Having dealt with Chigwell, Buckhurst Hill and Loughton, the next stop on my district safari was scheduled to be North Weald. Had it been 1993 I could have taken the tube all the way, but economic reality meant I could only take the Central line as far as Epping and then switch to a bus. Unravelling what buses go where in southeast Essex is somewhat of a minefield, with severalcommercialoperators running diverse services, often irregularly, and no easy way to see the overall picture other than a single interactive map. That proved cumbersome to translate into reality, especially when only three of the 12 buses shown actually ran on a Saturday, so turning up and checking the timetable proved easiest. But I'd just missed one, and the next wasn't for half an hour, so I decided to walk because it was a nice day, and it was only 3 miles, and a stroll along roads through autumnal Epping Forest would be pretty. Sure, the bus overtook me somewhere near the Coopersale turning, but hey, we Londoners have it easy.
Somewhere historic: North Weald Airfield Museum North Weald Airfield opened at the height of the First World War and is celebrating its centenary this year. Peak importance came during the Battle of Britain, with numerous bombing runs despatched, and a handful of reciprocal attacks by German fighters endured. Combat units continued to be based here until 1958, and the RAF stayed until 1964, before the council eventually bought it up and North Weald became a civilian airfield. It's still a busy one, as the low flying prop buffeting over my head and various other takeoffs during my visit attested. The airfield's wartime history is told in a small museum out front in the former RAF Station Office, behind a curved memorial currently hung with the tributes of remembrance, and focused around a memorial stone donated as a debt of honour by the people of Norway. It's open on weekend afternoons, and admission's only a couple of quid.
Unfortunately the NWAM closed on the last week of November for the winter break. It's OK, I knew this before I arrived, so I wasn't left disconsolate. But being a December tourist in the shires is rarely straightforward.
Thankfully I wasn't at North Weald for the museum, I was here for the market. This covers a large area at the south of the site, very close to the museum, but with direct access alas fenced off. Online directions assume you're arriving by car, because this is Essex, and driving requires entering the airfield from the opposite direction, up towards the junction with the M11. I couldn't see any signs directing pedestrians to a way in, nor did my map show any direct connection between the village and its airfield, so reluctantly I made a mile and a bit's diversion... along the lane up to the parish church and back down inside the security perimeter, alongside a stream of cars arriving and departing. It's busy, this one.
Somewhere retail: North Weald Market
Once described as the largest in the country, North Weald's open air market covers an area of hardstanding off the edge of the runway, and takes place once a week. Every Saturday the stallholders wheel in and set up shop, followed closely by the general public who park up in long lines between the market and the control tower. I think it's free - nobody asked me to cough up simply for wandering in. According to OpenStreetMap there are three long parallel rows of stalls, but on my visit only two, which might be because it's winter or might be because the market's size is no longer record-breaking. Having been to Dagenham Sunday Market the set up's very similar, only that took rather longer to walk round, and I suspect I saw several of the same stallholders too.
The goods on offer are cheap and cheerful, and targeting a very different clientèle to Buckhurst Hill. The clothes sometimes have designer labels, dangling from chains hung from the awning above, but are more likely to be mass-produced or utilitarian. Bedding may be labelled 'Hotel pillows' to enhance a sale, and the appearance of three golden retrievers on a bath towel is a carefully calculated move to appeal to the milling demographic. Handbags glitter, rows of inanimate heads model fluffy bobble hats, and every evil demon you might want to mimic on your next motorbike ride has been imprinted on a balaclava. I hesitate to say counterfeit, or knock-off, but I wasn't surprised by how many stalls appeared to be offering Kylie's latest make-up range at a bargain bucket price.
A large part of the market experience is food, peaking with the butchers' vans parked up and offering pork deals for £20, auction-style. Most visitors will succumb to a meal while they're here, with cheesy chips the ubiquitous choice, and the greasy smell of value burgers wafts across the aisles. Youngsters haven't been forgotten either, with one sweet stall unnervingly offering a bag of sherbet-filled "Flying Sources" for a quid. As for the drinks on offer, tea generally trumps coffee, and a Winterberry fruit smoothie retails at half of what a gullible Londoner would pay.
It being nearly Christmas a lot of folk are here buying gifts for the family. The largest crowd is watching The Toyz Boyz Mega Toy Sale, waiting expectantly as a pile of own-brand Scalextric is manhandled up onto the stage. Those in the back row already have boxes of non-Disney princesses and dinosaur slippers stashed in oversized plastic bags slung over the bar of their pushchairs, along with 2-packs of Calvin Classies boxer shorts for the older relatives, on what has already been a productive afternoon. Nearby a man with a pitbull in a knitted bodywarmer smiles as it leaps up onto a fellow shopper, because it's only being playful. And eventually the shoppers walk, or waddle, or mobility-scoot back to their vehicles, after what's been a fine day out, and back again soon?
My next destination was a church in the middle of nowhere seven miles distant, which in rural Essex could be quite a challenger. Thankfully by following some villagers walking home I found a direct way out of the airfield, via some easily overlooked alleyways in a housing estate. Thankfully the next bus back to Epping was just arriving, and the fare was only £2.20 which is small fry for the shires. Thankfully I was pre-planned with the number of my next bus, and it too arrived after only a couple of minutes. This time the fare was £3, with a completely different company, and the vehicle had definitely seen better days. But we rattled through the countryside past undulating ploughed fields of sunlit beauty, through occasional aspirational hamlets to a roundabout by a farm shop, where I got surprised looks as I alighted. The bus turned right to deposit its remaining passengers in Harlow, and I was left wondering if my upcoming long hike back to Broxbourne station had been a misjudgement. The combined journey cost me over a fiver, but I was well chuffed that Essex's public transport system had delivered me from isolation to distant obscurity in thirty minutes flat.
Somewhere random: Nazeing
If you'll forgive me, I visited this next village for me, not for you. Nazeing is in my roots, it's where my great grandparents moved to raise a family, and where my grandmother grew up and married. She moved away before I was born, but when I was little we used to go over occasionally to visit relations, and I haven't been back since.
Nazeing's big as villages go, reputedly one of the largest in the country, at least in terms of sprawl. Several hamlets are scattered across what was once a forested common, long since ploughed for agricultural land, and the parish fills most of the space between Harlow and Broxbourne. The area's most famous for its glasshouses, cucumbers a speciality, although market gardening is now on the decline and being replaced by residential infill. The crossroads in Lower Nazeing is also supposed to be the site of the UK's first self-service petrol station, the brainchild of local resident Alan Pond, on a site shortly to be reborn as six executive homes.
There are two churches in the parish, one of which is a modern thing with a "Bacon Butty service" on the first Sunday in the month, and I'm pleased to say my grandparents were married in the other. All Saints sits on the hilltop in the oldest part of Nazeing, with fine views down across the valleys of the Lea and Stort, and can only be accessed via a dead end lane or a muddy bridleway. The building's Norman, on an early Anglo-Saxon site, with walls of flint rubble and a timbered Tudor porch. I'd like to have gone inside to see the medieval font in which my grandmother was baptised (1901) and the site of those wedding vows (1925), but the door was firmly locked. Instead I wandered around the churchyard, failing to find the graves of any ancestors, then walked off down the lane to be overtaken by a current resident in a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost.
My great grandparents moved down from Roydon and settled in the delightfully named hamlet of Bumbles Green, a good half hour's walk away on the other side of the golf course. A hundred or so houses lie clustered around a road junction by the telephone exchange, along with the local football club, a car repair business and one of Nazeing's better pubs. The King Harolds Head is particularly important to me, not because 1066's king ever popped in for an ale, but because it's where my grandmother did the cleaning. I'm told she broke off from her daily chores to chat out of the window to the dishy local postman, who she eventually ended up marrying, and that's why I'm here today.
According to the 1901 census the family home's at the turn of the century was at 48 Long Green. I sort of remembered where it was, and found the street sign, so was disappointed to discover that the modern numbering only goes up as far as 20. And when I got the end of the row of council houses it wasn't there, which didn't come as any particular surprise. What I remember of the cottage is how old it seemed, even when I was very young, as if the relatives still living in it existed in some agricultural weatherboarded two-room timewarp.
In its place is something very New Essex, a courtyard surrounded by low chalet dwellings, fronted by a massive brick wall and two ostentatious wooden gates accessed by PIN code. It probably lights up like Christmas after dark, whereas the original cottage barely boasted electricity, even in the 1970s. The scale of the domestic upgrade wasn't lost on me, nor the increase in living space, whereas a family with ten children had once crammed into something far smaller on the same site. I'm proud to be a product of Old Essex, before the Range Rovers came.
My great grandfather moved to Nazeing because it was within an hour's walking distance of the Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey where he worked as a Danger House Man. I faced a walk almost as long to reach the nearest station, thanks to the localbusservice being cut from hourly to almost three-hourly last year. When I finally arrived, after what had somehow been a total of 15 miles of walking around Epping Forest, my trial was completed by a rail replacement bus, which didn't even stop at the town where I'd been hoping to end my day. I've had more successful trips out, but none so close to home.