We all know that Thames Chase is perfectly placed at the heart of this area to enable physical and intellectual access for local people and visitors to the countryside, to nature, wildlife and to the heritage.
Visually this landscape has its own distinctive character and heritage but it is hard to interpret, especially for visitors and students because of the long-standing east-west administrative boundary artificially dividing the area between Greater London and Essex County.
We know that local people identify well with the area. Despite eons of migration to, from and through it in all directions, locals have consistently displayed a certain independence and affection for the area and its particular ‘sense of place’. In the distant past this area has enjoyed successive names as part of wider, independent countries – like the Celtic Land of the Trinovantes, the Saxon Lundein, it was subject to the Danelaw and part of Guthrum’s kingdom, and finally East Seaxe. Today in order to promote this place and invite others to enjoy its landscape, we need to have an identity that is rather more specific than say, its geographical description of ‘South-West Essex’.
The physical nature of the landscape provides the clues to the naming of ‘The land of the Fanns’. This is a low-lying area beside the river Thames. It extends generally northwards rising up in geological platforms known as the Romford Steps to a range of hills at over 300 ft (92m) and known, from west to east, as the Havering Ridge, the Brentwood Heights and Langdon Hills as they extend round to the south-east. This river plain comprises the northern Thames-side marshes, fens and fanns interspersed with low hills and ridges cut by local river valleys with their own marshes. The area naturally suffers from the effects of these low-lying damp and dank conditions and has always been an area susceptible to flood. Today these watery conditions are recalled in local place names such as Fann Rise and Fangate Farm, Marsh Way, Fen Gate, Fen Lane and Fen Close.
In the past, all the local farmers kept their own small boats on the flooded ditches in order to get about and continue working during the frequent times of flood, well into the 20th century. Even in the late 1960’s Thurrock locals spoke of the flooding on Bulphan fen and that the farmers still kept their own boats to get around in those conditions, including getting to the local pub! A local family history story is recounted on the internet of bargemen using the fen ditches to bring in supplies and return with farm produce in times of flood, during the early part of that century.
Earlier barges were used to transport goods along the navigable rivers here, to and from the local farms. This even extended to sports with our own champion Georgian punt-gunner residing locally at Stubbers.
It was Leslie Thompson who first coined the phrase ‘The Land that Fanns’ in his local history study in 1957. Here he carefully recounts frequent references to the fann men of this area, their work in managing this marshy landscape and their lifestyle during the 17th and 18th centuries, taken from the local parish records from Rainham in the west to Canvey Island in the east. Thompson was amused by the fact that the land even appears to fan out from his panoramic view at Langdon Hills and hence gave rise to his book title.
Several Georgian writers and others have been struck by the beauty of this area when viewed from the hills around. Both Philip Morant and Arthur Young were struck by the amazing views over this landscape, recording that from the Langdon Hills this was the ‘finest prospect (or view) in all England’. Today we get that same wonderful and surprising view from all vantage points along these hills, particularly from the village of Havering-atte-Bower and from the site of the Old Thorndon Hall at Herongate, where the 18th century view was painted by Philip de Loutherbourg and a return view by Thomas Sandby, the canvases are in the Royal Collection Trust. However the most spectacular view for passers-by, and we have plenty of them every single day, is when heading south on the M25 motorway as travelers come down off the Brentwood Heights there is a surprise and delight in the sudden view of this great fan-shaped plain spreading out from west to east before you down to the river Thames and with the backdrop of the Kent Hills beyond.
VIEW 2 - Philipp Jakob de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) ‘Warley Camp: The Review’ dated 1780 by kind permission of the Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015
VIEW 3 - Philipp Jakob de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) Warley Camp: ‘The Mock Attack’ painted in 1779 by kind permission of the Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015
VIEW 4 - Thomas Sandby (1721-98) ‘The Encampment at Warley Common (Essex) in 1778’ by kind permission of the Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015
In the 13th century, pilgrims required local marsh men to guide them across these marshes from Great Warley, Warley Franks and Puddle Dock via Stifford Bridge and on to the Thames ferries as they travelled south to the shrine of St.Thomas Becket at Canterbury, or northwards heading for York.
VIEW 5 – Initial landform analysis
Going further back in time, to the Saxons ‘fann’ and ‘fen’ meant ‘low marshy land or low-lying district’ which perfectly describes much of the area. Usefully they often named locations by describing the nature of the landscape within their place names. Here Saxon names like Ockendon, Basildon, Canvey, Pitsea, Stifford and Chadwell amongst others, reflect the hilly topography, the marshy island nature, river fording places and wells or springs, and Orsett refers to a hill slope and/or to bog iron – which is formed where ground water flows into wetlands.
Even before that the Romans, who valued the land for its potential for wheat production, cut fen ditches in an effort to control the frequent flooding – and led to the names of local villages like Bulphan fen, Orsett fen and Childerditch fen.
VIEW 6 – Extent of the Ice Sheet
However, going back even further the peculiar nature of this local landscape may even reflect its glacial origins with the possibility of a glacial outwash fan. This is where the melt water from the ice sheet deposits silt and sediment down from a height out over a broad plain – as we have in this situation. The material naturally spreads out with the melt water depositing larger material near the source and spreading out in a fan shape with smaller material, like silt at its limits.
Typically such deposits form both high ribs stretching out from the outfall area and ridges running across the plain. Here, for example, we have ribs of higher land forming the long, narrow Wocca’s hill (North and South Ockendon), Horn’s hill (the Horndons) and Long hill (Langdon Hills); with cross ridges forming the downs or hill - the Old English ‘dun’ that in the 14th century became the ‘elevated rolling grassland’ we know at Davy Down Urban Riverside Park, and also the long, low gravel ridge forming the first higher ground (at 11ft/3m) above sea level along the north bank of the Thames marshes, that supports villages like Rainham and Wennington.
An outwash fan may contain braided streams but not so many as to form a delta and may give rise to flooding. Here we have the tributaries and rivers Beam, Ingrebourne and Mardyke crossing the landscape and creating their own valleys and marshes.
Kettle lakes are also typically found where blocks of ice have melted leaving a depression that fills with water to form freshwater ponds that are neither river nor spring fed. They may dry up or fill up depending on local rainfall and we seem to see this sort of effect at places like Childerditch, and Dagnams, and at Grays – where they have filled with fine materials like gravel and silt. This material eventually washed away from the base to suddenly give way as unexpected deep, shear-sided pits, as occurred during the late 1960’s and even more recently.
Here there clearly remains lots of scope for researching and explaining more of the history, the archaeology, and the geology of the area and its relationship and effect on the nature and wildlife found here. The distant past of this low-lying, marshy landscape with its unusual arrangement of landforms and different species habitat may help to explain the unusual variety and rarity of some of the flora and fauna also found in the district.
And this may indeed prove to be truly, throughout time ‘The Land of the Fanns’.
© 2015 S. J. Smith
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