Philobiblon: Cycling Essex architecture

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Cycling Essex architecture

Inspired by the guided cycle tour of Kent medieval architecture that I enjoyed recently, last Sunday I set out on my own, with only a guide for company*, to try the same in Essex. The architecture and history was fine, and I learnt an awful lot about how not to read a cycling guide.

First the cycling: I learnt not to believe it when the label says this is an "easy" route - also read the bit where it says "undulating countryside". I think the easy label came because there were no big hills, but for the best part of 40 miles it was up and down, up and down; and the problem is, for me anyway, that the ups take an awful lot longer than the downs. (I also enjoyed another first - my first ride through a flooded ford - algae is very slippery under bike tyres, I learnt.)

I did, however, glean a lot about how to tackle inclines. I have virtually no hills on my London commuting routes, so have had no cause to learn. The way NOT to do it is to start at the bottom in the highest gear you think you can possibly manage, then battle and strain your way to the top, arriving a panting, sweating mess. Instead, start in a very low gear and arrive at the top in a reasonable state, even if after many more revolutions of the legs. (Obvious? Well in retrospect.)

So, I made it before dark - and I had started at around 1.45 (not helped by the train firm One, which manages to send two trains an hour to Stansted Mountfitchett on a Sunday, within five minutes of each other - clever).

And while I didn't get quite so much time for history as I would have liked, I did collect some nice snippets.

The most noticeable, seemingly localised (at least I didn't see it in Kent), feature of the houses in the villages through which I went (Much Hadham, Westmill, Furneux Pelham and Manuden) was pargeting, simple (here at least) decorative plasterwork, frequently seen on timber-framed houses and other pretty early ones. Mostly it seems to be patterns made with materials at hand - the bases of bottles, in one case I saw a large scallop-type shell, combs swept across the surface in a regular pattern. The only rule seems to have been: don't repeat anything already done in the village, or at least on the main street.

The church in Much Hadham is interesting in that it has been used jointly by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches for some decades, so it has much of the fittings and furnishings that would have been in pre-Reformation churches, making it most evocative.

There's an excellent guide to the village here. It also told me that the Elizabethan memorial which I was admiring from a distance (it is right beside the altar and I didn't think jumping over the altar rail was the done thing) is of a bishop's wife, Judith Aylmer, who died in 1615. It looks very like the memorial for Blanche Parry in St Margaret's, although sadly this one has lost its head.

What appealed about Westmill church was a memorial stone - no longer readable - but apparently that of Nicol de Lewknor, who died about 1300, said to be "one of the oldest personal memorials in the county". A handwritten notice beside it says he "came to a tragic end in France, on the day of his third nuptials, leaving no issues", and that he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

"A tragic end on the day of his nuptials?" ... The mind boggles.

* This one is Philip's Cycle Tours Around London North, by Nick Cotton, if you were wondering. And when you work it out it's fine - at least I didn't get lost, and seldom even felt lost.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahem. Much Hadham is in Hertfordshire, not [FX: spits] Essex. See, inter alia:

And yes, pargetting is cool, isn't it? Next trip, go to Hertford (choice of stations), and check out the Salisbury Arms. And Ware's gazebos. But avoid MacMullen's beer.

Chris Williams

8/09/2005 10:19:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Whoops - I stand corrected. I was fooled because I started out from Stansted Mountfitchett which is - I just checked - in Essex. I probably just made property prices fall 20 per cent!

And thanks for the tip - I'll try out Hertford. And I'll avoid the beer. Oddly I find, when cycling, cider (which I never otherwise drink) seems to hit the spot - and if you can get some local brew is often quite nice. Beer seems a bit heavy on the stomach.

8/09/2005 01:49:00 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

"very low gear and arrive at the top in a reasonable state, even if after many more revolutions of the legs."

This is the correct way to ascend hills. Maintaining a steady cadence is more important than speed - this is why you have low gears, to help you maintain the revolutions you'd be doing in a higher gear on the flat when you're climbing a hill.

The other thing to try and avoid is standing up on hills, as it wastes energy.

Incidentally, I've cycled through Much Hadham and Stansted Mountfitchet many times, as it not only lies on my London-Cambridge cycle route, but it is also a beautiful summer evening training. Unfortunately, I never get a chance to stop and look at anything, although I've always observed how spectacularly preserved some of those villages look. I've always thought of the route as pretty flat, but I suppose it does undulate a bit. It's just not as bad as heading onto the Downs to the south of London...

And yes, One Railway are not very helpful. Especially when it comes to bicycles.

8/09/2005 08:30:00 pm  

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