Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A Village Divided

Village sign


Remote settlements can have a tendency to be defined by their very remoteness. How many times have you seen a hamlet, village or even a small town described as 'sleepy', or 'quiet', or 'peaceful'?

 These adjectives instantly qualify their subjects as places that are out of the way, spots relatively undisturbed by the roar of traffic and the clamour of crowds. Places that are awakened only by the twitter of birdsong and the sonorous pealing of Sunday morning church bells.

All of those adjectives could accurately be used to describe the Essex village of Paglesham. As much as any village in this dense and crowded shire could be described by any of the above, Paglesham seems the archetype. It can only be reached by a single, unrated road that originates in the large village of Hullbridge a few miles away, and the course of that road takes you through a distinct change in the landscape, from rolling fields and hedges into the flatter, wider expanses of the large areas of floodplain and saltmarsh that dominate the eastern seaboard of the county.

The village sign, pictured above, was set up to mark the Millennium and neatly encapsulates the qualities of the settlement. The larger plates reflect Paglesham's history of agriculture and maritime activity, while below, the sigil of Essex County Council is flanked by a cowslip - the flower also known as a pagle or paigle, from which the village takes its name - and an oyster, the community's chief export in a bygone age. The division of the two plates also reflects a more geographical split, for Paglesham is distinctly a village divided.

Paglesham Church End
The road splits as the traveller approaches the village; the turning on the left leads to the pastoral Church End, while the other leads to the maritime East End. Broad, austere fields form a distinct spatial barrier between the two.

St Peter's Church

The single street that runs through Church End trails off onto the marshes, and the hamlet is flanked by two distinctive buildings: St Peter's Church, dating back to Norman times, and the atmospheric, weatherboarded Punch Bowl inn, an establishment richly redolent of the area's smuggling past. Among the graves in the greensward of the village churchyard are those of the Blyth family, and one of them - William 'Hard Apple' Blyth - is something of a local legend.

Smugglers, busy smuggling.
William Blyth (1753-1830) was a busy man. He was a churchwarden, the local grocer, a Parish Councillor and even the local constable. He was also a smuggler, and stories of his physical prowess continue to the present day.

One story relates how Blyth once drank two glasses of wine at the Punch Bowl, then calmly proceeded to eat the glasses. Another has him partaking in a village cricket match which was interrupted by a rampaging bull. Enraged by this bovine interference, Blyth set about the startled animal with a cudgel then, as the beleaguered bull attempted to flee the scene of its chastisement, he grabbed its tail and was dragged along behind until the beast finally keeled over and died of shock and exhaustion. A local writer (and magistrate!), John Harriott, recorded how he hitched a lift, with Blyth and his crew,  back to Essex from Dunkirk in France. While seated in an inn with the smugglers, Harriott refused to partake in a toast to the destruction of the Customs men. This could have ended in an uncomfortable situation for the traveller, but he eloquently argued that without the Customs service there would be no smuggling, and they would all be the poorer for it. Ultimately, the smugglers begrudgingly conceded the point and they all drank a toast to 'revenue laws and officers for ever'.

Abandoned vessel on Paglesham Reach

Across the fields sits the hamlet East End, which forms the maritime half of Paglesham. Here may be found the popular Plough & Sail, a pub run by relatives of the TV chef Jamie Oliver, a native of Clavering on the other side of the county. Behind the pub, a rough road leads to the Marina, overlooking Paglesham Reach and the bleak Potton Island, most westerly of the five islands of the Essex Archipelago, and accessible only from a lane in Great Wakering. This island was home to several arable farms until it was overwhelmed by flooding in 1884, and is now pasture populated mostly by seabirds.

Paglesham Oystermen in 1908

A path along the sea wall strikes north from the Marina, and several points of historic interest can be seen before the path swings west to follow Paglesham Creek. The first is a series of old oyster beds on the foreshore, dating from  Victorian times. The heyday of Paglesham's oyster industry was between the 1870's and the Second World War, but the trade continues - albeit much reduced - to the present day.

Historic Oyster Beds

A short stroll to the north, at the confluence of Paglesham Reach and Paglesham Creek, overlooking both Potton and Wallasea Islands, stands a rather forlorn pillbox.

Paglesham Pillbox
Between the oyster beds and the pillbox, however, sits a patch of foreshore which, until about a century ago, was actually a dock... and, unknown to many of the visitors who amble along this bleak stretch of Essex coastal inlets, this innocuous piece of land hides a fascinating secret.

The site of the dock
Back in the area's days as a notorious haven for smugglers, several 'watch vessels' were set to work, patrolling the maze of inlets and waterways that form what is now known as the River Crouch and River Roach Tidal River System. One such vessel, larger than the others, was acquired from the Admiralty in 1845 and was unimaginatively named 'Watch Vessel No. 7'. Moored in the Reach at Paglesham, local fishermen and oystermen complained  it was forming an obstruction for honest traders as well as smugglers, and consequently the vessel was placed in the dock in 1851.

By 1870, probably in a poor state of repair, WV7 was sold to a pair of locals named Murray and Rainer, who set about dismantling it for salvage. It was stripped down to the hull, which was then abandoned in its dock.

Time and tide took their toll, and eventually the hull sank into the foreshore mud and disappeared from sight. The dock, unusable, silted up, and the remains of WV7 were apparently lost in time... until, in the early 2000's, Dr Robert Prescott of St Andrew's University uncovered documents which revealed the vessel's true identity.

It turned out that WV7 was, in fact, one of the most famous ships in English maritime history. Built at Woolwich Shipyard in 1820, it had made several trips around the globe as a research vessel. One such voyage was documented by its onboard scientist, the young Charles Darwin, who later turned those memoirs into a famous book.

Watch Vessel No.7 was HMS Beagle.

Depiction of HMS Beagle
Dr Prescott's team descended upon Paglesham and pinpointed the site of the dock. Victorian pottery was recovered from the scene, and an excavation revealed the ship's anchor, which now rests in the garden of Paglesham resident Ann Boulter, who has written a book about the vessel and its last days. An atomic dielectric resonance test performed in 2003 revealed that the ship's hull sits 21 feet deep in the mud and silt of the Paglesham foreshore. The last resting place of HMS Beagle had been rediscovered.

The grave of the Beagle
Paglesham is a quiet place, a peaceful place, long past its boisterous days of smugglers and oystermen. Nothing much to disturb the tranquility, other than the 'rustle of mudflats and the bustle of geese'.*

A bracing winter's breeze assails the rambler who follows the sea wall, passing the oyster beds, aiming for the distant pillbox. Stepping onto the springy, tough, wiry grass that hugs the brackish shore, avoiding the meandering rills with their treacherous, sucking pools of alluvium , scanning the almost featureless horizon and welling up with the knowledge that, less than six metres below your feet, lays the timbered remnants of a ship whose global journey in the 1830's sparked a scientific revolution. The name Beagle resonates into our present, into the era of space exploration, and here where the land and the sky stretch out into remote distance, it is so easy to stand and contemplate the echoes of destiny...


*from the poem 'The Leveret'. Yup, it's one of mine.

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