Today was the fifth of our organised public walks. We'd been hoping that the wind would drop as it had been pretty gusty overnight, and even though it was a bit blustery this morning most people found their way to Wiston (an abbreviation of Wissington, as per local custom) Church through the fallen branches and pseudo roadworks.
Dr. James Canton leads the Wild Writing MA course at Essex University and has written the books Out of Essex: Re-imagining a Literary Landscape and more recently Ancient Wonderings, but today he was leading us around the Stour Valley in search of stories, in the form of local myths and legends. He started with the tale of the dragon, or serpent, that has been connected with the town of Wormingford for centuries. Many versions of the story exist and we talked about how they could have manifested themselves and what evidence might exist to support any of them. The reason for coming to Wiston Church is that there is a large mid 15th Century painting of a dragon on the wall inside. Nearer Wormingford village there is also a large dragon carved into the side of a hill, and even the village name suggests a snake or serpent, 'worm' being used in mediaeval times for such creatures. Alan Hockett and I did a project in 2015 (#Essexmeme) where we discovered a similar version of the story in Tilbury in the south of Essex. We also discussed the Wild Man of Orford and Green Children of Woolpit, both being local legends shrouded in the mists of time.
It was with these in our head that we set off walking through the landscape, firstly over the very low bridge that we had passed underneath just a few days ago, then through a low lying field full of cricket bat willows, a great local export. We rose up the hill, along School Lane and School Road, before taking to footpaths once again to approach somewhere familiar to us, but from a new direction: Bottengoms Farm.
Ronald Blythe's cottage, once home to John and Christine Nash, nestles gently in a cluster of trees and looks idyllic from this angle on top of Pea Hill. We found our way down inside the cluster to gather on the path in front of the house (we didn't want to disturb Ronald) and were treated to a local love story about a giant which was told to us by Peter Smith, a local man from Great Horkesley who was walking with us. Ronald's importance to the development of nature writing cannot be understated, so is important that James brings us here to talk about his life's work and contributions to literature. He is seen as a major father figure to writers like Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Robert Macfarlane, and not to mention James himself.
After a bite to eat we started the return journey toward Wiston, heading back another way to take in some different angles of the same place and continue the great conversations we were having with all of the people who had joined us.