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An Afternoon In Great Bardfield

July 25, 2018
by the gentle author

Inspired by the Edward Bawden exhibition at Dulwich and encouraged by an invitation from resident Stella Herbert, I enjoyed a trip to Great Bardfield last week. Stella is an inveterate collector but perhaps most impressive is her collection of watering cans parading through her yard like a flock of prize geese. Did you know that English watering cans have a handle positioned laterally over the can while French watering cans have a handle that traverses the can from back to front?  This was just the first of many interesting facts I learned in what proved to be a day filled with wonders.

Alas I arrived a few weeks too late to view Stella’s cherished rainbow-hued herbaceous border, yet I was entranced by her garden with its hidden arches and mysterious pathways leading to an old brick-floored greenhouse where an ancient vine and a lemon tree preside.

After the clamour of London, the quietude of Great Bardfield was startling. When we ventured to walk up through the High Street, the peace that is distinctive to an English village in the middle of the day in the middle of summer prevailed. No pedestrians and few cars. The square Brick House where Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious lived in the middle of the last century sits at the centre of an appealing array of immaculately kept old houses of idiosyncratic form and style. Our destination was the cottage museum with its memorable display of locally made corn dollies and agricultural tools, all preserved within a cosy one room dwelling.

Great Bardfield was the subject of Edward Bawden’s Life in an English Village in 1949, illustrating the small trades that were essential to community life in his time, including the butcher, the baker, the tailor and the saddler. All gone now except the local pub, The Bell, and perhaps more residents work in London these days than in the village itself. Yet I was delighted to visit the excellent bookshop which is clearly a vital social focus as well as a supply of good reading material.

Stella is the keeper of the keys for the ‘cage,’ a lock-up for presumed miscreants in past days. We peered through the grille at the bearded mannequin perched upon his straw mattress and patiently listened to the recording which explained the history of misbehaviour in Great Bardfield, before Stella locked up for the night.

The attractive flint parish church sits on a hill overlooking the village which may explain the huge blue and gold tower clockface, claimed to be the largest in the land, which is of a scale to be read comfortably from a distance. Dating from the twelfth century, it has a modest down-to-earth squat proportion and is notable for its curious fourteenth century stone rood screen, sprouting like a tree diverging into branches of tracery with corbels representing Edward III and his wife. Within the sanctified stillness of the old church, tombs, artefacts and monuments testify to eight hundred years of village life in Great Bardfield.

A flock of watering cans

An avenue of apple trees

Edward Bawden’s house

Stella locks the village ‘cage’ for the night

Graffiti at the church

Great Bardfield church has one of the largest clockfaces in the land

Parish Church of Great Bardfield

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Edward Bawden on Liverpool St Station

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    July 25, 2018

    The REAL Essex

  2. David Morgan permalink
    July 25, 2018

    My first Internet port of call each day is to Spitalfields Life…. how I enjoy reading of the different places and characters. Long may it continue ! Co-incidentally , only yesterday I was going to dump an old Beldray galvanised watering can but then decided it might look nice amongst the flower pots etc. I have a long way to go before emulating Stella`s collection !

  3. Libby permalink
    July 25, 2018

    Lovely article and photographs (and watering cans!) I envy you your visit. I have a copy of ‘Life in an English Village’ and a couple of years ago I scanned the book in order to be able to share it.

  4. Leana Pooley permalink
    July 25, 2018

    I have spent some delightful minutes feeling envious of your trip and enjoying the photos. What a charming place! I’m so glad I now know the difference between French and English watering can handles – I will try to introduce this fact into conversation whenever I can. (Being in a drought might make it easier.) Thank you.

  5. Jeff Hurst permalink
    July 25, 2018

    I used to visit Great Bardfield regularly many years ago, as my favourite uncle lived there and I have many fond memories of it. These images are excellent.

  6. Jenny Rooney permalink
    July 25, 2018

    Dear Gentle Author

    It was lovely to meet you, albeit briefly, in our bookshop. Thank you for writing this lovely, affectionate tribute to our village. And thanks to Stella for enticing you away from the big smoke.


  7. Gary Arber permalink
    July 25, 2018

    In 1954 I visited the uncle of a friend who lived in Great Bardfield. I can still remember the mid day meal which was rabbits that he had shot in the fields. we had to carefully sort out each mouth full of rabbit to avoid swallowing the lead shot, we all had a small pile on the edge of our plates.
    A good day in the country can be had visiting Great Bardfield and the pretty village of Finchingfield a couple of miles away.

  8. Jill permalink
    July 26, 2018

    All those watering cans! They reminded me of visiting the cemetery with my mum to lay flowers on my grandad’s grave, filling up a can at the standpipe and carrying it along row after row until we found his plot.

    As Greg says, the real Essex. Greg – are you related to Muriel and May Tingey? May married a Carter and moved to the USA; Muriel never married and was a teacher.

  9. July 26, 2018

    Charming! Felt myself travelling back in time

  10. August 8, 2018

    Stella’s garden is a dream (as are so many of the places I’ve “visited” thanks to Spitalfields Life)! Thanks as always for this soul-nourishing moment.

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