Extract from ‘Saltmarsh Sojourn’

Malcolm Brown shares an extract from his Psychogeography piece

Martyrs ~ Satanic Mills ~ Red Sails

Venus had burned bright in the icy blue, western, March sky for several nights — the moon heralding in spring tides to fill the estuary and swamp the river grazing of geese — as the vernal equinox approaches it has kept me awake. Head full of visions and wonderings, until I find myself moved to walking. To drifting out beyond the town out into the lowland marshy wilderness; following the Kyip-Kyip of the redshank the sentinel of the marshes.

Walking for me had grown from my teenage years when, too impatient to wait for buses, I challenged myself to walk to my intended destinations, and arrive before the bus — often than not I got there first. From this grew a malady, an obsession for walking (and later running!). As an only child I would disappear from home for hours at weekends and during school holidays, to roam without purpose, other than to walk. Wandering the highways and byways, parks and open spaces throughout East Ham, West Ham, Manor Park and Wanstead Flats. I became learned of street names and locations — I did ‘the knowledge’, of the cabby! On these perambulations I would, like my hero Sherlock Holmes, try to read the histories and purpose of my fellow pedestrians. I walked and observed.

So it was that early on a clear, bracing March morning I found myself outside the former Maldon Iron Works an impressive three storied building of yellow brick. Now a gym and retail outlet. On its SE wall a plaque, a stone inset which reads –

Stephen was a Maldonian who along with several others in Essex were burnt at the stake for denying transubstantiation, the Catholic church’s teaching of the change of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The sixteenth century was a tough time for having differing religious views.

People pass by, no one seems to notice this dedication and that around four hundred or so years ago, an act of religious fear and barbarism took place here at the junction between the Causeway, that brought travellers across the marshy floodplain of the river Chelmer, before propelling them up the steep Market Hill with its fine Georgian Houses into Maldon town centre.

I reject the notion of climbing Market Hill and instead head eastwards following the slowly rising sun along the river frontage towards the Hythe. Near a boat yard and opposite the old Sadd’s timber wharf — now a barren brown field wilderness, a ghost of Maldon’s industrial past, lie several low buildings in immaculate condition. Completely painted black, they cling seal-like to mud of the riverbank — echoing the dark satanic mills of William Blake’s, Jerusalem poem.

Salt has always been important in this part of Essex the Romans paid their soldiers in salt and all along the Essex coast Ordnance Survey maps mark the remains of salt evaporation known as ‘red hills’. Where once the estuary’s salt rich waters were boiled to release their precious commodity. Maldon salt is special in its construction when dried the salt crystals form delicate pyramidal structures mirroring snowflakes.

At the Hythe the ochre red sails of the barges are furled and stowed. These vessels have sailed from here with a crew of one man, a boy and a dog for decades. Their business was taking hay and straw up the Thames estuary to London, (they were called ‘stackies’) and bringing back manure for the fields. Today they are used as pleasure craft and for taking visitors on wildlife tours. Maldon has a long history of sailing and ship building.

One of the barges has been converted to a tearoom; here over breakfast, I fall into conversation with old Maldonian called Cliff. His memories of Maldon are still vivid after seventy plus years.

  “It’s all history and tourism now boy,” he grumbles, staring out over the exposed mud that the barge is perched on, to a group of foraging dunlin on the far bank.

  “Use to be industry here, ships were built, big iron works, Mr Bentall from Goldhanger and his plough, trade went on, what we got now hey? — salt! that’s it”. He flows on, on a tide of reminiscences and might have beens.

  “History and tourism that’s it,” he repeats draining his teacup.

I tell him about Stephen Knight and his plaque.

  “Never heard of him, where you say this plaque is?”

 I tell him. He promises to go and look for himself.

 “Mind you, Essex has always been a bit non-conformist, there were them people out at Tillingham…..the Peculiar people, that’s them and more besides”.

He asks me what I am doing here in Maldon.

  “Drifting,” I say, “I’m walking into local history and wilderness.”

  “Why?” he frowns at me, “it’s all just history and mud, lots of mud!”

  “I like walking, getting lost, no purpose, just drifting and observing.”

He shakes his head as he rises — we shake hands, as he leaves the gang plank, now on dry land, he looks back smiling — he mouths, Good Luck! I sit down and bite into my toast when I look again he has evaporated into the salty air.

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