The Monthly Newsletter of Chelmsford YHA Local Group
On the Trail of the Dragon
Having been forced to miss the club’s Dragon Country walk, I took the opportunity provided by the late May Bank Holiday to perform it on my own.
The beauty of a circular walk is choosing which way to go. I finally opted for north-about (the opposite way round to the group) and walked up Clicket Hill past curious cows and a colourful meadow of wild flowers. Sited on a gentle slope, St Stephens’s chapel has a commanding view across the Stour Valley. This is a truly magical place, one of the hidden gems of East Anglia and a place that seems to have emerged from the lyrics of a Vaughan Williams melody. St Stephen’s is a truly ancient chapel, Mediaeval in its present form but almost certainly occupying the site of an early church of newly-converted German Angles. Inside are the sarcophagi of the de Vere family, including one of a knight who served at Agincourt, his grim martial bulk and steely, dour visage tempered by the daintiness of his wife lying alongside, her head topped with a high French hat and her feet resting on her playful lapdogs.
Outside no noise disturbed the tranquillity of the day, no rumbling traffic or honking horns to challenge the sunlight and the verdant, ripe lushness of the Essex - Suffolk border. But this was not always a place of solitude and silence. Here in 855 a nervous and timorous St Edmund was crowned to the acclamation of his assembled thegns and fyrdmen. Edmund, scholar and bibliophile, whose true calling was (according to later Mediaeval hagiographers) for the priesthood, was rushed to the throne on the death of his uncle, crowned at this spot and a few years later died a martyr. Enduring the terror of battle for the first and only time, his fallen huscarls forming a protective mound of dead around him until at last he stood alone. The Danes seized him, binding him to a tree and loosed arrows at him when he refused to renounce his faith. On an engraved boulder outside the chapel is his symbol, the crown of his monarchy flanked by the arrows that violated his body.
From here also once the alarms and shouts of frightened peasants were heard in the valley below, when some immense, fanged, crawling creature from another age was seen emerging from the marshes one afternoon in 1405 to slake its hunger on the local sheep. The monks of St Albans faithfully recorded this event in their chronicle. Arrows and slingshots bounced off it and it roamed freely before Sir Richard Waldegrave and his gallant men could chase it back into the marsh. A reminder of the visitation of this monster is the likeness of a dragon carved into the hillside facing St Stephen’s across the river valley.
Pressing on I passed through country lanes and thicket paths, past old country farmhouses and the designer houses of the noveaux riches to the hamlet of Wissington, as remote as St Stephen’s and as peaceful. This moated church, built as a fortress and a living witness to the violence of earlier times with high slit windows and holes in its lintel to bar the door, has an amazing collection of wall paintings. This is the artwork of ordinary parishioners given a blank canvas by an agreeable (or absentee) priest on which to vent their nascent artistry and religious piety. The Magi being warned in their sleep by angels to leave Herod’s domain, St Francis of Assisi talking to birds, pilgrims at sea, idle gossips tempted by incubi, are all pictured. And of course the dragon, painted much later than the rest but still within living memory of the day of it emerged from the swamp.
From this incredible serene and somnolent village I pressed on, climbing onto the ridge of Little Horkesley and Bottengoms to gaze across the valley back to St Stephens’ chapel on the semi-circle that I had encompassed since the start of the walk. The next stop was Wormingford and another quintessential Mediaeval church but uniquely replete with an interesting stained glass of the Bures dragon. A fete was just completing in the church garden and it was nice to see the church at the centre of village life, with parishioners sipping their teas and chatting. But sad to see inside the memorial photos of the proud volunteers of Kitchener’s army, their earthy smiling faces telling of their sturdy outdoors life working the village fields before they crossed the sea to fall in Flanders own fields.
Descending into the Stour valley I followed the Mere through a wet meadow swarming with a blue cloud of dragon flies which somehow seemed to tolerate me as a passing guest in their frantic swirling domain. Finally, past the gleaming white mill and back into Bures, I had time for tea and a cake (what else?) before heading up to the station and back home.
This is a magnificent walk and one that is well worth doing annually. It convinced me once again of the innate beauty and glory of the country that is our home.
Please send any comments on these pages to Dave Plummer