As a young whippersnapper- as my father would have said – I was told of a legendary figure who was a lopper and had fought for the freedom of Epping Forest. The legend was sketchy, but hinted at harsh imprisonment and consequential death. It may have been knowledge of this legend, or perhaps just natural curiosity, that caused me to arrive in the village of Willingale late on one damp January afternoon in 1971, with patchy snow on the ground, to start a search for my roots. The timing had been intended to coincide with pub opening time – as a naval officer I was something of a connoisseur of hostelries – but I was early, the Maltsters Arms was not yet open, and two churches complete with churchyards of tomb stones beckoned as a possibly productive alternative area for research.

The presence of two churches side by side was not a surprise, as I had also been informed of this curiosity. It seemed like a good idea to start the search for my roots in the two churchyards so I started to wipe snow from tomb stones and look for clues. Almost immediately I was accosted by a countryman who was clearly suspicious of my presence in what turned out to be “his” churchyard. I explained my reasons, and he saved me from further effort by stating categorically that there were no Willingales buried in either churchyard.

He suggested I direct my research towards Loughton, where he had noticed that the local paper recorded Willingales being born, marrying and dying. I thanked him for his help and repaired to the Maltsters Arms. As a mechanical engineer I had a passing interest in the traction engine which was mouldering in the garden, and which was a useful opening gambit for conversation with the landlord. Rather to my surprise he expressed no interest in my quest, and could offer no information concerning Willingales past or present. He thought there might be one living locally but was unsure about this. In a pub where the only occupants were the two of us I recall that making conversation either about traction engines or Willingales was rather hard work. It seems that today, some 30 years later, the pub is no more, and I wonder if the ghost of that taciturn landlord is still pulling pints.

Recollections of the starting point for my visit to Loughton now elude me. It was probably a pub with helpful staff or customers. Somehow I found a two story building with an impressive wooden stairway, half way up was a large oil painting of a Willingale, on the first floor was a bar called either the Willingale, or the Lopper’s, bar. There was no one to talk to, and so I did not investigate further, feeling nervous of being again regarded as a ne’er do well.

I had a telephone conversation with a Willingale who agreed to take me to visit an elderly relative of his who was regarded as probably to oldest Willingale living in Loughton. My recall – probably faulty – has her aged 93. She proved to be very alert but knew nothing of loppers or of Willingales to whom I might be related. Both the lady and the intermediary clearly thought I must have some ulterior motive for my research, and she introduced me to a story concerning a Willingale who had emigrated to the USA, become wealthy, and had died intestate.

to be continued…
Reproduced from the Lopping Times Vol1, Edition1, December 2002