Amongst the many delights of north Essex is the wealth of ancient barns which remind us of the county’s historic importance for agriculture. The pick of the bunch is Cressing Temple, which has two 13th century barns as well as a 16th century granary and a 17th century farmhouse. Set on an open site, it’s the perfect choice for an afternoon out in the sunshine. Coming up the drive, the first building you’ll see is the Wheat Barn.
The timbers used in the construction of the Wheat Barn have been dated to between 1259 and 1280. Architectural historian Cecil Hewitt worked on the process of dating timbers in the 1950s and 1960s, concluding that the type of joints used by mediaeval builders provided the key to knowing when these barns were erected.
Something like 500 trees were used, each grown to a precise size to make cutting the timbers easier; all the carpenter had to do was strip off the bark and square off the trunk a little. Standing forty metres long and over eleven metres high, it’s an impressive building by any standards, but when you realise that each supporting beam would have been lifted up individually, by hand, then it’s all the more mind-blowing. It’s only when you get inside that you fully understand the complexity of the structure.
Alongside the Wheat Barn stands another Grade 1 listed barn: the Barley Barn. Its timbers date from between 1205 and 1230, making it decades older than the Wheat Barn. It’s a vast structure, yet once it was even larger. Threshing took place in the porch and the doors were wide enough for huge wagons to enter.
Like the Wheat Barn, the space would have used to store produce that had been harvested from the surrounding farmland. Records for 1313 show that corn, wheat, beans, peas and oats were stored inside. As barley does grow in this part of Essex, I’m guessing that the name for the barn isn’t a misnomer and that crop rotation can explain the absence of barley in the 1313 records.
It’s when you step inside the Granary that the age of the buildings becomes a concern. The warped, undulating floor feels precarious and it doesn’t help that you can see through the timbers to the ground floor below. Despite this, the Granary is actually newer than the two barns, built in 1623. Originally, the ground floor would have been used as a malting, though later it was converted into a stables.
Cressing Barns has a fascinating history and there’s a series of exhibits in the Wheat Barn that tell the story. The Knights Templars were originally given the site in 1137 by the King; previously it had formed part of the manor of Witham. Accused of everything from witchcraft to devil worship, their order was dissolved by the Pope a couple of centuries later. He passed Cressing Temple onto the Knights Hospitaller in 1312.
During the reign of Henry VIII, it would again be seized and given to Sir John Smyth, one of his barons who was already renting the place from the Hospitallers. The family would eventually sell it and a succession of private owners would have it before Essex County Council took it over in 1987. Their timing wasn’t great – the gales of October that year (the infamous “hurricane” that Michael Fish failed to spot) would wreck the roofs and leave the council with a hefty repair bill.
One of the many highlights of a visit to Cressing Temple is a stroll round its walled garden. Even in early spring, the garden was full of colour. It’s been recreated to mirror what it would have been like in Tudor times. Passing through a wooden gate, inside the centuries-old brick walls you’ll find an arbour and a brick fountain with spouts which symbolise four rivers of paradise.
There’s a veggie plot, formal planting lined with box hedging and range of medicinal plants. There are many little signs and notices dotted around the beds which offer clues as to how the plants might have been used in those days. For instance, the leaves of the sweet woodruff were bruised and applied to wounds to reduce swelling and promote healing. Before the days of toothbrushes, sage was used to clean teeth. Wormwood was an insect repellent and pennyroyal took care of fleas. Other claims were a little more extravagant. Aquilegia seeds, it was thought, had value to women who used them to drive off measles and smallpox, though history reminds us that that didn’t go so well.
Cressing Temple is located midway between Witham and Braintree, with easy access from both the A12 and the A120. Managed by Essex County Council, unless there is an event on inside the barns or grounds, entrance to Cressing Temple Barns and their gardens is free of charge. Most of the site is wheelchair accessible. For further details including opening hours, follow this link: