I REMEMBER driving along the B1010 towards Maldon and noticing, what was then, one of the new boundary signs for the village of Purleigh (Round Bush).

I did a bit of a double take when I spotted that it displayed an image of the elusive bird – the bittern.

Why on earth was that I wondered? I had always been under the, what I now know was a misapprehension, that the place-name derived from ‘Pirlea’, literally the “pear-tree leigh” (a clearing in the forest where pear-trees were grown).

Granted my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon is quite limited, so I turned to (what I still contend) are the two authorities on the subject.

I was surprised to learn that both Professor Eilert Ekwall, in his ‘Studies in English Place and Personal Names’ (1931) and PH Reaney, ‘The Place-Names of Essex’ (1969) felt that, unlike Purley, Berkshire, our Purleigh was nothing at all to do with pear-trees.

Instead they cited the Old English “pur” for ‘bittern’, or ‘snipe’ – so concluded it was “bittern clearing’.

The name first appears as ‘Purlea’ in an ancient charter of 998. By the time of the Domesday Survey (in 1085/86), when it was a manor held by the Count of Boulogne, it had become corrupted to ‘Purlai’.

It then evolved into ‘Purley’ and various derivations around ‘Pirle’, ‘Purlewe’ and so on, until the current spelling ‘Purleigh’ first appeared in the late-16th Century.

Those subtle changes have probably contributed to the confusion (or at least mine), but that earliest 10th Century record seems to confirm that Purleigh was, indeed, once home to what ornithologists know as botaurus stellaris.

Bitterns have always liked a wetland, reedbed habitat and in more recent times this rare bird has been mainly associated with the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

James Wentworth Day makes numerous references to them in his ‘History of the Fens’ (1954), of “the ghostly note of a bittern in the quite dusk of a June night”, of another that “in 1950 or 1951, haunted the reed-beds for some weeks”.

He describes the bittern as a “brown gnome of the reed-beds, with his tiger-striped breast, baleful yellow eye, dagger-like beak, long greenish legs and haunting voice”.

Sadly, he also records the robbing of eggs in 1868 and accidental kills during shoots in 1905 and 1938.

Add those sorts of tragic incidents to the even more catastrophic draining of the fens and marshes and you realise why the bittern is no longer a “common resident”.

Maldon and Burnham Standard:

The sign on the B1010

But what about nearer to home – what evidence do we have of their presence in our part of Essex?

Miller Christy in ‘The Birds of Essex’ (1890) records “specimens shot at Maldon, Tillingham, Woodham Ferrers and on the Chelmer” and Dr Salter, of Tolleshunt D’Arcy, shot at least two – one in 1884 and another in 1890.

The trouble with these more local records is that, in the words of John Buchanan, in his recently published and very comprehensive, excellent work the ‘Wildlife of Maldon’, “prior to the 20th century, the wildlife of Essex was little chronicled. Most records were of species shot…”

And so it would seem, but John goes on to quote some surviving Miller Christy correspondence that noted bitterns were “not unfrequently met with upon the marshes by the side of the river which runs (to Maldon)”.

So the evidence, such as we have, indicates that the bittern was certainly a much more common sight here in the past than it is now – at least it was up to the late-19th Century and, therefore, must have been much more prevalent earlier still.

I have always wanted to spot one myself, but have so far had no such luck.

I have, however, very occasionally heard its hollow, ghostly “br-oomp-oomp” call, carried on soft night winds during our family holidays on the Broads.

It’s not a sound I have ever encountered in the Maldon district, but John includes a picture in his book of a bittern at Slough House Farm, photographed in December 2010.

Maldon and Burnham Standard:

John Buchanan’s new book

Bitterns, he tells us, have “turned up, from the continent or possibly from elsewhere in the UK where, thanks to the RSPB, its population rose during the final decades of the 20th Century from being virtually extinct to being a regular breeder in numerous reserves”.

We know that there have been a few sightings at nearby Abberton Reservoir reserve (six since 2018) and, closer still, on August 29, 2018, one was sighted at the Blue House Farm reserve at North Fambridge.

That isn’t very far from Purleigh, but unless you can tell me otherwise, there hasn’t been one in the “bittern clearing” for many generations.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if they returned home to a place that had been their traditional sanctuary back to the time of our Dark Age ancestors?

If you are interested in the wildlife of this area, then I highly recommend John Buchanan’s book ‘Wildlife of Maldon’, published by Gannet Rock in 2021.