Friday, 30 July 2010

A walk in the Woods with Billericay Dickie

Tiptoe through the bluebells and get one-fingered salutes in Billericay's Norsey Wood…

“Had a love affair with Nina in the back of my Cortina, a seasoned up hyena could not have been more obscener…”

Maybe I shouldn’t have played my daughters Billericay Dickie so many times. It’s now their favourite song and as we drive into Billericay from Shenfield, they burst into an Ian Dury-esque chorus. Luckily they’ve not heard Plaistow Patricia yet.

Billericay has gone upmarket since my last visit in the 1980s. There’s delis and gosh, a Waitrose. But some things haven’t changed. It’s back in May and as Her Indoors drives past the gated homes of wannabe footballers down Norsey Road, looking for the famed bluebells in Norsey Wood she’s perhaps going too slowly for the driver behind. He veers off at the next left giving us a one-fingered salute out of the window. Well, this is Essex, where the car is king.

You don’t expect to find an ancient coppiced woodland in the heart of Billericay, but here it is, as featured recently on BBC2’s Natural World. Thankfully it’s now protected and run by Basildon Council. We park up and set off on one of the guided trails with our dog Vulcan. The bluebells are stunning, all over the undulating leafy forest floor and giving the whole place a Narnia meets Ian Dury feel.

We picnic on the fallen trunks of a coppiced hornbeam amid a swathe of bluebells. Nicola spots wood anemones, town hall clock, yellow archangel, wild garlic (ransoms) and sweet woodruff, all overseen by a robin whose territory we are obviously steaming in to, which is well out of order.

There’s plenty to see in the woods as you pass dog walkers in purple boots and pink cagoules; a not very clearly defined bronze age tumulus (found to contain the cremation urns in 1865), a hazel plantation, ponds and trenches dug in both world wars by the London Defence volunteers. Our dog Vulcan goes off lead and makes joyous circular runs up and down the surprising wet valley system, which makes the wood feel more like lush Devon than flat old Essex.

We get hopelessly lost in the valleys, but eventually return to the start, where the warden says he’s only ever had to rescue one person at post number five. Who would have believed you could get lost in Billericay?

It’s a weird outpost of Iron Age woods in Essex and a romantic spot with its May carpet of bluebells. We drive home wondering if Billericay Dickie might have found it an ideal spot to take Joyce and Vicky or indeed rendezvous with Janet from quite near the Isle of Thanet (who looked more like a gannet).

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Armageddon in Kelvedon Hatch

Why was Margaret Thatcher planning to take to her bunker in Essex?

Kelvedon Hatch in the afternoon appears to be a town bereft of inhabitants. We get off the 501 bus from Brentwood and walk up the A128. No shops, no children, it could be an episode of The Survivors. Finally we find a man gardening by his bungalow.

“Excuse me, do you know where the Secret Nuclear Bunker is?”

“It’s down that way on the left, but it’s a long old walk… ,” he says of the not-so-secret bunker, with the bemused look of a man who has never before seen a man and two children attempting to access a nuclear bunker via public transport. And it doesn’t look like he expects us to return.

The pavement soon disappears. It looks like a nuclear strike has already hit Essex. The verges, hedges and ditches of the A128 are full of shattered plastic mineral water and Coca-Cola bottles and rusting lager cans.

Eventually we come across a bunker sign pointing to a long track winding track heading across a ploughed field. There’s just a grassy hill in the distance with a mysterious mast perched on its top.

It feels like a real adventure, a trek into the unknown regions of both history and Essex. The track descends into a gulley where there’s a sentry box and a paintballing shed. We walk on past a stream and wood, post-apocalyptic paintballers scaling ropes in the trees, and eventually find a car park and a path to a suburban bungalow on the side of the hill.

Eerily there are no staff on duty, just hand-held audio guides in a rack. We enter to the left of the bungalow and find it’s a huge steel corridor with bunker plans and Geiger counters hanging on the walls.

It’s square and featureless and designed to defend the government from civilians if they tried to storm the bunker to escape the radiation and perhaps query their MPs’ expenses.

There’s an Armageddon time soundtrack on the public address system; four-minute warning wailing sirens and calls for Captain Palmer to head to the operations room.

Then we move through blast doors that are the weight of four cars each and descend further down to the depths.

We’re 100 feet underground and encased in ten feet of reinforced concrete. The bunker was built in 1953 and decommissioned in 1993 as it cost £3 million a year to run. The family who owned the land, the Parrishes, bought the bunker and now run it as a tourist attraction. The ideal place to fall out with the kids.

There’s no natural light and only circular vents in the ceiling to circulate the air.

We enter the communications area where 1950s switchboards give way to ancient telex machines.

“This is cool! Everything’s grey. These are so old. What are these?” says 11-year-old Lola, banging the keys of a Telex machine.

A uniformed female dummy sits in the incoming messages booth. The bog-roll like print-outs list innocuous towns like Aberystwyth and Luton. Here the 300 self-appointed survivors of a nuclear holocaust would search for signs of life in other bunkers around the blighted landscape.

Panic pervades our party. Static crackles in the scientists’ centre where the fall-out patterns would have been monitored. Red phones stand in a box on the wall.

““I want to leave, I'm scared!” says nine-year-old Nell.

And so am I. It nearly happened. It still could.

In the BBC Studio a dummy of Margaret Thatcher stands headphones-on ready to talk to the shell of a nation.

Lights flash on machines and everywhere there’s great big clunking boxes with dials on them. It all feels like 1970s Doctor Who. The dummies look like Autons and there are gas masks on the walls. It would be no surprise to find Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his chaps from UNIT here, trying to maintain discipline and lay on a cup of instant coffee in an impossible situation. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor would be shaking his head at humanity’s folly.

We move up a flight of stairs to the “floor”, where there’s a map of Britain complete with pointers for military planning.

The children watch a TV playing Protect and Survive. It’s the best CND recruitment video ever. Everyone must stay in their improvised house shelter for 14 days with water and tinned food. The sections on placing your toilet waste in a plastic bag and storing it in a larger bucket fascinate Lola and Nell. “If someone dies wrap the body in plastic or blankets and move it to a separate room,” says the keep calm and carry on voiceover.

We see the giant grey tanks and pipes of the plant room where the life support systems supplied water and pumped filtered air around the bunker.

It’s up another flight of stairs to the sick bay where a dummy lies with a bloody eye. “Look there’s a coffin!” says Nell.

It’s the most surreal kids’ day out ever. We see the bunks where staff would have “hot-bedded” in the dormitory and a large room full of ancient computers that would have been the devolved central government. Although now it’s staffed by dummies with no legs and flapping white sleeves. A sign says “Justice” on the walls. And the controller of this bunker really would have had the power of life and death.

We find our house in the giant laminated map of London on the wall. And in the Gents piped music pays “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Weird. The children try on gas masks and army uniforms in a dressing-up area.

And then it’s up to the canteen where the smell of institutionalized food from stainless steel ovens evokes just how awful the post-nuclear bunker would have felt. And a sign reads that the food may contain nuts, which seems the last thing to worry about after the invisible death cloud arrives. I’m tempted to ask if they do irradiated food.

And finally we find two staff alive behind the counter, although everything has to be paid for in the honesty box.

We admire the nuclear bunker mugs, postcards and pencils and rubber toys beneath the grey tomb-like beams.

“Are these dead?” asks an elderly retainer picking up our coffee mugs and cans. No, but everyone outside is.

And then we take the final exit, walking down a long arced tunnel that finally emerges at a small camouflaged opening in the side of the hill.

Daylight at last. And thankfully there’s no sign of fall out.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Miss Willmott's Lost Garden

Ellen Willmott booby-trapped her daffodils, employed 100 gardeners and brought Alpine Ravines and boating lakes to Great Warley
Collapsed cellars, a ruined conservatory, hidden reservoirs, stone paths, cold frames and boating lakes emerging from the undergrowth. If Warley Place were in Cornwall it would surely be the subject of a Lost Gardens of Heligan-style TV series.

Warley Place was a welcome discovery while visiting my late father’s old farm in Great Warley. As a child I remember scrambling up a huge earth bank in Dark Lane and discovering the Narnia-like ruins of an old house in the woods. It was, in fact, the remains of one of England’s finest gardens created by the formidable Ellen Willmott, one of the top gardeners of her day.

Forty odd years later it’s been renovated by the Essex Wildlife Trust. The entrance is next to the busy Thatchers Arms pub.

Ellen Willmott moved into Warley Place with her parents in 1875 and spent a lifetime developing a sumptuous garden. Numerous plants are named after her (the Eryngium giganteum is still called "Miss Willmott's Ghost) and she once employed more than 100 gardeners. She was a big mover in the Royal Horticultural Society and was awarded the Medal of Honour in 1907.

She died penniless in 1934, perhaps having perhaps spent all her dosh on mail-order seeds, and the grand house was demolished in 1939.

The walk begins along the old main road to Brentwood which medieval pilgrims once used when travelling from Walsingham to Canterbury. Past the old crocus field is South Pond, Great Warley’s watering hole in medieval times. Then it's in to the woods and the ruins of the Willmotts’ old house.

The roofless shell of the grand old conservatory is still standing, an evocative sight in the dappled green light. While around it are drops in to the old basements. You can still see the tiled walls of the kitchen and the overgrown alcoves of the old cellars.

Mosaic stone paths have been unearthed by the Wildlife Trust's dedicated staff and the 17th century walled garden is relatively intact, still housing a palm tree, a ginko tree, magnolias, comfrey and anemones.

The wooded trail continues past wild garlic and the remains of Willmott’s cold frames, greenhouses, and a half-moon shaped pond and a deep reservoir.

Down the hill, the boating ponds are empty but the brickwork is still there complete with a mooring rail. A huge earth bank, now supported by steel trusses, descends to my dad’s old farm workers’ cottages in Dark Lane. You sense the huge effort Miss Willmott went to in taming and controlling nature — a very Victorian philosophy.

There’s still a carp pond with water and past the seven Spanish chestnuts, planted by the diarist John Evelyn who briefly owned Warley Place, there's a viewpoint by a daffodil-strewn meadow. Here you can gaze across the fields of my dad’s old farm, towards the M25 and then in the distance the towers of the City of London. You feel the history of encroachment at Warley Place; of both time and the city of London.

The tour ends with a bridge over a gorge that Willmott created to showcase her Alpine plants. Water used to flow through it and in to the South Pond. The huge rocks in the gorge were lugged all the way from Yorkshire by the company she employed.

Willmott never married and as she grew older she became increasingly eccentric, relying ever more on her faithful butler Robinson (whose daughter was my headmistress at primary school). She was arrested for shop-lifting (the charges were eventually dropped), carried a revolver in her handbag for those late-night walks back from Brentwood station and booby-trapped her daffodil fields to ward off bulb thieves.

Yes, Miss Willmott’s project was the work of a loaded toff. She wasn’t great on workers’ rights, and was said to sack any gardener if he allowed a weed to show. But the scale and ambition of her life’s work is still inspiring. She spent everything on her garden and died penniless.

After her death Warley Place was sold to developers (nothing changes there) but then the Second World War intervened and afterwards the area was designated part of London’s Green Belt.

Ellen’s pristine garden was overtaken by undergrowth, decay and Japanese knotweed, until volunteers unearthed it in the last decade. And the sense of decay makes it even better, within sight of the M25 lies a place to reflect, wonder down mysterious overgrown, shadowy paths and move back in time to an era of grand projects in the shrubbery.