Our Travel blog
Braughing part 1
Welcome back. I haven’t divided this entry into individual days because we’ve been here in Braughing for over a fortnight so I’ve summarised our stay, glossing over the more mundane aspects of our temporary domesticity in favour of some judiciously edited highlights. In view of the large amount of text and my inability to finish it in time it’s be published to the blog in two parts.
We are here to house sit for good friends of ours and to look after their chocolate Labrador Maddie. Alison has known, let’s call them Alice and Fred, for years since they were local neighbours in Cambridge and they’ve remained close ever since. After a career in teaching Alice retrained for the clergy and is now the vicar for this Parish. She also took the sermon at our wedding and was one of the people who joined us at New Wine back in July where she was a tower of strength, with wise counsel just when we needed it most. Well, wise counsel and a bottle of red wine, which is my kind of guidance. Fred does something exciting with chemicals and precious metals and confesses that one of the highlights of his job is being frisked every day. They have both been enormously welcoming, supportive and generous to a fault.
When we started on our adventures way back in March they foolishly offered us the opportunity to house and dog sit and since then they’ve spent the intervening 5 months desperately hoping we’d get a better offer. We didn’t and so I’m writing this from the tranquillity of a rural vicarage while Alison is hurriedly trying to clean up after my inadvisable brush with modern domestic living. Actually although it is rural the vicarage is a year old and crammed full of in-built appliances and gadgets that even after a fortnight of living here are still a mystery to me. For example the kitchen tap has a variety of settings that as far as I can tell are designed to drench my midriff with a choice of scalding hot or ice cold water. People witnessing me washing up may be forgiven for thinking I’m incontinent or get abnormally excited at scrubbing dishes. It even has one of those bendy hoses attached whose function and operation are still completely unknown to me. One day while Alison was otherwise engaged walking Maddie I mounted a clandestine operation to unlock its enigmatic secrets. After much twiddling and prodding I managed to get a dribble out of it. Emboldened by this small victory I pressed a pressed a lever I hadn’t tried and was rewarded by an uncontrollable fountain of steamy water snaking around and giving the kitchen an abundant watering. When I eventually wrestled it into submission and turned around the only dry area in the room was a Raymond shaped patch on the floor where I’d taken the full force of the spray. Alison and Maddie returned from their walk to discover me mopping up and dripping from head to foot. Even the dog sighed.
I would resort to the dish washer but I can never find the blooming thing. All the usual kitchen appliances are hidden in identical cupboards for some inexplicable reason. When I make a cup of tea I’ll open the fridge door to get milk to be met by half-finished laundry. Doing the washing one day I opened the freezer, realised my mistake and with a smug look triumphantly opened what turned out to be the dishwasher. I tried a couple more cupboards until I found the washing machine skulking behind a door I swear I’d already tried.
This is no reflection upon dear Alice and Fred, the house comes with Alice’s job and in many ways is ideal, with room for pastoral duties and meetings, ample space for a family and is amazingly energy efficient. It’s just that I grapple with all but the most familiar of appliances. I simply have no space in my head that is the right shape for a novel gadget to fit into. I have plenty of other empty spaces that are satisfyingly spilling over with obscure and frankly totally pointless facts and can easily add to this reservoir of information if it concerns music or, at a pinch, current affairs. By way of example on our way home this very night a song came on the radio by an artist called Karl Blau. “Oh”, I casually remarked, “this is a Tom T. Hall song. Tom is distributed by the Drumfire record label in the UK, the same one as Phil Burdett and Ags Connolly, although Karl himself is signed to Bella Union, which is run by Simon Raymonde, the same Simon Raymonde who was in the Cocteau Twins. Incidentally Simon is almost exactly a year older than me and was born in Tottenham….” This last sentence gradually faded under Alison’s stare, worryingly so since she was driving at the time. “How come you know all this stuff but can’t remember how to work a tap?” she asked, not unreasonably I suppose. I simply shrugged and pointed out the truck coming towards us, which took her mind off of the less urgent matter of obscure Americana artists.
Happily we survived our journey back to the tranquillity of Braughing and the sloppy warmth of Maddie, who greets us like a lively bar of soggy milk chocolate in a furry wrapper. The vicarage lays on the edge of the village in a new development just past The Square, a triangle (I know…best not mention it to the locals) of grass with a water pump and pleasant views to the church. The village straddles the River Quin, rising gently from two fords and a footbridge to the main settlement on the east, which includes the medieval St Mary the Virgin church, the charming red brick and beamed Old Boy’s School, various thatched cottages along The Street and two old public houses, The Brown Bear and The Axe and Compasses. On the west of the river you’ll find The Golden Fleece. Three pubs in a village of around 1350 people is a pretty good ratio. The village also boasts a small Post Office and shop. The narrow footpath of Fleece Lane runs between Green Lane on the west side and the church on the east via a small tree shaded footbridge.
Fleece Lane looms large in local folklore as it was on this lane on 2nd October 1571 that a pallbearer slipped on the autumn leaves and dropped the coffin of local farmer Matthew Wall. Embarrassingly and presumably to some alarm and consternation the fall woke Matthew from what was most probably a coma. When Matthew finally did pass away in 1595, doubtless after his wife and family had thoroughly checked the old rascal was actually dead this time, he left provision in his will for Fleece Lane to be swept every year. This ritual, known as Old Man’s Day, is still observed on 2nd October every year with school children sweeping the lane, the church bells ringing and a short service at his graveside.
All of which I find faintly puzzling. Presumably the poor pallbearer’s faux pas saved Matthew’s life, in fact saved him from the awful fate of being buried alive. Therefore it seems slightly ungracious to bequeath a sum for eliminating the very conditions that rescued him, thus denying others the chance of a bumpy autumnal resurrection. Still, upon such deeds customs and folklore are built and it seems a nice touch to keep these traditions alive. In fact the village seems keen on preserving its sense of community in a pleasingly robust middle England kind of way. Despite the fact that the village is in ‘the stockbroker belt’, sitting as it does within an easy commute of London, it still retains its lively village feel and isn’t a ghost town during the week. Every evening a succession of expensive cars squeeze down the narrow lanes to deposit the harassed city workers into their snug rural retreats where there are lots of community events for them to choose from if the proliferation of colourful inducements to attend concerts, open studios, talks and dances that are pinned up around the village are anything to go by. The local pubs and shop appear prosperous and well frequented and the church and its adjacent hall are still the hub, literally and figuratively, of the community. Alongside the traditional cottages there is an eclectic mix of expensive new builds, family homes and some social housing, which I really hope is retained and not sold under the right to buy scheme because the chances of it being replaced for future generations are increasingly remote.
There has been a settlement at Braughing since the Iron Age, possibly serving as a trading post due to its location on the northern most navigable extreme of the River Rib, into which the Quin flows. At this time the main community was just south of where the main village now sits. In Roman times this grew into a significant town and trading centre known for making pottery. It was conveniently located for access to The Lea Valley and London via The Rib and lay close to several major Roman roads, including those that are now the A10 and the A120. Plus it was handy for Stansted airport if they needed to pop home for the weekend to watch the Lions vs Christians home fixture. It was the Saxons who called the settlement Breahinga, the earliest recorded form of the present name, and it gets a mention in the Domesday Book (1086) as Brachinges. Between then and now other stuff happened but I suspect most of it was dull agriculturally based tomfoolery and therefore not really worth much space in the history books.
Braughing is surrounded by arable fields criss-crossed by a network of well-maintained and signposted footpaths. These were our gateway to explore the area under Maddie’s expert navigation. We took her for two walks a day, mostly under a clear sky and bright sun. The area is alive with wildlife, from the tiny beetles and scorpions to abundant wildfowl and songbirds, the majestic Red Kite’s that soar over the fields in search of carrion. There are also plenty of deer and badgers to fly the flag for the mammals. The fields have recently been harvested so the sense of space on the gentle sloping countryside is heightened; the fields are large with low hedges and some wooded areas, including ‘The Bone’. This is a tunnel like track flowing through a hollow between fields. It’s enclosed by mature trees on both sides making it particularly becoming in the early morning. The angle of the rising sun casts restless shadows on the floor as it slices through the maze of branches, fingers of yellow light piercing the gloom, ever changing as the track switches back and forth over the dry river bed. It’s usually about there that Maddie will have a dump and my appreciation of nature’s boundless splendour is enhanced by hauling a bag of her poo around for the next hour.
Apart from doing what comes naturally Maddie is a delight. She’s completely uninterested in wildlife; unfazed by grouse, squirrels, horses or anything else Mother Nature chooses to tempt her with. She’s affectionate and possesses radar that can sense affection in others from wherever she may be. If Alison and I exchange a hug or kiss Maddie will bound into the room, a furry tube of slobbering excitement demanding to be part of our fondness. Should we try a sneaky peck she’ll pop her head around the door mid pucker and with her doleful brown eyes give us a sad look, as if hurt by our betrayal. Usually Alison will greet her with ‘hello Maddie Moo….’ This illustrates one of the fundamental differences between the female and male psyches that I just don’t understand. Where does this compulsion to add alliteration or a rhyming appellation to a name come from? My mother does a similar thing, calling her dog Dog-Pog. Why? His name is Charlie. It’s just one of the many mysteries of the sexes that make life so interesting.
Not that I always took this view. As a young spotty teenager I fretted about the usual things, girls, food, girls, girls and girls. Actually, just girls; I added food to make me appear like a well-rounded human being. In an effort to try and understand this odd species I took to stealing copies of Buntie, Twinkle and Jackie from the doctor’s waiting room. I thought maybe reading was an easier way to understand girls than taking them apart; a technique that had served me well with my bike and radio but was less successful with the gerbil. Thus I came to appreciate that girls saw the world through a soft focus lens; they liked safe boys like David Cassidy who as far as I could see was just like me except rich, handsome, could sing and had blurry edges. Why didn’t girls feel attracted to a lump of greasy BO like me for goodness sake? It just wasn’t fair. I tried squeezing out the acne but apart from the minor satisfaction of hitting the bathroom mirror from 5 yards it just turned my face into a sea of angry red lumps. Coincidently angry red lump was an apt description of my mother when I forgot to wipe the bathroom mirror.
The main opportunity, outside of school, to meet girls was the youth club. It was on a Thursday evening so I’d rush home from Hockey training, stuff my grubby kit into my bag for next time, throw on a shirt and jeans, douse myself in Brut 33 or my dad’s Old Spice if I was feeling particularly rakish, pull on my Green Flash tennis shoes and as the crowning sartorial glory slip on my denim waistcoat and mooch up the road, a heady mix of sweat, cheap perfume and desperation. Once inside the club we’d hang about in groups, swap records and tease the girls. As a mating ritual it was useless but I got to hear some great music and never caught anything more irritating than a cold so there was some compensation.
The youth of Braughing appear to gather on the recreation ground and play area to conduct their awkward teenage courtship rites. (See what I did there, this isn’t just thrown together I’ll have you know.) It’s another feature of the village that it boasts a sports field among its amenities. To us though it’s best civic amenity is the Axe and Compasses public house. We have it on good authority that Maddie is a regular and indeed she took us there several times. It’s everything a community pub should be, from the warm welcome to the great beers and fine food at sensible prices. Maddie was accommodated with her own bowl of water and we were greeted by name after our first visit. A gem of a place and by all accounts the other two local pubs are similar, although Maddie wouldn’t let us venture further than the Axe and Compasses to find out. Incidentally The Golden Fleece sells the famous Braughing Sausages. Well, I say famous but I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of them; I hadn’t. In the spirit of research I looked them up and I quote verbatim from braughingsausage.com:
“The Braughing Original sausage is a Hertfordshire favourite and is based on a family recipe dating back to the 1920's, initially selling for one shilling and ten pence a pound (about 10p in today's money). The famous recipe has been handed down through the generations and since those days has remained the same with the sausages still made using traditional methods, prime British pork and natural casings. We only use shoulder and belly buts unlike lesser sausages.”
Yes, it really does say buts. So now you know.
Tomorrow we are leaving Braughing and its sausages behind and heading to Suffolk for a couple of days to see my mother and get attuned to Mavis again. One of our aims while stopping here was to pause and think ahead about the coming winter and where we may settle, at least temporarily, while we wait out the inclement weather. I’m happy to say that we’ve made progress, and have set wheels in motion and tongues wagging with rough plans to investigate Buxton in the Peak District. First though we need to move Alison’s son into his digs in London ready for college and attend to some domestic affairs. There will be a second instalment of this blog post to follow shortly, where you can learn about:
The first draft of the threatened book, details of our thoughts and ideas about what may lay ahead, Alison’s apology to a speed sign, I find a cannon ball, just how painful getting temporary cover for car insurance can be, visits to friends and relatives, celebrating our 1st wedding anniversary and more about Braughing and the surrounding area.
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