Before the Olympics

A Norman church, castle ruins and estuary views

An Essex Record Office walk, led by Jenny Butler, exploring Hadleigh’s history on 11th July, 2012.

Visiting St James-the-Less church and Hadleigh Castle with Jenny Butler, our Essex Record Office guide, proved to be both informative and enjoyable.  Jenny, a former archivist with the Record Office, brought copies of old maps, documents and views of Hadleigh, to illustrate “who owned what” and how the area had developed.

The walking tour had to be pre-booked and started at Rectory Road car park at 2pm.  As our small group assembled, the bright sky dimmed, ominously.  Unperturbed, Jenny launched into the history of Hadleigh; we discovered that Hadleigh was a Saxon name and that much of central Hadleigh was built on land that had once formed the Common.  We were shown relevant Tithe maps and a copy of the 1852 Enclosure Act to illustrate how land had been redistributed.  The shape of the parish and its need for marsh land for grazing was discussed, as was the wealth generated by the fisheries in Hadleigh Ray.

Apparently, in 1724, according to Philip Benton in his “History of Rochford Hundred”, 100 smacks came over from the Isle of Sheppey and carried away 1000 bushels of Oysters from Hadleigh Ray! The perpetrators were caught and tried at the Assizes.

Making our way to St James-the-Less, Hadleigh’s Grade I listed parish church, it became obvious that the weather was deteriorating rapidly.  As the key turned in the lock of the vestry door there was a clap of thunder, and as we hurried inside, the heavens opened and the lightning flashed.  The jewel-like colours of St James’s stained glass windows looked unusually dark and flat, but the white painted stonework and wooden beamed ceiling provided a warmer welcome. 

Jenny noted that two of the stained glass windows had been given in memory of the Wood family; Jonathan Wood had been a prominent farmer and landowner at the time of the Enclosure Act, and we had seen how he had benefited from it.  We were told that the Wood family also had strong connections with the King family of Leigh-on-Sea.  We further learned that the pews were a recent addition from St John’s church in Southend and that remnants of 12th century wall paintings had been discovered in the 19th century, during renovation work.

At that point the storm receded and the light returned, so we left our comfortable sanctuary and headed towards Hadleigh Castle; stopping only at “Church Corner” to speculate upon the exact location of the “Cingalee Tea Rooms” depicted on a postcard at the Record Office.

It was a pleasant walk to the Salvation Army Tea Rooms, but from there to the castle it proved a very muddy and wet experience underfoot.  After negotiating a large pool of water and spongy grass, thankfully, we all arrived safely at the entrance to the castle grounds.  What a surprise, English Heritage has installed a smart new sign!

Once at the castle, Jenny began revealing its history supported by quotes and documents researched at the Record Office.

We found ourselves in awe of the stunning views, and heard an extract from a letter by the Romantic artist John Constable, saying how much he had enjoyed visiting our part of Essex.  The castle did not resemble the sombre ruin he painted in 1829, but on this visit looked somewhat surreal, as if it had been superimposed on the landscape.

Visibility was very good; to the south the Kent coast and to the West London.  Another pleasure awaited the eye, the newly renovated Park Farm House, owned by the Salvation Army, nestling splendidly in the Hadleigh hillside.

Several members of the group were lucky enough to have secured tickets for the forthcoming Olympic Mountain Biking Event at Hadleigh Farm, on the weekend 11th-12th August, so there was much interest in seeing the stands in place and workmen improving the footpath from Benfleet station to the venue.

Having examined the castle remains and enjoyed the iconic view, we renegotiated the soggy track back to Hadleigh Farm, where Jenny gave us some facts about the Salvation Army Colony of yesteryear.  One lady in our group had come on the Hadleigh walk specifically to see where her father had learned his agricultural skills in the 1920s, before he departed for New Zealand, aged only 16!

The tour finished at the Salvation Army Tea Rooms with a relaxing chat and refreshments.

Many thanks to Essex Record Office for arranging the walk and Jenny Butler for leading it.

St James-the-Less
Lynda Manning
Jenny Butler leading the walk
Lynda Manning
The group at "Church Corner"
Lynda Manning
Smart new sign at the approach to Hadleigh Castle
Lynda Manning
Heading for Hadleigh Castle
Lynda Manning
Hadleigh Castle Ruins
Lynda Manning
Park Farm House from Hadleigh Castle
Lynda Manning

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