The award of an Irish Research Council New Foundations grant was an important achievement for the Charles Clark project. We had previously won the Antiquarian Booksellers Award from the Bibliographical Society which enabled us to travel to the Essex Public Records Office in Chelmsford. We’re planning a larger project on Clark and saw this grant as an opportunity to further our work – we were determined to make the most out of it. We bought a decent camera and organised a week-long research trip to Essex. Budgetary constraints and the lack of availability ensured we ended up staying at the Miami Hotel again. The last trip was ‘memorable’ – overpriced train tickets obliterated our subsistence money and a week of pot noodles, 2-for-1 specials, and 15 hour work days ensured we were so tired that we derived a certain level of amusement from the Fawlty Towers like accommodation. This time round, it was pretty grim…..
We had left Cork at 3 (stupidly refusing Aer Lingus’ offer of 250 euros each to take a later flight) and by the time we arrived in Chelmsford it was approaching 8. We hadn’t eaten anything and were exhausted. The staff at the Miami asked if we needed to eat, we said we did, and stated they could, perhaps, maybe find a sandwich, sighing as if we had asked for beef wellington made from scratch. It was quickly decided we would be better off walking into town to find a restaurant. We got our room keys to drop off our bags, decided against a sauna,
and were greeted by rooms which were far worse than the last time we stayed there. They reeked of old crisps and there was a large reddish stain on the wallpaper which we chose to believe was wine. After a curry (and a particularly nice pinot grigio) we decided on an early night to prepare for our first day at the Records office.
Breakfast at the Miami is an interesting affair, suffice it to say we would most likely have received a warmer welcome if we had broken into a stranger’s kitchen and poured ourselves a bowl of cereal. The room was as dingy as the rest of the hotel, but with a bizarre 70’s style dance floor in the centre…
Bad as it was last time, there had at least been a decent choice including fresh fruit, pastries and yoghurts. This time it was eggs, sausages and bacon, all served with an air of hostility that would make Basil Fawlty look like Francis Brennan. We didn’t take too long to get out of there and make our way back to the Public Records Office.
The walk from the hotel to the PRO is about 30 minutes, and is quite pleasant in the sunshine. The staff were friendly and remembered us from our last visit. Once we got the hang of the camera we started photographing the archive and collecting more information on Clark. The Senior Searchroom Archivist, Katharine Schofield, was very helpful in this regard and with her help we tracked down a few references to Clark in back issues of the Essex Review.
On the second morning, as we were photographing a set of letters we were approached by a woman who was part of a group engaged in a tour of the Public Records Office. She asked what we were doing and we showed her some letters and explained who Charles Clark was and our interest in him. We were used to people asking what we were doing in Chelmsford (!) but not to the reaction we got from this woman which was ‘Oh, he lived in Great Totham Hall? I know who lives there now. A nice man named Tom. Ye should visit, tell him Christine sent ye’. Cue stunned silence, followed by disbelief and excitement. There were at least forty people on that tour, what were the odds of this meeting?!We had already planned to take a day trip to explore Clark’s locale, now we had an introduction to the man who lives in his house.
Because we were taking Thursday off to explore Maldon and Tiptree (and go to Great Totham Hall) we spent all day, every day, until then in the Records office. We gathered well over 1,000 images, and to our great surprise discovered a new set of letter that we hadn’t realised were there. We took new images of Clark’s commonplace book and detailed images of an engraving of his portrait. The atmosphere at the Miami deteriorated rapidly throughout the week (we were witness to fights in the reception area and were racially abused in the bar) so we spent most of our evenings in the convivial atmosphere of an all-you-can eat Chinese restaurant. Our road trip couldn’t come fast enough.
The county of Essex beckoned to us in a serious way, then, on the Thursday. Since Clark engaged physically and imaginatively with his region of Essex, peppering his letters with hand-drawn maps, directions to and from Great Totham, and details of his walks to and from The Bull tavern, to Tiptree Races and Heath, to Maldon, the post office and his bookseller’s Phillp Youngman, and his rambles more generally, we wanted to get a greater sense of place and follow (in trendy pyschogeographical-style) Clark’s footsteps. So we hired a car.
Carrie was distinctly unimpressed with the Chevrolet Chevy Spark which made her feel like she was driving a Matchbox.
But we digress; Clarkson and Hammond we are not. Once we had navigated Chelmsford’s bizarre and numerous roundabouts we took the A12 making for Colchester (Clark was fascinated by Roman ruins, and at one stage contemplated excavating his garden in the hope of finding some), taking the exit for Maldon about 20 minutes later.
Maldon is probably more famous for the battle that took place there in 991, but Clark frequented the town, almost weekly, to visit his bookseller, send and collect parcels, and meet his neighbours and friends, collecting from them the local gossip and news. He was born in Heybridge, which is down the hill, as it were, from Maldon, nearer the basin and sea. We have always been convinced of the value of serendipity in research; after all, that is how we first found our man. Innate curiosity is also of value, and at Maldon we stuck our noses into the town hall which was hosting the weekly Women’s Institute market. The ladies of the WI could not have been kinder and more welcoming: they listened with great interest to our demented ramblings about Clark, gave us free tea and advice, and gave us the details of a local historian (who has since been in touch – more anon!) From there we went to Heybridge. We know Clark was born and died here, and St Andrew’s Church seemed to be a good place to begin on Clark’s trail. The graveyard is terribly overgrown, and is the final resting place to many Clarks, but not ours it would seem. Many of the headstones are weather-damaged and illegible, and we spent some time pulling briars and weeds away, but to no avail.
The next signpost we followed was that for Great Totham. Christine, whom we had met in the PRO on Tuesday, had given us impeccable directions, though were surprised to find how close Heybridge and Maldon are to GT. We had looked at Great Totham Hall on Google Maps, but we discovered that it had been wrongly labelled; driving on a country lane through immaculate fields towards Clark’s house was quite something, since we knew that the landscape would have changed little from his time. It felt very special when we came across a gatepost with the sign “Great Totham Hall”. We have always been very fond of Clark’s own drawing of his house from a letter dated 1842, and it was the highlight of the trip to drive towards that house knowing that Clark had lived, written, printed and read here for so many years. The house and outhouses are untouched, and the very kind gentleman who now lives there showed us the hall, the kitchen, and the two reception rooms at the front of the house from which Clark could see the sea. The house is built on the site of a medieval hall and is, for us at least, living history. We felt very privileged (and, it must be said, a little emotional) to be granted access, if only for a little while, to the space in which Clark spent much of his time.
We decided that it would be supremely apt to have lunch at the coaching inn, The Bull, at Great Totham Green, which was Clark’s local watering-hole; in fact he even entertained John Russell Smith there when he visited the area. The Bull is now a gastropub that thankfully serves brilliant food (we recommend The Bull Burger with handcut fries) and also retains many of its original features: low beams, wood panelling and a fine collection of pewter tankards. Restored and recovered, we took the road to Tiptree.
Tiptree is one of Clark’s obsessions; he loved the Heath (now a nature reserve) and he anticipated the annual Tiptree race meeting with great excitement. We paused at the crossroads between Tiptree and Great Totham where Clark waited for John Russell Smith on their first meeting, and took some time to walk around the Heath (avoiding the adders and other alarming fauna)
and, feeling sure that if the Tiptree Jam Factory had been established in Clark’s time he would have loved that too, we took some time out to visit the shop. There is always a time to go astray, and our plan was to round off the day by visiting Witham, the village in which Clark attended the Rev. Dunn’s school. Alas, the main road to Witham was closed, and we found ourselves not unpleasantly lost, travelling in the wrong direction through beautiful countryside, and eventually resigning ourselves to consultation of the map for the first time that day.
Admittedly, we could have made lots of progress with another day in the RO, but by taking the time to follow Clark’s footsteps for a day we found that we developed a much better sense of him and could read and recall parts of his letters and poems from a position of great privilege. And, serendipitously, we met some fantastic people.
-CG and MOC