Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - May 2000
Published in Parish News - May 2000
Village Signs are found in many parts of the country and it is believed that the movement towards providing a colourful introduction to so many of our villages started with the dedication of signs around the Royal Estate in Sandringham, Norfolk, to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1936. At the outbreak of War in 1939 all means of identifying locations were either destroyed or removed in the interests of national security. Although such signs were restored after 1945 new signs were not introduced until the Queen's Coronation year 1953. There were other reasons which were marked by new signs such as local anniversaries and, gradually, the process gathered momentum.
In this area we are fortunate in not only having ample historical detail for recording but also we have a craftsman in our midst who has, justifiably, earned plaudits for his creations. Tony Blyth of Layer Breton took up carving as a hobby after retiring from his veterinary practice. Attending his first Parish Meeting he heard about the planned village sign, designed by Malcolm Carter, then Chairman of the Meeting, and was asked to carry out the carving. The joinery work was carried out by Peter Luxmoore making it a real community project. Carving this sign took just over five months and it was installed in 1981. The sign soon attracted attention and the next year he was asked to undertake work on one for Birch. His latest project is to be installed in Layer Marney, at Smythe's Green, during this year. Tony did not take a well earned rest in the years since 1982 as not only was he fully involved with work on behalf of the Church in the area but also carried out commissions and carved signs for other parishes in the neighbourhood. When driving through Copford, Messing, and other villages, just stop to look at Tony's work in recording the history of the various parishes.
Once carved the signs have to be painted in appropriate colours. These colours must either match the fauna and flora of the local wildlife or the colours on the ancient coats of arms and heraldic devices represented. Each sign is a representation of a mixture of the old and the new linking the world as it is today with that which our ancestors knew. Each acknowledges the families who formerly owned the land and each sign includes crops grown down the centuries or depicts animals found today in the locality.
To create and fulfil a commission is only the first stage as the weather can cause havoc with the painting even though the paints used are of the highest quality and expected to survive the harshest conditions. Most signs require a fresh coat of paint or varnish about every five years but this depends on the situation. The Birch sign, erected in 1982, has only required refurbishment once since then as it faces north and is not subject to direct sunlight which has the most harmful effect.
As mentioned above each signs contains references to the history and everyday life in the three villages and if you look closely at them you will find them full of interest. The following description may be of some help but for more detailed information the Reverend Keith Lovell of Tollesbury has published a number of books describing the Village Signs of Essex and these can be obtained from The Lighthouse Christian Bookshop, Tollesbury.
Standing at the approach to the village, if you are coming from Colchester, on Pudding Green, the sign was erected in 1982 and is single sided facing north. Surrounding the coat of arms of the Round family are the arms of St Peter and St Mary representing the two churches. There are also shields of two other families with local connections, the Gernon family held land in Norman times and the Tendring family were patrons of the living from the 14th to the 18th centuries. The sign is surmounted by an ancient castle representing the fact that Birch had a motte and bailey castle in much earlier times. Local wild life is reflected in a pheasant and a fish.
Situated on the green near the site of the Quaker Chapel demolished only a few years ago this is also a single sided sign facing west. At the top the Church with trees and geese representing the Heath plus fish for the reservoir and other wildlife. The arms are those of St Catherine's College and St John's Abbey both landowners in earlier times. Barley and wheat depict the farming interest and the whole surrounds the arms of the Norman le Breton family from which the village is named.
Unlike the other signs this is double sided. Dominant is the carving of the Tower and St Mary's Church. On one side the sign shows a tractor, a turkey and a Friesian cow. On the other side a horse plough team show the historical significance of farming in the parish. Other carvings depict the rare breeds housed at the Tower including a saddleback pig, soay sheep and a dexter cow. Also shown is a deer now farmed in the parish. The central arms are of the Marney family on one side and the arms of St Mary the Virgin on the reverse. The sign also shows a rhea's egg, a bird now bred in the area.
All the signs are carved from Idigbo, a very durable West African hardwood. In most cases the signs require joinery work which is carried out by Tom Wayman who in addition prepares the oak posts which carry the signs. The total weight of the new Layer Marney sign is such that when complete it is very difficult to lift and move. The paints used are specialist sign writing materials and when several coats have been applied they are covered by boat builder's varnish for added protection.
In this way we are able to look at, and admire, the work of a modern craftsman, who uses tools and techniques which have been around for many hundreds of years, to create an historical linkage with a bygone age which, at the same time, reflects objects recognisable to all of us.
Copyright Notice: The illustrations of the Layer Marney sign above are from 'History Through Essex Town and Village Signs' booklets by the Revd Keith Lovell. They are © Keith Lovell and used with the author's permission.