Loughton

Change, rapid and irrevocable, is the potent force at work in Loughton now. Change, wrought by Milton Keynes new city. Change, starkly symbolized as never before by contrast between old and new: between the soft, golden, resolute tower of All Saints Church standing tall on its knoll overlooking Loughton Valley, and the intrusive, uncompromising, right-angled, mirror-spangled architecture, of Milton Keynes' new railway station a little way off. Doubtless the lovely 13 th century church and the valley which has echoed to the footfall of prehistoric man and the march of invading tribes from Europe will have witnessed many changes throughout its long history. But the rapidity and finality of the present onslaught is a change in itself and can never have been equalled.
Memories persist, however, gifts from the past to reassure us of continuity. Customs, events, tall tales of notable characters and old ways of life, handed down the generations, some even immortalised in local features. Pitcher Lane, for example, with a well still extant; the water now used to irrigate local allotments. Along this ancient lane the denizens trooped to draw their water. A drudgery at the best of times, but sheer hell in winter, some small compensation perhaps drawn from a bath afterwards, before an open fire. The lane has changed, of course, many ancient dwellings have been demolished. But the emotive name lives on and one of Loughton's handsomest old houses, Becket House, the Old Rectory still stands there. Now a private dwelling, it was built in 1868 to replace an earlier rectory and in its turn has been replaced by a modern house. Surviving too, in quaint irony are some two-up — two-down cottages of meaner stamp, built for labourers, but which are now considered bargains at around £40,000 by city buyers seeking a better way of life.

Some older buildings of the village have been lovingly restored and converted. The old school makes a good example. Saved from demolition, it has been converted into a most attractive dwelling, and stands a monument to its owner's inspiration, and the determination of the village to educate its young.

Records of this determination reach back to 1848, before the school was built. Two rooms of Elm House, a Georgian Mansion, were allotted to this purpose. The records give us some essence of village life in Victorian and Edwardian times. Records of absences for legitimate reasons: infectious diseases, flood or snow-blocked roads, contrast with: bean-sticking, stone-picking, gleaning and the inability to pay the two penny weekly fee. There were also half-day holidays for religious and traditional festivals.
Of notable characters Charlotte Gregory must be worthy of mention. A skilled Victorian lacemaker, Charlotte worked well into her nineties. Her claim to fame, however, lay in her habit of clay-pipe smoking and her ability to expectorate her consequent pulmonary congestion with unerring accuracy from workspace to fire. It is said folk walked miles to marvel at the spectacle.

From Victorian times technological progress began to bite, accelerating through Edwardian years to radically alter rural activity. Jack Dolling, now retired, left a childhood baptised by the Brad'l Brook to enter a manhood of hard graft on the farm among beloved horses. His reaction to the. first tractor in 1924 is unprintable! There are still horses in the village, however, at a thriving equestrian centre, catering for leisure and pleasure.
Jack also remembers the first bus. Here we can reflect on changing attitudes, for these early travellers thought nothing of alighting to enable the bus to negotiate the steep rise to the canal bridge at New Bradwell, and weekend revellers would disembark • at a 'chippy' on the outward foray, to place orders for collection on the return. Try that on a modern city bus and see how far you get.

Loughton's oldest resident, Ethel Rose Foxely, remembers vividly the drudgery of the labour of her youth, matched by the uniformity of dress and pattern of life of the poor. The women wore black dresses with white aprons and worked afield, made lace, or walked to Bletchley to launder, for a pittance. A hard rural existence underpinned by well-stocked gardens and allotments, and a 'pig in the cot' to supply the table. The staple diet was the 'Buckinghamshire Clanger', boiled in a pot with the vegetables. This life has gone forever now, and perhaps we should be glad, but cold fingers of nostalgia will inevitably creep around the hearts of sensitive observers contemplating fields where foxes once barked and pheasants scurried, falling inexorably beneath the advance of the neat brick boxes, being marshalled along the new estate road that straddles the link with the old A5. At the sight too of the two old 'spit and sawdust' pubs on that ancient highway mercilessly shot up-market and where the ploughman no longer calls when wending his weary way homeward.

But in spring the high banks of Pitcher Lane will still bustle and bob with flowers, and yet offer a modicum of shelter from the blast of winter. Although the population is about to explode, the heart of the village will still beat for those who want to hear. There will still be some continuity for those who wish to feel it.


Article written by members of the Buckinghamshire Federation of Women's Institutes for the publication "The Buckinghamshire Village Book" (1987) and reproduced here with their permission

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