Havering History Cameos: Exploring Essex

During my eight years as the volunteer contributor to the Romford Recorder's Heritage column, I wrote a number of columns – mainly for August issues – describing places across the border with Essex that were worth a visit. Although Havering ceased to be part of the county for administrative purposes in 1965, links remain strong, for instance through cricket. It's worth emphasising the message that Havering still "belongs" to Essex – and vice-versa.

As I edit these columns for the website, in February 2021, it is still possible that the Civid-19 crisis will severely limit long-distance holiday options for some time. If local travel restrictions are relaxed, exploring Essex – with social distancing and other sensible precautions – may become a useful substitute. The columns were, of course, written before the crisis. Facilities and access are described as they were in 2018-19.

SOUTH WEALD – THE FIRST VILLAGE BEYOND HAVERING

Just across Havering's border, South Weald is a gem of an Essex village – with the lakes and woodland of a 500-acre Country Park to explore too. The 498 bus from Romford to Brentwood provides frequent services to the Bull at Brook Street. Walk back to Wigley Bush Lane, which has a safe pavement up to the village. You pass the red-brick almshouses, sloping comfortably down the hillside. Founded in 1567 by local squire Sir Anthony Browne (he was buried in the church), they were rebuilt in 1854 by his successors, the Tower family. A Biblical motto in antique letters runs around the brick pump-house. "The beginning of strife is as one letteth out water," it mysteriously warns, "therefore leave off contention before it be meddled with." The Towers were forced to rebuild the almshouses after a long court case, in which they were accused of diverting charitable income to their private profit. The inscription is like the playground bully telling teacher that the fight started when the other boy hit him back!

South Weald's handsome pub, The Tower Arms, recently closed. [In 2017, there are hopes that it will reopen.] Built in 1704, it was originally The Spread Eagle, and imposing stone eagles decorate the gate pillars.

The tower of St Peter's church dominates the village. Built of Kentish stone around 1500, it is unusually far from the Thames for such a structure. Hauling the building materials such a distance must have been a major effort. There is a fine Norman doorway, its rounded head marked with zigzag carvings. St Peter's was rebuilt in 1868, but its Victorian interior preserves many older monuments. The wealthy Neave family lived at Dagnams, near Harold Hill. Strictly speaking, they should have attended church at Romford, with its rough townsfolk, but they preferred to worship alongside fellow gentry at South Weald. Their monuments are in the church.

One melodramatic plaque records the death of a former Vicar, the Reverend Francis Wollaston. "He went to bed in perfect health on October 11th 1823 and was found a corpse on Sunday morning, reader reflect!!!" For twenty years, Wollaston double-jobbed as Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge, where he was supposed to do research on the causes of gout. But he preferred to live at South Weald. Science was not strong at Cambridge in those days. Of course, he'd died of a heart attack. Sad, but hardly a cause for drama.

Weald Hall, demolished in 1950, stood behind the church. (The name is now used by another house in the village.) A 16th-century lodge still stands. Although it's called Queen Mary's Chapel, it's unlikely that it was ever a church, and there's no evidence that Queen Mary Tudor ever visited South Weald. A 1738 map shows plans to landscape Weald Park. A valley was dammed to create two lakes, still popular with anglers. During the 19th century, the Tower family planted a small forest, reversing the local trend to clear woodland. It's interesting to compare the "feel" of the Weald Park species such as chestnuts with the native Essex ecology of Warley Woods.

Tucked in beside the car park, on private land, is Brookweald cricket club. The tiny ground will never be a test match venue, but weekend club games create the flavour of a perfect rural England.

NAVESTOCK: HAVERING'S SECRET BACK GARDEN

Head a little bit north of Havering's urban spread, and you'll find yourself in rural Essex, in the mysterious parish of Navestock. There isn't even a real village called Navestock. Saxons settled here in dense forests, so there are at least four small settlements. The place name is a puzzle. It was Nasestoca in the Latin of Domesday Book in 1086. It probably meant “the stockade on the headland”, a reference to the high ground jutting out north into the Roding Valley. 'Naze' was an Essex dialect term, as at Walton-on-the-Naze. In the Middle Ages, the parish mostly belonged to St Paul's Cathedral. The massive nave of Old St Paul's dominated London until the Great Fire of 1666. Perhaps income from this Essex estate was ear-marked for repairs, and this might explain why the spelling changed after 1300.

The original Navestock was probably around St Thomas's church, famed for its fine timber tower. Tree-ring dating suggests it took its present form in the mid-1390s. The church survived a near-direct hit from a Nazi landmine in 1940. The crater is now a memorial garden. Nearby, the mansion of the wealthy Waldegrave family, Navestock Hall, was demolished in 1811. Lady's Pond, an 18th-century ornamental lake, is accessible to the north by public footpath.

The nearest thing to a village is Navestock Heath, half a mile south of the church, where houses straggle around a patch of common land. An official history in the 1950s called it “desolate” and “isolated” but, on a sunny day, it's an adventure playground. A mile to the east, the open ground at Navestock Side is neatly mown ─ for this is one of England's oldest cricket grounds, where the game has been played since at least 1784.

Between the two settlements is Horseman Side, where the oldest houses are on the north side of the road. Until 1770, the south side was common land, but Earl Waldegrave persuaded parliament to pass an enclosure act, adding 350 acres to his estate. The landscape here is more like Canada than Essex ─ giant fields and straggly hedges. It's 'only' been farmed for 240 years! At Horseman Side, the parish council marked the Millennium by erecting a puddingstone dug up from nearby fields. These huge boulders were made of pebbles naturally cemented together and dumped by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Horseman Side is home to the Alma Arms, Navestock's gastro-pub. Viscount Chewton, son of the Lord Waldegrave of the day, was fatally wounded in 1854 at the battle of the Alma in the Crimean War. Unluckily he was shipped to Scutari, the hospital run by the famous pioneer nurse Florence Nightingale. Miss Nightingale was a famous heroine, but she did not understand the principles of hygiene. Lord Chewton survived the battle but not the health care. There is a memorial to him in the church.

There are still more corners of Navestock ─ the Alpine (by Essex standards) Beacon Hill, Sabines Green named after a 13th-century resident, William FitzSabine and Shonks Mill bridge over the Roding (the watermill has long since vanished). The woodland paths of Curtis Mill Green are now cut off by the M25, and only accessible via Passingford Bridge. Navestock is Havering's secret back garden ─ just fifteen minutes zig-zag drive from Gallows Corner.

[I have since been told that the Alma Arms was named after the wife of a previous owner, and the link to the battle is imaginary and coincidental. You can never be sure in local history...]

STAPLEFORD ABBOTTS -- HAVERING'S UNKNOWN NEIGHBOUR

Havering people don't know much about Stapleford Abbotts, that mystery area somewhere north of Collier Row. There are golf courses and an aerodrome, but no real village. If you drive north along the B175 from Havering-atte-Bower, you pass through a ribbon development of modern housing – pleasant, but hardly picturesque.

It's easy to miss the old parish church, screened by trees and tucked away down an incredibly narrow lane to the east. It was rebuilt in the nineteenth century. The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who disliked everything Victorian, unkindly called it “hideous”. This was unfair. The brick tower, erected in 1815, is solidly reassuring. Inside there are handsome Minton tiles on the chancel floor, and decorative tiles behind the altar by the famous artist Pugin.

For a nowhere place, Stapleford Abbotts has a long history. In the year 869, King Edmund of East Anglia was murdered by invading Danes, heathens who mocked his pious faith. They tied him to a tree and used him for archery target practice. The slaughtered monarch soon became a saint, and the site of his martyrdom called Bury St Edmunds. Around the year 1010, the marauding Danes returned to Suffolk. The monks who guarded his shrine removed St Edmund's coffin to the safety of London. On its way home in 1013, the holy relic stopped off somewhere in Essex. An unnamed local Saxon landowner was miraculously cured from a serious illness, and gratefully gifted his estate to the Abbey – Stapleford Abbotts. That's what the monks claimed, anyway. A thousand years later, nobody seems sure whether there should be one T or two in the name.

In the Middle Ages, the Abbot of Bury was an important personage, who often visited London on business. The Abbot maintained a house here, to break his journeys from Suffolk. That's why, in 1208, Stapleford Abbotts hosted an international meeting. King John was staying at Havering Palace when his nephew, Otto IV of Germany, arrived to discuss an alliance against France. Havering Palace was full of royal hangers-on, so Otto was boarded out down the road. At the Abbot's lodging, Otto agreed to become England's ally – in return for English cash. The deal was costly to the English taxpayer, but – eventually – Otto invaded France in 1214 leading a combined Anglo-German force. Outnumbering the French army two-to-one, he should have won the battle of Bouvines easily. Unfortunately, Otto was routed. Partly because of this disaster, the next year, 1215, King John's disgusted barons forced him to issue Magna Carta, the charter of English (and British) liberties. That summit conference at Stapleford Abbotts had mighty consequences.

Across the Roding lies Stapleford Tawney. Obviously Stapleford was the original name for the river crossing. "Stapol" is an Anglo-Saxon word for a marker post. But, at least since 1224, it's been called Passingford Bridge. Except – well, this is embarrassing –  it wasn't always exactly called Passingford Bridge. I know of over forty documents in which Passingford Bridge was spelt not with a letter a, but with a letter i. Why Essex Man used this crude name, nobody knows. It's an unkind description of the charming River Roding. An unknown official confronted the problem in 1818. Times and values were changing. The Victorian era, with its narrow propriety, was just around the corner. Five years earlier, Jane Austen had published Pride and Prejudice. You couldn't imagine Miss Austen's well-mannered young ladies mentioning such a scandalous place name.  Reporting on the bridge, the unknown bureaucrat firmly dropped its lavatorial moniker, calling it Passingford Bridge. Passingford Bridge, with an A, it's been ever since.  There's a full account of the place name on https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/300-pissingford-an-embarrassing-essex-place-name-2.

The roundabout here – there's an hourly bus from Romford – is a dull spot, but Albyns Lane, a narrow road to the east, leads about a mile to a site of special scientific interest, Curtismill Green, twenty acres of common land, plus a network of footpaths in private woodland. There are detailed notes and maps on the www.brentwood.gov.uk website.

SOUTH KNOCKTHEMDOWN – WORTH SEEING, ONCE

Just over the border in Thurrock, South Ockendon is worth a visit – but you needn't pencil in a full day! South Ockendon has two unusual features – a church with a round tower, and a village green.

It's surprising that Essex has only six round towers, since the county lacked the hard building stone needed for sharp corners. South Ockendon's tower was built in the 13th century, mainly using flint. It was originally topped by a wooden spire, but this was destroyed by lightning around 1652, and never replaced. The tower was rebuilt after partially collapsing in 1744. The Victorians inserted fake Norman windows in 1866. A more genuine feature is the Norman doorway, characteristically round-headed and carved with chevrons. It was originally built around 1180, and was moved to its present location during a rebuilding in the 15th century. Inside, there's a fine monument, and charming inscription, to Sir Richard Saltonstall, Lord Mayor of London in 1597. His wife was from North Ockendon. They had sixteen children. Sir Richard added a seventeenth by a girlfriend. Around 1630, his nephew emigrated to Massachusetts, and founded of one of the smartest families in Boston, about as close at the USA gets to an aristocracy.

In 1606, the village's manorial court was held under an elm tree on the green. In Charles II's time, South Ockendon was terrorised by a couple of hoodlums called John Foakes and Thomas Levitt. In 1664, South Ockendon demanded action against them as "Deare Stealers, Sheepe-stealers, Geese-stealers, cheates, idle and Lazei fellows, seldom or never doing any work and given to all Cunning and Craft[y] Villainie whatsoever." Their criminal skills included forging the signatures of the parish constables to official documents, so they could dodge prosecution. A local satirist in 1790 hinted that "South Knockthemdown" was still a lively place.

The Royal Oak pub, a quaint feature of the village green, dates back before 1500. Next to it stands a single-storey "Gothick" cottage, so-called from its pointy church-like windows. In 1795, the king of Spain gave George III a valuable flock of merino sheep. The animals fell sick at Windsor, but some were bought by a South Ockendon farmer, Thomas Sturgeon. He nursed them, bred them and exported them to New South Wales, where they became the basis of Australia's wool industry.

In the 19th century, villagers quarrelled with the rector, the Reverend Henry Eve. Out of a population of 1200, only fifteen attended Anglican services. The Methodist chapel, near the station, bears the date 1847. The railway arrived in 1892, but did not immediately shake up the village. The red-brick station building still has a rural "feel".

During the First World War, captured German soldiers were held at a prison camp in South Ockendon. In 1932, the site was re-developed as "The Colony" to house children with learning difficulties in a farm setting. As health services improved, children with disabilities lived longer. The Colony became South Ockendon Hospital, providing long-term care for vulnerable adults. As so often, patient numbers increased faster than resources. Local families were proud to have been employed at the hospital, but in 1974 a critical report into conditions forced a national rethink of the way Britain dealt with mental health. South Ockendon Hospital closed in 1994. The site is now housing.

Unlike its nearby twin village of North Ockendon, part of Havering but still very rural, South Ockendon is now a detached part of London. It's about forty minutes by train from Romford, with a change at Upminster. By bus, it's around half an hour from Hornchurch on route 370, and about the same from Harold Wood on the less frequent route 347.If you don't want to spend the whole day in South Ockendon, both buses go on to the Lakeside Shopping Centre.

BLACKMORE -- AN ESSEX GEM

Ten miles north of Romford, Blackmore is well worth a visit. The village grew up around a medieval priory, founded about 1160. The original settlement was probably at Fingrith Hall, a mile to the north, which is mentioned in Domesday Book. The name means "black swamp".

Local tradition claims a road skirting the village to the north, Redrose Lane, was built by the priory as a bypass to keep the plague away from the village. In fact, it probably marks one side of their monastic enclosure.

But the records of the manor of Fingrith do give us a chilling glimpse of the impact of the Black Death, the first great outbreak of bubonic plague, in 1348-9. When the manor court met in December 1348, just one tenant had died. But in March 1349, twelve deaths were reported. By June of that year, 55 tenants had died – plus, no doubt, many of their families. The prior, John de Bumpstede, had died since March. The brethren had elected Geoffrey Withoutethegate as his successor, but he too had fallen victim. It must have been a terrifying time. But some looked to the future. Agnes Serie claimed the forty acres farmed by her late husband – and paid two shillings (10p) for permission "to marry where she wishes".

The priory bore the Biblical name, Jericho. The nearby stretch of the tiny river Wid was known as the Jordan. Blackmore's Jericho Priory was used in 1519 by Henry VIII needed to hush up an embarrassing problem. His mistress, Elizabeth Blount, was pregnant. She was packed off to Blackmore to give birth. Legend claims Henry turned the sacred premises into a love nest. When the king was in a bad mood, resentful courtiers would mutter that they wished Henry would Go To – Jericho! However, it's unlikely that Henry VIII ever visited Blackmore. Elizabeth gave birth to a boy, Henry Fitzroy (the French "fils du roi", son of the king). Although the parents weren't married, Henry VIII considered making young Henry the next king of England, skipping his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. But, as so often in Tudor times, the boy died young. Blackmore never gave England Henry IX.

The priory was closed in 1525, not for religious reasons but as an exercise in rationalisation: it housed only three brethren plus the prior.  Today, Jericho is a private 18th-century mansion next to the churchyard. From the village green (and pond), stroll down narrow Church Street, a mixture of ancient and modern houses, to St Laurence's church. A blocked doorway in its south aisle once led to the cloisters, but the priory buildings haven't survived.

Architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner reckoned Blackmore's medieval timber church tower the finest in England. Six central posts support the spire. Four outer posts carry a wide lower stage, like a half-timbered crinoline.  Dating from about 1400, the tower contains impressive carpentry.

St Peter's Way, the long-distance Essex footpath, passes through Blackmore. A stroll a mile and a half east across the fields brings you to tarmac at the gates of Stoney Lodge. Here a mysterious straight track will take you north-east into the secret muddy world of the High Woods. There's a map on the essexhighways.org website. Search for "Blackmore footpaths" on the brentwood.gov website for details of two circular walks north and west of the village, one about three miles through the fields, and the other six miles by way of end-of-nowhere Norton Mandeville. There's an hourly bus service, six days a week, from Brentwood to Blackmore. It departs from the High Street on weekdays, switching to Brentwood Station on Saturdays. Check the eoslondon.com website for times. Do your Internet homework, wear stout shoes and enjoy a healthy historical visit to Blackmore.

THE WILD ISLANDS OF ESSEX

There are about thirty islands around the Essex coast. It's hard to be precise. Some are low-tide mudbanks. Some, like Bridgemarsh in the Crouch, have effectively been abandoned. Canvey and Wallasey have bridges to the mainland. So has Two Tree Island, a nature reserve within walking distance of Leigh-on-Sea station. Causeways to Mersea and Northey in the Blackwater are covered at high tide for several hours. Visitors should check times in advance. Osea in the Blackwater is privately owned. Public access to the defence installations at Foulness is severely restricted.

Wallasea Island is just thirty miles from Gallows Corner – and most of that is speeding down the A127. Head north from Rochford towards Ashingdon, then follow signs to Burnham Ferry. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is converting much of Wallasea into a wetland bird sanctuary. Millions of tonnes of spoil from Crossrail excavations have been dumped to create a new landscape. The RSPB says it's "early days" in this major project, coded message for "there are no loos". But you can still walk the riverside walls, enjoying the marshland vistas and the view across to the quayside at Burnham-on-Crouch, with its fleets of yachts.

The National Trust aims to make Northey Island, in the Blackwater, publicly accessible – whenever tides permit. You'll need to do your website homework here, not least because visitors are asked to telephone the island's resident warden to say when they're coming. Pay parking is available in Maldon, a mile away. The stroll to the causeway crosses one of England's oldest battlefields. In 1991 AD, marauding Vikings occupied Northey. Local Saxon boss Bryrhtnoth mobilised the men of Essex, and fighting broke out to control the causeway. Eventually the Vikings pointed out that if they were allowed to cross, there could be a proper battle on the mainland. Byrthnoth agreed. The result was the slaughter of his army. Byrhtnoth's head was never found. That's the trouble with us British. We're too darned polite. A long fragment of a poem about the battle is one of the earliest examples of the English language. Unfortunately, it doesn't make much sense nowadays, but there is a lively translation by a local schoolteacher, Wilfrid Berridge. Northey is a major bird sanctuary. The National Trust describes it as the closest Essex comes to true wilderness. It's stout shoes country (but there are loos).

Popular with Havering people, West Mersea has long been a seaside resort. It's thought the Romans from Colchester holidayed here. A mosaic pavement from a Roman villa was discovered under the churchyard in 1730. Head for the lonely parish church of East Mersea. A 19th-century rector, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, penned the words of a famous hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers". In 1871, the year Baring-Gould came to Mersea, the composer Arthur Sullivan gave it a stirring melody. Alas, its theme, of the Church "marching as to war", is the sort of message about religion that we don't want in the modern world. Cudmore Grove Country Park stretches around the eastern end of Mersea Island. You can look out across the Colne estuary to Brightlingsea, and upriver towards the small port of Wivenhoe. Unlike other Essex islands, which are basically walled marshland, Mersea rises to a dizzy 70 feet above sea level. Its south-facing slopes even support a vineyard! At Cudmore Grove, crumbling cliffs (not very big ones, mind you) contain fossils. Mersea is linked to the Essex mainland by The Strood, the causeway covered at high tide. Built (or perhaps rebuilt) around 700 AD, it must have been the work of the East Saxon kings, rulers of Essex whose names we barely know today.

Access to Wallasea and Northey is free. There's a charge for parking at Cudmore Grove. Dog-owners should check local regulations, and do please respect the birds.

CHIPPING ONGAR AND GREENSTED: A SUMMER DAY OUT

Twelve miles north of Romford, Chipping Ongar is a real Essex town.  It's worth strolling along its High Street to view the interesting old houses. "Chipping" (it means "market", as in our word "cheap") distinguishes it from nearby High Ongar, where the church has a superb Norman doorway. "Ongar" means "grazing land". The Saxons founded this little town, but the Normans shaped it.

Start your tour up a short side street, visiting St Martin's church. St Martin was a military saint, who took over from Mars, the Roman god of war. Chipping Ongar was a garrison town. Next to the church, the Normans built a 50-foot high "motte" (mound), which was topped by a castle. The castle has long since gone, but a "permissive path" beyond the church circles private land to provide glimpses of the mound. The path can be muddy. You can also approach through the car park in the High Street, where there's a display board telling the story of the castle.

South along the High Street, hidden behind houses, is the United Reform Church. Back in 1838, the congregation welcomed an awkward young Scotsman called David Livingstone who was training for the ministry. Livingstone disliked Essex, and went to Africa as a missionary instead. For many years, he vanished in Africa's unknown interior. Eventually, the explorer H.M. Stanley tracked down Livingstone's camp. But the two Victorian gentlemen had never been formally introduced, so how could they start a conversation? Stanley broke the ice with the famously daft greeting, "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" The church is also associated with a pious lady called Jane Taylor, who wrote "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star".

Opposite, also tucked away, is St Helen's, the tiny Catholic church. A memorial window commemorates a former parish priest, Father Thomas Byles, who was drowned when the Titanic sank in 1912. Father Byles was sailing to New York to officiate at his brother's wedding. Although he knew there weren't enough lifeboats for all the passengers, he calmly helped women and children to escape. There's now a campaign in the Roman Catholic Church for his beatification, the first step towards recognising him as a saint.

Dominating the High Street is the extravagant Budworth Hall, built in 1886 as a club house for young men. No alcohol was allowed, only coffee. The clock commemorates Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887.

The side street here leads to the Essex Way, a footpath to Greensted, a mile to the west. Greensted's famous church is built of logs, split in half and originally just rammed into the ground. Most churches probably began like this, but were later rebuilt in stone or brick.

Legend says Greensted church was hastily constructed in 1013, to shelter the body of St Edmund, king of East Anglia, martyred by the Danes. However, tree-ring dating proves that the logs were felled soon after 1063. This means the Normans built the timber church, but never upgraded it. There's also a 16th-century brick chancel and a charming 18th-century spire. It's hard to exaggerate the importance of Greensted church. Some experts think it's the oldest surviving timber building in Europe.  And it's a pleasant stroll across glorious fields to this unique historical monument.

The railway reached Chipping Ongar in 1865, a branch line from Stratford through Epping. Plans to extend it to Chelmsford never came about. In 1949, the line was incorporated into the Underground. It was odd to see Central Line trains gliding through the fields – usually with few passengers. The Chipping Ongar section closed in 1994. There are some heritage steam services in summer.

Chipping Ongar is hard to reach from Havering by public transport. There's a useful Millennium Walk guide on the Internet, linked to marker slabs throughout the town. Be warned when surfing: Dublin has a suburb called "Ongar". The two places are sometimes confused!

BILLERICAY AND STOCK – PILGRIM FATHERS AND A STARTLED GOBLIN

Billericay is half an hour by train from Romford, usually with a change at Shenfield. The railway only arrived in 1889. Lacking modern transport links, Billericay had stagnated during the 19th century. In 1874, it was called "a small decayed market town". That's why the station is so close to the town centre. A stroll along the High Street reveals many pleasant buildings from earlier centuries, but little from Victorian times. Since 1935, a local group, the Billericay Society, has campaigned against unsuitable development. The 15th century red-brick church tower marks the town centre. Until 1844, Billericay formed part of the parish of nearby Great Burstead. Hence the side road here is called Chapel Street. It's a pleasant old-world corner.

Billericay has links with the New World too. Opposite the church, the 16th-century timbered Chantry House, now a shop, is associated with the town's most famous resident. Christopher Martin ("from Billirike in Essex") was a Puritan, who was prosecuted in 1612 for refusing to kneel during church services. In 1620, he emigrated to New England with the Pilgrim Fathers. Although he was a bully, Christopher was put in charge of the Mayflower, probably because the passengers needed firm leadership. He also controlled the finances, and lost his temper if anybody questioned his spending. Sickness ravaged their new colony in America. Christopher Martin and his family died in 1621. There's a tradition that the Pilgrim Fathers met at the Chantry House before they sailed. The town has a Mayflower High School. There's a Billerica in Massachusetts, said to have been named by later emigrants from Essex in 1655. It preserves one of Billericay's variant spellings.

Billericay's most handsome house is Burghstead Lodge, now the local library, at the south end of the High Street. Dating from 1769, it was built in warm Georgian red-brick, with an ornate front entrance. You could imagine one of Jane Austen's bossy heroines sweeping out of the house in her crinoline.

One mystery about Billericay is its name. Most Essex place names are of Anglo-Saxon origin, but "Billericay" makes no sense in old English. Archaeology suggests that a sizeable population lived here in Roman times. People in Roman Britain spoke a Celtic language, related to modern Welsh. My own theory (or guess!) is that the final syllable in "Billericay" is "Caer", meaning a fortress (as in Caerleon and Caernarfon). Alas, I can't prove it.

A short bus ride from Billericay station brings you to Stock, a couple of miles to the north. One of the most charming villages in Essex, Stock is full of friendly old houses, scattered at random, some alongside a long green, where there's an ornate village sign. The best feature of the ancient parish church is the 15th-century timber tower. Topped by a pointed spire, it looks like a startled goblin. In 1940, a Nazi landmine extensively damaged the church. Every stained glass window was wrecked, but the porch, rebuilt just three years earlier, survived the full force of the blast. The bomb crater in the churchyard is now a Garden of Remembrance.

Half a mile to the east, Stock windmill is sometimes open to visitors. (Check the Internet.) Built around 1804, it has an unusual boat-shaped cap. The upside-down rowing boat swivelled around so the sails could catch the breeze. If you're walking, take care along Mill Road as there isn't much pavement. A public footpath brings you back to the village, via Common Road and the charming village cricket ground. The cricket club's website says you don't have to live in Stock to become a member. Sadly, it's impossible to walk the fields to Ingatestone station without risking a stretch of dangerous road. Take the bus back to Billericay, and catch the train home there!

BURNHAM ON CROUCH – A DIFFERENT WORLD 

Burnham-on-Crouch is a major yachting centre. Yachting towns have good restaurants – something to tempt you to visit by train, and enjoy a long lunch. It's about an hour from Romford. You may have to change at Shenfield. You'll certainly have to switch to the Southminster branch at Wickford.

Burnham-on-Crouch functions as a centre for the wide and thinly peopled area called Dengie. Although it's a small town, it has a lively atmosphere. The half-mile walk from the station is pleasant but unexciting. Station Road leads into the quirky High Street, with its mixed and friendly streetscape. You can't miss the octagonal brick clocktower, built in 1877 to honour a local worthy. It sticks out over the pavement! In January 1953, a tidal surge caused serious flooding along the East Coast. The High Street was under three feet of water.

But the real joy of Burnham-on-Crouch is the Quay, a picturesque jumble of old houses facing the River Crouch. At one end of the Quay is the members-only Royal Corinthian Yacht Club. Its spectacular building, erected in 1930, was one of the first examples of modern architecture in Britain, and remains one of the most notable. Built in white concrete, its design echoes an ocean liner. There can be literally dozens of yachts in the river here. A short walk west of the town, Burnham Yacht Harbour has another 350 moorings. There's on-demand ferry (you phone them) across the river to Wallasea Island. The ferry operator warns that, even in summer day, the trip can be cold and wet, so wrap up. And check the return arrangements, or you'll end up like Robinson Crusoe. Just north of Burnham-on-Crouch is the Mangapps Railway Museum. It's more convenient to get there by car. Check the website for opening times.

You can walk for miles in either direction along the river and sea walls. Four miles east of Burnham-on-Crouch, the river wall brings you to Holliwell Point, and wide views over the North Sea. Holliwell Point is more a slight turn than a promontory, but the sea wall marches northward towards Bradwell. It's the site of Britain's strangest military monuments. In 1940, the Nazis overran Holland and Belgium, right across the North Sea.  The Essex coast was suddenly open to invasion. The River Crouch offering a tempting target. Small invasion craft might slip into the estuary, and sneak upstream all the way to Battlesbridge, only ten miles from Brentwood. A concrete pillbox had already been built at the water's edge. The estuary was turned into a minefield, with a control tower was erected a few yards inland. Its lower level was a standard pillbox, fitted with seventeen machine-gun apertures for all-round defence. An upper storey gave it a wide-angle view over sea and marshes. A huge pillar-box slot made it possible to fire out over the river. Holliwell Point minefield control tower is the only such building to survive in England. (There's another one in northern Scotland.) It's not open to visitors, but its strange appearance, like a sci-fi alien, makes an interesting sight across the cornfield.

If you can't face the eight-mile round trip after that long lunch, an alternative walk takes you about three miles west along the flood-protection banks of the river Crouch, around the yacht harbour and behind Bridgemarsh Island. Bridgemarsh became farmland in 1736, when high walls were built around it to rerclaim it from the river mud. But it was totally overwhelmed in 1953, and has never recovered. A short track inland leads to Althorne station, one stop short of Burnham-on-Crouch, where you can catch your train home. Althorne must be the loneliest station in Essex.  Solitary amidst wide flat fields, it feels more like a wayside halt on the Canadian prairies. It's hard to believe that people commute to London from Althorne!

SOUTHEND PIER HELPED WIN THE SECOND WORLD WAR

If you've ever strolled along Southend Pier, you probably didn't realise you were walking on the deck of a British warship. When war broke out in 1939, all the other seaside piers around Britain were blown up as a precaution against invasion. But Southend Pier, the longest in the world, was taken over by the Royal Navy, and played an important part in the war effort.

Southend's first wooden pier was built around 1830, from the end of the town out across the notorious mud. It collected trippers from holiday steamers that docked in the deep water of the Thames estuary. When it was rebuilt as an iron structure in 1889, electric trains replaced horse-drawn trams. (Since 1986, the trains have been diesels.)

The Pier, codenamed HMS Leigh, organised 3,367 convoys over five and a half years. The estuary was divided into invisible squares, like a giant chess board. Each ship had a designated place. All had to set sail at the same moment and at the same speed. Southend Pier operated as a huge filling station. Ships queued at the Pier Head for fresh water piped from the shore. Ship radios ran on batteries: Southend Pier was a gigantic recharger. Convoys were protected from dive bombers by sausage-like barrage balloons. These were inflated on the Pier.

Shipping moved in both directions. The Thames was a vital supply route for London's food and fuel. Without coal, Barking and Battersea power stations couldn't have operated. Early in the War, on 22 November 1939, the Germans launched a 90-minute air raid. Blazing away at their guns, the Pier's defenders drove them off. The Germans dropped mines that night. Some stuck in the mud, to be defused by brave bomb disposal officers – who learned the secrets of a new weapon. The Germans never returned in force. It's one of the mysteries of the War.

By 1943, steel towers like oil rigs were planted out to sea, carrying a protective screen of anti-aircraft guns. Twenty years later, some became pirate radio stations.

Subject to tight restrictions, Southend residents even were forbidden to use binoculars. They were constantly reminded of the slogan: Careless Talk Costs Lives. In 1944, they watched the preparations for D-Day. Nobody said anything. Gigantic concrete caissons were floated down the Thames, 135 of them. These were emergency breakwaters that formed the Mulberry Harbours, landing munitions and supplies on the Normandy beaches until the port of Cherbourg could be liberated. Nobody said anything. One day an enormous steel cotton reel appeared on a barge. This was part of PLUTO, Pipe Lines Under The Ocean. The device resembled a garden hose that unrolled a pipe on the seabed so petrol could be pumped across the Channel. Nobody said anything. On 5 June 1944, D-minus-1, there were 203 ships sitting off the Pier. German spy planes flew high overhead. A handful of mines, a salvo of torpedoes would have caused chaos. Nothing happened.

At 2 a.m. on D-Day, the armada slipped away, hugging the coast past Dover, heading for the Isle of Wight rendezvous – "Piccadilly Circus" – and on to Gold and Sword Beaches on the coast of  Normandy. Southend held its breath. Would they get ashore in France? Would they walk into a Nazi trap? Three days later, the first transports returned, signalling the numbers of German prisoners they carried. The crews on the Pier were exhausted but jubilant. In eleven months after D-Day, thousands of tanks were shipped from Southend. Each day, 130 ships sailed to support the Allied Armies as they liberated Europe.

Of the 84,297 ships that passed through Southend, there was only one major casualty. The Richard Montgomery, an American munitions ship, was wrecked on the Kent side of the estuary. It was too dangerous to salvage, and 1,500 tons of explosives – probably still live and maybe unstable – remain on board.

The RAF won the Battle of Britain. The Royal Navy won the Battle of the Atlantic. Southend Pier won the forgotten but vital battle to keep the Thames operating. 

CANVEY – FOUR CREATIVE CHARACTERS AND A CONCRETE CAFE

If you've snobbish friends, tell them you're visiting one of Britain's architectural gems. Don't mention Canvey Island. As seaside resorts go, there's a big gap between Cannes and Canvey, but Havering's Thames estuary neighbour is an interesting place. Four creative characters helped shape its history.

In the Middle Ages, Canvey was a series of muddy humps, rich sheep pastures often engulfed by tides. Canvey was split among nine mainland parishes, stretching from Southend to Laindon, each having its own grazing land. To beat the sea, hire a Dutchman. In 1622, local landowners commissioned Joas Croppenburg to build the dykes that created modern Canvey Island. Settled by families from Holland, Canvey remained a Dutch-speaking community until around 1700. Two Dutch cottages survive.

The Reverend Henry Hayes arrived in 1873, the first resident clergyman in 200 years. His background was unusual. He'd spent his early years in a workhouse, where his parents and two sisters died. He was then adopted by Susan Chambers, wife of an Islington carpenter.

Somehow he managed to study at London University and enter the Church – a remarkable achievement for those days. Henry Hayes united Canvey into a single parish and fought the islanders' battles with mainland authorities. He built a school and rebuilt the church, inserting a memorial window in Susan's memory. Canvey's 300 people were a wild lot. Henry Hayes found them stuffing themselves on oranges: a ship carrying fruit had been wrecked in the Thames. The congregation listened resentfully to his sermon denouncing illicit salvaging as theft. Their pockets bulged suspiciously.

Henry Hayes died in 1900, at just when entrepreneur Frederick Hester arrived. He laid out "streets" (mostly just grass and mud), sold cheap building plots and encouraged Londoners to erect ramshackle homes. Hester's ambitious scheme for a holiday resort included a monorail from Benfleet Station, a Venetian canal and a vast complex of greenhouses to create indoor "winter gardens". His grandiose project failed, but he did create a miniature town at the east end of the island.

Population rose to almost 1800 by 1921, and passed 11,000 thirty years later. Canvey was accessible only by ferry from Benfleet at high tide, and by stepping stones at low tide. Construction of a bridge was delayed until 1931, because the Port of London Authority insisted on a 60-foot single span that could be opened for barges to sail through. Some failed to realise that the bridge made Canvey part of England. In 1936, a Mr Hipgrave from Loughton gave his wife driving lessons on the island, although she had neither a licence nor insurance. When prosecuted, he pleaded that he'd thought the law didn't apply on Canvey. Southend's magistrates scoffed at the idea that Canvey "was a sort of Garden of Eden," and fined them both.

The bridge encouraged further development. Enter Canvey hero number four, Ove Arup, a Tyneside architect-engineer of Scandinavian parentage. Arup was one of the first people to use concrete as a building material. In 1932 he built Canvey's seafront Labworth Café, in the stark modern Art Deco style. It has a two-storey circular core with single-storey wings, all peppered with large windows. Ove Arup later built the giant concrete shells of the Sydney Opera House, which many experts feared would topple over. Australia's noblest building has its technical origins on Canvey Island. Sadly, most modern concrete buildings lack the clean elegance of the Labworth Café!

Battered by the sea over the centuries, Croppenburg's walls shrank and cracked. They were rebuilt after serious flooding in 1897. One author hopefully described Canvey's new sea defences as "practically invulnerable". Tragically, an usually high tide engulfed much of the island in 1953. The floods picked out the bumps of the old Canvey, but Hester's frontier town was inundated, drowning 58 people.  The sea walls were later raised three feet, giving grandstand views over the Thames estuary. With one of England's finest buildings – Canvey is worth a visit.

HORNDON-ON-THE-HILL: AN ESSEX VILLAGE ON HAVERING'S DOORSTEP

Although Horndon-on-the-Hill is only twelve miles from Rainham, it seems off the beaten track. The name means "horn-shaped hill", so "on the hill" is redundant. The suffix was added to avoid confusion with nearby East and West Horndon. They were originally called Thorndon, but in the general mix-up of local place names, both lost their initial letter – it survives in Thorndon Hall, near Brentwood. Old writers praise Horndon-on-the-Hill's fine views, across the Thames and towards Southend. But it's hard to find a vantage point among trees and houses nowadays. Your best bet for a panorama is to squeeze along the footpath beside the Bell Inn.

The village centre has an atmospheric mix of old buildings. The Woolmarket resembles Thaxted's famous Guildhall. It was built about 1525, when Horndon-on-the-Hill was a market town. Later used for almshouses, it was restored in 1970, with an open ground floor that shows off its timber beams. Opposite is a private residence, the handsome High House, dating from 1728. It once belonged to a famous motor-cycle designer, Philip Vincent.

The scarily narrow junction with Orsett Road leads to the church. Approached along a shady avenue, the building is medieval, but the interior is a Victorian "Arts and Crafts" restoration, inspired by the simple artistic principles of William Morris. Horndon-on-the-Hill tells us much about past attitudes to religion. Many people believed that the world would end, and the best place to ascend to Heaven would be Mount Zion (or Sion) at Jerusalem. Daniel Caldwell died in 1634. On their tomb, his widow pleaded for their bodies to be left undisturbed: "From rude hands preserve us both, untill / We rise to Sion Mount from Horndon Hill."

A century earlier, courageous Thomas Higbed had defied England's Catholic Queen Mary to proclaim himself a Protestant. Although prosperous Horndon landowner, he refused to opt for a quiet life. Tried for heresy at St Paul's Cathedral in 1555, he boldly told his judges that although if they roasted him to death (the penalty for religious dissent), they would be punished themselves with eternal Hellfire. Higbed was forced to witness the ghastly burning alive of eighteen year-old Protestant martyr William Hunter at Brentwood. Still refusing to recant, he was brought to his home village and tied to a stake in a field behind the Bell Inn. There he died a horrible death in the flames.

On the outside of the church, at the east end, you'll find the mysterious carved face of the sarcastically-named Horndon Beauty. Is it male or female, in agony or anger, a warning or a joke? The "churching" of women is a little-known religious custom, not much used nowadays. After having a baby, women were called to a ceremony officially giving thanks for their survival of a dangerous experience. But the Church, run by men, conveyed the idea that childbirth was somehow naughty, and that women were solely responsible for sex and its consequences. New mothers had to veil their faces when they came to church, as if they were unclean. Only a male clergyman could purify them. There was no similar ritual for fathers.  In 1768, it was reported that for "time out of mind", the custom at Horndon-on-the-Hill "churchings" was for women to present the clergyman with "a white cambrick handkerchief" – a luxury item – to show their gratitude at being allowed back into decent society.

In 1906, the landlord of the Bell Inn began new tradition. After promoting hot-cross buns as an Easter gimmick, he hung one from a beam in the bar. Each year, a new bun is still added to the collection. Horndon-on-the-Hill is a dot on the map, but by the time you've explored the church, strolled the main street and searched for those elusive views, it makes a worthwhile visit.

LEVEL LANDSCAPE, LOTS OF LANGUAGES, LANDED GENTRY AND A LOCK-UP: ORSETT HAS MUCH TO OFFER

Orsett is barely ten miles east of Rainham and Upminster, but its ancient buildings under the great arch of the Thurrock sky make it seem a different world. Orsett is perhaps best known for its hospital, which is due for closure under health service reorganisation.

There are echoed here of the paternalism of the landed gentry, the successive families who lived in the Georgian mansion of Orsett Hall. Half a mile east of the village, it's now a hotel, surrounded by parkland of mature and sometimes exotic trees. Symbols of the Whitmores, the last private owners, can be seen around the village. Although generous landlords, they treated Orsett as their own. A stained-glass window in the church shows Louisa Whitmore on her deathbed in 1892 – morbid, and surely better remembered as a private, family grief?

The church, with its fine Norman doorway, is packed with memorials to former squires. Look out for Sir John Hatt, who died in 1658. He seems to have stretched out for a nap, wearing the full finery of a Stuart gentleman. The bishops of London had a palace here in the Middle Ages, and continued to appoint the rector until the 19th century. Orsett was one of the richest parishes in Essex, netting its clergyman over £1200 a year in tithe income – equal to about £150,000 nowadays. In 1842, Bishop Charles Blomfield decided that the right man for the job was the Reverend James Blomfield – his brother. A window commemorates Parson James and his virtues, but doesn't mention that he enjoyed an indecently large income and a fine free house for 35 years. An earlier rector, John Frederick Usko, hailed from Prussia. A brilliant scholar, he understood fifteen European and Middle Eastern languages – although, he modestly insisted, he'd given up Spanish and Dutch, which you'd think were among the easier ones.

Orsett's village centre is a conservation area, and there's useful online guide at thurrock.gov.uk (search for "Orsett character appraisal"). The protected zone is T-shaped, covering Rectory Street and (at right angles) High Road, past the church. A bulge at the north end of Rectory Street probably marks Orsett's medieval market place, which was driven out of business by competition from Romford Market in the 17th century. Scattered among modern development, you can trace the village's construction history through its old buildings – but please remember that, except for the two pubs, these are all private homes. From the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, builders erected timber frames, filling the gaps with wattle and daub. Strong twigs, probably willow from nearby marshland, were woven into a matting framework, and then splashed with mud (and other substances which I won't mention). It sounds an odd process, but the walls are still standing today. Brick was adopted from the eighteenth century, usually red, locally made and often quaintly uneven in shape. In the nineteenth century, the railways brought mass-produced stock bricks, and the squires built grey, solemn, four-square cottages.

A short walk beyond the church brings you to small triangular green, site of the village pound (for stray animals) and the cage (bleak overnight accommodation for drunks). Every Essex village had its cage, but they only survive in a few places, like Tollesbury. Orsett's cage was last used in 1846. Stroll through the modern housing of Pound Lane to the corner of Malting Lane, where a public footpath heads due north for about a mile. Wear stout shoes and turn back when you hit Parker's Farm Road, which isn't suitable for pedestrians. It's a pleasant way of sampling the flat, open Thurrock countryside.

It's difficult to reach Orsett by bus, but simple enough by car, via the A13 or A127, or (from Upminster and Cranham) by wandering through the lanes past mysterious Bulphan. You can drive on to Horndon-on-the-Hill, with its ancient guildhall, or to Langdon Hills, where there are magnificent views over the Thames.

HANNINGFIELD RESERVOIR – FORWARD-LOOKING PLANNING IN AN ERA OF AUSTERITY

We often complain that Britain lacks joined-up planning. For instance, in the decades after the Second World War, thousands of houses were built across Havering – but nobody seemed to realise that more people meant more sewage.  Result? By the 1960s, Elm Park's Bretons sewage works was overloaded – and very smelly. It was eventually replaced in 1968, and is now an outdoor centre.

Happily, two public utilities had the foresight to provide water for the growing population of Essex (Havering included). Britain was still recovering from six years of war when South Essex Waterworks and the Southend Waterworks Company announced their big joint project in January 1949. South Essex Waterworks had been supplying Romford since 1863. Much of its water came from deep underground: there was an artesian well in South Street, opposite Clydesdale Road. But the companies believed existing supplies were "insufficient to meet the demands of the growing population". Two big housing projects in particular needed fresh supplies: Basildon New Town and Harold Hill.

Almost 1,000 acres of land would be flooded to form a reservoir between the villages of West and South Hanningfield. Water would be pumped from the Chelmer and Blackwater, reducing the risk of flooding from those rivers. It's a slander that Essex is flat, but the saucer-shaped valley of the Sandon Brook did require one of the biggest earth dams in Europe to create adequate storage. A mile and a quarter long, it's a bit disappointing as there are no views over the reservoir. It was a surprisingly empty area, with just a few farms and one tiny hamlet. The complication was an ancient gabled mansion called Fremnells, once the home of Oliver Cromwell's brother-in-law.

A couple of dotty attempts were made to block the project in the House of Lords. "Water is an intractable material," the Earl of Radnor pronounced in 1949. "It cannot be stored on top of a hill, as it has a habit of running down." He objected to swamping valuable farmland. Couldn't they build reservoirs in places like in Wales and Dartmoor, and pipe the water across country to Essex? (Answer: No, Your Lordship.) In 1951, Viscount Esher made a last-ditch attempt to save the "charming and interesting" Fremnells by constructing a much smaller reservoir, with a second dam to protect the mansion. Government spokespersons sweetly replied that Fremnells was a nice old house but not very special. It was demolished. Sadly, nobody suggested rebuilding it somewhere else.

It's a good job planning started so soon after the War, as the reservoir took five years to construct and only began operating in 1957. Remarkably, it cost just £6 million.  All existing buildings were cleared. Unlike reservoirs in Wales and the North, no ghost settlements would re-emerge in drought years. Hanningfield reservoir is six miles in circumference, and its deepest point is 16.76 metres (about 55 feet) – Essex isn't so flat after all. It contains 26 billion litres of water, equal to 10,000 Olympic swimming pools. The reservoir took 200 days to fill. By coincidence, it contains enough water for 200 days supply, providing 150 million litres to half a million homes every day.

In 2000 the Essex Wildlife Trust opened a visitor centre, complete with a cafe. Its 100-acre nature reserve is popular with bird watchers: Hanningfield is a special place for ducks. The reservoir is also popular with anglers, with facilities at the nearby Waterside Park. Now run by Essex and Suffolk Water, Hanningfield is mysteriously tucked away. Driving from Havering, take the B1007 through Billericay. Half a mile beyond Stock, look for the brown tourist sign pointing right along Downham Road. Hawkswood Road, also signposted, turns left after about a mile. Near the visitor centre, there's a fine view over the reservoir – you could almost be in Canada. Dogs and smoking are banned. Visitors are asked for a donation.

THE RODINGS – HIDDEN ESSEX WITHIN 20 MILES OF ROMFORD

The eight Roding communities are deep in Essex – but within twenty miles of Romford. The largest group of villages in England to share a name, they probably recall an early Saxon sub-tribe, the people of Hroda (or Hrotha – their older name was "The Roothings"). Leaden Roding and White Roding take their names from the roof and walls of their churches. Margaret Roding comes from the dedication of the church. Aythorpe, Beauchamp ("beecham"), and Berners Roding recall former landowners. Abbess Roding once belonged to the nuns of Barking Abbey.

High Roding (it's hardly mountainous) is an attractive village. Stretching half a mile along a straight street – a former Roman road – it's a charming mix of old buildings – a 500 year-old half-timbered pub, thatched cottages, and weatherboard, a local building style of overlapping planking designed to keep out wind and rain.

Few people know that High Roding is symbolically part of County Tipperary in Ireland. In 1771, Irish politician Robert Jocelyn was created Earl of Roden. Irish peerages had to be linked with some place in Ireland, but Jocelyn wanted to honour his family's Essex origins. Officials created a legal fiction, making him Earl of Roden "of High Roding, in the County of Tipperary." Of course, it's a long way to Tipperary.

Abbess Roding and White Roding have pleasant village centres too. White Roding has a disused windmill, on private land (it once belonged to the actor Michael Redgrave). Built in 1877, it's a tower mill – the sails revolved on a moveable cap to face the wind. Unfortunately, the cap has gone. Aythorpe Roding's windmill is one of England's finest post mills. The entire timber building turned on a central post to catch the breeze. Its handsome sails have recently been renewed. Aythorpe Roding has a forgotten niche in history. Life was tough in postwar Britain: even meat was rationed until 1954. The official documents to end meat rationing were drawn up for the signature of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, R.A. Butler, who decided to deal with them at his Essex country mansion. But he was so excited that he stopped his car at Aythorpe Roding, and signed the papers by the roadside. Meat rationing ended at Aythorpe Roding!

Taking its name from the villages, the River Roding trickles through the Rodings. Strangely, you rarely see it. But there's a picture-postcard view at nearby Great Canfield, where the church and a castle mound make a backdrop to the river. The Earls of Oxford built Great Canfield Castle in the twelfth century, possibly during the anarchic reign of King Stephen. It was such a disaster that we've never had a Stephen II. The castle has vanished but the mound survives.

Great Canfield church has a fine medieval wall painting, although the colours have faded a little. Margaret Roding's small church has a Norman doorway, with its trademark round-headed arch. It's worth bumping across the fields to Beauchamp Roding's isolated church. It's built alongside glacial boulders, dumped here in the Ice Age. This was probably a pagan holy site that the Church needed to take over. It's hard to see any other reason to build a church in such a remote spot.

The Rodings are criss-crossed by public footpaths:  it's easy to stroll into the fields. There's a seven-mile circular walk from Leaden Roding on the essexwalks website, with great maps, but parking can be a problem. There are shorter walks on the Great Canfield village website, greatcanfield.org.uk. You'll have frequent overhead reminders that Stansted Airport is nearby, but – even so – the Rodings remain a hidden haven of Essex tranquility. There are pubs and teashops – and take care on those narrow back roads.

GREAT FOR FAMILIES, DANBURY IS WORTH A VISIT

Barely twenty miles from Gallows Corner, Danbury is worth a visit. Take the A12 to the Chelmsford bypass, and then head towards Maldon on the A414. Contrary to legend, Danbury has nothing to do with the Danes. It probably takes its name from a forgotten sub-tribe of early East Saxons.  They weren't the first people here. The ancient parish church was built amidst the earthworks of an Iron Age fort, although not much survives.

One evening in 1402, during a thunderstorm, the Devil invaded the church, disguised as a friar. Satan flew into a terrible rage, terrifying the local people. Now, why would anybody invent a tale like that? Don't worry: he hasn't been seen since.

Danbury had a Palace! For Church purposes, Essex was part of the unwieldy diocese of London. In 1846, most of the county was transferred to the small Kentish diocese of Rochester. The bishop of Rochester needed a residence north of the Thames, so a local mansion, Danbury Place, was purchased for him. Since bishops lived in palaces, an extra letter was added: Place became Palace!  The grounds now form a Country Park, noted for its lakes, ducks and rhododendrons.

A leaflet on the Danbury parish council website supplies maps and information about old buildings. But make sure the Internet doesn't lead you to Danbury, Connecticut. Nobody seems to know how the American city borrowed the name of an Essex village. They chose it in 1687, perhaps because it sounded nicer than the original name, Swampfield. 

The Essex Danbury is a pleasant place, but don't expect a sleepy backwater. It's a mile from west to east, alongside the busy main road, with much modern development as a satellite suburb of Chelmsford. First Essex operate frequent buses from Chelmsford, but Danbury's best features are more conveniently reached by car. The two glories of Danbury are its views and its open spaces.  Its highest point is 367 feet above sea level – hardly Alpine, but enough to provide impressive vistas over the low rolling Essex countryside. From the church, you can see the tower blocks of Southend, and maybe even glimpse the Thames. From the war memorial at Elm Green, the control tower at Stansted Airport is visible – on a clear day.  Binoculars are useful.

Danbury is ringed by commons, most managed by the National Trust. Danbury Common and Backwarden Nature Reserve are south of the village. Here the National Trust has an office in a shed built over 200 years ago as part of the defences against a feared invasion by Napoleon. Together with Lingwood Common and Blakes Wood, north of the village, the Danbury commons form the second largest public open space in Essex. Only Epping Forest is larger. The National Trust's Danbury website reports activities, with inviting photographs. To the north-east, the Essex Wildlife Trust manages the half-secret Woodham Walter Common, a forested nature reserve. There's no road access, only a long walk along a lane delightfully called Twitty Fee. The Country Park has pay parking. Car parks on National Trust land are free, but donations are appreciated.

Three miles north of Danbury is Paper Mill Lock, with its bumpy, crowded car park. Here you can walk the towpath of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation. Although operated like a canal, a Navigation is a river tidied up to carry barges. Opened in 1797, the Chelmer and Blackwater project enabled merchants to avoid Danbury's steep hill, and thus supply cheaper coal and timber across central Essex. Stroll east a couple of miles along the south bank, past Rushes Lock, and turn back opposite Ulting church. There's no village at Ulting, and the isolated church makes a charming picture. You're unlikely to see everything Danbury has to offer in one visit. Its open spaces are a great place for families, and Danbury not far away from Havering.

For more Havering History Cameos, see:

Havering History Cameos
https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/235-havering-history-cameos

More Havering History Cameos
https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/239-more-havering-history-cameos

Havering History Cameos: Third Series (2016-2017)
https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/289-havering-history-cameos-third-series-2016-2017

Havering History Cameos: Fourth Series
https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/334-havering-history-cameos-fourth-series

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