All my friends were wearing denim and no-one rode bicycles except children and old men. But, in London, I had worked with the old craftsmen, on the Council at Wood Green, in Buildings and Works. I found their dignity and steady pace a real antidote to the Americanism of England. At twenty-two, I was already a young fogey, if you want to call it that, but I was more serious than that put-down implies. So I wore corduroys and tweed jackets, bought from jumble sales and later from the emerging charity shops, but it was soul not style and roots rather than nostalgia.
My first adult bike came from a jumble in Muswell Hill and cost me forty pence. I could beat the London traffic to work, through the back roads to Wood Green, and easily get there faster than any bus. Arthur, the carpenter, and me rode around to mend people's windows and fences.
I traded this older bike, with slipping bearings, in for £1.50 and bought a newer one, with three gears, for £5, with the £1.50 taken off. This moved to the market town of Braintree with me, where I cycled to Gosfield Lake to stare at the water and try to write a song, and to Stisted, to buy free range eggs. Later, I went to the pub and to work in the factory on my bike, as well as exploring the countryside, with my OS map in my duffle bag. I also had a green duffle coat, from the same jumble hall in north London as my older bike. A photo of me at the times shows my new/old style, sitting on a bench in jeans, but with a tweed jacket and cap, bike leaning there at hand.
I planned out a route, avoiding the main roads as much as possible, back further into the past of England and of my personal past, to cycle the twenty-three miles across Essex to where I had been born, in an old, bleak farmhouse near Ongar, called Bovinger Lodge Farm, which my Dad still rented. This was nearer London, but somehow lost to the motorways and sprawl, beginning to mass around it. The long bike ride was the homecoming, recognising the place for the first time, which TS Eliot spoke of, and I was aware of the lines at the time. 'I was so much older then/ I'm younger than that now', I can say with Bob Dylan today, even though I also knew that song well by then.
Length of route: 23 miles. Cycle or slow car-ride recommended.
Find route on OS Explorer maps, 195 and 183.
Braintree to Rayne
Out of Braintree town centre on Rayne Road, straight on at the roundabout and on to The Street. On entering Rayne, turn left at the crossroads, past the village hall on the left. At the T-junction, turn right into New Road.
Rayne to Felsted
At another T-junction, left into School Road, then follow the road to Felsted, past the turning to Bartholomew Green and the one to Molehill Green and then through Bannister Green. Turn left on to the B1417 (Braintree Road), go past the public school and on into Felsted. Pass the turning to Chelmsford on the left, then take the next left into Mill Road, past the old water mill and go on to the village of North End.
North End to High Easter
Turn right into Bennett's Lane in North End and go up to the A130. Cross the main road into Hounslow Green. Turn left at the next junction (Lofty Green), then right at the next, after Rolfe's Farm. Left, after passing a house called Upper Harveys on the right, to Stagden Cross. At the T-junction, turn right towards High Easter.
High Easter to Leaden Roding
At the end of the village main street, turn left at the junction and left again, down towards the converted windmill. After Lowerhouse Farm on your left, turn right over Brickford Bridge, then right at the T-junction, through the woods, towards Leaden Roding.
Leaden Roding to Bovinger
Go straight on at the cross roads in Leaden Roding, the A1080 (Stortford Road), then left onto the B184 (Dumnow Road towards Ongar). Take the first right onto a single track road, past Berwick Hall on the left, then left and left again, past the Rectory and into Abbess Roding. Go past the church on the right and carry on past Cobbler's Pieces (farm). Carry on past the turning to Little Laver on the right, then turn left at Red House and White House into Little Laver Road towards Moreton. Past Newhouse Farm, then right at the junction towards Moreton.
In Moreton, turn left, towards Ongar, over the bridge, then right, through Pedlars End. Go round a double-bend and into Moreton Road. The private lane to Bovinger Lodge is on the right.
Everyone has their Braintree. Probably for some it is their university town, their first move away, their first independent home or relationship. I mean the place where you feel grown-up, with a surge of independence, where you live in a different community than your parents'. It wasn't the first place I'd lived away , but it was the first place I'd decided to live on my own, after the isolated family life near the small village of Bovinger, and after living in Devon, Edinburgh and London. It was a definite, decisive move away from something toward something else. It was also a kind of returning or reclaiming and a cycle, a cyclic trip back through my home county.
Braintree was, for me, a place that contained the wild youth culture of Essex, the hippies, the old rockers, the rock musicians, the dreamers in their twenties like me, the sub-culture, the chosen, tolerant pub, the drink, the dope, the women, the slightly old-fashioned glamour of the less ambitious, the self-containment, the backwoods retaining of a serious energy. Braintree was cynical, tough, unpretentious. Everyone still liked the Rolling Stones in Braintree.
I think that these days it is probably like everywhere else, but then the town was on its own enough to be independent. Not near enough to Chelmsford, with its endless factories and its dull self-importance, we were also not near enough to Colchester, with its on-going Army/ University identity crisis. We also had the US Airforce bases nearby, which gave us a view towards a wider and looser world, via some of the servicemen and the local women who entertained them.
Coffee bars were a young person's feature of most towns in Essex then. Chelmsford had the R & B, we had the Continental Coffee Club, which was a basement, selling Espresso, like old Soho, and actually open all night. This was where, at fifteen, visiting a school pal, I'd fallen in love with the bohemian ambience of the town scene. Later, aged twenty-three, already aware of the anomaly of the place, realising my love was true, I'd moved to a furnished room in an old house, with my hardback notebook, my typewriter, my guitar and my bicycle. These were the furniture of my becoming and Braintree was my space.
Braintree to Rayne
This was a bit of main road, but half avoided by using the back streets, then past the little workman's café, where the woman serving used to ask, 'Do you want sugar, ducks?' My pal Syd used to say, 'No sugar-ducks, thanks.' He also used to say, 'Looks like Rayne,' as we passed the village in the van. The world was full of cafés and coffee bars then and I miss them.
This road also went past The Barn Restaurant, then still owned by the alleged gangster, who, according to Syd was not someone to be taken seriously, but was, rather, like some cartoon villain. This was half a mile of main road, the old A120, before turning left, by the house of Lionel, the brilliant old folk fiddler I later played with, who loved to break into jazz between dances, and just before another friend's house. This was a place Chris was doing up. He later rowed down the Stort/ Lea river, to the Thames, then down the Avon to Bristol, sleeping under his boat, suspended over crossed oars.
My first journey to Rayne, other than by van or car, was a walk. My friend Oliver knew the way down in Braintree to the disused railway line. It was a nether world of nature and wonder. We walked this in the spring of my first months in Braintree, in the green, wide path, as peaceful as an abandoned church, where nostalgia and progress made a forgotten pact with beauty. The beauty was palpable, where the wild flowers grew in abundance, spread along in seed and spore, as Oliver pointed out, by the long gone trains. He also knew all the names and folklore of the flowers. The railway line went from Braintree to Stortford and would have come in useful once the airport at Stansted expanded. I have a friend who still spits when the name Beeching is mentioned.
Right at the other end of the disused railway, in sight of where the M11 sweeps south towards London, a little viaduct bridge was visible from the roads, poignantly leading nowhere. I used to notice it while I was stuck in traffic and it made me think of a more communal kind of progress.
Rayne had a nice village hall, where I later played and attended wedding parties. At the time, there was also a small iron foundry in the village, where, local word had it, it was wise to avoid getting sent by the Employment Exchange. The hall was a good one, acoustically, to play in. I later wrote a song which began,
I like dancing in the village hall
Don't want to go into the town at all
Someone said that small is beautiful …
Turning left there on your bike, you went down towards the old station, now a house, then you swung left into the quieter roads, with smaller houses and bits of agricultural industry.
Rayne to Felsted
This is where the sense of open space begins, as you pedal through four Greens: Bartholomew Green, past the turn to Molehill Green, through Frenches Green and Bannister Green, towards Felsted.
Others must have felt the open space too, because then there were several small retirement cottages or bungalows to pass by, looking self-built or built to order. My Grandparents had such a retirement smallholding, with a bit of land and a compact house built to their specifications, in Hertfordshire.
There was a particular favourite house on the right as I descended a small hill towards the turning to Molehill Green, in pale green and white paint. Sometimes I saw the old couple in their garden and I guessed that this perfect, modest house would soon be replaced with something grand and executive in style. This has happened. These charming little homes, probably built in the 'thirties and 'forties, suiting my humble mood, spoke of a different attitude to work and to the countryside and they are still being developed out of existence for good.
In one of the Greens is a builders' office, where I was later turned down for a job, because they knew some disreputable, to them, people who lived in the same flats as me. Maybe it was them, later, doing the developing.
Felsted is quite touristy, with its Public Schools and its famous old building, marked with the ancient builder's name ('George Boote made this house 1596'). He's famous now, but may have been an unpopular developer in his day. The other thing Felsted was famous for was another place to avoid getting a job, so they said, which was the sugar-beet factory. This was a mile or so out of the village, beside the old railway line, but I turned the other way, left, towards North End and the Chelmer river. Essex has both Southend and North End.
North End to High Easter
You drift down a gentle hill, past a watermill, while the road narrows and joins in beside the river. There is a causeway path, raised, in between. You turn a corner and cross a bridge, now climbing away from the river. Here I used to stop for a break, having discovered, on the left, a copse, leading to an ideal picnic spot by the banks of the river. I had a basket on my bike and a flask in my duffle bag.
North End is just up the gentle hill, and I turned right, by a wide house with peacocks in the garden, who would cry out raucously at my shouted imitation of their ugly song, at odds with the ludicrous grandeur of their pin-headed splendour. I found a designer feather in the road once and took it home.
The theme of suburban glamour continued towards the main Dunmow to Chelmsford road, with a perfect barn conversion. I played as a child in an old Essex barn, with oak beams, unconverted. To put it in perspective, there was an abandoned garden, the house gone, with a desolate attraction, before arriving at the main road, which needed to be crossed carefully, at Hounslow Green. This is not a big road, but traffic can come swift and sudden.
Having crossed, you are in a narrow lane again, soon going past a small nature reserve, past the turn to Pye's Farm, with its illustration of magpies, then fairly rare, now common all over Essex, into the most rural part of the ride. On the steep banks of the narrowing road, cowslips were growing on that first ride, protected from the sprays of the farmers by the lowness of the road. This bit of the countryside with its maze of small roads is damp and more like the edges of Essex, near the sea. In the same area is the village of Pleshey, which means 'plashy', marshy and splashy, and is mentioned by Shakespeare somewhere (Richard II, Act I, scene 2).
I turned left, then right, then left, past another tiny house on a corner, in Lofty Green, complete with its elderly couple, the man in a white jacket, the woman in a flowered dress, tending their garden like Little England. I wrote a song called by that name, inspired by Randy Newman's irony about America, which also contained the hope of the place, the positive hid amid the exaggeration of insularity.
God bless Little England
Though she may be sinking fast
Then past a residential caravan in its own little field, where I fancied living, in damp but cosy seclusion, as if I was discovering Essex myself like a gypsy. Then at Stagden Cross, I joined the road from Pleshy to High Easter.
High Easter to Leaden Roding
High Easter has a pretty cricket ground on the village green, that couldn't have been made up by even a Newman inspired ironist. Opposite this common but classic picture in those days was an antique shop, where I bought, later, an Anglo Concertina, a favoured instrument for English folkies. The village had a two or three shops then, including the grocers', run by elderly twin brothers in white coats.
Round the corner, past two pubs, you descend towards the river Can and come upon a magician's house. It's a converted windmill, with a round glass room on top and a balcony area above. It looks like the magician would stand there and command the winds to do his bidding. You can tell that the exhilaration of the ride had got to me by then.
A farmhouse nearby has some pargetting friezes on the wall, which flash past as the hill gets steeper. Turning right over a bridge, you start going up a gentle hill again, towards some deep, private woods, which close around the road, cool, even on a sunny day, before you get to Leaden Roding itself.
Leaden Roding to Bovinger
The Rodings are sometimes called the Roothings, but my Dad reckoned the variations in spelling in Essex resulted from the local accent. Are you surprised that Essex has, or had, local accents? How the locals would have pronounced Roothing sounded like Roding. Likewise, Bovinger is sometimes called Bobbingworth and the 'th' sound would have been left out in native Essex.
It was cycling through Leaden Roding that, feeling unleaden and maybe unleavened, I wrote the main part of one of my first English-sounding songs, called Bicycle Ride. Almost a kids' song, it had a life beyond me, despite just being initially something I chanted to myself, while high on my idea of simplicity and fresh air. A unicyclist I know, Pete Coe, sings it and an East London band covered it. I heard them play it in a park in Leytonstone once.
Bring our flasks and our cycle clips
Bring our puncture repair outfits
We'll go off to the countryside
Out on a bicycle ride
Anyway, here was a big cross roads, with a half mile of main road to travel, before more interesting diversions. Turning right and minding the sparse cars and lorries, then left towards Ongar, over another bridge, over the Roding, I cycled past a roadside space where some gypsies would stay at times. One time later, a young traveller, seeing me cycle past, shouting out, in a kind of mocking approval at my obvious, humble, self-conscious pioneering, 'Right on, shit trousers!'
I don't believe there was anything actually wrong with my trousers, but it was an earthy and refreshingly crude acknowledgement of my own attempted earthiness, I like to think.
Then the next lovely diversion, the first right towards Abbess Roding, past the hall and the church, where I found a book once on a village fete stall called Raggle Taggle, about collecting tunes from Romanian gypsies. Abbess Roding, in its publess centre, seems to have lots of tall trees, making it feel a bit blessed by a benign Abbess who might be called Sylvia. Up the narrow hill out of the centre, then on towards Little Laver, I was coming into my home area.
These roads I had cycled in my childhood, on an impossibly small bicycle, probably used by all four of my brothers before me. I think we all learned to ride on the same gentle slope outside Bovinger Lodge.
Cobbler's Pieces is the name of a farm, still owned by my Dad's friend George Scales. My brother drove a potato van for him, selling to the big new town of Harlow. Now the farm is given over to thatch straw manufacture. As I cycled through, I remembered my brother's descriptions of the farm culture, jokes and scandals.
There's a little hall in Little Laver where I first went to a youth club and I remember feeling my own scandalous desire for a girl that evening, one who I barely dared speak to. The memory was still fresh as I passed.
Left past Newhouse Farm, a very common name for old farms round here, which came just after a wood with a mysterious wooden tower in it, now gone. Then right by a farmhouse just before Maltings Hill, where you can see Bovinger Lodge, two miles away, across the fields. I stayed in this house once as a young schoolboy and remember the two daughters, of roughly the same age as me and my brother, about nine or ten, being keen to get into bed with us in the morning, until interrupted by their mother calling us to get up for breakfast.
The place where the old thrashing tackle owner, a big businessman for the area, had retired, before the dust got his lungs, was next on the right, before the row of houses on the hill, descending towards Moreton. In one of these houses a poor, lobotomised woman had lived. She used to sit on her step and lift her skirts up high when anyone passed.
Moreton, where I went to school, has too many memories for me to go into, but the village hall, on the left, just after the church, was where we ate out school dinners, delivered in vans, contained in big aluminium tubs and where my brother's beat group had played some of their first gigs. It is one of the few halls in Essex that I never played myself, despite being in an English Barn Dance band for many years. As my Village Ball song said,
Forget about the showbiz spectacular
Come with me and get in the vernacular
Over the bridge of the Cripsey Brook, tributary to the Roding, turn right, up past Paddler's End, now for some reason called Pedlars End, with no apostrophe or humour left, and then go just round a double bend.
The lane off right down to Bovinger Lodge is three-eights of a mile long, as my Dad always insisted. The old farmhouse had been rented by him just before the war and was his retreat into the country, his exile, so as to rediscover himself as a freelance journalist, after being in Fleet Street trade journals from the age of sixteen.
To talk about the farm would be another trail, a walk, round every field, with their names, like Long Ley and Shed Hoppit, and hedgerow, with plants like the spindle and the crab apple, but really I need to talk about what was on my mind at the time I cycled up to the back door in 1973.
It was something to do with feeling unapologetically local, Essex, English, accepting of what was passed on to me, what was given, to feel I could own myself and find a space for my imagination to work and speak with its own rhythm and tongue. I didn't have to apologise for being a country boy, or having a sense of the past and the present side by side, or of the love of nature, however affected by agriculture or nostalgia. I lost my liberal shame and my sense of culture being somewhere else.
It had been easier for me to go home, to be home, from a distance. The song I wrote later, in 1988, called The Back Roads attempts to speak of all this, as did everything I wrote and write now really, from that time on.
Not far from all the new world
The old one still quietly lives on
Adapting like foxes have done to human wasteland
The shy ones and the brave ones
The gypsies still stroll in the lane
As if we had slipped back again
It's still real knowing, the way you're going
I prefer the back roads
Full of danger and beauty it's true
It may not be the quickest way through
But it's the pretty way, the old way
The hard way, the dark way, the sly way
And if you like the wide bland highway
There's no point in me going with you …
'Less you prefer the back roads too
Copyright © Adrian May