Basildon New Town was designated as a London overspill town in 1949. The district has an area of 42 sq miles, and is one of the largest in England, incorporating the towns of Basildon, Billericay and Wickford plus intervening villages. Before the coming of the railway in the 19th century Basildon was a very small village; the original cottages clustered around Holy Cross Church which still survives. Billericay’ s Mayflower Hall has memorials to Christopher Martin, the unpopular Governor of theMayflower and treasurer of the expedition.
Braintree and Bocking, now merged, are traditionally textile-producing towns. The woollen industry has thrived here since the 14th century but is now superseded by silk production, introduced by Courtaulds in 1880; the making of metal window frames also dates from the 19th century. Modern buildings such as the Town Hall blend happily with centuries-old houses that reflect the town’s long history. Excavations have indicated that there was a Roman settlement here, at the junction of two ancient cross-country routes
Although most of its buildings are modern, Brentwood is an old town built at a crossroads. The White Hart Hotel is a coaching inn which dates from the late 15th century.
Miraculously the Tudor and, indeed, the medieval atmosphere of the village survives. Above it broods the massive keep, once a stronghold of the Earls of Oxford, who established a vineyard here in Norman times.
The Castle was admirably sited to control the trade route along the Colne valley. For the next 500 years, the de Veres were lords of the manor with only one setback. That was in 1215 when King John took the castle from Robert de Vere. However, the king later relented. Not long afterwards, he granted Castle Hedingham a Market Charter. Matilda, wife of King Stephen, died here in 1151. Queen Elizabeth I was the last sovereign to enjoy the de Veres’ hospitality. Afterwards, for no apparent reason, the 17th Earl ofOxford pulled part of the castle down.
Chelmsford, the county town of Essex, is an important link between London and the East coast, as well as being the centre of local government. There has been a livestock market here since about the year 1200, however few old buildings survive. The 15th-century church of St’s Mary, Peter and Cedd was promoted to the status of Cathedral in 1914. It’s 15th century tower is crowned by an 18th century lantern and spire and the south porch is a fine example of Perpendicular flush work. Among the oddities is a figure of St Peter in the dress of a modern fisherman holding a Yale key in his hand.
When the Emperor Claudius received the surrender of the British kings here in AD 43, Colchester had been an inhabited site for something like 1000 years. It was at that period named Camulodunum, and was the capital of Cunobelin (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline), ruler of south-east England and the most powerful man in pre-Roman Britain.
The Roman city, the first they founded in Britain, was sacked by Boudicca and the Iceni, but after her defeat, it was eventually rebuilt as a walled city and became one of the most important centres of Roman administration. Parts of the walls may still be seen, and the arch of the Balkerne gate remains, which marked the entrance of the Roman road from London. The many Roman remains are the nucleus of the museum contained in the massive keep of the Norman castle, built in about 1085 on the vaults of the Roman Temple of Claudius. In the medieval period,Colchester was a centre of the cloth industry and many Flemish refugees settled here in the 17th and 18th centuries, in the area around West Stockwell Street known as the Dutch Quarter. This has been restored, but much of the town centre is now a modern shopping precinct. After the decline of the wool trade, Colchester developed an engineering industry. In the 1960’s the University of Essex was established in Wivenhoe Park, its four stark concrete towers already a local landmark. As a fishing and trading port, Colchester is no longer significant, but its oysters were famous even in the Roman period.
The area around Dedham, now designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, has many connections with the artist John Constable. His father owned a water-mill in Dedham, which stood on the banks of the Stour on the site of the present Victorian replacement. The parish church also features in many of Constable’s paintings.
A welcome 6000 acre tract of beautiful woodland on the outer edge of London, Epping Forest was once part of a royal hunting ground used by Saxon, Norman and Tudor monarchs. The woodland was bought for public use in 1882 and is famous for its hornbeams a hardwood tree native only to south-east England. Queen Elizabeth’s hunting lodge, a timbered Tudor building, is at Chingford on the edge of the forest; it contains a museum of the area.
Duck pond, stream, green, church on the hill and a pleasant jumble of variously shaped and sized houses all combine to make this one of the most photogenic and photographed villages in Britain.
Some of the houses in this tidy village were built by the Courtauld family, who established a silk factory in nearby Halstead in 1826. For a while they also owned Gosfield Hall, a Tudor and later mansion with a fine gallery. A large lake built on part of the estate in the 18th century is now a recreation centre with paddling and water-skiing areas, and rowing boats available for hire.
One of the first lifeboats was tested here in 1785 on Doctor’s Pond, by the local inventor Lionel Lukin. A unique medieval custom, imported from Brittany in the 13th century and mentioned by Chaucer, takes place here every 4 years. A flitch of bacon is presented to any married couple who have not quarrelled or regretted their marriage for at least a year and a day recipients being tried by a bewigged amateur judge and counsel. Henry Ainsworth, the historical novelist, revived the ceremony in the mid 19th century.
Impressive ruins remain of a 13th century castle, rebuilt by Edward III in the 14th century, but destroyed during a landslide. A painting of the ruins by John Constable can be seen in the Tate Gallery. From the castle there are views of the Thames estuary and the Kent coast.
Harlow New Town was conceived in 1947 and was planned to develop alongside the old market town. It was the first town to have a pedestrian precinct and now has a population of 80,000. Passmores House is an early Georgian building converted to a museum, and the Mark Hall Cycle Museum displays more than 50 machines, the earliest dating back to 1819.
The ancient walled town and port of Harwich grew up on a small peninsula at the mouths of the Stour and Orwell rivers. It has been a port since medieval times. Edward III’s fleet gathered here in 1340 before sailing to victory in the first sea battle of the Hundred Years War. In 1808 work began on the 180ft diameter redoubt, a granite fort with moat and earthworks built to defend the port against Napoleon’s armies. A unique naval treadmill crane is preserved on the green. The narrow, cobbled streets retain their medieval character.
Maldon, a delightful town on the River Blackwater, is noted for the quality of its salt. All Saints Church is unique in having the only triangular tower in the country. There is an interesting 15th-century Moot Hall.
This attractive Essex village has several timbered houses that deserve attention -notably Crown House wit its richly pargeted front and Monks’ Barn. The Links, which is Georgian, used to be the House of Correction or workhouse. The 13th-century church contains an old chest of the same date with some interesting early paintings. The delightfully named Mole Hole Wildlife Park (OACT) occupies the grounds of an Elizabethan Manor.
St Osyth stands on one of the many little creeks on the River Colne. Three Martello towers in the Vicinity were built as defences against Napoleon. The remains of a 12th-century priory are incorporated into a 16th-century mansion. Mainly of flint construction, the building is superb.
Saffron Walden is one of the most beautiful towns in Essex: a town in which several periods of architecture coexist. Two old inns the Sun (now an antique shop) and the Cross Keys – are worthy of attention: the former is famous for its outstanding pargeted plasterwork, the latter has associations with Shakespeare. The magnificent 15th and 16th-century perpendicular church of St Mary, has a richly carved interior and several fine brasses.
Southend on Sea
London’s seaside resort is best known for its pier at 1and a half miles the longest in the world. The town has seven miles of shoreline. Among the better examples of holiday kitsch is a floral clock with a 20ft diameter and the Kursaal, crammed full of amusements. The Regency character of the town is nevertheless preserved in the Royal Terrace where the Prince Regent’s Princess Caroline stayed. Porters is an early 17th-century manor house where Disraeli stayed and which is now the Mayor’s Parlour. Other places of interest are the Historic Aircraft Museum and Southchurch Hall, a beautifully restored 14th century manor house.
This ancient port in the suburbanised and industrialised Thames Estuary marshlands is the first outpost of the Port of London. Its great passenger days are over, it is now a container port. There is a ferry service to Gravesend. Purfleet is five miles west of Tilbury. The area’s nautical past is illustrated in the Thurrock Riverside Museum at Tilbury. Tilbury Fort was one of Henry VIII’s creations and the point where Queen Elizabeth I reviewed the army raised to resist invasion by the Spanish Armada.
Thaxted’s plastered, half-timbered, overhanging buildings represent the old Essex. The due, early 15th-century Guildhall derives from the village’s former prosperity as a centre of the cutlery and wool trades.
Among the creeks and marshes of the Blackwater Estuary, this sizeable fishing village is the pivot of the oyster trade. Around 1900 Tollesbury had over 100 sprat catching boats. Tollesbury’s square is framed by plaster and brick houses. St Mary’s Church, built of pebble, stone, brick and tiles, has a Norman tower and nave. The 18th-century font is inscribed: ‘Good people all pray take care, that in ye church you do not sware. As this man did.’ ‘This man’, atoned by paying for the font.
Waltham Abbey was founded by King Harold, and his body is believed to have been buried here after his death at the Battle of Hastings. The cloister entrance and the nave of the church date from the 12th century, displaying some of the oldest Norman workmanship in the country. A second phase of building took place in the 14th century, and Harold’s Bridge and the gatehouse date from this period. Much of the abbey was destroyed at the Reformation, but the remains are magnificent, and the restored church contains fine monuments and stained l glass and has an undercroft museum.