Friday 23 November 2012

Wildlife, Wetlands & Crossrail: A Visit to Wallasea Island

Wallasea Island

Huge, overarching sky; pools of crystal-blue water; a vast, flat landscape stretching out to the horizon - this is Wallasea Island on the Essex coast.  I've just made a visit here, on a day of brittle autumn sunshine, to see for myself the beginnings of a project that will be the "largest man-made nature reserve in Europe", because millions of tonnes of soil will be arriving on Wallasea to create a wetland landscape of mudflats, salt marsh and lagoon, last seen over 400 years ago.

Wetland with the Crossrail material handling facility just visible in the distance
The soil is initially coming from the Crossrail project; the rail tunnels currently being bored through London - and the soil is apparently being brought up from a level so deep it won't be polluted.  The RSPB, the owner of the reserve, has partnered Crossrail to create this new wildlife haven.  Crossrail will deliver 4.5 million tonnes of material in total and at its peak there will be 10,000 tonnes unloaded on the island by 4 ships a day. A new jetty and material handling facility have been built to process this; it's a large development, which seems to rise up out of the salt marsh.  Next to it is a line of soil "pyramids" and as I came up to these, the automated conveyor belt bringing the soil suddenly started up, creating an eerie, echoing sound in the vast, windswept landscape.  It's an impressive bit of mechanised kit, but - as I watched - a man came up with a long stick and started poking at a blockage in it. It still needs to be fixed in the old fashioned way, then.

The soil from Crossrail
The new wetlands will reverse the loss of tidal marshes to arable farming that has been taking place for centuries.  The risk of flooding on the Essex coast and rising sea levels has led to new thinking here; the sea walls have traditionally held the tide back but now sections of these are being breached to allow the water to return.  I could clearly see here on the island where small sections of the sea wall have been breached.
Sections of the sea wall that have been breached
The new reserve should encourage wading birds, ducks, geese, fish and seals.  It is hoped that lost populations of spoonbills and Kentish plovers will return to this site.  On my visit, I saw flocks of beautiful golden plovers; the sunlight glinting on their wings as they flew off - as well as lapwings and curlews.  I also saw a sparrowhawk, but sadly no peregrine or short-eared owl (although before I left it was getting just dark enough for them to emerge).  Apparently, 2011 was a good year for the owls and they were often seen hunting here.

We left the island as the tide was coming in, so we just made it through the water before the sea flooded the road and made it impossible to pass.  It had been a fascinating afternoon.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Essex Huffer Recipe

I recently wanted to create a lunch with an Essex huffer, which is a wedge-shaped bap eaten with a filling of choice.  Although the huffer has become a local bread in this part of Essex, I can't find any recipes for it in any old or new Essex cook books and there is little information online.  However, there is a traditional bread from Kent called a huffkin, and although huffkins are smaller rolls, it seems to me that there is a very close similarity between the two breads.  So I've looked to the huffkin for ideas for my recipe.  My huffers are slightly smaller than the huge baps on the pub lunch menu, but they'll be larger than a traditional huffkin.

Essex Huffer with Scottish Cheddar and Old English Chutney with Cider

Recipe for an Essex Huffer (This makes 8 Huffers)

1lb 10oz (750g) of strong bread flour. 
7 fl oz (200 ml) scalded milk (milk boiled and then cooled until it is tepid)
10 fl oz (275 ml) tepid water
2 1/2 oz (75g) butter
1/2 oz (15g) fresh yeast*
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar.

A little extra flour for a floury surface to knead the dough.
A little extra butter for greasing.

You will need:

Two baking trays.
A bowl to mix the dough in and a bowl to mix the fresh yeast.


1. Mix flour, salt and sugar in a bowl.

2. Rub in the butter.

3. In a separate bowl, mix the fresh yeast with a little of the tepid water to create a loose paste, then add the rest of the water.

4. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and pour in the tepid milk.

5. Then pour in the yeast and tepid water mixture.

6. Leave the mixture for 10-15 minutes under a piece of muslin (or tea towel).

7. Mix into a dough, adding a little more flour if the mixture feels too wet, or water if the mixture feels too dry.

8.  Turn the dough out onto a floury surface and knead for 10 minutes.

9. Wash out the floury bowl and grease with butter.

10. Put the dough into the bowl, cover with the muslin (or tea towel) and leave for an hour in a warm room.

11. Turn the dough out onto a floury surface and cut in half.

12.  Roll out each half into a circle and then cut into four pieces each 2cm thick.

13. Put four pieces on one, greased baking tray and four on the other.

14. Leave under tea towels for 30 minutes.

15. Pre-heat the oven to 220c, 200 fan or gas 7.

16. Place the baking sheets with dough in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes.

* I always use fresh yeast in my breadmaking. This can be available in supermarkets and bakeries that bake bread on site.  If you would prefer to use dry yeast instead for this recipe, then I believe 15 g fresh yeast converts to 4 g of dry, quick yeast.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Making a Chair from our Hazel Trees

We're fortunate to have hazel trees on our smallholding and we've made the most of the timber from them.  This is straight-grained and hard; and as well as making walking sticks from it (for older family members), we burn it for firewood.  We've also used the timber to make a high-backed chair from a very simple (i.e. made up as we went along!) design.

The Hazel Tree

Hazel was one of the first trees to recolonise Britain after the last ice age, helping to form the early wildwood.  As one of our oldest trees, it's the subject of plenty of folklore.  The Celts believed hazel trees were trees of wisdom and poetry and hazels were thought to be found in places where the boundaries between the worlds were thinnest.  Wizards' staffs were thought to be of hazel, and hazel twigs were used to fend off witches, to point out thieves and to seek for buried treasure.  Today, they are still used by diviners to find water.  Until the middle ages, hazel nuts were associated with fertility and could also be used to reveal the health of a marriage!

Hazel is deciduous, shedding its leaves each year.  It likes heavy soil, although this mustn't be waterlogged - and because it comes from the ancient wildwood, it tolerates shade (our hazel is found in the shadows of large oak trees).  A hazel will live about 60 years or so before it dies back, but it lives much longer if it is coppiced (and we coppiced our trees this year).  We've also included hazel in a new hedge we've planted on the smallholding and we've had to protect this from rabbits, deer (especially muntjac) and our own sheep.  Hazel nuts are seized upon by grey squirrels.

Hazel in a new hedge

Making the Chair

We cut a few whips of hazel back to the tree stump and used the wood at once i.e. it wasn't given time to season.  We then sawed the wood into the lengths we wanted and pre-drilled holes into the wood before screwing (to avoid splitting).  The lengths/height are detailed below. 

Finally, the wood was varnished, not so much to give it extra protection, but for appearance.

The chair is robust, and, with cushions, comfortable. We've placed it in the kitchen/rest area of our new barn, where we're making most of the furniture ourselves from local wood (with more, DIY designs!)

Tuesday 28 August 2012

The Petrified Forest

David and I had heard of, but had never got round to visiting, the Petrified Oak Forest in Mundon, near Maldon, Essex, which is not so very far away from where we live.  As we're both fascinated by anything to do with trees, forests and woodland, we had to see for ourselves this unusual sight.  And now we've made our visit to the forest, I kind of think that we should have seen it in a storm, or on a darkening, winter afternoon, when the gnarled branches, like old men's fingers, cast long shadows over the ground...

But, instead, we visited on a bright, sunny morning in August.

The oaks are apparently centuries old - and they certainly look, now, as though they no longer belong in the landscape; as though the surrounding countryside is continuing a cycle of life without them.  But they haven't been abandoned altogether, because I've read that local wildlife, such as owls, can still be seen in and around the forest (I can just imagine visiting this place one late afternoon in winter, with owls hooting from the branches  - now that really would be a haunting experience).

The Domesday Book mentions an old settlement called Wringehala, which was once located around here.  But this has long since been lost.  Also lost is the old name for the hundred in this area: Wibrihtesherne.  The parishes in this area of the county are now part of the Dengie Hundred.

The Petrified Oak Forest looks out over the flat, open land that stretches down to the coast.  On its other side, stands the small, fourteenth century church of St Mary's.  This has been disused for decades, but has recently been restored and is now looked after by the Friends of Friendless Churches.  The church is open to visitors.

St Mary's Church, Mundon
The Petrified Forest and church are situated at the end of a country lane, but they can also be reached by walkers on St Peter's Way, a long distance footpath that runs across Essex, from Chipping Ongar to the remote, Saxon chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, at Bradwell-on-Sea.