Recorders Report 2008/2009
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Wicken Bonhunt is one of the smaller parishes within the Uttlesford district. The village today comprises around 76 houses with 200 people including 56 children under 18. London and Cambridge continue to be commuter destinations via road and the rail link at Newport. The oldest tradition in village occupations – farming, continues to play a vital role and surrounds the residential area.
Without a village shop or post office, transport by car plays a vital role in accessing services at nearby towns and villages. There is a twice weekly bus service to Saffron Walden, and once a week to Bishops Stortford. Secondary students are bussed to local schools from the village by a free service to Newport Free Grammar School and paid services to Bishops Stortford and Saffron Walden. The community is not large enough to support a parish council; however a Parish Meeting operates for the benefit of the community.
At the start of the year, village life centred around three facilities: the parish church of St Margaret, the Coach & Horses public house and Wicken House the residential education centre operated by Essex County Council.
St. Margaret’s, sitting in the heart of the village, has served the community for almost a thousand years. The church is not the oldest building in the parish, as the ancient Chapel of St. Helen, a Late Saxon building, is one of the earliest surviving buildings in the east of England. A small team of dedicated villagers manage and maintain services at the church and provide an annual service at St. Helen’s chapel. While congregations are large for this service and the Christmas Carol and Easter services, numbers for the Sunday Service has fallen to a congregation of 9. The Church Wardens play a proactive role in fundraising for the maintenance of the fabric of the church and regularly hold village events which are well supported and attended. These include quiz nights, jumble sales and supper events such as the popular ‘Harvest Supper’ and ‘Safari Supper’ where the party travels from house to house between courses.
The Coach and Horses, like many rural pubs, has had a difficult year under various landlords. The pub was put up for sale and for some time has been closed. Good news came in the spring of 2009 that a buyer had been found. Dave Smith, one of the new owners has begun a comprehensive refurbishment including an extensive re-fit of the accommodation and bar with new kitchens and washrooms. The keenly anticipated opening promises a welcome return for this much needed village attraction.
The closure and subsequent sale of Wicken House by Essex County Council has dominated village life throughout the year. As an educational centre Wicken House provided jobs for local people and brought many visitors to the village. During the summer students from around the U.K. and Europe enjoyed learning in a rural idyll. During village events the students would happily join in – even if they did not speak a word of English.
The centre closed in the early summer of 2008 and it has been a very sad loss for the community. What was once the busiest place in the village has stood empty for a year; the gates locked and displaying a security warning sign. The sense of loss among public feeling has been overwhelming. Most keenly felt has been the loss of community facilities including recycling, polling, church and social events and the much loved ‘Wicken Ball’ a glamorous black tie event traditionally held in a marquee on the front lawn of the house. These events provided meeting places for neighbours, introductions for families moving here, and, a place where village children could meet new friends and have fun
Wicken House stood empty during 2008/9.
Local press reported in early April 2009, that Essex County Council has sold Wicken House to the Stansted-based property developers City and Country for an undisclosed sum. As part of the sale agreement, it was reported that the village would receive around £80,000 to spend on community projects. During April 2009 Wicken House became available to let. Particulars describe the property as a massive residence with 13 en suite bedrooms and 8 acres of land at a monthly rental of £4,950.
At the annual Parish Meeting on 23 April 2009, Chairman Fabian Bullen confirmed the sale of Wicken House and outlined proposals for the future. Among the agenda was the ongoing campaign for road safety including speed restrictions. Also highlighted was the new village website at www.wickenbonhunt.org.uk designed as an accessible online meeting place with news and information. The implications arising from the sale of Wicken House were analysed and commented on by guest speakers Ray Gooding of ECC and Councillor Alan Dean.
Ray Gooding talked of the ‘difficult process’ of selling the property and how £600,000 had been lost from the sale value due to the downturn in the property market and so called ‘credit crunch’. Mr Gooding declined to give a precise sale figure, but consensus among the audience suggested a final selling price of 1.1 million pounds – a seemingly modest sum for a very grand, listed building set in 10 acres of land. Mr Gooding confirmed that while the village would not receive a cheque for £80,000, this sum would be set aside for approved projects which would benefit the community.
In reply, Liberal candidate and founder of the ‘Save Wicken House’ campaign Alan Dean recognised that despite the necessary updating needed to continue operating Wicken House being only £160,000, and despite his best efforts, with the sale complete, now was a time to move
forward. Mr Dean was in favour of promoting the area as a rural location ideal for walkers and tourists.
Chairman Fabian Bullen opened discussion about future village plans, saying that while there were no fixed projects, the parish meeting welcomed ideas which provided community services and recreational facilities. He pointed out, that the funding which becomes available from the sale of Wicken House should be the starting point from which a lasting legacy can be secured for future generations.
Two proposals were suggested: the purchase and refurbishment of lands behind The Meads for recreational use and wildlife area, and, the proposal to adapt St Margaret’s church as a community centre. Richard Taylor outlined ideas to adapt the main part of the building to a community centre, with the addition of better lighting and heating plus kitchen and toilets, while maintaining the chancel of the church for religious service. Both projects received considerable support and will undergo feasibility studies this year.
Much of the history of Wicken Bonhunt remains undiscovered or unpublished. Joining the federation of local historians within the Recorders in 2008 has helped develop access to local history resources. Collecting various extant resources and undertaking new research projects have been brought together using the Recorders database. A village archive has been started which includes the census collection 1841 – 1901, photographs and individual property histories. The archive has proved helpful to academic and private researchers around the world.
Future projects include researching the history of Bonhunt. This is a wide reaching project which will draw on past academic studies including the work of Bari Hooper who discovered the Anglo- Saxon site following field-walking in 1967, the excavations undertaken by the Department of the Environment during the building of the M11 motorway (1973-79), and the study of animal use at the site by Pam Crabtree Associate Professor of Anthropology at New York University. With the help of local expertise and the support of Saffron Walden Museum where much of the archaeological evidence for the site is kept, it is hoped that a fairly broad interpretation of the site can be added to the Recorders’ database.
Wicken Bonhunt Local History Recorder