Text and photos contributed by Patrick Meehan.
It wasn’t quite Walden Pond. However, the peace and tranquillity in evidence as we ambled along the banks of the River Blackwater beneath the warming, late-Sunday morning sun, would have eased the wrinkles on many a furrowed brow.
As we strolled along a wide pathway carpeted with dense, newly-cut grass, the black and silent river – swathed in an emerald-green jewel case of languorous, overhanging willows and dense flower and reedbeds – wound its leisurely way southwards towards the Blackwater Estuary.
Barely 30 minutes prior, we had met with walk-leader Glen in the tiny Public Gardens at the car-park off Stoneham Street, Coggeshall, (north Essex), where his pre-walk briefing revealed the town was known for its almost 300 listed buildings and its haunted past. The joy-bells of old friendships being renewed rang clearly through our many conversations as we set off, with some in our company not having seen one another since the first lockdown of March 2020.
The first listed building we encountered was Paycocke’s House – built c. 1500 and said to be one of the most attractive timber-framed houses in England, famed for its elaborate wood panelling and carvings. https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/essex/properties/paycockes.htm
Shortly afterwards we came upon Grange Barn, one of the oldest surviving timber-framed buildings in Europe. Dating back to the 12th century, it was built with English oak and once formed part of the Cistercian complex of Coggeshall Abbey. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/grange-barn
Further along, we crossed a small bridge near Abbey Mill, where the Blackwater now raised its voice to a busy burble. And in a clearing near Little Coggeshall Abbey, a group of swifts swooped in drunken pirouettes above the treetops, scrawling crazy signatures across the cloud-drenched sky.
Walking in comfortable temperatures of 18-19° C, the sun was a constant, even though there always seemed to be a storm of clouds lurking on the horizon.
Following a different branch of the Blackwater back to our start point at the Public Gardens, we had a leisurely lunch break before departing in a northward direction for the second stage of our adventure.
This new route took us along the course of Robin’s Brook, a stream named for a 16th-century woodcutter who, according to local legend, carved a wondrous statue of an angel for Coggeshall monastery. Very much in keeping with local folk tales, Robin’s ghost is still said to wander the demesne of the brook. The latter seemed very much alive today, especially when the sun flashed on the blue-jade wings of the ever-restless dragonflies, or caught the orange-black wings of the Red Admiral butterflies feeding on the blackberry bushes, whose roots drank from its waters. It quite put one in mind of Tennyson’s The Brook:
I murmur under moon and stars
In brambly wildernesses;
I linger by my shingly bars;
I loiter round my cresses;
And out again I curve and flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.
By mid-afternoon, we had reached the Markshall Estate where we had a drink stop on the little bridge over the brook, adjacent to the Visitor Centre. Glen highly recommended a trip to the estate, particularly to the arboretum, which is filled with trees and plants from around the world. https://www.markshall.org.uk/things-to-see-and-do/arboretum/
As this marked the apogee of our northward rambles, Glen led us west then south through open fields and mixed woodlands to pick up the brook that would lead us back to Coggeshall. This was also where the heavens – having huffed and puffed for most of the afternoon – finally cut loose … with a light drizzle lasting about half an hour. At this divine baptism however, the thrill of getting their rain gear on proved simply irresistible for some of our contingent.
Our homeward march took us down hard-packed earthen pathways through fields of ripening wheat, where the smell of the newly drenched earth mingled with the musty odour of the crop, and rose like an incantation, pulled with the mysteries of life and soil into the warm embrace of the sun. Occasionally, we saw clumps of purple-headed thistles standing guard like sentinels around the margins of the crop.
At one point our progress was halted temporarily when, attempting to use the right of way across a paddock, we found our route blocked by a very inquisitive little Shetland pony. Thankfully, our specialist Shetland mediator, Sarah, was on hand to negotiate our safe passage. Reciprocating, Christina removed a clump of ragwort – a weed poisonous to cattle and horses – that was growing on the margins of the enclosure.
A visit to the local Woolpack Inn on Church Street rounded off our splendid 11-mile adventure in north Essex, with glasses raised to old (and new) acquaintances, and with special thanks reserved for Glen, for all his pre-event preparation and subsequent guidance on the day.