|Pat Adkins Recollects
Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - February 2002
We are extremely grateful to Mr Pat Adkins, a local resident, who has provided us with his views of what it was like to grow up in this area some 60 years ago. Pat was born in 1933.
"My earliest recollection is of moving into one of the two new council houses at Hardy's Green. Before that we had lived just a short distance away nearer to where mother worked, for much of her life, at Beckingham Hall Farm. Father also did work there from time to time as the seasons required. I can remember sitting on the wheel arch of the small cart used to move our belongings and having to hold on desperately to our huge round mahogany table to stop it from rolling off. That table became the centre piece of the house. We children also used it when playing hide and seek as it was always covered with a large green, tasselled, cloth.
The new house was not always a happy place to me as I suffered from nightmares for some time and other memories include being taken to hospital as a result of an accident while using my bed as a trampoline! What started as a prank finished up as a serious matter as, in those days, such visits incurred charges which had to be paid and it was only due to the kindness of a local farmer that I received the necessary treatment. Thank goodness for the National Health Service!
Memories of my early days at Birch School include going to the Memorial Hall for lunch of bread and jam. The playground was partitioned between boys and girls with us infants having to use the girl's part and we would peer through the fence at the older boys playing football and so on. The infants class room was heated by a warm, glowing, Tortoise stove which we used to sit round during break time in the winter. In summer we had to go outside. Once out of school things were different and I enjoyed the outdoors often going on walks with "The Gang". This was a group of boys all of whom lived around Hardy's Green. A favourite play area was Shemmings pond which, by today's standards, was a dangerous place with steep banks and very deep water covering a thick layer of sticky clay at one end. At the other end it was full of rushes and reeds. It was said that the pond had been formed by digging the clay out to make bricks to build the house and farm buildings opposite.
The pond was an ideal habitat for nesting moorhens, coots and grebes. There were also fresh water mussels, newts and fish including pike. The surrounding trees and undergrowth provided cover for wagtails, wrens, doves, blackbirds, thrushes, warblers and buntings. Huge dragonflies and damsel flies were also to be found. After silently watching for the pike and seeking out bird nests we would move on to Sanderford Green.
Sheep grazed in the fields behind the farm and hereabouts I saw my first adder. From the Green we walked along Blind Lane to White Horse Corner at Layer Marney. Blind Lane was very twisty and probably got its name because travellers were unable to see where they were going and it was straightened out later when Birch Airfield was built. With not more than four or five vehicles an hour along the main road we would walk along seeking bird nests or playing ball in the road as we went. At Round Bush Corner we would visit the gravel pit to examine the sandy banks looking for sand martin nests but we never found new nests. The pit at that time was no more than a quarter of an acre and only twelve feet deep at the most. The gravel was used for building material and in road surfacing but over the next few years it was deepened considerably particularly when the Airfield was built.
Next stop was the cross roads at Birch Rectory by which time the older lads had collected pockets full of small round stones which they used as ammunition for their catapults. Targets were anything large enough and included the insulation cups on telegraph lines and electricity pylons! Further bird watching along the lane home could be hazardous as stinging nettles were not always seen until it was too late and it was then essential to find dock leaves to rub on our legs to ease the pain.
Other walks included exploring the ancient cart tracks towards Hoggetts Farm and Potash and Sellar Woods known locally as "Ransoms". Here other wonders of nature were revealed especially if we were quiet. Grass snakes lay in the sun, freshly disturbed earth indicated new rabbit holes, fox cubs could be glimpsed in the woods, and among the birds there was a chance of seeing and hearing woodpeckers at work. One of our activities which I am now ashamed off, and am pleased to see is now illegal, was the robbing of bird's nests and egg collecting which, in those days, we all did. We enjoyed a wider variety of wild life than is available nowadays and I suppose that, in some ways, man's intrusion into the world in which I grew up has been responsible for much of the loss.
We learned about nature from each other and, in particular, our older companions were expected to keep us out of trouble to some extent. There was not the traffic to worry about but our heads were filled with stories of bottomless ponds which had swallowed up farm carts. These ponds all had at least twenty feet of thick sticky mud from which no one had ever escaped! Such tales grew and if all were true it is quite possible that some ponds in the area have more farm carts in the bottom that we have shipwrecks around our coastline! As boys we had to pit our strengths, and nerves, against each other and skills, such as knowing which tree branches would hold our weight, had to be learned very early but often resulted in nasty falls.
Not all our activities were acceptable to other local residents and as we grew up scrumping fruit in season provided added vitamins and crops were smuggled out of the fields during pea picking time and later when potatoes were ready. To some extent this was countered by using children on the farms at harvest time and this provided additional income for the family. Birch School log book notes when children were likely to be absent due to harvest work being available. Wild fruit was picked to make jam at home and we were paid 9d (3.8p) for picking 40 lbs of peas; just over 1p for about 50 kilograms of potatoes plus other crops as they came into season.
During the war we had blackout whereby no lights were to be seen at any time and this just added to the problems of being out at night. Later as we grew up we all had bicycles which had to have working lights if we were out after dark. On one occasion three of us we had one headlight and one rear light between three bikes. As we were rounding the brick wall of Beckingham Hall Farm we met, head on, the local policeman on his autocycle. We raced off turning into the farm yard with "Snakey" (the policeman) in hot pursuit. One of us hid in the cow shed, another in the barn and shot through the sack yard and down the headland of the adjoining field.
The "putt-putt" of the autocycle followed me and as I had put my rear light out when we spotted the "bobby" I couldn't understand how he was following me. It was only then that I realised that each time I went over a bump my light lit up! Reaching the edge of the field I rode down a slight incline crossing a ditch full of cow muck, by a narrow plank bridge, and out onto the road. I raced home and rushed indoors asking my mother to tell anyone who called that I had been there all evening. She wanted the full details but before I could tell her there was a knock at the door and when she opened it there was "Snakey" covered from head to toe in black, stinking, sludge. Mother offered to help him clean up but he insisted on wanting to know where I was and to my relief mother told him I had been in all evening!
That was not, however, the end of the matter as "Snakey" insisted on seeing me and I almost burst out laughing when I saw him only to be told "If I ever see you out without lights again I'll make sure you wont be able to sit down again for weeks". He then calmed down a little and allowed my mother to help him clean up. He knew exactly who the other two were and was anxious to visit their parents so he left and then it was mother's turn to tell me exactly what she thought of me and that was far worse than anything "Snakey" had threatened!
As is often said "we didn't have much money but we did see life" and we were left to our own devices so far as amusing ourselves was concerned and no one seemed worried about letting us roam the area as we are today. Traffic was not as heavy as it is today, and life was much slower, so all in all we enjoyed ourselves and were able to do so without harming anyone else - well almost!"
Mr Adkins has always been keen on the history of this area and is well known for his work on collecting photographs of the pupils of Birch School and other places of interest. In addition he has for many years been a keen archaeologist especially in exploring the past in Essex and the Colchester area in particular. We hope to be able to publish more of his recollections in future issues.