I started blogging as Mercurius Maghrebensis seven or so years ago when I was Director of the British Council in Morocco, and set up this website as a vehicle for the blog. Most of what I wrote then was about Morocco and North Africa, and the wider Middle East region. All that content remains archived and available here, and I shall add Maghrebi material from time to time (I’m still working, for instance, on Richard Wright’s Moroccan silver and the Fassi community in Manchester of a century and more ago).
But after retiring from the Council, first to Saffron Walden and then to the village of Catmere End, three or four miles to the west of the town ‘up’ on the rather modest chalk ridge that is a continuation of the Chilterns, I found myself more and more preoccupied with local history. I had been working on a biography of the seventeenth century Walden engineer and impresario Henry Winstanley for at least twenty years, so this didn’t come as a surprise to me. I have now finished that book, and it will be published in the next few months. Meanwhile other questions have started nibbling away at me. Why, for example, does the railway to Cambridge leave the river valley for its only deviation from the best ‘line’ just as it passes Audley End? Well, we can guess the answer to that, but what were the politics of the decision? Who made money out of it, and how much? Why were the town and the Braybrookes in conflict over it? And what traces can be found of the 700 or so railway workers, navvies, surveyors, blacksmiths and so on, who were put up in a temporary camp at Littlebury for two years (1844-45)? That’s probably next.
In August 2020 Littlebury’s wonderful Local History Recorder, Lizzie Sanders, died. She had asked me a few months ago to take over from her, and with some trepidation I have done so. Her vast archive sits in our spare bedroom, and I shall soon start sorting it and trying to decide where to start. “You must decide exactly what you want to do,” she said to me with a mischievous twinkle; and I’ll try to follow her advice. She will be a very hard act to follow – the eleven volumes of documents that she presented last year to the Gibson Library are a seriously intimidating legacy, as is the succession of projects and delights for which she was responsible – but I am delighted to be doing this, not least because it is a way of honouring the extraordinary work of a remarkable and lovely woman who became a good friend at the end of her life.
As if that were not enough I have also been asked to take over as Local History Recorder for Strethall, the village which rubs shoulders with Catmere End and contains our lovely Saxon church of St Mary the Virgin. This has been the long-term work of my friend David Melford, whose History of the Manor and Parish of Strethall (1998 and 2019) is a large and splendid monument to a tiny, very special, village. More recently Chris Woodhouse has kept the flame burning for a couple of years. I worked with David on the second edition of his history (he claims to have inserted its only footnote as a result of my pedantic encouragement), and have followed up by researching intriguing stories like that of Edward Colston, the infamous Bristol slaver of statue-in-the-harbour fame, who was lord of the manor of Strethall in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. (There will be an article about Colston and the politics of the Strethall rectory in the next Saffron Walden Historical Journal).
So I now find myself responsible for ‘recording’ (whatever that may mean) the history of four villages – Littlebury, Strethall, Catmere End and Littlebury Green. I shall do my best, and this website will I hope develop, in ways that I can’t yet quite foresee, to be a part of it.
Now in the press (or at least in design) is my biography of Henry Winstanley, one of the most famous figures in the history of Walden and Littlebury. It’s called Henry Winstanley, 1644-1703: The Last Renaissance Engineer, and will be published towards the end of 2020. Watch this space – and buy for Christmas!