ROMANTIC ESSEX: Pedestrian Impressions
by Reginald A Beckett (1901)
AMONG THE CHALK HILLS
Page 27: ‘the little cluster of hills shown by vigorous black shading in the north west corner of the map of Essex had long fascinated my imagination…. I reached a pretty village on the slope of a hill, I found that it was Elmdon… ensconced in the long low room of a comfortable inn, the lights in the antique silver candlesticks gleaming on a snowy cloth spread with dainty and substantial fare.’
Page 29: ’All the next day I wandered by lanes and grassy paths up and down a hilly, well-wooded country, passing here and there some stately house standing solitary upon a height surrounded by its trees and moat. In one place there were two moats in the midst of a wood, from which the wild-fowl rose startled at my approach. At sunset I reached Henham-on-the-Hill, a village whose name sounded interesting, and one which I had often tried to realise in imagination; though, as usually happens, the imaginary picture proved to be very little like the reality. Can the reader see with his mind’s eye a broad plateau traversed by broad shady roads which divide green expanses of common, around which are scattered a number of idyllic cottages mostly roofed with thatch? There are plenty of thatched houses, of course, in Essex; but as a rule there is not a large proportion of them in any one village. This is one peculiarity of Henham. It is very nearly, if not quite unspoilt. The church stands boldly at the end of the village where a road branches off, and opposite swings the sign of the principal inn.
One day that I spent in this lonely region among the chalk hills I shall never forget. It was Sunday, I remember, as I approached a little upland village. As is often seen in chalky districts, the land was in some parts perfectly bare of timber, its bold curving lines showing naked against the sky, while now and then the road skirted a wood of such thickness that it seemed impossible to penetrate it, even with the eye. The white roads glistened in the strong sunlight … ‘
Page 32: ‘Returning by the fields I reached the church in time for afternoon service… The church consisted only of chancel and nave; indeed, it was so small that it was nearly full, although hardly more than twenty people were present. The arch dividing nave from chancel was semi-circular in form, of Norman design, bold and impressive. Beneath it, the clergyman, a man advanced in years, delivered a discourse which, whatever its merits, had certainly not the simplicity of his audience and surroundings. On my right sat a man with his children, evidently a labourer, yet whose face bore such traces of thought and refinement, that I could hardly take my eyes from him. In that remote spot, amid the stillness of that hour, the house of God built by the fervour of a bygone age, framing the restless rustic congregation, the droning cleric, and the face of this simple yet noble man, formed a picture which will be for ever stamped upon my memory.’
Page 33: That summer Sabbath day was drawing to its close, and the westering sun shone warmly upon the trees and the tall spire above them as I crossed the bridge into the quiet streets of Saffron Walden… I have felt ever since that Saffron Walden is rather in Essex than of it… the church. Resting in a quiet corner, I watched the last rays of sunlight travel round the lofty piers, and listened to the music and the soothing cadences of the liturgy, until things began to resume their right proportions, and it seemed to matter very little whether I secured a night’s lodging or not… Notwithstanding the somewhat cold and formal air of some of its streets, I found its general aspect interesting and pleasing, with many old timber houses of timber and plaster, and several ancient inns, one of which, the Sun, was Cromwell’s headquarters here. First I climbed to the top of Windmill Hill to take in the town as a whole. Next, I made my way to the earthworks locally known as the Battle Ditches. … The church of Saffron Walden is imposing without and within. Like many of the churches of the Late Perpendicular epoch, it compels admiration by its spaciousness, lofty design, and general prevalence of light and air. And yet, like all buildings of the same age, it seems to me to lack something. It has admirable qualities, yet it leaves you cold. Its absolute mastery of material conveys a hint of materialism. In the development from the simpler and ruder forms of architecture, it has lost much of the old mystery and romance. Carved in the spandrels of the aisle arch opposite the south door are saffron flowers. This reminds us that the saffron crocus was once largely grown around the town, from which facts its present prefix is derived. Few names of places tell their own story so plainly… Saffron being no longer grown here now, the town is again spoken of simply as Walden which root name has probably always sufficed for its inhabitants.’
Page 36: Close to the borders of the town stretches the park of Audley End. The house of this name is looked upon as the most magnificent residence in Essex. Yet the history of Audley End – like that of many of the great houses in Essex - is rather saddening, if instructive, to those who take an intelligent interest in their country’s past … A mile to the west of the town, in a sheltered valley of the River Cam, arose in 1146 the walls of a Benedictine priory. Here for centuries went on that quiet routine of service so indispensable in the economy of the Middle Ages – the offices of learning and religion relief of the sick and needy, entertainment of travelers… The sacred buildings were pulled down by Audley to make room for a private mansion befitting the new scheme of things… the stables of the modern establishment are the sole remaining portion of the original priory, that portion which was once the hostel, whose doors stood open to all comers…’
Page 38: ‘Newport should certainly be visited of the sake of the wonderful old houses that stand in its single street. One of them, called Monk Barns, believed to have belonged to some religious fraternity, has upon its front a carved wooden group of figures which seem to represent the coronation of the Virgin. Not far off stands the Crown House (so called from a crown over the door), said to have been formerly occupied by Nell Gwynne; while the Coach and Horses inn also has associations with the reign in which she flourished….’
Page 38: ‘Great Chesterford, now nothing but a large village, dominated by a church chiefly of Perpendicular date, and encircled by the wings of the Cam… the scattered village of Ashdon, which has many thatched cottages, and in the churchyard, an old house inhabited in pre-Reformation days by the priest…
Page 39: ‘Hadstock… entering the church through the Norman doorway, one cannot fail to be struck by a certain largeness and boldness in the piers and round arches at the centre of the cruciform plan in contrast with the modest size of the building as a whole. Perhaps it was meant to be something more than a simple village church… As we pass through the churchyard, which contains a stone well, dedicated, like the church, to Saint Botolph, the primitive village rises before us, with its inns at the diverging roads, its thatched cottages spilled in picturesque confusion, and an old gabled house at the summit. Entering one of the inns to taste the ale of the district and get speech with the hostess, the rafters of the kitchen are barely above my head, and upon them may easily be deciphered the roman numerals rudely cut there by the chisel of some bygone craftsman, who doubtless framed the whole dwelling before he set a single beam of it in position.’
Page 40: ‘A neighbouring hamlet of rather similar type is Bartlow. Here we encounter the railway, but somehow it blends with its surroundings, and is hardly felt as an intrusion… The church here is an interesting one, with a round tower, and a faded fresco of Saint Christopher over the south door. But the chief charm of the place is found in the barrows, or Bartlow Hills as they are called, which stand on the boundary line that separates Essex from Cambridgeshire… when I visited the place agricultural digging was going on, and fragments of Samian and other pottery were being thrown up by the spade. The aspect of these mounds is like that of nothing else in Essex. There are four of them, ranged close together in a row, not all of the same size, but each in form an almost perfect dome…climb the steep side of one of these hills - the highest is seventy feet – and stand among the wind-swept trees at the top. From hence you may survey, as men of one race after another have for centuries surveyed, the landscape that spreads around, traversed in all directions by the roads of the Roman generals. This cluster of chalk hills may be called the water-shed of Essex; for within them nearly all the streams that find their way through the county take their rise…
Page 131: ‘The road from Dunmow to Thaxted should certainly be travelled, as it is one of the most beautiful in England. Hardly a quarter of a mile of its surface is both straight and level. It winds and dips in sinuous curves of about six miles northwards, commanding a beautiful prospect over the valley to the richly-wooded heights of Elsenham and Henham. Nearly the whole way the lofty spire of Thaxted is in sight, and during the last mile or two the church and town appear in different aspects at every turn of the road…’
Page 132: ‘The charming picture formed by the village of Great Easton… the dark green background of Easton Park… Tiltey, an even more beautiful spot. Here the banks of the Chelmer close in, and form one of those green sheltered nooks such as the old monks loved, where a priory formerly stood. Of this nothing remains but a fragment of wall and an exquisite church. The Decorated east window is especially fine. The loveliness and peace of the surroundings intensify the marvelous beauty of the handwork. Such perfect proportion and grace, such due subordination of the parts to the whole, such free, flowing, yet harmonious tracery, filling without either stiffness or extravagance the spaces assigned to it – like a flower that has opened all its petals and not yet become overblown. Surely no architecture in the world approaches Gothic at its best. One feels here that the art of design in building can no further go, that any progress beyond this can only be downward, as the event indeed has proved. One is oppressed with the divine sadness with which we behold perfection.’
Page 133: ‘Thaxted … the whole aspect of the place is redolent of the past… As you enter the town from the south, the first buildings you note in the broad street are great thatched barns or warehouses standing closed and empty. As you proceed past silent houses and shops, the road divides, and at the corner stands the old Moot Hall with overhanging upper storeys raised on stout oaken pillars… Behind the Moot Hall a flight of steps leads to the mound on which the church is built. This Cathedral of Essex, as it has be called, is essentially the church of a wealthy medieval trading community, aided by the munificence of the great… So completely out of the world is Thaxted… On the west of the town there is a lovely walk through the meadows along the banks of the infant Chelmer… the splendid Tudor mansion of Horham Hall… Little Bardfield Hall nestles at the foot of a hill…’
Page 229: ‘I travelled a northward road with the Stort in full flood… I came to the spot of which I was in search – the ancient entrenchment known as Walbury. I found it thickly covered with trees, the growth of centuries… I saw a picture like one of Durer’s charming backgrounds. On a sloping hill, less than a mile away, the old houses of a little village clustered together, with substantial stacks in the surrounding fields, and the slender spire of a church at the summit. This was Little Hallingbury. Great Hallingbury, a mile or so further one, proved to be an even smaller place, though with a large church, much restored, and a graveyard that seemed to tell of a considerable population in former times. The rooks cawed among the trees surrounding the towers of Hallingbury Place, whose high lawns looked over the wooded river valley into Hertfordshire.’
Page 230: ‘I skirted the edge of Hatfield Forest, catching now and then a glimpse of the deer that still haunt this now enclosed wilderness. Presently the swiftly–turning sails of a windmill came into view on higher ground, and I came to Hatfield Heath, a breezy common with houses grouped around it. The road descended again, and presently crossed a little river. On the steep green banks opposite rose a little town of charming aspect, dominated by the embattled tower of a church. The clerestory windows rose above the low tiled or thatched roofs of the humble white-washed houses in the quiet street through which I passed. No traces remain of the priory, which Aubrey de Vere founded here in the twelfth century, and of which the church formed part; but for its beautiful situation, and its architectural expression of a bygone age, Hatfield Broad Oak is as characteristic an Essex town as one could wish to see.’
Page 232: ‘The Rodings … the charm of the little river Roding… the sequestered country through which it steals. Rising obscurely in the sylvan recesses of Easton, and passing beneath the great highway that traverses Essex east to west, it is still hardly more than a brook when it stirs the rushes round the base of Canfield Mount. Through quiet meadows and woods it flows, still southward, till it rounds the spur of the Epping Ridge at Ongar, and waters the wide valley which spreads to the east of the forest… This little unfrequented river gives its name to a stretch of country about twelve miles long, lying between Ongar and Dunmow – a cluster of villages called The Rodings, bounded west and east by two lesser clusters, the Lavers and the Easters. Perhaps no part of Essex is so entirely remote from the life of modern London… vast fields of wheat, oats and barley, interspersed now and then with woods, are traversed by roads and lanes along which you may saunter for hours almost without meeting a human being… the labouring arms of a windmill on the horizon show where a village is to be found; for in the Rodings every village has its windmill, always in close proximity to the church. Indeed the village usually consists of nothing but church and windmill, with perhaps two or three cottages and a farm. It is becoming rare now in England to see a windmill, and rare to find one at work…Looking one day into a barn in one of the Roding parishes, I noticed a still stranger survival – the operation of thrashing with a flail. These things serve to show that this part of Essex, geographically near London though it be, is centuries behind and apart from it. For nearness to London is not to be measured by miles… the magnetism of the city ceases to act, and the magnetism of the earth has full sway… there is a good high road running through the district. For several miles it is quite level and perfectly straight; it runs along rather elevated ground and commands a wide prospect. One summer evening on which I passed along it still lives in my memory, especially the picture of a group of labourers, wearied with their long days work in the harvest-field, resting and refreshing themselves outside a humble inn. Before them stretched a wide valley, thrown into shadow by the setting sun, which yet shone brightly upon the tower of High Easter church two miles away, and showed the smoke rising straight into the still air. … Great Canfield, where I had been impressed not so much by the romantic beauty of the Mount, one of the ancient strongholds of the De Veres, as by the projecting workshop of the shoemaker’s house… ‘
Page 237: ‘A farmhouse on the edge of this interesting district… here we spent many happy days… in the hot August afternoons while the cyclists whirred by along the dusty road, we would beat over the stile into the fields, and rest on the shady green banks overhanging the river, where the boughs drooped low over the water, and dappled its surface with shadow… As we fell asleep at night in an exquisitely fresh white room, we would hear the cry of the owl in the great barn, and be wakened in the morning by the plaintive cooing of wood-pigeons in the elms beyond the moat. Such are the peaceful signs that mark the passage of the hours in an Essex farmhouse of the olden time.’
Page 243: ‘The church of Little Sampford, with its exquisitely-proportioned Early English tower… against a background of lights and flowers the figures of eight stalwart bellringers in their shirt sleeves forming a circle round the font… ‘
Page 265: ‘The influences derived from tradition are happily still strong in Essex. Thus it happens that we are not left to the melancholy task of disinterring dead customs and ideas, or of cherishing vague regret for a vanished past. Here, in the actual present, at our very doors, there is a beauty, a charm, a romance, which must be experienced to be understood… The friendly simplicity of the landscape, of the homes of the people, and of the people themselves - this is the soul of Essex.’
Extracts from ROMANTIC ESSEX: Pedestrian Impressions by Reginald A. Beckett, (Published by J.M. Dent & Co, 1901, 2nd edition 1907 can be found in the bookshelves of the ERO Access Point in Saffron Walden Library).
[A copy of this lovely book can be found in the ERO reference library at SW Library, once owned by G Montagu Benton, FSA, thenotable Essex antiquarian.