From age 7 to 19, I lived in Bowers Gifford, a drowsy Essex village on the outskirts of Basildon. Memories of that semi-rural home are very happy, give or take a few exceptions.
Along a very quiet road (Church Road) near to our house, you could cycle or walk south, fields on each side, towards the Thames. After a half mile, the land dips down to square miles of marshland which stretch out to the river. As kids, brother Neil and I would cycle down the hill at breakneck speed, usually halting along the flat by St Margarets church.
Rolling back the decades, I pulled up outside St Margarets again two weeks ago. This time in the car. It’s a beautiful building, believed to be about 600 years old.
Smiling, recalling my two years as a choirboy. Swinging on the long church bell ropes, climbing up into Father Ford’s belfry. Giggling in the pews to ease the boredom of the Sunday morning service.
50 yards away, the sight of the railway bridge brought back the time when a few of us – probably 10, 11 and 12-year old kids – scrambled up the embankment.
For a dare, I placed a stone on the line. Wondering how easily the next train would crush it. Never a bad lad…..but I did like to try stuff. The driver probably shat himself. The police were there in 10 minutes. The coppers and my parents both tore strips off me. I could have de-railed the train, they reckoned. And so of course young Kevin wondered (fantasised?) what that would have been like.
The road beyond the bridge once led out to some farm buildings. 50 years later, it has become a car park, serving the newly-created Bowers Marsh Nature Reserve. It’s the first time here for Maureen and I.
No café or toilets or play area – just an RSPB bird sanctuary that does what it says on the tin by bringing together several different wild wetland habitats ringed and interspersed by a series of trails to walk. Even if you know very little about wetfowl (ie me and the missus) it’s a glory to be out in the fresh air under a sky that always seems bigger when out by the estuary.
It was cold, so we wrapped up all warm and cosy.
I think we found the 5 km Wetland Trail, more by chance than any planning. It turned out to be a long circular route that encompasses a series of saline and freshwater lagoons. Some are fenced in to stop foxes intruding.
The odd sign or two pointed the way.
Following the path, we saw reedbeds and wild red berries.
Occasional benches scattered here and there. The odd lone birder peering through their bins. Everyone keeping their distance.
And the birds of course. We thought the one on the fence was a raven, but it could have been a crow.
Loads of Canada geese are around, as well as mallards, lapwings and plover. Lots more, but my eye is amateur and my binoculars low class.
Then there is the thing on a nearby ridge. Is it a watering machine?
It makes me think of the orgone machine in the Kate Bush video for ‘Cloudbusting’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRHA9W-zExQ).
There is a deep quiet out on these marshes. Beautifully interrupted at one stage by a goose flying overhead. The sound of its wings cuts the air with a magical energy.
Now and again a train moved along the Fenchurch Street line, in the distance. At one point two met, silver tubes seeming to merge and shorten before extending and disentangling.
Here are some other sights. The play of the light out here is liminal.
At one stage, Maureen bent to do something below my waist. I love my wife.
Eventually, after several miles, the path swings back around towards the car park and church.
We went past a tree with a hole.
Up on the distant hill, we could see Pitsea.
Kids there were tougher than their Bowers Gifford peers. I used to take the train from Pitsea to East London, to watch games at West Ham, my darling football team.
The farmer who once owned the buildings at the top of the next pic was not a fan of the young Kevin.
More than once he knocked on our door because I had been turning his haystacks into creative buildings, chopping down a small tree or two or rolling gleefully in his corn. Kids will be kids. I’m genuinely sorry, if it makes any difference all these years later. He didn’t much care for my dad either, after the old man burned the plastic from copper wire at the back of our house…right by his barley fields.
The church came into view again.
It reminded me of how I joined the choir so as to get in the football team that Father Ford had assembled. We didn’t play very often. Instead – I somehow got to be head choirboy – they must have been so short of decent singers! Then I discovered T Rex and David Bowie, and said my goodbyes to cassocks, chasubles and swinging thuribles.
By now Maureen needed a wee, so we found the car, and headed away. To Pitsea. Where there were once toilets in Howards Park. But they were absent now.
Had my first proper fight in this park, aged 8. I got pummelled by a bigger kid on a roundabout. Decided there and then that it was a mug’s game.
We found toilets in an Aldi, then pulled in at Pitsea Broadway, for a bag of chips.
Hot, salted and vinegared. Munched them in the car, people watching. A perfect way to finish, before another trip down memory lane, driving back to Chelmsford through Basildon’s cramped houses and strained-looking streets. A huge contrast with the open sky of Bowers marshes.
It is so difficult to have any kind of day out right now, but we did. It made me throb with contentment for the next 48 hours.
Simple pleasures can bring great happiness.