Is the Country Park Hadleigh's best kept secret?

Noise, pollution and overdevelopment are constant complaints. There is also irritation with the commercialism of a target-obsessed culture and the failure to escape busy lives. The first lines of Leisure, a well known poem by William Henry Davies neatly sum up the frustrations of modern life. 

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

Leisure could have been written yesterday but in fact it was published nearly 100 years ago when the population of South Essex was a fraction of today. In 1911 there was virtually no housing in Benfleet.  Leigh-on-Sea consisted of a few buildings around St Clement’s church, Elm Road and the ‘Old Town’. Basildon New Town hadn’t even been thought of and Canvey had about 500 residents.  The area between Benfleet and Leigh rail stations was occupied by farms and the Salvation Army Colony. Hadleigh was a small settlement clustered around Hadleigh Church. 

Leigh, Benfleet and Canvey have changed dramatically and Basildon has come into being. Yet one place is much the same – the land that is now Hadleigh’s Country Park. The park today probably has less development than when William Henry Davies was writing his poetry. Much of the farming has ceased and the Salvation Army no longer accommodates hundreds of ‘Colonists’ or runs a brick factory. Time has stood still and Hadleigh Castle with its mysterious past has changed little in 200 years.

This park is a place of escape and where it is recommended to ‘stand and stare’. It is still possible to get lost in the woods and heath. On winter mornings, tranquillity is the order of the day. The only sound is that of birds and four-legged animals. Sometimes the bark of a dog breaks the silence.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

Leisure could have been written with the country park in mind. From higher ground by the castle, the modern world reveals itself. On a clear day, looking west, up-river the industry of Canvey and Corringham can be seen as can the Canary Wharf towers on the horizon. East and seawards is an unrivalled panorama of Southend, its pier, the forts, the growing forest of wind turbines and, of course, the ever changing mosaic of shipping. But none of this intrudes into the sanctuary of the Country Park, as after all, it is only a view. On a misty day little can be seen and for all we know the Country Park could be the end of the known world.

The Castle at the centre of park is a shadow of its former self. Now over 750 years old, Hadleigh Castle, in the great medieval scheme of things, replaced the one at Rayleigh. The site was considered ideal as it offered magnificent views across the Thames estuary from where any threatened seaborne invasion might come. However, in spite of great effort and expense, the castle’s completion simply offered nothing more than a splendid view from the ramparts. It was useless as a deterrent as shot from the primitive artillery of the day could never hit ships entering the Thames. The Castle served no strategic purpose as invaders could easily pass it by, thus leaving the defenders wondering what to do next. Furthermore Royalty was little inclined to call in, as the journey to Hadleigh from London was difficult both by land and water.

The Castle’s main enemy was the sea, the salty air and the unstable ground on which it was built. Over time, numerous renovations were undertaken and the Castle suffered from its fair share of shoddy builders. Successive Kings spent a fortune then each in turn lost interest.

The final demise of the castle began in the time of Henry VIII. He showed no interest other than passing off the castle and surrounding land onto three of his wives. However they stayed away too. Edward VI inherited the Castle from his father but he was a sickly child and died at the age of 15. Yet during his reign he was persuaded in 1551 to sell up to Lord Robert Rich of Leez Priory. Robert Rich acquired the castle for £700 and was perhaps the original ‘Essex wide boy’. He saw a business opportunity and an asset to be stripped. Much of the castle was quickly demolished, the stone and fittings sold or carted off to one of the many other building projects Lord Rich had in hand at the time. The castle became a ruin and suffered several landslips. As is well known, the British landscape painter John Constable came by in 1829 and made sketches from which he later added the castle to his bulging portfolio of masterpieces. One of Constable’s Hadleigh Castle six footers hangs in the Tate Gallery.

So it is well worth discovering the secrets of Hadleigh’s Country Park and heeding the closing words of Leisure.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Access to the country park is free and no-one will try to sell you anything once inside. The most on offer is an occasional cheery ‘hello’ given by a passing fellow walker.


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