A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about essex

MONKS AND MAMMOTHS ON THE MERIDIAN

A stroll from historic Waltham Abbey along the River Lea to industrial Ponders End reveals many interesting surprises.

Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290), first wife of King Edward I, died near the city of Lincoln. Her body was transported to London. The journey took twelve days and nights. Each night, her body rested somewhere along the route. These resting places were later remembered by a series of carved ‘Eleanor Crosses’, one placed in each stopping place. On the tenth night, Eleanor’s remains rested in the church of Waltham Abbey in Essex. This is now west of the present-day Epping Forest, but was once within it, when the woodland was then known as ‘Waltham Forest’. This stopover was later commemorated by the placing of an Eleanor Cross at the place now known as Waltham Cross.

Waltham Abbey ruins Gateway

Waltham Abbey ruins Gateway

The station at Waltham Cross makes a good starting point for an exploration of an area that once contained the largest Augustinian monastery in Britain.

If those who were accompanying Eleanor’s corpse were to revisit the Waltham (the name means ‘weald’ [or ‘forest’] ‘home’) area today, they might still recognise a few things, but would be surprised to discover that what was a rural parish in their time is now a suburb of London.

The Small River Lea at Station Rd

The Small River Lea at Station Rd

A busy road lined with occasional recently-built edifices runs east from Waltham Cross Station to the ‘town’ of Waltham Abbey. After a while it crosses a bridge with balustrades (rebuilt 1924), under which flows the Little River Lea (or ‘Lee’), a tributary of branch of the larger River Lea (or ‘Lee’). Beyond this, a little further east, the road leaves Hertfordshire and enters Essex. The boundary between the counties is the River Lea and its various channels including The River Lea Navigation (see below).

entering Hertfordshire

entering Hertfordshire

Entering Essex

Entering Essex

Waltham Abbey is the settlement in Essex immediately to the east of Waltham Cross. In the 7th century AD, its locals were converted to Christianity, probably by Mellitus (died 624), bishop of the East Saxons and first bishop of Saxon London. In about 1030 AD, Tovi the Proud, King Canute’s standard bearer, built Waltham Cross’s first parish church. Tovi had lands in Somerset. It is said that when a ‘wondrous’ cross was found there, Tovi had it placed in a cart to be taken to Glastonbury. However, the beasts drawing it, refused to move. When they were next asked to transport the religious object to Canterbury, they still refused to budge. When Tovi thought of Waltham, where he had built himself a hunting lodge, the creatures eagerly moved the cross to that place, and that is why he built a church there, The Church of the Holy Cross.

The town’s history is detailed in “Waltham Abbey Chronology” by R & B Sears (publ. 2000). In 1059, after Earl Harold (later King Harold II) was cured of paralysis at Waltham, he erected a Norman church on the site of Tovi’s. This became the nucleus for an abbey. When King Harold died at Hastings in 1066, he was buried in front of the high altar of his Waltham Abbey Church. After the assassination of Thomas à Becket in 1170, the repentant King Henry II enlarged Harold’s church and founded an Augustinian priory, Waltham Abbey, beside it as partial penance for Becket’s death. A small town grew up around it.

Waltham Abbey was the last of the monasteries to be ‘dissolved’ by King Henry VIII. This happened in 1544. Just over sixty years later, in 1604, Guy Fawkes bought gunpowder (for treasonable purposes) from the Waltham Abbey gunpowder factory. For many centuries, Waltham (for example The Waltham Abbey Mills, founded 17th century) and various other places (see below) along the River Lea have been associated with the manufacture of explosives.

Highbridge Str

Highbridge Str

The Old Courthouse

The Old Courthouse

Highbridge Street retains the appearance of a typical old-fashioned, small country town. Number 31 bears the date 1704. It is named The Old Courthouse. It faces the site of a newer courthouse, which was destroyed by a V2 missile in 1945. The town was hit by many enemy weapons, probably because of its proximity to the explosives factories in the Lea Valley. The Town Hall is further east along the street, almost opposite the west front of Waltham Abbey Church. The brick municipal building trimmed with white stone was erected in1904. It was designed by WT Streather, who had been surveyor for a suburb of Bournemouth before joining Waltham’s council. The tower above the main entrance and the roof of the meeting hall behind sport attractive ‘fin-de-siècle’ mansard windows.

Waltham Abbey Town Hall

Waltham Abbey Town Hall

Rear of Waltham Abbey TownHall

Rear of Waltham Abbey TownHall

Almost opposite the Town Hall, there is a small tourist information office, where its friendly staff plied me with free information leaflets, and sold me a couple of interesting local history booklets. A small building next to the northwest corner of the Abbey Church is The Rectory. Part of it, the western section, was already built by the 15th century. The part nearest the church was added in the 17th century.

Waltham Abbey Church rectory

Waltham Abbey Church rectory

A path runs north (of the west side of The Rectory) along Cornmill Stream to a bridge that crosses it. The path it carries leads to the ruins of the main entrance of the former monastery grounds. The smaller of its two stone gothic arches was for pedestrians. The larger one was for vehicular traffic. The weathered remains of two stone heraldic crests can be seen on either side of the larger arch.

Waltham Abbey ruined Gateway from outside

Waltham Abbey ruined Gateway from outside

North side of Waltham Abbey Church and rectory

North side of Waltham Abbey Church and rectory

Monastic figure by H Stylianides

Monastic figure by H Stylianides

Passing through the arches, one enters a large park containing some remnants of the abbey. In addition, there is a fine view of the north side of the church with its mixture of Romanesque and gothic windows. Standing in the middle of a lawn, there is tall wooden sculpture, carved from a single oak trunk in 1992 by Helena Stylianides. It depicts a hooded monastic figure.

The Stoney Bridge

The Stoney Bridge

Northeast of the sculpture, another small bridge traverses the Cornmill. Cross this, and follow the stream a few yards eastwards to reach a metal fence which encloses the remains of a 14th century stone bridge (restored in 1902), the Stoney Bridge. It was built to carry carts coming to and from the monastic farm of Waltham Abbey without having to pass through the walled precinct of the monastery.

A  wall of Abbey House, formerly the Chapter Hse

A wall of Abbey House, formerly the Chapter Hse

Returning from the bridge back towards the church, we reach the long wall, part of what was once Abbey House, and before that the north wall of the Chapter House of the abbey. Following the dissolution of the abbey in 1540, Anthony Denny (1501-1549), one of Henry VIII’s favourites and a member of his Privy Chamber, leased (and later purchased) the lands of the abbey. Denny not only built Abbey House (demolished 1770), but also set up a mill (on a tributary of the Lea), which used to supply Henry VIII with gunpowder.

Outer entrance to cloisters

Outer entrance to cloisters

East end of Waltham Abbey Church and Harold Stone

East end of Waltham Abbey Church and Harold Stone

A 12th century archway in the north wall leads through a short passage into what used to be the abbey’s cloisters. I could see no remaining evidence of the cloisters. Standing where the cloisters used to be, one gets a good view of the east end of the abbey church, or, at least, what remains of it. The church that stands today, the parish Church of the Holy Cross and St Lawrence, is about one third of the length of the original abbey church (see below). The external features of the east wall of the parish church include elements that were once part of the interior of the larger church before it was truncated. For example, the rose window is surmounted by an almost semi-circular stone arch, now part of the external wall, which must have been a Romanesque arch supporting part of the long nave of the earlier longer church.

The Harold Stone at Waltham Abbey

The Harold Stone at Waltham Abbey

A few feet east of the parish church, there is a small upright stone, the so-called Harold Stone, which stands behind a larger horizontal stone bearing a carved inscription. This tells that the Harold Stone marks the site where King Harold is said to have been buried in 1066. It stands behind the place where the high altar stood in the 11th century. Now outside the body of the existing parish church, this simple monument still attracts wreaths with personal messages to King Harold written on labels attached to them.

Waltham Abbey Church west front

Waltham Abbey Church west front

Waltham Abbey Church

Waltham Abbey Church

Norman pillars Waltham Abbey Church

Norman pillars Waltham Abbey Church

The parish church is well-worth entering. Its nave and aisles are survivors of the once longer nave of the much larger Norman church that was built between 1090 and 1150 AD. The circular pillars, some of which are carved with zig-zag chevrons or spiral helices, support Romanesque arches on either side of the nave. There is a fine Tudor funerary monument to the Denny family at the south-east corner of the church, and close to this some other old funerary sculptures.

Ceiling detail Waltham Abbey Church

Ceiling detail Waltham Abbey Church

In 1860, the church was extensively restored under the direction of William Burges (1827-1881), who reconstructed Cardiff Castle and built one of Kensington’s most curious buildings, the Tower House in Melbury Road. The spectacular painted ceiling above the nave was created by the artist and one-time President of the Royal Academy Edward Poynter (1836-1919). Its diamond-shaped panels contain various symbolic images as well as the signs of the zodiac.

Burne Jones windows Waltham Abbey Church

Burne Jones windows Waltham Abbey Church

Poynter’s contemporary, the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) designed the stained glass in the rose window above the high altar. Each of the seven smaller circular windows depicts one of the Seven Days of The Creation. The central, larger window, depicts a seated crowned regal figure with a halo. He holds an orb and behind him there is a group of figures, some with musical instruments.

Market place Waltham Abbey

Market place Waltham Abbey

Green Dragon Inn Market Sq

Green Dragon Inn Market Sq

Welsh Harp Inn

Welsh Harp Inn

I visited Waltham Abbey on a Tuesday, which has been market day since time immemorial. Several market stalls (selling clothes, shoes, food, stationery, and tools) were crowded into the small market square at the western end of Sun Street. On one side of the square stands the half-timbered Welsh Harp Inn whose structure dates from the 16th century. The Green Dragon pub, whose windows were boarded up on my visit, was built in the 19th century on the site of the Market Hall (and an earlier Moot Hall, where the Abbot held courts of justice in mediaeval times).

Sun Str and The Sun Inn

Sun Str and The Sun Inn

Drain 33 Sun Str

Drain 33 Sun Str

South Place

South Place

The Sun Inn on Sun Street is a timber-framed building that was already standing in 1633; it has been enlarged considerably since then. Its next-door neighbour, now an estate agent, has a clapboard façade. The drainpipe of number 33 Sun Street, now Kalik Coffee House, has a picturesque feature decorated by a fleur-de-lys and two thistles. The short South Place leading off Sun Street, has some pretty cottages dating back to the 17th century. The double cottage (it has two adjoining roofs) at the south end of the Place was occupied by a farmer in the 17th century. He farmed the open land, which was, in his time, immediately south of his home.

Former police station Sun Str

Former police station Sun Str

Epping Forest District Museum

Epping Forest District Museum

Number 35 was built as a police station in 1874. It is now no longer used for that purpose. Its neighbour is the town’s library. This is adjoined to a half-timbered building, which houses the small but excellent Epping Forest District Museum. Much of the half-timbered house, first built in about 1520, has been restored, but the rooms of the museum, which are part of that house display parts of its original wooden structural elements: doorways, fireplaces, and timber beams. The building has been beautifully restored and conserved, skilfully blending original elements with new features including a lift for handicapped visitors.

The first floor Epping Forest District Museum

The first floor Epping Forest District Museum

Lucien Pisarro in Museum

Lucien Pisarro in Museum

Amongst the numerous exhibits, several caught my attention. On the top floor, there is a painting by the impressionist Lucien Pisarro (1863-1944), who first visited the UK during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and then returned to settle permanently in London in 1890. Just after he married (in 1892), he lived in Epping between 1893 and ’97. The painting depicts the garden of his house in Epping, where his daughter the artist Orovida Camille Pissarro (1893-1968) was born.

Museum. Possibly Edward III

Museum. Possibly Edward III

There is a carved stone head on the floor below. This was carved in the 14th century, and was originally in the Abbey’s Chapter House. It is believed to be a portrait of King Edward III, who was a patron of the Abbey, which he visited often. According to the museum label the beard and hair of this sculpture bears traces of the gold that used to cover the whole piece.

Museum -  part of pannelling from Waltham Abbey

Museum - part of pannelling from Waltham Abbey

The ground floor contains some elaborately decorated wooden panelling (dated about 1526) that has survived since the demolition of Waltham Abbey. It is owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has lent it to the Epping Museum.

Mammoth tusk found Waltham Abbey

Mammoth tusk found Waltham Abbey

The oldest exhibit in the museum is in a cabinet on the wall of the main staircase. Dated roughly 12,000 BC, it is the curved tusk of a woolly mammoth, which was discovered near Waltham Abbey. It is believed that these beasts roamed around today’s Lea Valley during the ice ages.

The museum has a pleasant little garden decorated with a large mosaic. From the garden, there is a good view of the east end of the museum, which, although restored, looks like it must have done several centuries ago.

Lea Valley Church

Lea Valley Church

Facing the eastern end of Sun Street, there is a brick building trimmed with white stone and topped with a tiled steeple supported by slender columns. This was built in 1902 for the Methodists (Wesleyan). In 1974, it became a Roman Catholic church, and then later it became the Lea Valley Church (see: https://www.leavalleychurch.org.uk/), which is neither Methodist nor Roman Catholic (nor Church of England).

Greenwich Meridian line Sun Str

Greenwich Meridian line Sun Str

Returning westwards along Sun Street, we reach a mosaic that stretches almost the width of the pedestrianised roadway. A red line runs in the middle of it from north to south. This marks the path taken by the Greenwich Meridian, which separated the east from the west. Along with Greenwich, the town of Waltham Abbey has at least one thing – the Meridian – in common with Accra in Ghana. According to recent measurements, the line of the Meridian may, really, be some 334 feet east of its present accepted position (based on observations made in 1884) at Greenwich (see: The Daily Telegraph, 20th October 2017). The Waltham mosaic was constructed before this discovery.

Leaving Waltham Abbey along Highbridge Street, we pass an undistinguished looking modern (yellow and red) brick building facing the large traffic roundabout. This is the current ‘avatar’ of the Francis Greene Alms-house. The original alms-house on this spot was built by Francis Greene in 1626. It was rebuilt in 1818, and survived until 1945 when it was destroyed by a German V2 missile. The present building replaces the post-war building, which was constructed in 1953.

Francis Green almshouses: old memorial stone

Francis Green almshouses: old memorial stone

'WD' stone Just west of Francis Greene House

'WD' stone Just west of Francis Greene House

The alms-house stands on a corner plot separated from its neighbour by a small street, Grove Court. The brick wall on the western corner of Grove Court and Highbridge Street is of recent construction, but it includes a much older corner stone (not brick), which bears the letters ‘WD’ separated by an upside down ‘V’. This resembles, but is not identical to, the letters carved on stones by the War Department (after 1954, the Ministry of Defence). On old large-scale Ordnance Survey maps, a surveying benchmark is marked close to the position of the stone that I spotted.

The western end of Highbridge Road is the bridge crossing the River Lea Navigation. The River Lea, which rises in the Chiltern Hills near Luton, flows mainly through north-east and east London, and joins the River Thames at Trinity Buoy Wharf (described elsewhere) near Canning Town. Along much of its course, the Lea divides into various separate channels, some of them narrow clogged-up streams and others much bigger.

During the 16th century, efforts began to create a navigable channel along the course of the Lea. The civil engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792) was largely responsible for designing what is now called the River Lea Navigation, work on which was completed by 1771. Smeaton’s work, effectively a canalised part of the river, ensured that there was a wide enough channel that always contained sufficient water to keep it deep enough for vessels to navigate its length. Modifications and improvements on his canal have been made subsequently. A good footpath runs alongside it.

Waltham Town Lock

Waltham Town Lock

The Waltham Town Lock is just north of the bridge to which Highbridge Road leads. It is surrounded by the greenery of the southern end of the Lea Valley Regional Park. I explored the part of the Lea Navigation (‘Lea’) that flows from this lock southwards towards that at Ponders End.

Waltham Town Lock house

Waltham Town Lock house

River Lea Navigation Entrance to small dock near Station Rd

River Lea Navigation Entrance to small dock near Station Rd

Just south of the bridge on the western shore of the Lea, there is a currently disused brick building (whiteish bricks with occasional rows of red bricks). This was the lock house built in 1878 beside the old Waltham Town Lock (see: http://www.leeandstort.co.uk/Waltham_Town.htm). The latter was removed in 1922, when the present lock was built further north on the other side of Highbridge Road. A short footbridge crosses the watery inlet to a small dock next to the disused lock house. Before WW2, this dock had its own travelling crane for loading and unloading goods. Now, it is being converted into a water feature for a new housing development.

Pumping station near Waltham Abbey

Pumping station near Waltham Abbey

We next pass a Water Board water treatment plant whose grounds contain an elegant yellow brick building with stone trimmings. It has tall circular arched windows and a porch supported by pillars with Doric capitals. This was built as a pumping station, constructed in the late 19th century (between 1884 and 1898, according to detailed maps).

River Lee Navigation M25 crossing

River Lee Navigation M25 crossing

River Lee Navigation M25 crossing looking west

River Lee Navigation M25 crossing looking west

River Lee Navigation M25 crossing looking east

River Lee Navigation M25 crossing looking east

A little further south, the canal and its footpath pass beneath a large bridge that carries the busy traffic on the M25 London Orbital motorway. There was a pitched tent and a vandalised car as well as various bits of junk under the bridge. Although I saw no one, this encampment had the look of still being in use. South of the bridge, the Lea flows through open countryside. To the west, there is the vast expanse of Ramney Marsh. To the west, there is a wide swathe of uninhabited land separating the Lea from a housing estate.

Ramney Marsh from River Lea Navigation

Ramney Marsh from River Lea Navigation

River Lea Navigation Ramney Marsh Lock

River Lea Navigation Ramney Marsh Lock

River Lea Navigation Ramney Marsh Lock cafe

River Lea Navigation Ramney Marsh Lock cafe

Ramney Marsh Lock was first built in 1768, and rebuilt several times since then, the last time being 1902. Parts of the supports of the footbridge across the lock consist of blocks of Portland stone recovered from the old Westminster Bridge, which was demolished in about 1862. The footbridge leads east to the Narrow Boat Café, at which I did not stop. A map surveyed in 1895 shows that there was a nitro-glycerine factory on the land east of the lock. For years, this area was used for testing munitions, but now it has been rendered safe for all. Its presence is remembered today by naming the open land, now a public open space, ‘Gunpowder Park’.

Just south of Ramney Marsh Lock River Lee Navigation

Just south of Ramney Marsh Lock River Lee Navigation

Just south of Ramney Marsh Lock River Lee Navigation

Just south of Ramney Marsh Lock River Lee Navigation

Just south of Ramney Marsh Lock River Lee Navigation

Just south of Ramney Marsh Lock River Lee Navigation

South of the lock, the canal was lined with moored barges, electricity pylons, and occasional small canal-side gardens, often quirkily decorated. After passing the stone supports of a demolished bridge that once carried pedestrians and a large-bore pipe over the river, a stream branched off from the Lea at the northern point of a slender island.

Remains of bridge  south of Ramney Marsh Lock River Lee Navigation

Remains of bridge south of Ramney Marsh Lock River Lee Navigation

Northern part of Government Row River Lee Navigation

Northern part of Government Row River Lee Navigation

Southern part of Government Row River Lee Navigation

Southern part of Government Row River Lee Navigation

On its west shore there are rows of identical terraced two-storied houses built of brick along a road named Government Row. These were once homes for workers at the Royal Small Arms Factory, which was behind them to the east. The factory was opened in 1816. It produced rifles and other small arms for the British Army throughout the 19th century. Its products included the famous Martini Henry and Lee Enfield rifles, as well as the Sten (Shepherd, Turpin, and Enfield) Gun. The factory and its site closed in 1988. Since then, a housing development has been built on the land behind Government Row.

Enfield Lock looking north

Enfield Lock looking north

Enfield Lock seen from the north

Enfield Lock seen from the north

Enfield Lock is situated at the southern end of Government Row. This was first built by 1722. The present structure was built in 1922. It is located next to the Lee Conservancy headquarters. This organisation was founded in 1868 to look after (maintain) the Lea Navigation, to keep it clean and navigable. The lock house at Enfield Lock bears a sign that states it was built in 1889 by the Conservancy. The headquarters of the organisation is immediately south of the lock on the Lea’s west bank. It is housed in a low brick building (cruciform in plan, built 1907) with a reddish tiled roof with a small centrally-located clock-tower surmounted by a weather-vane.

Enfield Lock Lee Conservancy 1907

Enfield Lock Lee Conservancy 1907

A Swan and Pike Pool River Lee Navigation

A Swan and Pike Pool River Lee Navigation

The charmingly rustic Swan and Pike Pool, an old dock surrounded by trees and joined to the Lea by a short channel, is opposite the Conservancy, across the water. The Pool was “…once a bathing pool and a turning point for barges that serviced the nearby Gunpowder Mills” (see: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/). It is named after a pub, the ‘Swan and Pike’, which existed close-by until the early decades of the 20th century. This hostelry existed as an isolated structure in the marshes lining the Lea Navigation before the 19th century and the construction of the small-arms factory (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol5/pp212-218).

Between Enfield Lock and Ponders End

Between Enfield Lock and Ponders End

Out of curiosity I decided to explore south along the Lea to Ponders End Lock, a distance of just over two miles. Take it from me that unless you are fascinated by electricity pylons there is not much point walking along this stretch of water. Immediately south of the Conservancy, there are several modern factories. For most of the distance, the Lea is bordered to the east by the high grassy bank of King George’s Reservoir. Constructed between 1908 and 1912, it was opened by King George V. It is the largest of London’s reservoirs. The steep bank of the huge reservoir is grazed by sheep. I also saw horses wandering amongst the pylons in the muddy fields between the water-storage area and the Lea. The west side of the Lea is bordered by vegetation which conceals various industrial concerns.

Sheep on the reservoir slopes  Between Enfield Lock and Ponders End

Sheep on the reservoir slopes Between Enfield Lock and Ponders End

A sculpture  Between Enfield Lock and Ponders End

A sculpture Between Enfield Lock and Ponders End

Apart from a group of Geese that landed in the water with balletic precision, and one barge travelling slowly, there was little of interest to see. At one point, I came across four small metal sculptures by the footpath. Why they were there is not clear to me. As with the path north of Enfield Lock, I met with several other walkers and some cyclists, but far less than I had encountered above that lock. Eventually, I reached Ponders End Lock, a double lock with two parallel lock chambers. The lock was first built there in the early 18th century. The second chamber was included as part of a rebuild done in the 1950s. Canal users now have the choice of using the newer mechanised lock or the older manually operated one.

Ponders End Lock looking north

Ponders End Lock looking north

Between the lock and Ponders End railway station, I passed a small square bungalow with neo-gothic windows. This building on Wharf Road was once part, an entrance lodge, of the former Wright’s Flour Mill. It was built in the early 19th century. There had been mills on this site since the 16th century, maybe since the Domesday Book’s era. George Wright took over the mill in 1870. Originally water-powered (by the River Lea), it was later run by electricity when the waters of the Lea were diverted to fill the nearby reservoir.

Mill Lodge, Wharf Rd, Ponders End

Mill Lodge, Wharf Rd, Ponders End

When I was about ten years old, I managed to persuade my grandmother, then in her seventies and visiting from South africa, to join me on a series of bus journeys using a Red Rover. This ticket, costing six shillings (30 pence) in those days, allowed its holder a whole day’s unlimited usage of London Transport’s red buses. Granny and I set off from Golders Green, and after a few hours ended up in Ponders End, which looks no more attractive today than it did then. Having reached this place, which neither of us had ever heard of, we decided that enough was enough, and then returned to Golders Green. This is how I felt many decades later having reached there from the far more attractive Waltham Abbey.

Waltham Abbey, which still resembles a small country town far from London, is now a part of the city. Its well-preserved historic centre is surrounded by modern housing. The River Lea and its various channels supply London with water, now via the reservoir, and earlier via the New River. It has been one of London’s important transportation arteries, which has served industry in the past (before motorised road transport and the railways), and is now a valued leisure facility. Exploring the area described above brings one into contact with many aspects of history from prehistoric times until today: from wandering mammoths to mammoth motorways.

Reservoir slope  Between Enfield Lock and Ponders End

Reservoir slope Between Enfield Lock and Ponders End

Posted by ADAMYAMEY 14:51 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged monastery lee essex enfield pylons locks lea explosives hertfordshire waltham_abbey river_lee pre-raphaelite Comments (2)

BENEDICTINES, BASTIONS, AND BATA - a trip east of London

Barking in east London was once an important fishing port. East of it, East Tilbury once helped to defend London, and was also home to an industrial enterprise run in a novel way.

large_BATA_5b_Th..ta_memorial.jpg

In Saxon times (7th century AD) when the place first began to develop, East Tilbury was a settlement on a raised piece of land surrounded by marshes close to the River Thames. Where the church of St Catherine stands today, there may well have been a Roman settlement because the small village stands on what was once an ancient ridgeway running from Chelmsford in Essex to Higham in Kent. Once described as a “small town”, this now tiny village is an interesting place to visit, as I will explain soon. On my way to East Tilbury, I stopped off at Barking, which I will describe first.

Barking: old shop signs

Barking: old shop signs

Barking’s name derives from ‘Berecingum’ (meaning Berica’s people). Many of the town’s current multicultural population are unrelated to ‘Berica’s people’. Incidentally, it was Berica (aka: ‘Bericus’ or ‘Verica’), who was exiled from Britain in the first century AD, who persuaded helped persuade Claudius in Rome to attack Britain (see: “Roman Britain and the English Settlements”, by RG Collingwood and JNL Myres, publ. 1937).

Barking:  The Catch  by Loraine Leeson

Barking: The Catch by Loraine Leeson

Barking was one of the earliest Saxon settlements in Essex. For more than 500 years, before the development of railways that could transport fresh fish (without it rotting) from places further from London (e.g. Yarmouth), Barking’s most important industry was fishing. The town developed around Barking Abbey beside Barking Creek. It was to see the remains of this abbey that I visited Barking. However, on arrival there I took a wrong turn, and headed towards Barking Abbey School, where I assumed the abbey ruins were located.

To reach this school, I passed a large traffic roundabout in the centre of which there is a metal sculpture called “The Catch”. Designed by Loraine Leeson in 2002, the work consists of two net-like structures that contain many metallic fish. This piece of art celebrates the town’s historic association with fishing. Beyond the roundabout, there is an entrance to Barking Park on Longridge Road. The park was opened in 1898 by Barking Town Urban District Council. It is a vast, pleasant grassy open space with trees, a lake, and sporting facilities. Until 2005, it also boasted a miniature narrow-gauge railway.

Barking Park

Barking Park

When I had arrived at the end of the long park furthest from the station, I could see no signs of either an old abbey or directions to it. I entered the Royal Oak pub and asked the five people in it where I might find the ruined abbey. They looked at me blankly. They must have thought that I was barking mad.

Barking market

Barking market

I reassessed the situation with the help of the internet on my mobile telephone, and discovered that I had to retrace my steps to the station, and then go further through the centre of the town. A vibrant street market was in progress on East Street. All manner of merchandise was on sale (except books and CDs). People of many different ethnicities were either buying or selling. Part of the market was in a square in front of a Victorian brick building with gables and stone trimmings, bearing the date ‘1893’ and the name above its main entrance ‘Magistrates Court’. It is no longer used as a courthouse.

Barking Old Magistrates Court

Barking Old Magistrates Court

Barking Old Magistrates Court

Barking Old Magistrates Court

At the corner of East Street and the Broadway, near the Broadway Theatre, there is a shop whose upper floors are faced with decorative whitish stone in an art-deco design that includes pilasters topped with elephant heads.

Old Burtons store in Barking's East Street

Old Burtons store in Barking's East Street

This was once a branch of Burton’s menswear stores. It was built in 1931. This was the year that the firm adopted the Leeds based architectural firm of Harry Wilson as the company’s in-house architects. In 1937, Wilson was replaced by Nathaniel Martin. The Burton company favoured corner plots for their stores, as typified by their shop in Barking. Their shop exteriors were designed to look like ‘temples of commerce’.

Barking market

Barking market

Barking Town Hall tower

Barking Town Hall tower

The centre of Barking is overlooked by a tall brick clock-tower, which ‘sprouts’ from Barking Town Hall. This building was completed in 1958. Prior to 1931, when Barking became not only a town but also a borough, the town hall had been housed in what used to be the Magistrates Court (see above). Demolition of buildings to create a space for the present town hall began in 1939, but WW2 delayed further work on it. The present town hall’s construction began eventually in 1954. The building was designed by Herbert Jackson (1909-1989) and Reginald Edmonds.

Barking St Marys Cof E Church

Barking St Marys Cof E Church

Just opposite the former Burtons store, there is a park called Barking Abbey Grounds. This contains a graveyard and St Margarets Church, whose earliest parts date from the 13th century. It was built as a parish church in the grounds of Barking Abbey (see: http://www.stmargaretsbarking.org/the-abbey). The gothic church was enlarged greatly in the 15th and 16th centuries. The famous explorer Captain Cook was married there in 1762.

The Abbey was founded in the seventh century by Saint Erkenwald (Bishop of London from 675-193) for his sister Saint Ethelburga (died in about 686 AD). In 1173, Mary Beckett was made abbess of the nunnery, as a reparation for the murder of her brother, St Thomas à Beckett, in Canterbury Cathedral. At the time of the Dissolution, the Abbey was the largest Benedictine nunnery in England. The nunnery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Four years earlier, it had been the third most wealthy nunnery in England.

Barking Abbey Curfew Tower

Barking Abbey Curfew Tower

Barking Abbey view from Curfew Twr

Barking Abbey view from Curfew Twr

All that remains of the extensive abbey is a 12th century stone ‘rood’, which is now in the church, and the Curfew Tower. This stone tower with gothic features now functions as the entrance to the east side of the graveyard. Its construction began in the 14th century, and then it was reconstructed in 1460. Having seen what I wanted in Barking, I took a train to East Tilbury.

East Tilbury

East Tilbury

Older cottages East Tilbury

Older cottages East Tilbury

East Tilbury The Ship

East Tilbury The Ship

James Thorne wrote (in his “Handbook to the Environs of London”) in 1876: “East Tilbury is curiously out-of-the-way and old world like…”. It retains its feeling of being out-of-the-way, but no longer looks old world. Apart from the church, its rectory, and the fort, there are four cottages dated 1837. The rest of the buildings are much newer. The same goes for the village’s only pub, The Ship, which was rebuilt in 1957 when it looked the same as it does today. There has been an inn on its site since the 18th century, and maybe earlier. I had a mediocre lunch in the pub. I thought that was nowhere else to eat in the small village, but later discovered that the Fort (see below) has a café.

East Tilbury St Catharine

East Tilbury St Catharine

The flint and rubble gothic church of St Catherine contains much fabric dating back to mediaeval times, back to the 12th century. When viewed from the north or east, the church does not appear to have a tower. The reason is that the tower and part of the south aisle were destroyed by naval artillery in a battle between the British and the Dutch at Tilbury Hope in 1667. According to contemporaneous church records, by 1667 the tower was already in a poor state. Some say that it might have collapsed without the help of military intervention.

'Tower' of East Tilbury St Catharine

'Tower' of East Tilbury St Catharine

From the south side of the church, you can see an ugly square-based stone addition to the old church. This stump is all that was built of a replacement tower begun in the First World War by men of a garrison of the Coalhouse Fort (see below). It was to have commemorated those fallen in WW1. However, the authorities stopped the building works because the builders were not following correct procedures.

East Tilbury The Rectory

East Tilbury The Rectory

Across the road from the church, stands the Rectory, an elegant brick building with large windows. It was built in the early 1830s to replace an earlier one which had been badly damaged in the battle mentioned above.

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort

The village’s only thoroughfare continues downhill, almost to the north bank of the Thames. It ends at the car park for visitors to the Coalhouse Fort. During the early 15th century following an infiltration of the Thames by the French, King Henry IV allowed the inhabitants of East Tilbury, at that time classed as a ‘town’, to build defensive ramparts. In 1540, King Henry VIII ordered that a ‘blockhouse, be constructed at Coalhouse Point. This point on a curve in the Thames is so-named because by well before the 18th century coal was being unloaded from craft at this ferry point close to the village. The coal was transported westwards towards Grays and Chadwell along an ancient track known as the ‘Coal Road’.

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort bunker with Thames in background

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort bunker with Thames in background

In 1799, when it was feared that the French led by Napoleon Bonaparte would try to invade via the Thames, a new gun battery was built at East Tilbury. In the 1860s, when another French invasion was feared, a series of forts were built along the shores of the estuary of the Thames. One of these was the Coalhouse Fort at East Tilbury. Thus, the by then somewhat insignificant village became part of London’s defences.

The moat at Coalhouse Fort

The moat at Coalhouse Fort

The Fort was built between 1861 and ’74. Surrounded by a semi-circular moat and raised on a mound, the Fort is not particularly attractive. However, it is set in beautifully maintained parkland. From the slopes of the mound, there are great views of the Thames, which sweeps around the point, and its rural southern shore. The moat is separated into two sections by a short sharp-ridged stone wall, which was likely to have been built when the Fort began to be constructed.

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort

When I looked for the Fort on old detailed (25 inch to the mile) Ordnance Survey Maps (pre-1939), the moat is marked, but the Fort is not – probably, in the interests of security. A ‘Coalhouse Battery’, which ran more-or-less parallel to the village’s only street was marked as “dismantled” on a 1938 map, but not the Coalhouse Fort.

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort

The outer walls of the Fort have had all manner of later structures built on them: gun-emplacements, searchlight emplacements, and other shelters, whose functions were not obvious to me. There is a large concrete bunker outside the Fort, between it and the moat. Its shape might be described as three intersecting concrete blocks.

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort minefield control tower with Thames in background

East Tilbury Coalhouse Fort minefield control tower with Thames in background

This is marked on the tourist map as a ‘minefield control tower’. I believe that was it used to control electrically-fired mines in the estuary. Nearby and closer to the river, there is a smaller concrete bunker.

Coal House Fort East Tilbury

Coal House Fort East Tilbury

The Fort’s interior was closed when I visited it, but I was able to get a peek through its main gates, which were open. Tramway tracks lead into the Fort. Old maps show that these led from the Fort to a small landing stage at Coalhouse Point, which is a short distance southwest of the Fort. The Fort ceased to be used after 1957.

Bata factory

Bata factory

Just over a mile north-west of the Fort, the road to East Tilbury Station passes through a most fascinating place. One of the first things you will see along the road from the Fort is a vast factory, which closed in 2005. Made of concrete and glass, but in a poor state of decoration, its flat roof carries a high water-tower labelled ‘Bata’. This was part of the factory complex that the Bata Company began building in 1932.

Bata factory gatehouse

Bata factory gatehouse

Bata factory

Bata factory

Bata factory buildings

Bata factory buildings

The Czech Thomas Bata (1876-1932) was born in the Moravian town of Zlin. He became the founder of Bata Shoes in 1894 in Zlin. He modernised shoe-making by moving it from a craftsman’s process to and mechanised, industrialised one. Bata’s company also revolutionised the way industrial enterprises were run, introducing a profit-sharing system that involved all of its workers, and provided a good reason for them to work enthusiastically. During the period between the two World Wars, the forward-thinking Bata opened factories and individual companies in countries including: Poland, Yugoslavia, India, France, Holland, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the USA. The company in India is still very active, almost every small town or village having at least one Bata retailing outlet. I have bought many pairs of comfortable Bata-manufactured shoes from Bata stores in India.

Bata factory building

Bata factory building

In anticipation of WW2, Bata’s son, the prudent Thomas J Bata (1914-1980), and one hundred other Czech families firm moved to Ontario (Canada) to form a Canadian Bata company. After WW2, the Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and other ‘iron-curtain’ countries nationalised their local Bata firms. Meanwhile, Thomas J continued to develop the Bata firms in Canada and the UK, and opened up new Bata companies and factories in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Bata workers' houses

Bata workers' houses

Bata workers' houses

Bata workers' houses

Bata senior was keen on the ‘Garden City Movement’. He was concerned that his workers lived (close to his factories) and worked in a pleasant environment, and lacked for nothing. A pioneer of this in the UK was Titus Salt, who built his gigantic mill in the 1860s near Bradford in West Yorkshire. He created a new town, Saltaire, around his textile factory. This consisted of better than average homes for all of his workers (and their families) from the humblest to the most senior. In addition, he built schools, a hospital, open-spaces, recreation halls, a church, and other requisite of Victorian life. In Zlin, Bata created something similar, a fully-equipped town for his workers in park-like surroundings around his factory in the 1920s. The homes he built for the workers are still considered desirable today.

Bata workers' houses

Bata workers' houses

The factory at East Tilbury, was another example of a town built specially for its workers. One lady with whom I spoke there told me that she had worked for Bata’s for twenty-seven years. She told me that in its heyday the Bata ‘town’ was self-sufficient. It had workers’ homes, shopping facilities (including a supermarket and a Bata shoe store), a restaurant, a hotel, a cinema, a school, a library, farms, and playing fields.

The factory buildings at the East Tilbury site, some of which have been adopted by other businesses, were built using a construction system devised (employing reinforced concrete frames that allowed for great flexibility of design) by the Czechs Frantisek Lydie Gahura (1891-1958), Jan Kotera(1871-1923), and Vladimir Karfic(1901-1996). The site bought by Bata in Essex in late 1931 was ideally placed in level open country near to both the railway and the river. His intention was to build a vast garden city around his factories, which was to produce boots and shoes in East Tilbury.

Mr Bata senior was killed in an air-crash in 1932 near Zlin, and so never saw the completion of his creation in Essex, whose construction only began in early 1933. Construction of the factory buildings and the workers’ housing went on simultaneously. By 1934, twenty semi-detached houses of the same design as those in Zlin were built by local builders, and equipped with Czech fittings. The houses look just like many houses built in Central Europe. As Steve Rose wrote in The Guardian newspaper (19th June 2006):
“East Tilbury doesn’t look like it belongs in Britain, let alone Essex, and in a sense it doesn’t. It’s a little slice of 1930s Czechoslovakia, and the most Modern town in Britain.”
Later, more homes were built, but designed like many British suburban houses.

Former Bata Hotel and supermarket

Former Bata Hotel and supermarket

There is a huge building across the main road opposite the factory buildings. Part of its ground floor is now home to a Co-op supermarket. The whole building, which has now been converted to flats, was the ‘Bata Hotel’. Until recently, the Co-op was still named the Bata supermarket. One man, who has lived in the Bata Estate for many years, told me that he recalled seeing swarms of workmen in white protective clothing crossing the road from the factory and then entering the hotel during their lunch-break. He told me that the first floor of the hotel was a ‘restaurant’ for the factory workers. I met this man in what is now called ‘East Tilbury Village Hall’. This was formerly the Bata cinema.

Bata cinema

Bata cinema

Foyer of Bata cinema

Foyer of Bata cinema

Bata cinema entrance seen from foyer

Bata cinema entrance seen from foyer

Looking somewhat Central European in design, the former cinema was undergoing much-needed electrical re-fitting. In a way, I was lucky because the workers had left the door open to a building that is often locked closed these days. I entered the foyer, which was being used to store the stock of the local public library. An office to the left of the foyer used to serve as the cinema’s ticket office. A couple of old-fashioned film posters have been put on the foyer’s walls to recreate what it used to be like.

Bata cinema hall stage

Bata cinema hall stage

Bata cinema stage original stage lights

Bata cinema stage original stage lights

Bata cinema stage original lighting controls

Bata cinema stage original lighting controls

A man, who oversaw the hall’s maintenance, showed me the auditorium. It had a new wooden floor marked out for indoor sports. He explained that the floor had been ‘sprung’ when it was laid originally. This was so that it could be used as a dance-floor. The banked chairs for the audience were originally designed in an ingenious way, only lately beginning to be employed in other much newer buildings, so that they could be folded away when the hall was needed for, for example, a dance. There was a proper theatre stage at the far end of the hall. This still has the original stage lights that were fitted when the hall was built. The old-fashioned control panel for this lighting was still in place.

Bata cinema stairs to bunker under stage

Bata cinema stairs to bunker under stage

Bata cinema thick walls of under stage bunker

Bata cinema thick walls of under stage bunker

My guide then told me that beneath the stage, there was a reinforced bunker for use during air-raids. He took me through a door at the back of the stage, and then down some concrete steps. At the bottom, there was a heavy metal sliding-door painted grey. He slid this open to reveal the large reinforced concrete bunker beneath the stage. Its walls were thick. It is now used as a storage area.

Bata war memorial WW2

Bata war memorial WW2

After seeing the old cinema, I entered the large grassy area to the south of it. In the centre of it, raised on a stepped plinth, there is a war memorial. The memorial bears the words: “… to the memory of those of the British Bata Shoe Company who gave their lives for freedom 1939-1945”. To the south of the memorial park, there is a large field, now used for agricultural purposes, that was once a Bata playing field.

Thomas Bata memorial

Thomas Bata memorial

Across the road from the war memorial in the grounds of the factory, there is a statue of Thomas Bata senior, who died in 1932. When I visited it many years ago (in the late 1980s), it stood in a small green area, a little park. During my recent visit (October 2017) it was surrounded by tall piles of sand being used by building contractors.

Some of the Bata factory buildings have already been modernised and are being used for industrial or commercial operations. The main large derelict building, which is surmounted by a water tank, might be destined for conversion into ‘loft apartments’ for residential use. One building, a small tall construction near the main road, remains derelict at present. It might, one informant suggested, have been used for milling activities.

Bata workers houses

Bata workers houses

During the early 1980s, British Bata began greatly reducing its production activity at East Tilbury. The Bata industrial estate finally closed in 2005. With the closing of the British Bata firm, Bata shoe-retailers, which were common in British high streets, have disappeared. The nearest Bata shoe store to the UK is now in Best (just north of Eindhoven) in the Netherlands.

From having been one of the bastions defending London from naval attack along the River Thames, East Tilbury became home for an exciting and successful industrial enterprise. Now, the extensive vestiges of this are being restored and re-used in an attempt, which looks like being successful, to keep the area alive and prosperous.

Bata Avenue East Tilbury

Bata Avenue East Tilbury

Posted by ADAMYAMEY 03:32 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged london shoes bata essex barking garden_city east_tilbury coalhouse_fort Comments (3)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]