TitleMartin Knowles Recollects - Birch Centenary Chronicles 17
AbstractMartin Knowles Recollects

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 17.

Published in Parish News - November 1999

For the last issue of the Chronicles in this Millennium we take a look back to the years before and after the Second World War. We are very grateful to Martin Knowles, Hon. Treasurer of St Mary the Virgin, Layer Marney for the following recollections.

He reminds us that the parish boundaries, either civil or ecclesiastical, were not always as we know them today. At one time or other parts of what are today Virley, Copford and Easthorpe were included in one or other of our three parishes. Census Enumerators were confused even though they were prominent local residents! Prior to the 1930s the southern half of Olivers Lane, Shrub End, on the other side of the Roman River, was part of Birch. The address was "Birch near Colchester" and they were linked to the Birch telephone exchange in the days before we all had six Colchester digits substituted.

Martin's father in earlier times had flown airships for the Royal Naval Air Service, one of the forerunners of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm. After the war he went to New Zealand where he had a lemon orchard but returned to Essex prior to the Second World War. In addition to running Olivers Orchard himself he also looked after several other apple orchards for owners who were away in the services after war was declared. By night he was an ARP warden helping in manning an air raid observer post half way down Olivers Lane among the cornfields where pre-myxomatosis rabbits were there to be shot at during harvest time to help eke out the meat ration.

When the German aircraft were in the vicinity, Birch Exchange would ring the wardens to alert them, but sometimes failed to ring again for the "All Clear"! Martin recalls that a telephone call to London in those pre-digital days was a mesmerising experience as one heard the lines being plugged in through Birch to Witham, Chelmsford and beyond, and one knew what this meant from journeys by LNER to Liverpool Street, when all the houses alongside the railway had been bombed and St Paul's alone stood proud amongst the ruins. Visitors from London were met at Marks Tey station using a pony (named Joyce) and trap from Rodd's stables at Brickwall Farm. Visitors thought this area was heaven after the bombing. But later attempts by the RAF to shoot down the doodlebugs over Essex before these reached London were less amusing.

In wartime days of petrol rationing, he recalls that "we used to walk though Birch woods on Sunday mornings to attend service at St Peter's where the Round family were the local squires. In my memory it is always snowing! Crisp. Clear. Holly trees covered in red berries. Winter as it used to be. That large echoing Church with Christmas carols. "The Holly and the Ivy" will forever mean Birch Church to me. Then the walk back through the woods in the snow to a blazing log fire past those dreadful Roman River obstacle courses where the troops underwent their final pre-battle training with live ammunition fired just over their heads across the valley and mortar bombs fell all over the place, many well outside the official firing range".

"At Mersea there was a splendid wreck of an aircraft in the Mersea Fleet mud from which we culled hordes of live ammunition. Sometimes we skated with the Cubitt family on the pond at Copford Place or in Friday Woods with the Mangles family at Park Farm; played racing demon with the Cust family at Olivers, or played with the sons and daughters of the house at Stanway Hall (now the Zoo), at Abberton Hall (now a nursing home) or climbed the fir trees on the lawns at Kingsford with young Michael Hedley. That was before Kingsford (now a hotel) was bought by Capt Villiers, probably the last man in England to dress for dinner, black tie and all, even when, towards the end, "dinner" was soup and egg brought to him on a tray by his wife. In those days the Peter Lely paintings of Villiers' Buckingham ancestors still hung proud over Kingsford staircase".

"In 1947 Layer Marney Church re-opened. The Hall/Towers were still gloomy, the Long Gallery full of stuffed birds, and the Charrington family not yet on the scene. But we heard George Armstrong preach his first post-wartime sermon from the pulpit of Layer Marney and once a month (or was it more often?) Sunday morning service was at Layer Marney, instead of Birch, and we discovered the joys of worshipping at this very ancient, very rural church that lay within the combined benefice. My recollection is that one looked up in the Parish magazine to find out in which Church Sunday morning service was being held that week. Black caps and black surplices for the choir. On Rogation Sunday we helped bless the crops on the field below the Church where Nick Charrington now keeps his deer. The centrepiece was Basil Bowyer and his horses who embodied Layer Marney farming tradition with its roots nourished deep within the Essex countryside. As a fruitgrower my father was always quick to challenge George Armstrong abut the timing of Harvest Festival services - most of his valuable cox crop was still ripening on the trees long after the Church had sung "all is safely gathered in". All the same, in memory of his mother, my grandmother, my father presented the wooden cross which is now carried in procession at Layer Marney by Graham Howlett".

"I spent 35 years working first overseas in Malaysia, East and West Africa, and in Holland and then in London from where I travelled worldwide for 10 years, often 2-3 countries a week. Flying over the Amazon 1st Class on my way back from Peru I remember thinking "you can gain the whole world but ...."

....... But you cannot lose those memories of the snows of Birch woods in the winters of the 1940's, George Armstrong's first sermons at Layer Marney in 1947, Basil Bowyer's horses at the Rogation services, the light over the font at our daughter's christening in 1967 and her wedding there in 1991, the magic of Layer Marney by candlelight in Winter at Christmastime, the small wooden angel at the entrance to the pulpit quietly inspiring so many gifted sermons by various speakers, and reading the names of Layer Marney's fallen before joining the war memorial services at Birch Cross on Remembrance Sundays, once curiously made even more meaningful by the passage of a cartload of manglewurzles during the two minutes silence".

"I also remember the resonant magic of the 1662 Prayer Book and the King James Bible which together used to symbolise the established Church of England and the restoration of constitutional monarchy to this country. You could feel the Lords Marney join in from their Ancestral tombs. As for the old country services, later recorded by George Armstrong, their meaning was substantially enhanced when you lived on a farm on an island ringed by German submarines where every precious acre was then cultivated for desperately needed food. An apple (or a potato) grown, a sailor saved. And woe betide the Lord if it froze or snowed in April/May or hailed, rained or blew in August".

"Some might call Layer Marney customs pagan, but what does "Pagan" mean except "Country-dweller" (Latin Paganus), as compared with those who live in towns?"

Perhaps readers will be reminded of other such events, particularly in this month of Remembrance, and we would be delighted to hear of them. It is only by recording such occurrences that we can build a picture of the area to hand on to those who follow and, hopefully, will wish to take an interest in our recollections in the years to come.

Rogation Sunday procession in the fields at Layer Marney.
Front L-R 1. T.B. Millatt Lay Reader, 2. Church Warden, 3. Basil Bowyer Church Warden, 4. Rev. George Armstrong.
Church and Layer Marney Tower in the background. Essex County Standard photograph.

PublishedNovember 1999
SourceMersea Museum