Marks Hall Walk
Each month one colour seems to dominate the garden: white snowdrops in February, pink blossom in March, golden daffodils in April and in May swathes of bluebells and free forget-me-nots. Free, because they multiply without the need for expense and human intervention, just a little care to avoid hoeing seedlings. The blue of the gardens is repeated in the woodlands where traditional English bluebells provide a blue carpet of tranquillity….Last year a friend reported on the mass of bluebells at Markshall Estate near Coggeshall but I arrived too late to see them in their prime; so I had to wait a year to see their fine display on one of my walks.
Markshall (also known as Marks Hall) is a managed estate held in trust by The Thomas Phillips Price Trust. Entrance is by annual membership or by payment of a daily fee per person allowing access to the walks on the estate and the arboretum. In 2007 the entrance fees were revised; visitors may wish to check before visiting the site.Late Spring and equipped with sturdy shoes and a windproof jacket I leave the car park and walk past the visitors’ centre, where maps indicate a selection of walks all marked by coloured markers on posts. Behind the visitors’ centre the mown path beside the hedge leads into the country with a great expanse of open fields. Striding out away from memories of busy roads and chattering people I tune in to the noises of the countryside: the lark dominates the air waves and is a reminder of my previous walk at Marks Hall when searching for primroses and enjoying the huge skies of East Anglia.
Signs indicate a right turn at the end of the field but as I turn to the edge of the wood I spy the blue carpet under the trees. Traditional English bluebells, with gentle hanging heads are shimmering in the broken sunlight that reaches between the branches to the floor of the wood. It is a sight to treasure – a picture for the mind – that is impossible to replicate in a photograph with a lack of smell and bird song. In contrast to this natural touch of spring is a cultivated field of brilliant yellow oil seed rape – the blue and gold bordered by fresh leafed hedgerows might look artificial on an artist’s palette but the eye absorbs the intensity of the colours and gives a vision worth remembering. For those with a good sense of smell the scent from the oil seed rape plant is almost intoxicating. I love the yellow blooms, as do the bees, but the resulting honey is rather waxy, the local borage produced a lighter honey.Away from the bluebell wood and along the hedgerow full of puffs of white May blossom and young oaks I walk below the hum of bees, possibly wild bees all busy enjoying the morning sun. The mixed hedge is ideal cover for birds and a natural habitat for wildlife, although I suspect that their ability to monitor my progress and stay out of sight thwarts my wish to spot them in their natural surroundings. A briar leans out from the hedge with tight green buds that will burst with pale pink roses in the next few weeks.
Left at the next marker, along the lane, past the pond covered with fluff and petals that spoil my idea of a reflective photo. But Markshall is not designed for happy snappers it is a tranquil place to walk, absorb, relax and enjoy the peace of the countryside, successful photography is an added bonus. After weeks with little rain the paths are dry and the usual slippery path through the coppiced wood is dry and rutted, no bluebells but there are still clumps of primroses snuggling into the mossy bank.
Away from the overhanging mesh of branches and onto the cinder track right past stacks of logs that remind me that this is a managed estate where damaged trees are felled and recycled into posts, brushwood fences or charcoal. Occasionally the tracks at Markshall reveal a concrete base a reminder of the history of the area when it was used by the military during war-time. Today, the light aircraft can be heard as they take off from the runway at Earls Colne. Aircraft and swans have to negotiate the huge pylons that march across the countryside like an invading force; perhaps one day a great benefactor will arrange for cables to be placed safely underground.
As I reload the camera two walkers pass a friendly greeting as they head towards a wood known for the Nightingale, sad, I think of nightingales in Berkeley Square and need to retune my ears to recognise their song. Beside the path, spears of ferns shoot up through the undergrowth, they have yet to unwrap their lacelike leaves (perhaps ferns do not have leaves they may have another name – do let me know) one fern stem reminds me of a cobra with upright stem and a still head that could explode at any moment.
Cross-roads, well signed, so I head right for the visitors’ centre. Hidden amongst the trees trying to find the “secret” charcoal burner but the secret eludes me and I return to the track. The countryside frees us from the taint of city smells and gives us the opportunity to absorb the blend of sight, sound and scent. From the exotic perfume of blue bells the intoxicating smell of the oil seed rape to the pungent smell of the resident foxes. Apparently fox dung is very popular with some visiting dogs but less popular with their owners as they drive them home!
Summer update…Hot mornings, baked earth and tinder dry stubble welcome the summer walker. The sky lark seems to have deserted the fields and I miss their persistent song as I step out towards the woodland canopy. The ponds that sparkled in the spring sunshine are now covered with a film of dust and leaves the result of lack of rain and dusty harvest days. Footprints of deer and birds on the water’s edge prove that you need to be an early riser to spy the woodland’s wildlife.
Heading towards The Avenue Walk, past the ancient oak, the canopy of trees provides a welcome shelter from the blazing sun. Dog roses have given way to bulging hips and blushed pink bramble flowers are developing into tasty blackberries. Huge long horned cattle chew the cud during their summer stay at Markshall and prove a great attraction for young and old heading for the picnic area or tea at the visitors’ centre.
Wintertime…Frost crisp leaves crunch underfoot as the wind whistles across the open fields. The hedgerows’ crop of berries and seeds are a welcome source of food for the wildlife of the estate. The decomposing leaves of the oak and hazel give way to aromatic needles from the conifers with a scent of pine not matched by man made essences. The watering holes are slowly filling as the wetter colder days provide a welcome top-up service. Even the timid deer can be spotted through the woods but they soon disappear and leave the walker to search for less wary wildlife, but even the squirrels are nervous of human intrusion into their peaceful surroundings.The Visitors’ Centre is open most days in the summer when the banks of sheep’s parsley grace the banks of the stream. In winter months it is usually open at weekends when the resident ducks are eager to receive visitors’ donations of special bird food purchased from the Visitors’ Centre.Sally Carpenter – ClientAct PR – 2003Update at May 2007
The relaxed informal atmosphere at the entrance of Marks Hall has changed in the last 6 months with the erection of a series of barriers, gates and fences and the introduction of new regulations. This is a very sad reflection on the times in which we live, but I expect that the true country lovers will overcome the barriers so that they can enjoy the open country walks and bird song away from the main buildings. There are many peaceful and interesting walks across the region.This year the old bluebell wood we used to enjoy has been overrun with brambles following the opening up of the area after the felling of a number of trees a couple of years ago. Enthusiasts will find a blue carpet of flowers at another wood on the outskirts of the estate.
Note: Please be aware of your own safety when walking on country lanes.