“Time flies by when I’m the driver of a train, and I ride on the footplate, there and back again.” Chances are, if you’ve just sung this rather than read those words, you grew up on a diet of Chigley and you remember as fondly as I do Lord Belborough and his steam engine Bessie.
But until yesterday, though I’d been on many a steam train, I’d never experienced what it’s like to ride on the footplate. Thanks to train driver Michael and his sidekick Kim, whose role is that of fireman, I got to tick it off my bucket list. Stood between Michael and Kim, I tried to keep my balance and time my barrage of questions to avoid interfering with their safety checks and operational duties. With a carriage-load of passengers on board, even on such a short demonstration trip, it was important that things were done properly.
Teamwork was key, with both volunteers working together to ensure everything ran smoothly. It was hot work. As Kim stoked the firebox with coal, the blast of heat coming from inside was palpable. Kim wiped a smear of coal dust from his nose and grinned as I wiped the sweat from my own forehead. I was glad this was the museum’s 1905 vintage engine when Michael mentioned that had I ridden on the footplate of one of the other two working engines I’d have been much hotter, as the furnace would have been level with our faces instead of by our feet.
Whatever your age, there’s something special about a trip to a railway museum and the chance to see a working steam engine. If you’re reading this and nodding your head in agreement, then I’d recommend you visit the East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel and Wakes Colne. While riding on the footplate was a special treat, visitors will sometimes be able to take advantage of the museum’s “Taster for a Tenner” promotion where you can learn how to drive a diesel loco for just £10.
This summer, Greater Anglia are making it better than ever to travel by train. For a number of attractions across East Anglia and London, the East Anglian Railway Museum being one of them, presenting your rail ticket gets you 2FOR1 admission. If there’s just two of you, Greater Anglia’s advance fares will also keep your costs down. For larger groups, check out the Group Save tickets, a good deal for families and groups of friends looking for an affordable day out. Even better, Group Save can be used in conjunction with the 2FOR1 offer. With rail tickets for children costing from just £2, arriving at the EARM by train makes a lot of sense. Chappel and Wakes Colne station lies between Sudbury and Marks Tey on the pretty Gainsborough Line. From Marks Tey there are frequent connections to London’s Liverpool Street as well as Ipswich and beyond.
I chose to time my visit to coincide with one of the EARM’s regular special events. The 1940s Vintage Tea Dance marries our nostalgia for the age of steam with a love of music, dance and reminiscing about the war. Headlining the event were the fabulous Fox, Wiggle and Sass. Perfectly co-ordinated in red polka dot dresses, hair coiffed in immaculate victory rolls and lips painted a perfect scarlet, the girls had the Forties look down pat.
Aimee (Fox), Amy (Wiggle) and Gemma (Sass) hail from what they term the Bermuda Triangle of Essex: Layer de la Haye, Finchingfield and Witham. Over the last four years, they’ve been hired for countless weddings and private parties, but coming back to the EARM is special as it was the first gig they ever played. This talented trio made performing the harmonies and melodies of iconic Forties classics like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “It’s a Good Day” as well as swing hits like “Sing Sing Sing” look simple.
Watching them perform was a full house – or rather goods shed – of people, many in 1940s costume themselves. Servicemen danced with WVS volunteers while onlookers sipped tea from vintage china and ate cream teas. Sharon from Swing Jive Sudbury was on hand to teach everyone the basics so even complete beginners could join in the fun.
Also in the goods shed, Bunty Bowring had laid out a fascinating collection of 1940s vintage clothing, showing how in times of rationing, make do and mend were of vital importance. Together with husband Richard, who was dressed as one of the Home Guard, she shares her passion for all things wartime by giving regular talks to various local organisations. Outside the goods shed, meanwhile, members of the Suffolk Regiment Living History Society had brought their rifles, kit bags and even their trucks and The Viaduct mini-pub was open for those wishing to sample the local beer.
The event had been fun, but to leave without exploring the museum’s regular exhibits would have been a travesty. I began at the signal box where a series of colour-coded levers ensured a train couldn’t enter a stretch of track while another was in the way. The blue one shown in use here is pulled to activate a points lock, making sure the points don’t move as the train’s wheels pass over the top. Young kids will love pulling the levers so much it will be hard to drag them away.
Across the footbridge, the restoration shed gives you the chance to see some of the museum’s many engines and carriages being brought back to their former glory. Many of the volunteers work on these projects on Wednesdays, making this a good day to find out about what’s going on. There’s plenty of restored rolling stock to have a look at, including some vintage wooden carriages and recreations of station buildings and platforms.
The exhibitions in the on-site heritage centre explain the impact of Beeching’s cuts on the Gainsborough Line, which once would have continued on to Cambridge. Sudbury’s population grew sufficiently to save the Marks Tey to Sudbury stretch from the same fate. But other long-lost lines are covered too, including the Crab and Winkle Line which ran from nearby Kelvedon to the coast at Tollesbury. Take a walk around Tollesbury Wick and at low tide, you can still see the railway’s wooden sleepers disappearing into the mud.
EARM staff say that visitors often remark on how much there is to see at the museum and I’d have to agree. I made it through the level crossing gates back to the regular platform just in time to catch my train. Whether you time your own visit for an event day or not, you’re sure to have a rewarding and enjoyable day out. The volunteers were without exception keen to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Best of all, taking the train instead of the car gave me the chance to mull over what I’d seen and done. My verdict: I’m going back – and next time I’m taking a 2FOR1 friend.
With thanks to Greater Anglia for courtesy train travel to and from the museum and to the East Anglian Railway Museum for a great day out.
Greater Anglia’s offers
East Anglian Railway Museum
Fox, Wiggle and Sass
Richard and Bunty Bowring
Suffolk Regiment Living History Society
It’s the people that make a place special. How often have you read that? It’s been written so often it’s a travel cliché. But sometimes it’s also true.
Greater Anglia have a range of offers on rail journeys across the network this summer. To find out more, look at the #lettheadventurebegin video on their website; the address is at the bottom of this blog. They invited me to pick somewhere in the network and in return for a rail ticket, they asked me to blog about my trip. I chose Harwich. I’ll admit that having consulted the timetable, I was a little concerned. To reach Harwich from my starting point necessitated two changes of train and with just a few minutes between each, I anticipated spending half the morning in Manningtree. After all, this wasn’t Switzerland, was it? I needn’t have worried. The trains were punctual, the connections made without even having to power walk and the carriages clean and comfortable. The views as we made our way on the Mayflower Line along the River Stour were the icing on the cake, and I thought what a refreshing change it was not to have to focus on the road and be able to enjoy them.
A ten minute stroll from Harwich Town station and I was already beginning to appreciate the town’s long maritime history. Using a walking trail map I’d found online, I ticked off both the High and Low Lighthouses, the second of three pairs of lighthouses that had been built around here to aid ships’ navigation along the North Sea coast. To ensure they maintained the correct course, the two lights needed to line up, one above the other.
The Treadwell Crane was fascinating too, operated by men walking on the inside of the wheels. I was grateful for the Harwich Society’s comprehensive website, for though an informative sign had been placed near the crane, it had been positioned at the foot of a steep grassy bank. To read it, I’d probably have been best off lying flat on the turf.
Heading along the estuary, I walked past the impressive murals on Wellington Road and doubled back to take a look at the Electric Palace. Built in 1911, there were two entrances, one to access seats costing a shilling, the other a more affordable sixpence. The cinema still holds regular screenings today, though the reminder to patrons to turn off mobile phones is a more recent addition to the signage.
Update July 2019: the Electric Palace is closed for extensive renovations and is currently scheduled to open in late spring 2020.
It was time to pop in to The Pier Hotel, right on the quayside. Looking like a little piece of Shoreditch, the hotel was slick, contemporary and on-trend, its staff welcoming. Manager Chris told me that I could find 113 different gins on the NAVYÄRD bar’s drinks menu, and I wondered how long you’d have to stay to work your way through them at what the government would deem an acceptable rate. With the view over the confluence of the Stour and Orwell right in front of the hotel’s terrace, it would be an absolute pleasure, though one which would have to wait for another time. I had a boat to catch, and it wasn’t going to wait.
A foot ferry had connected Harwich to Felixstowe for over a century, but it was under threat of closing for good when Austrian Christian Zemann spotted it was up for sale. Seeing the potential – it’s easily an hour’s drive from Harwich to Felixstowe – he bought the business. Though he’d always dreamed of making his living on the water, he didn’t know Harwich, nor the area which surrounded it. It was a gamble, but one that paid off.
With hard work and a nose for opportunity, Christian has expanded the business, running not only the foot ferry but evening cruises, bicycle rental and seal boat trips as well. In fact, he’s already bought a larger boat, increasing the capacity of the ferry from 12 passengers to 58. The level of commitment Christian has shown is extraordinary. Troubled by the drenching some of his passengers were getting out on deck, he invested £15000 in stabilisers to stop the new boat from tossing and pitching. I’m pleased to report it worked.
Christian’s latest venture, the boat trips to the grey and harbour seals that make their home at nearby Hamford Water, have already proved to be a gold mine. Once down to only a handful in number, there’s now a small but thriving colony of around 70 seals at the reserve. I asked Christian how close he got. “Well, the channel’s pretty narrow, so if I kill the engine, then you can hear them breathe,” he said. That sounded close enough to me.
Back on shore, there was one vessel on the quayside that just couldn’t be ignored, not least because of its scarlet livery. Built in 1958, LV18 was Trinity House’s last manned light vessel before it was retired from service in 1994. But as with the Harbour Ferry, this was a boat that wasn’t going to go quietly, thanks to one man – the ebullient and utterly charming Tony O’Neil. He bought the vessel for a nominal £1 and the Pharos Trust was set up to oversee its restoration. It opened in 2011 as Harwich’s quirkiest visitor attraction.
Update July 2019: since I took this photo, the cost of admission has risen to £4 for adults and £2 for children. Family tickets (2 adults and 4 children) are £10.
A musician by trade, Tony has a passion for radio. Visitors to the ship can see some of his extensive collection of antique and vintage radios on board, but with an estimated 1600 in his collection, some remain in storage in the hold. That passion for radio also manifests itself in broadcasting. Tony once worked for Radio Caroline and his enthusiasm for pirate radio is undimmed. The likes of John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko and Johnnie Walker all broadcast from radio ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters and the tenders that facilitated their commute came from Harwich.
Even the beautiful garden that you see on deck has a musical connection. The scented plants that form part of it are there in homage to John Peel. His 1967 show for pirate station Radio London was named “The Perfumed Garden.” Johnnie Walker is still involved. He’s a patron of the Pharos Trust and will broadcast from LV18 this August.
For anyone keen on maritime history, Tony has preserved some of the cabins on board just as they would have been when the vessel was in use as a lightship. There’s also a chance to see what a pirate radio station would have been like. There’s so much in the way of nautical and radio memorabilia that some have dubbed it a “floating prop shop”. Unsurprisingly, it caught the eye of the production team working on the 2008 movie “The Boat that Rocked” and with a splash of yellow paint for the occasion, doubled as Radio Sunshine.
It is individuals like Christian and Tony that are breathing life into a town that once lay forgotten at the end of the line. Their energy and commitment to this corner of Essex is helping to make Harwich the town that rocks.
Greater Anglia trains:
Harwich Harbour Ferry:
Seal boat trips:
The Pier Hotel:
Earlier in the year I was lucky enough to be selected for the Essex Belongs to Us project. A book has just been released featuring a selection of Essex-based authors writing about their county. Whether you’re local and want to reminisce, or live further afield and know little about one of the UK’s most misunderstood areas, the book will prove to be a good read. Here’s a brief taster of what I had to say about Salcott – but to read the rest, you’ll need to buy the book. Details of how to do so follow at the end of this blog post.
Fish out of water
I swear out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a unicorn.
I’d dozed off in front of the telly and awoken to the sound of agitated voices. A few months ago, I’d have slept right through the commotion, part and parcel of living on a main road in a big town. But my husband valued silence over convenience and home was now Salcott-cum-Virley, a small village on the Essex marshes. Ensconced at the deadest part of a dead end road, tucked away behind five huge oak trees, it was about as quiet as Essex got.
Instead of the scream of motorbikes and the rumble of lorries, I now awoke to birdsong – and an infernal wind that sometimes blew so hard it drowned it out. With the gales of spring, fence panels popped like champagne corks. After retrieving the dog from the neighbours’ garden for the third time in as many weeks, we hired a man to build us some wind proof fencing.
But we were in the habit of leaving the gates open, and things had a habit of wandering in, causing great excitement. At first, we would run to the window each time, interrupting whatever we were doing to marvel at pheasants strolling across the front lawn or ducks making their raucous way across the sky out the back. All this wildlife was a novelty. We’d once had a squirrel visit our small back garden in Rayleigh but the dog had soon seen him off. Whether we liked it or not, we were going to have to share our garden with the local residents: the pair of wood pigeons that roosted in the dead apricot tree in front of the kitchen window and the quarrel of sparrows that nested in the blackberry bush that had long since conquered our garage wall. You didn’t live in the country, you shared it. Boundaries were arbitrary, there for the purposes of officialdom only.
And so it was that when the neighbour’s small white pony escaped, I awoke to find it at the patio door and in my somnolent state, confused it with a unicorn. It was soon joined by another and, then, several men trying to round them up, startling me out of my slumber. It wasn’t long before they were all heading back out of the gate. They seemed almost practised and I had a strong suspicion this had happened before.
The rest you’ll find in the book. You can order a paperback here:
It costs £8.99 plus a pound for postage and packaging. Alternatively, the e-Book is much cheaper. You can download it to your Kindle via Amazon for just £1 here:
And if you do, I’d love to hear what you thought of the book. Was Essex what you expected it to be?
Visiting Hacienda San Pedro in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, last month I came across this machine in the hacienda’s museum. I presume it was some kind of machine used to grind the coffee, but there was no information on it. What caught my eye was the place name on the machine: Maldon. That’s a fifteen minute drive from my house.
Since getting back, I’ve been finding out a bit about E. H. Bentall and it makes for interesting reading. Not least, the E. H. stands for Edward Hammond, which is my father’s name. Edward’s father (the Heybridge Edward, not mine) was a farmer named William. He designed a plough to use on his land near Goldhanger and got a local smithy to make it up. Word got around and by 1795, he’d gone into business making them. Business boomed but raw materials at the time had to be brought in by barge up the Blackwater. William Bentall upped sticks and moved down the road to Goldhanger where he built a place by the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation. Bentall diversified, producing amongst other things the first steam powered threshing machine.
Meanwhile, with his wife Mary Hammond, he’d produced a son. Edward Hammond Bentall had the same aptitude for engineering as his father. This particularly makes me smile as my Dad was an engineer throughout his working life. He took over the business in 1836 aged 22 and three years later, registered as E.H. Bentall & Co, it was thriving. In 1841, mindful of competition, he took out a patent on an improved Goldhanger plough protecting it from imitators. Under Edward’s leadership, the company began to export machinery overseas and one of those machines found its way to a coffee hacienda just outside the village of Jayuya.
Back at home, Edward Hammond Bentall had been elected as Member of Parliament for Maldon, a post which he held from 1868 to 1874. In 1873 Edward had an imposing home built, known as The Towers, which was located near Heybridge Cemetery. It was so well built that when the time came to pull it down in the 1950s, dynamite had to be used to blow it up. By the time Edward passed the business on to his son Edmund in 1889, he was a wealthy man. He died in 1898.
Mechanisation of the coffee plantations further increased profits, particularly after World War Two while the company operated under the leadership of Edward’s grandson, Charles. He died in 1955, and just six years later, the company was taken over by Acrow, which eventually went bust in 1984. That was it for Bentall & Co, but their warehouse still proudly overlooks the canal in Heybridge.
And if you remember Bentall’s department store (now Kingston Fenwicks), the founders of that store are related to William too.
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
London born writer Gilbert K. Chesterton wrote this oft quoted phrase about Battersea in his essay “The Riddle of the Ivy”. It’s an idea I’m embracing while out and about in my home county of Essex.
Often overlooked in favour of neighbouring Suffolk or Kent, the greatest pleasure for me of travelling in my local area is the lack of visitors in all but the most obvious of destinations.
Researching for Countryside Dog Walks, I’ve quite literally walked for miles without seeing a soul. It’s taken me to parts of the county I’ve never visited and to my delight, I’ve had as much enjoyment discovering new sights in my own backyard as I’ve had anywhere in the world.
Part of the joy of independent solo travel for me is to unpick somewhere new, to learn how it’s constructed and to find out how it ticks. Realising I can still do this in Essex has been a satisfying revelation. Another great British writer, Lawrence Durrell, famously wrote:
“Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.”
Walking along the Essex coastline and through its surprisingly empty countryside, the lack of specific sights and attractions makes it perfect for pondering while wandering. Life’s full of things to be done and these walks feel deliciously self-indulgent, yet unlike a big trip, they only require me to take a few hours off.
Being alone makes me more in tune with my surroundings. Sounds that are concealed by conversations push their way in to a solo walk. The salt marsh fizzing, the wind vibrating the rushes, the stream trickling – all lost unless you really listen. For me, one of the biggest distractions from the landscape is my camera. It can be hard to give up the search for the perfect shot and just look without a lens. But when I force myself to do so, it’s more than worth it.
To find out more about the hidden corners of Essex, why not visit my Essexology blog? You’ll find it at http://www.essexology.com
My last blog post, Travels closer to home, sowed a seed of an idea. I’ve lived in Essex for decades, but there are plenty of places I’ve never visited, and some attractions I’d never heard of. Last week, I spent an afternoon walking the myriad paths of beautiful Marks Hall Arboretum in glorious autumn sunshine, yet the day before I didn’t even know it was there.
A spin-off blog, essexology, was born and I’ve been having fun uploading photos and information about some of my favourite places in my home county. If you think Essex is just what you see on TOWIE, then think again. You’ll be surprised at the variety, history and natural beauty of what many write off as merely a commuter belt for London.
If you have a suggestion for a place or a visitor attraction that I should feature, then please leave me a comment and I’ll check it out. And please do visit http://www.essexology.com and tell me what you think.
With no foreign trips planned until 2016, I’ve decided to focus on exploring the county that’s been my home for over four decades: Essex. In the beautiful October sunshine, this week I headed to Paper Mill Lock, a tranquil spot yet an easy drive from the county town of Chelmsford. It’s times like these that I’m glad to live in the driest part of the UK. In this sheltered spot, I had an al-fresco sandwich filled with thick butcher’s sausages and tangy onion chutney while watching a pair of ducks glide up and down alongside the boats.
The Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation dates from the 1790s, linking Chelmsford to the coast near Maldon. In the early days, its cargo was mostly coal, bricks and timber heading inland; these days it’s a leisure and pleasure canal. The lock’s one of twelve; it takes its name from the paper mill that stood next to another grinding corn as far back as 1792. It’s possible to walk the length of the canal. At the coast, you’ll end up at Heybridge Basin where you’ll find a couple of decent pubs including the dog-friendly Jolly Sailor.