Tuesday, 27 May 2014

London Countryway 14/15a: Theydon Bois - Brentwood


ON THE OTHER SIDE of the London Underground’s Central Line at Theydon Bois station, we’re suddenly in a different world. In marked contrast to the London-centric character of the previous section, this one has the most rural atmosphere since leaving the Cotswolds. Belying the notion that Essex is a flat county, this is a traditional English ramble across rolling countryside of open fields, hedgerows, streams, winding lanes and woodland patches, linking a string of seemingly isolated hilltop churches. And more so than before it faces some of the traditional challenges of such walks: ploughing, mud, overgrown and unclear paths, dodgy stiles and mean and narrow field headlands on which you can barely put two feet side by side. For the last quarter of the route things change again as we walk through a country park into Brentwood, one of the biggest towns on the Countryway.

NOTE: Originally the London Countyway ran via Epping and this section started at Epping station rather than Theydon Bois, but was diverted in the early 1980s to avoid construction work on the M25. In July 2015 I posted a commentary and route descriptions restoring the original route, which I now regard as the recommended one. It rejoins the route described below soon after the start, at the subway under the M11 into Theydon Garnon. Read more here.

Blunts Farm

In the recent past, the very worst path problems on the London Countryway were at the beginning of this section, soon after you crossed the Central Line at Theydon Bois and set out alongside a stream which, like all of those we met in Epping Forest, eventually flows into the river Roding. What Keith Chesterton, the original deviser of the Countryway, describes as a pleasant walk in his 1981 guide had become an ugly trudge through the spoilt land of Blunts Farm. The situation has since improved and is much easier to walk, if still not quite the attractive waterside meadow it once was.

In the early 2000s this farmland was earmarked for the development of a golf course, but from 2003 the owners began illegally using it as landfill for construction waste, claiming this was a form of landscaping. Following local protests, the landfill was stopped but not before the land was seriously damaged. When I first visited in 2010, the site was a sea of mud dotted with dangerous pits, with thick layers of earth rucked up as if by some geological catastrophe, and the right of way was impossible to follow. By 2014 the surfaces were restored and vegetation was starting to re-establish itself, with some verdant wetland areas by the stream, but still had something of the blasted alien planet look about it. New and prominent yellow-topped waymarker poles sprouted in a clear line to mark the path.


The route crosses the M11 through a spooky subway, just south of its junction with the M25 (junction 6 on the M11, 27 on the M25). The motorway is now part of the main route from London to Stansted Airport and eastern England including major destinations like Cambridge and Norwich. It has its origins in proposals for an ‘Eastern Avenue’ dating back to 1915, but wasn’t actually built until the 1970s, with this section opening in 1977.

Theydon Garnon and Stapleford Tawney



On the other side, relatively well sheltered from the traffic, are the leafy surroundings of Garnish Hall, originally the manor house of Theydon Garnon. This is one of the three Theydons, a separate manor from Theydon Bois since Norman times which in the 13th century fell under the control of the Gernon family, hence the name. There’s a claim that Elizabeth I stayed here, and planted an oak in the grounds of nearby Coopersale Hall, now just northwest of the motorway junction. The current Garnish Hall is a Grade II 18th century red brick farmhouse, possibly with a 17th century core and with recycled timbers and panelling from an earlier moated manor on the site. Our first church of the day, All Saints Theydon Garnon, is visible from the M25 and something of a landmark for regular travellers. There are windows from the 13th and 15th centuries in the chancel, and a mainly red brick tower from 1520. Though it underwent much remodelling in the 1860s, it remains one of only three churches in Essex with wooden columns.

The even smaller hamlet just to the east of Theydon Garnon, Hobbs Cross, may once have been a more important place as in Roman times it straddled a road from London to a junction with Stane Street at Great Dunmow. Through farm buildings we pick up the alignment of this old highway and follow it for a good 1.5km as a dead straight green lane enclosed by thick hedges. Along the way it passes through a subway under the M25, the last time the Countryway crosses the orbital motorway – the rest of the route is now outside it. It’s somehow fitting that our last encounter with this icon of irrational contemporary transport is at its intersection with a Roman road. You wonder if the motorway will still be visible in 2,000 years time.


Reaching Mounts Road, the original route via Epping described by Countryway creator Keith Chesterton in the first edition of his book joins our second edition diversion for a slow climb along the road up Mounts Hill. The woodland on the right is known as the Rough Patch – it’s a shame it’s not open to the public as you could derive much amusement from telling your friends you’d been through it.
More genuinely diverting is the big house at the end of the drive further on your right, which you can just catch sight of by looking back from the path when you leave the road. This is Hill Hall, built between 1567-73 for Thomas Smith, a diplomat and advisor to Elizabeth I who was involved in a failed early attempt to ‘plant’ protestants in Ulster. Smith studied and worked in France and Italy, and you can see the influence on the house, which is an early example of Renaissance styling in England, and very different from a typical Tudor mansion. It was subsequently used as a World War II prisoner of war camp and later a women’s prison. Since then it’s fallen under the care of English Heritage, who restored it in the late 1990s. Most of it is now divided into private flats, but it’s accessible to the public by pre-booking a tour – the interior highlights include two surviving sets of 16th century wall paintings.

Up ahead is St Michael’s church at Theydon Mount, the third and last of the Theydons: the rebuilding of the church in 1612 following a fire that destroyed an earlier building was largely financed by Thomas Smith’s nephew William. But our route is now southeast across fields towards another church, at Stapleford Tawney. Just over halfway along this path, although it’s not signed on the ground, the route rejoins the Three Forests Way, which has reached here from where we last encountered it at Epping Forest via Hainault Forest and the London Loop.
At the end of the path is St Mary’s Stapleford Tawney, a neat building with a distinctive low wooden tower topped by a modest but elegant spire. The current building is 13th century, the tower from around 1500, but there was an older building on the site, and the brickwork of the current one recycles building materials from Roman structures. On opposite sides of the porch are two 12th century stone coffins discovered in the churchyard in the 1860s, when the church was undergoing restotation – many of the interior fittings date from this period. It’s hard to think how churches like this persist in such remote locations. Stapleford Tawney isn’t really a village but a scattered parish with no real centre apart from the cluster here around the church, and today the population is barely over 100.

This is also the only escape route for some 9 km and it’s not an especially convenient one: every 90 minutes or so, a bus from Romford works its way up to the roundabout on the A113 at Passingford Bridge, about half an hour’s walk away and just back inside the M25. It all seems surprisingly remote for a walk that starts at a Tube station. On the other side of Tawney Lane, the meadowland to the left of the path is actually a nature reserve, Hawksmere Spring, a fragment of ancient unimproved pasture managed by Essex Wildlife Trust, scattered with damp woodland, recalling the mediaeval landscape. It’s particularly rich in flowers and butterflies in the spring and early summer.
The route now runs on a clear and continuous though muddy bridleway past and through a couple of woodland patches to Berwick Lane, passing underneath the flight path from North Weald airfield to the north, so you’ll likely hear the buzz of light aircraft above you. At Berwick Lane, the Three Forests Way heads off for Hatfield Forest. For ambitious walkers there’s a connection via this route to two other notable longer paths in the region – the unofficial St Peter’s Way, another Fred Matthews project that ends on the coast at the isolated wooden church of St Peter at Burnham on Crouch, and the signed Essex Way to Harwich, passing close to Parkeston Quay with its ferries to Hoek van Holland and Esbjerg.

Across the river Roding



Past a woodland and pond at Tracey’s farm, where an object that appears to be an owl-shaped abstract sculpture stand incongruously on the lawn, the path runs down to the A113 from Leytonstone to Chipping Ongar, and follows it for a while past the attractive Woodman pub then along a lane that was clearly part of the main road before the latter was diverted to smooth out a bend. The big white house that stands here was once a second roadside pub, the White Bear at Stanford Rivers, dating from the 18th century or possibly earlier, and retaining early 19th century interior features until it was closed in 2001 and converted to residential use. It remains a Grade II listed building. A footpath leads through what must once have been a fantastic beer garden, a space that now appears to be used for clay pigeon shooting if the debris that crunches underfoot is anything to go by, to a footbridge over the river Roding.

The Roding is the next major tributary of the Thames on its north bank downstream from the river Lea. It rises near Dunmow and flows through the Essex Rodings, villages which are suffixed with the river’s name. It continues through the east London suburbs via Woodford Green, Redbridge, Ilford and Barking to join the Thames at Creekmouth (soon to be renamed Barking Thamesside and redeveloped into a “21st century garden city”) as tidal Barking Creek, a distance of 80 km. The London section of the valley is something of a green reserve, with open space along the riverside, though not on the same scale as the Lea – we’ll explore some of it in later London Underfoot walks. At this point it’s an country stream lined with reeds, surrounded by a relatively spacious valley. Like the Lea, it’s a traditional boundary, though of more local importance: on the other side of the bridge we’ve left Essex’s Epping Forest District and entered its Brentwood District.

Navestock

Our route continues as first as a narrow path through encroaching crops but finally becomes a broad track through fields to another attractive and rather isolated church, St Thomas the Apostle at Navestock – a place name meaning ‘the stump on the ridge’. Like Stapleford Tawney, Navestock is a dispersed parish with no obvious nucleus, which once stood on the edge of the Forest of Essex – there are old boundary stones in the area. Navestock Heath just to the south of here was once the most populated part, but now it’s Navestock Side, further along our walk. The fair-sized church with its squat weatherboarded tower set among trees is the most historic and I think the most attractive on this section of the route, and Grade I listed. Much of what can be seen today dates from rebuilding in the 13th and 14th centuries, including the tower, which was once thought to 15th century, but carbon dating of the four massive oak posts that hold it up places it around 1250. Even some of the window grilles are mediaeval, although the building was restored in the 1950s to repair damage from a World War II landmine explosion nearby.

There are signs of much earlier habitation in the area. A little further along our route, past the church and farm and the junction with Dudworth Road, the woodland visible across the field to the left is Fortification Wood, so called as it grows over an ancient defensive earthwork about 100m wide, of unknown origin but perhaps Saxon, and dotted in various places on the map are the remains of moats belonging to long vanished mediaeval manors.
The farmhouse next to the church is actually the former main manor house, Navestock Hall. Since perhaps even before the Norman conquest, the manor was held by the canons of St Paul’s cathedral in London but in the 1540s it was passed to the Crown. In 1554 Queen Mary sold it to Edward Waldegrave and it stayed in his family until 1898. The current Grade II listed building with its picturesque exposed timber frame likely dates from the last days of church ownership in the early 16th century, back when the bulk of the land in the parish was one big common. The Waldegraves were Catholics – Edward was later imprisoned by Elizabeth I for recusancy – and influenced local religious traditions, only converting to Anglicanism in 1722 when James Waldegrave took up his seat in the House of Lords. But an indigenous Roman Catholic community persisted in the area into the 1930s.
James clearly wanted to live like a Lord in other ways too. Sometime in the 1720s he enclosed part of the common and turned it into parkland, unusually leaving the existing house standing while he built an entirely new Navestock Hall some 400m to the northeast, commanding the new park. It would have been visible from the path we just walked, a two storey neoclassical mansion with nine bays across its southeast-facing fa├žade, two wings and an imposing pedimented entrance. But the mansion only lasted until 1811 when it was demolished, and no trace of it remains, while the more modest earlier house has outlasted it. Meanwhile, the rest of the common was enclosed by 1770.
Like lists of Kings and Queens, it’s easy to take these dates and names of Lords of the Manor as banal recitations of facts, but behind them lies the life of whole rural communities through the centuries, including the many more ordinary people – commoners, farm labourers, craftspeople – whose names and deeds didn’t make it into the written records. These are the people that wrought the changes on the landscape, through long periods of “business as usual” and suffered the worst consequences through upheavals driven by changing economic and political circumstances, like the privatisation of the land under enclosure.
In the last section we saw the resistance to enclosure that saved Epping Forest, but this was an unusual and late example that was ultimately successful because of the support of influential people with more interest in the recreational amenity of the Forest than its economic life. By then most enclosures, like Navestock’s, had long been accomplished successfully. The assumption that it was in the common good of the rural community for local people to have at least some productive access to the land on their own behalf was swept away and instead they became workers in a great agrarian factory, with no property of their own and nothing to sell but their labour.

Rural workers also enjoyed far fewer opportunities for collective organisation to improve their lot than industrial workers, simply because they were more dispersed. In the 1960s, when my father collected dues for the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers (since absorbed into Unite), they were among the worst paid, most exploited and deprived workers in the UK, faced with some of the poorest and most unsafe conditions. Following enclosure the countryside was certainly more productive, and for a while the increasing prosperity of the landowners trickled down to their workers to some extent.
You can see this in the population figures for Navestock, which increased from just over 600 at the beginning of the 19th century to almost 1,000 at its midpoint. But the 1870s brought the first of a series of agricultural depressions and it was down to just under 700 by 1901. The 20th century saw increasing mechanisation of agriculture, particularly after World War II, and the local population is now only 500. The demographics have changed in other ways too – most locals round here are now prosperous people who work in London, or from home, for whom the countryside is a lifestyle choice rather than an economic necessity. And indeed it’s these people that now protect that lifestyle choice so assiduously through village committees, rural protection societies and the like.

London Countryway walkers will undoubtedly feel they have much to thank these middle class rural conservationists for, including halting the destruction at Blunts Farm at the beginning of this walk. But there’s a misconception at the heart of efforts to preserve the natural environment of the countryside as if it’s a thing in itself that predates human agency and the only good is in keeping it as it is. In fact the countryside is not natural, except arguably in the case of genuinely remote and wild lands. It is just as much a built environment, a product of human intervention and management, as the city, perhaps more so as we’ve been managing it for longer.
And, just as in the city, the fascination is in the fact that the transformations are often only partial, leaving traces of former states for us to stumble across, as if the modern surface has rubbed away to reveal the layers beneath: the patch of forest, the stretch of Roman road, the fragment of unimproved grassland, the field boundaries inherited from enclosures. Perhaps our successors will regard relics of golf courses and luxury gated communities with equal fascination.

And here’s something else to ponder as you tightrope walk the narrow headland of the first field on the way to Navestock Side: if it had been left to market forces, which some people think are natural, it’s quite likely that all of this would long since have been swallowed by the metropolis. By the time London’s development was stopped in its tracks by World War II and the subsequent planning legislation, suburbia had already sprawled out for mile upon mile along the A12. As we shall see, Brentwood has its share of sprawl too. Without the Green Belt, housing estates, shopping centres and leisure parks would doubtless have swept away the stretch of countryside between them. Perhaps chocolate box pretty Navestock Side, with its old pub and 17th century cottages overlooking a village green, would have been spotted and conserved as a London ‘village’ with a carefully maintained patina of rustic character, like Barnes, Bexley or Hampstead.

As if these surroundings aren’t cutely English enough already, arrive at Navestock Side at the right time and you’ll hear the evocative smack of leather on willow. The green has been associated with cricket since at least 1784, and is thought to be one of the oldest grounds in England with a continuous history of matches. The West Essex Cricket Club, then one of the most successful and best known in the county, played at home here throughout the 19th century, and it was once also used for county matches. The local club is now simply known as the Navestock Cricket Club. The only thing that slightly spoils the scene is that the pub, the Green Man, has since been converted to a restaurant known by the decidedly unevocative name of Alec’s Bar and Grill.

Bentley


Across the other side of the green, a stretch of well-used field path leads on to Bentley, a hamlet at the junction of the Brentwood-Ongar road, now the A128, and Mores Lane to Coxtie Green. This was once the northern part of the large parish of South Weald, of which more later, and much of it was parish common land known as Bentley Common, though was largely enclosed in the early 19th century when the area began to enjoy some popularity with better off families seeking country houses near to the London road. The church, St Paul’s Bentley Common, just along Mores Lane, is a Victorian addition, in traditional Early English style but with an unusual round protrusion on the tower – it was designed by Ernest Lee and opened in 1880 as a chapel of ease of South Weald, to serve a growing population in the north of the parish. Scattered around, you can also see evidence of how development continued sporadically into the 20th century before being stopped short by the Green Belt.
Next to the church, with its entrance slightly further down the lane, is The Mores, a surviving part of the common now managed by the Woodland Trust. The section of woodland nearest us is ‘secondary woodland’, a good example of what happens when grazing and pasture land in this part of the world is left to its own devices. The wood isn’t shown in records from 1777, so must have developed as grazing on the common ceased in the early 19th century, perhaps accelerated when myxomatosis reduced the local rabbit population. The site also includes an area of ancient woodland further to the west.
In the original London Countryway guide, even though there’s no station nearby, Keith Chesterton opts to end this section at Bentley to keep to a roughly equal section length, directing walkers to catch a bus to Brentwood. But he also notes the option of continuing along the trail, which actually passes Brentwood station further along – Keith says it’s three miles, but it’s actually 6.25km so closer to four.
Even so I’m not comfortable with the idea of catching a bus from here to the station, and another one back the next day, only to walk past the station again later. It’s a bit like a circular walk that returns you to a parked car: it undermines one of the pleasures of walking longer trails, the sense of progressing from one place to another under your own steam, and feels instead like you’re simply using another means of transport to access static exercise, like catching the bus or, worse, driving to the gym. So I’ve chosen to press on instead, to leave a nice short next section. This disrupts a certain elegant thematic unity: today has been all about fields, hills and country churches, while tomorrow takes in two country parks bookending a major town, but we’ll live with that.

Weald Country Park


In some respects Weald Country Park is an appropriate inclusion in this walk as it’ll give you some idea, after all this talk of manors, parks, commons and farms, of what an aristocratic country seat developed from a mediaeval manor actually looked like, and what the people who privatised the countryside did with the land they enclosed for their personal use.
South Weald was a large parish which originally stretched as far south as Brentwood station, but the focus of it was the manorial estate that now largely forms the country park, with the manor house and church at the south end. The Country Park claims to include areas that have been parkland for 700 years, which would take it back to the times when the estate was controlled by the canons of Waltham Abbey – it was one of the original endowments granted to the abbey on its foundation by Harold Godwinson, later Harold II, as described in the previous section. Following dissolution the estate was granted to Sir Brian Tuke, and was sold on several times in the succeeding centuries.
It’s likely the manor house, Weald Hall, existed in monastic times. It was rebuilt in the 1550s by Anthony Browne, founder of Brentwood School, and surrounded by walled courts and gardens, including garden houses. One of these survives today, known as Queen Mary Chapel due to a probably spurious legend that Mary, a fanatic Catholic, worshipped there in secret before she became queen. Beyond this was a small park, progressively enlarged northwards to incorporate former common and woodland and landscaped through the 18th century in the style pioneered by landscape architect Capability Brown.
The estate passed into the Tower family, its last family owners, when Thomas Tower bought it in 1752. He added a deer park which by 1892 was home to red deer, fallow deer, Japanese sika deer and Kashmir goats. His grandnephew Christopher Tower expanded the estate to its fullest extent in the 1830s, encroaching further on the common and planting the new land with conifers; he also commissioned further work on the Hall, some of it by Robert Adam.
The Towers abandoned South Weald after another Christopher Tower was killed in World War I, installing caretakers and renting the grounds to a shooting syndicate. During World War II it was put to military use, with some destructive consequences, including a serious fire in the Hall. In 1944, troops assembling in the park made gaps in the fence for vehicle access and many of the deer (and perhaps also the goats) escaped into the surrounding countryside. After the war, the Towers broke up the estate, selling off much of it Metropolitan Railway who had it earmarked for housing development, but the Green Belt put a stop to that, and in 1953 most was bought by Essex County Council, with the help of Brentwood council and the London County Council, with a remit to develop it into a public park. The hall was considered so badly damaged it had to be demolished.
The current park, which almost became a venue for the mountain biking events at the London 2012 Olympic Games but lost out to Hadleigh Park, occupies some 2 km2. The Countryway runs through it in an almost straight line from north to south, passing through a variety of environments recalling different periods of the site’s history. The first stretch, in the north, is through some of the most recent additions to the park, dating from Christopher Tower’s 19th century expansions. Some of the woodland is old common, but the conifer plantations were put there by Tower. All the conifers in the plantations were cut down after World War II to meet demand for timber for rebuilding, and replaced with new plantings, so what you see today has grown up since the late 1940s.

Further on you follow the deer park fence – deer can still be seen in the park – and reach a more open area of parkland. To your right are two lakes, the larger Weald Park Lake and beyond it the smaller Conservation Lake, both created in the 18th century landscaping project: the bigger lake is now popular with anglers and there’s a hide for watching bird life. This area is the most popular among park visitors but the Countyway runs within the deer park on the other side of the fence so you’re left with the curious impression that all the families out for weekend strolls by the lake have been fenced in. A detour along the south side of the lake leads to the visitor centre and Queen Mary’s Chapel nearby.

Continuing up the main path you can get an idea of the landscaping. The area to the right, south of the lakes, is known as Belvedere Field, after the small mound commanding the site which from the 1730s to 1950 was topped by an octagonal belvedere: traces of the formal paths that converged on this are still visible. You’ll have to imagine the Hall, which stood to the right of the mound. Next there’s the pretty enclosed picnic area and gardens around Bluebell Pond, an echo of the walled gardens that once surrounded the house. You might want to detour off the path to take in the prospect from the belvedere site before leaving the park past the second of today’s cricket grounds. St Peter’s church, to the right, which once stood next to the Hall, has 12th century remnants and a 16th century tower, but was radically rebuilt in 1868.

The next stretch of the route is along a road with the definite feel of being on the suburban edge, though it’s well wooded at first, and there are opportunities to escape from the traffic by threading along informal parallel paths within the trees. It began when I visited with an ugly clutter of signs aimed at deterring heavy goods vehicles from unheedingly following their satnavs along unsuitable country lanes, but you do wonder if the signs themselves are almost as environmentally undesirable. Eventually you’ll find yourself on a flyover above a busy dual carriageway, the next of the main radial roads that our route crosses.
This is the A12 from London to Colchester, Ipswich and Felixstowe, the modern incarnation of the Roman road listed in the Antonine Itinerary as Iter V or Route 5, linking Londinium with Camulodunum (Colchester), the first provincial capital of Britannia back in the days when London was still just a couple of little hills overlooking the Thames used by Belgic farmers for cattle grazing. Much of the road continued in use into the 18th century, when parts were turnpiked as the Great Essex Road, and even today great swathes of the route stick to the Roman alignment. Not here, though – the road ran through the centre of Brentwood until 1965 when the bypass beneath you was opened.
As with some previous unavoidable urban areas, Chesterton adopts the strategy of simply sticking to the main roads to get them over and done with as quickly and directly as possible. He probably would rather have avoided central Brentwood altogether, but as he points out, there’s no real alternative: to the west there are no useful paths, and bypassing it to the east would take us too far out of our way. I’d rather make more of a virtue of this contrasting urban environment by finding some more interesting ways through it, with the advantage that new paths and open spaces have opened since the last London Countryway guide was written. Chesterton’s route is straightforward and I’ve outlined it for you to follow if you choose. It will take you closer to the town centre, which has a few features worth seeing as well as its shops and services. Mine heads directly for the station, but the town centre isn’t much further away.

Brentwood


Just past the flyover is the relatively new open space of St Faith’s on the right. It’s a curious and rather attractive environment that feels half-finished and abandoned – parts are obviously former farmland, with old hedgerows, but much is rolling grassland crisscrossed by ditches and new footpaths and cycleways. The distinctive modern building rising up on the other side is a £30million office block with 30,000 m2 of floor space built in the early 2000s as a regional office for BT (British Telecom), the privatised successor to the Post Office telephone and telecommunications division. In 1854, an agricultural and industrial school was built here for workhouse children from London’s East End, with 300 children shipped from Shoreditch to Brentwood to learn a trade – it was later operated by the Hackney Union.
In 1915 it became an epileptic hospital for women, known from 1935 as St Faith’s, and remained in clinical use until 1985. The buildings were demolished in 1998 and replaced with the BT building, with its low energy design by Arup architects – not just an office block, apparently, but a “social hub for people to meet and exchange ideas.” The grounds, some of which had presumably been retained in agricultural use for teaching purposes in the days of the school, were taken over by Brentwood council as the park we now enjoy.

A cycleway leads past the BT offices to London Road, the original route of the London-Colchester road through the town. The name Brentwood is a reminder that we’re still in the territory of the Forest of Essex, and the Roman road would have been built through thick woodland. No evidence has been found of a Roman settlement along the road at this point, so it’s thought the founders of the town were Saxons – the name means ‘burnt wood’, referring either to the method used to clear the woodland for building or to charcoal burning in the area.
After the assassination of Thomas Becket, covered in the last section, and his subsequent canonisation, mediaeval Brentwood became a crossroads on a north-south pilgrimage route to Canterbury, thus the place name Pilgrim’s Hatch to the north of the town. Brentwood was one of the centres of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt when local people refused to pay taxes, almost killing the tax collector who tried to arrest them. In 1557 Brentwood School, now a minor public school, was founded by Antony Browne, mentioned above as the lord of the manor of South Weald. Later the Roman road became an important coaching route, and Brentwood the second ‘stage’ on coach journeys from London, with numerous inns to accommodate the traffic: according to Daniel Defoe, the town was “full of good inns”.

The railway arrived in 1840, prompting the growth of a major suburban and commuter centre, with the population count rising tenfold from almost 5,000 in the 1890s to 50,000 today. Another aspect of local life was the presence of the military, starting with the use of the old Brentwood common as an army camp from 1742. A century later the East India Company built facilities here to supplement its overcrowded barracks in Chatham, including, of all things, an elephant training school. Military used ceased in 1959; some buildings remain, but sadly no elephants. As can be clearly seen from the map, the town had by then sprawled to absorb many of the surrounding villages, and would itself certainly have been swallowed by London if the creation of the Green Belt hadn’t preserved the wedge of countryside between the two.

The smallish town centre is amply provided with shops, pubs and restaurants, including some new developments, but is short on heritage. The most notable old structure is ruined St Thomas’ chapel, with walls and foundations dating from at least 1222 that were originally built to service Canterbury-bound pilgrims. Reflecting the persistence of Roman Catholicism in the area, since 1917 Brentwood has also been a Catholic diocese with its own cathedral, though the present building, in blandly fake and nostalgic Renaissance style, only dates from 1991. The former cathedral, built as a parish church in Victorian Gothic style in 1861, still stands alongside it.

Brentwood station first opened by the Eastern Counties Railway as a temporary terminus for trains from Liverpool Street, but in 1843 the line was extended to Colchester, becoming the main line between London and East Anglia. Today there’s a rather dull street level entrance, though the facilities have been improved by a recent makeover. Londoners will be glad to know that Oyster Pay as you Go is valid from here, though "special fares apply."


One surprising discovery is that the Forest of Essex survives in hidden corners even close to the town centre. Just across London Road a fragment of woodland, now supported by the Forestry Commission, hides behind houses, with another fragment a little further on. It’s known, curiously, as La Plata, Castillian for ‘the silver’ and a relatively common place name in the Americas, perhaps most famously associated with the river known in English as Plate, running through Argentina and Uruguay. Some of the area seems to have been the garden of a big house, with conifers, rhododendrons and an ornamental pond, but there are some old trees too – an intriguing stretch to finish with, and a modest prelude to the woodland and parkland we’ll be exploring next.

Download a route description for this section.