The story of Willow Cottage
PUBLISHED: 06:00 11 May 2016
The Williams family's fascination with Willow Cottage in Curtis Mill Green began with a magical woodland walk and a search for a simpler life. Pat Bramley tells this real-life fairytale
The story of Willow Cottage and the family who have owned it for 65 years reads like a fairy story.
Picture this: It is the beginning of the 1950s. War time rationing still limits what we can buy. Not many houses have a TV. Travel is limited. Brighton is as close as most families get to a holiday. A picnic involving a journey of more than ten miles needs planning like a military manoeuvre. ‘Shall we take the kettle and the primus stove or the Thermos?’ Tea bags have not been invented and only the French drink coffee.
Dick Williams, who owned a music and drama college, and his wife, Freda, have three young children.
Whenever they can, the couple take their children on an expedition to the countryside. They leave their home in Walthamstow and head out to Essex where they have discovered a little known place ‘in the middle of nowhere’ called Curtis Mill Green, near Navestock.
It is less than 20 miles from where they live but here, in 120 acres of ancient forest interspersed with an expanse of common land, the children have marvellous times exploring the woods, making dens and climbing trees.
It is on such a day in 1951 that the two eldest children, Anne and Michael, run off to pick blackberries and, half a mile into the woodland, suddenly notice what even today looks like a gingerbread house straight from the pages of an Enid Blyton story. The cottage is almost hidden by brambles and the branches of overhanging trees. The children can see there’s someone living there and wonder if it’s a goblin, but don’t hang around to find out.
It’s November when the family next return to Curtis Mill Green. Anne and Michael follow the same track which led them to the cottage before and this time the house is empty.
Thinking the house would make an ideal weekend retreat, Dick and Freda make inquiries and discover the owner is a butcher from Loughton.
It has no mains water or electricity supply, and no road leading to it, only a track, but it is in a magical place.
By the middle of December the couple from London have bought Willow Cottage and the family spend the first of many Christmases in their enchanting country hideaway.
Christine, the Williams’ fourth child, was born the following summer and, like her older siblings, looks back today on the idyllic times spent at the family’s weekend home in its enchanting woodland setting.
Her brother David, a surveyor who worked on projects such as Canary Wharf before he retired, now lives with his wife in a 400-year-old cottage only 200 yards from the one his brother and sister discovered when they were blackberrying.
In the late 50s electricity was connected and in 1970, David, with help from friends and family, greatly improved the access track from Lodge Farm which had been constructed from the hardcore of the old Passingford Bridge. In 1972 David organised laying on water for six properties, laying the pipework from Murthering Lane. Nevertheless, Curtis Mill Green is still a backwater, unspoilt by so called progress.
David explains: ‘When my parents first came here in the early 1950s, long before the M11/M25 were built, you might see five or six families picnicking on the green every weekend in the summer. Now you rarely see any. Families today have wider horizons.’
Willow Cottage is Grade II listed. It dates from the 17th century with more recent rooms added in the past 60 years.
David believes the house was originally built as a two-up, two-down cottage, probably for the overseer of the local estate workers.
‘The workers would have standard one-bedroom cottages. Mine is a couple of one-bedroom cottages knocked together, but Willow Cottage is larger with high ceilings. There are 15 cottages around Curtis Mill Green, mainly now lived in by newcomers. Among the previous generations, most families lived at Willow Cottage at some point,’ adds David.
The woodland hideaway now has an extra bedroom on the ground floor plus a bathroom and toilet. The inglenook fireplace in the sitting room still has the hook which the early inhabitants used as a spit to cook food over the fire. The Williams found the ancient hook when they disposed of the old kitchen range that stood in the fireplace.
Not having electricity laid on until the late 1950s, there were antique oil lamps to provide lighting, a paraffin stove for cooking, the open fire for heating and the radio was powered by accumulators which were charged up by the local hardware shop in Walthamstow. Living without mod cons certainly had advantages as the siblings learnt life skills from an early age.
‘I could drive the car at eight years old,’ David remembers with a laugh. ‘I would drive to the well with cans in the back to fetch water. Two years later I had become sufficiently handy to batten a new roof on the shed and an entry in Dick’s diary in 1958 confesses: “I have left the roof battening to David”. I would have been ten at the time.’
The private grounds at his late parents’ weekend home extend to two and a half acres which include the paddock where the Williams family kept their ponies. There are a whole host of fruit trees, meandering covered paths, ponds, greenhouses, vegetable plots and heavily stocked flower beds.
In 1955 the forest and common land beyond was designated a Site of Scientific Interest (SSI). In 1966 Dick and Freda registered their rights as locals to graze horses and sheep and chop firewood on the common land and woodland surrounding their cottage.
By then the Williams’ had become well known in the area. In 1962 they’d made a name for themselves locally by staging a performance of Twelfth Night in the amphitheatre they’d created from an ancient marl pit in the woodland just outside the boundary of their garden.
The productions were enthusiastically received. Cast numbers grew to 60 under Dick’s professional direction and his son remembers how everyone in the family had to do their bit.
‘They say never act with children or animals, but my father’s productions had children, horses and dogs — everyone was roped in. You couldn’t say no. If it rained when we were due to do the play on a Saturday, it would be put off until Sunday. If it rained then, we’d put on the play on the following weekend.’
Word soon spread beyond the immediate locality. Over the years since the amphitheatre came into being the setting has often been used for films and commercials – even TV’s Don’t Tell the Bride was shot there.
After Freda died in 1975, Dick married Christine who continued the family’s tradition of holding open house at their country retreat.
However, since her husband’s death in 2007, it hasn’t been used as much, which is why the four children, now in their 60s and 70s, have decided to put it on the market. It will give the opportunity for a new family, hopefully with young children, to enjoy the fun and freedom that comes with living at Willow Cottage.
As David says, you can live seemingly in the depths of the country but still work in London.
‘When I was working on projects like Canary Wharf, I left home at 6.30am each morning and I was sitting at my desk in Russell Square at a quarter to eight. You really can have the best of both worlds here.’
Now it’s for sale
Willow Cottage is on the market through the Maldon office of Zoe Napier. The agent is inviting offers in excess of £580,000. For details call 01621 840333