Whose story for Rayleigh?

Writing about work is better than doing it. With this in mind, it’s time for a few words about an interesting new commission (one that I should be rehearsing right now).

I was approached by the Arts Development officer of Rochford Council in Essex. They wanted a supernatural story for adults based on the history of Rayleigh’s grade 2 listed windmill.

My first thought, after I said “yes”, was to wonder what I’d let myself in for!

I knew nothing about Rayleigh and even less about windmills. Once I’d discovered that it wasn’t even a Jonathan Creek location, my entire stock of windmill knowledge was exhausted.

Luckily, Roxie Curry from the council was able to arrange for me to come and visit.

I trekked up to Essex (it’s really close to London actually), fell in love with the beautiful countryside and got the chance to meet some extremely interesting gentlemen from an organisation called Rayleigh Through The Looking Glass. These men know everything about Rayleigh!

I was also lucky enough to spend a long time listening to Trevor Rand, who is a descendant of the miller. Trevor is such an expert. It felt as if I was going back in time and meeting someone who had really worked in a windmill.

As soon as I spoke to him, the mill stopped being a small museum and came to life as a working entity, hub of commerce and exquisitely well-tuned machine. I knew that the mill itself must be the star of the story.

But what else should I use?

I pored over the local studies library and scoured online sources. There were some interesting things about agriculture and folklore… but none of the local paranormal sightings really caught my imagination. However there was a truly fascinating person just three miles down the road in the town of Hadleigh: Cunning Murrell.

What a gift to a storyteller- and it turns out that his parents were married in the church just by where I live now in Southwark, London.

Murrell went in the story.

I sent an outline of the narrative to the council and was met with a cautious response. “Cunning Murrell belongs to the town of Hadleigh, not Rayleigh,” I was told. “And he’s a complete folk hero to the people of Hadleigh. They’re obsessed with him. He’s even got his own Twitter feed!”

So should we include him or not? A personality as big and well-known as Murrell could overbalance the entire story. Plus he’s not a Rayleigh man at all. That’s like including Dick Whittington in a story about South London!

Decisions decisions…

P.S. Here’s a picture of James ‘Cunning’ Murrell. (Artist unknown, but the pic is taken from The Hadleigh & Thundersley Community Archive.)