle-box" and watching other people exercise themselves! After all, it was only six or seven miles today and in addition to the exercise, photographic opportunities availed themselves galore. It was definitely a nice way of striving for mens sana in sano corpore! I can certainly recommend it!