Heidi Crowell and the MA Wild Writing group head to the Essex village of Little Baddow on the trail of J. A. Baker. Photos © Ben Thomas.
The MA Wild Writers were off out again on a field trip on Wednesday 23rd November. Our destination was the village of Little Baddow, near Chelmsford, Essex. The aim was to retrace the footsteps of J. A. Baker, as recounted in his classic work of nature writing, The Peregrine (1967).
We looked to find Baker’s wisdom for the day, only to find that there is, in fact, no diary entry for November 23rd in The Peregrine. Perhaps that was Baker’s way of telling us to go out and find it ourselves. Nevertheless, his presence remained excellent company. If you had a penny for each time someone said, “Baker would have known what that was,”you’d have been able to afford the huge red house behind the trees.
We were looking for clues in the landscape, for echoes, small-mirrors of the words that Baker left us nearly fifty years ago. The drive from the university took us as far as a layby beside the chapel, but we chose our feet by no accident, knowing our search would take us far off the road.
The ford and the creek were central to our wanderings, as two of the major placeholders of our route. The bridge was sturdy enough to fit us all, and we spent just one precious moment in silence; ten of us there, gathering the space, trying to use every sense at once.
The favourite sight of the day was the lonely crow perching atop the “gnarled and twisted oak”, like an extension of its silhouette. Don’t tell him, but he was our peregrine that day.
If the New Nature Writers have taught us anything, it’s the importance of finding the sublime in small spaces. This was my thought when I looked over to Wendy, who was sporting a grey feather she’d hand-picked from the ground out of all the gems of Little Baddow. She beamed and said, “This is my finding for today.”
Mine were three golden leaves out of the autumn carpet strewn by the great wall of Lombardy poplars that divided the fields from the site of the old orchard.
After a wander through the site of the old orchard, we made a short lunch stop in the company of Baker’s favourite bench and paid our homage to the grave of Billy Wildman at the Parish Church. We visited the local history centre behind the chapel. It was quite a delight to hear that the locals also knew of J. A. Baker, writer of Essex worlds. The words of Chris, the curator we met that day, make a fitting conclusion for our trip:
“He became the bird.”
He did. And he can still be seen there in his homelands.
Heidi Crowell currently studies the MA Wild Writing at Essex University, after completing her BA in Literature with the university in 2016. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Heidi is an American student who has lived in East Anglia since the age of 7. The experience of having two homes has inspired her passion for Transatlantic literature, art and philosophy, all of which deeply inform her studies of the complicated relationship between human culture and the natural landscape.