Warner Textile Archive

If you’re a fan of fashion or fabric, then there’s a place in Braintree that’s well worth an hour or so of your time. The Warner Textile Archive is housed in what was once a power loom shed for Warner & Sons. After the mill closed in 1971 there was a move to retain such an important part of Braintree’s heritage. Today, this beautifully restored wooden structure can be found just a stone’s throw from the shops of the town centre.

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Warner & Sons was founded in the latter part of the 19th century and moved to Braintree at about the same time, though the family had been involved in the silk weaving business since at least the late 17th century. Benjamin Warner and his two sons, Alfred and Frank, knew their business well and soon established an enviable reputation as weavers of furnishing silk. After his father’s death in 1908, Frank took the reins. Moving with the times, powerweaving was introduced just after the First World War.

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The company had many important clients including the Royal Family. Many of the silks used in the upholstery and soft furnishings of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle have also been made by the Braintree-based business. Having such important clients was not without its challenges, however. In 1888, Queen Victoria placed a significant order for hand woven silks that were to be used for curtains and upholstery at Windsor Castle. When she changed her mind about the colour,  a third of the order had already been made. The resultant costs were met by the company.

That loyalty and high standard of customer service has been well rewarded over the years. Warner & Sons have made silk for every British monarch’s coronation since that of Queen Victoria. It made the silk used for the train that Queen Elizabeth II wore to her own coronation in 1953. Important clients are not limited to royalty. The altar cloth commissioned by St Paul’s Cathedral in 1925 was made by Warner & Sons and in World War Two they manufactured silk for parachutes.

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In addition, Warner & Sons’ standing in the trade meant that it was a magnet for those hoping to raise their own profile. Many talented freelance designers worked with the company to produce unique and highly desirable fabrics. Many of these innovative prints and patterns can be viewed today at the Archive. Sadly, photography is not permitted inside, so if you’d like to see for yourself you’ll have to pay them a visit. The Archive is used as a museum space and there’s also a small shop on site if you’d like a memento to take home.

At the time of my visit, the exhibition “Warners in colour: a tool for design” made for an easy introduction into the world of fabrics. I also learned how silk imported from Asia was dyed to bespoke Warners colours in the company’s own Dye Lab. We sometimes forget how influential North Essex was in the textiles industry but, like Paycockes in Coggeshall, it’s good to be reminded of our industrial heritage.

Casual visitors are welcome at Warner Textile Archive every Wednesday as well as the first saturday in the month. The Archive also puts on regular workshops, covering skills such as linocut printmaking and cord spinning – book well in advance as these fill fast.

http://www.warnertextilearchive.co.uk/

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The Moot Hall, Maldon

It’s been a mediaeval manor house, a police station complete with holding cells, a court room and a council chamber. Now it’s a visitor attraction and wedding venue. Located in the heart of Maldon’s High Street, the Moot Hall is one of the most fascinating buildings in Essex and a must if you’re planning a visit to the town.

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Tours begin on the ground floor of what was once the family residence of the D’Arcy family. You may know the name from the nearby village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy. Sir Robert D’Arcy built his mansion somewhere around 1420 and 1436. A lawyer by trade, he was a wealthy and powerful man, holding the office of MP for Maldon six times as well as being the Escheator for Essex, which meant it was his job to collect property from the deceased and return it to the Crown. The mansion was his way of showing off that he could afford a brick construction when everything else in the town was built using timber. D’Arcy employed Flemish bricklayers to create a three-storied keep and stair turret. It’s believed to be the oldest secular brick building not just in Essex, but in the country as a whole.

The house had a complicated history under the D’Arcy family. It’s unclear if it was ever completely finished and certainly by the mid 16th century what was left of the property had been sold. Today, the ground floor room is a bit of a patchwork of different styles and bricks, as it has been converted in use so many times over the years. Even the door has been rehung , as the graffiti on it reveals the name to be upside down.

A curved brick stairwell leading from the room is impressive and what remains of the old prison door helps you visualise how crowded this room might have been during its spell as the town gaol. A low doorway to the rear of the room leads out into a 19th century exercise yard, where graffiti on the brickwork includes what appears to be a bayonet amid many names and initials.

Upstairs tells a different story. This room, bearing a grand fireplace and exposed mediaeval brickwork, was used as a courtroom in the 19th century and has been left furnished as such. Sit in the dock, take your place on the witness stand or if you prefer, preside over proceedings from the bench where the magistrate would have sat as late as 1950.

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On this level is a balcony with views along Maldon High Street, a reminder of the large number of historic buildings that have been constructed during the town’s long history.

Up a steep staircase is the room that used to function as the council chamber. On its wood-panelled walls are copies of the town charters, the earliest dating back to the 13th century.

A narrow, even more vertiginous staircase accessed by a Guillotine-style door leads to the roof. On a clear day it’s possible to see for miles: across Maldon, across the Blackwater and across the surrounding countryside.

I’d walked past the Moot Hall countless times and never given it a second glance, but to miss this would be a shame. The Hall is open for guided tours from March to October each Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning. Admission costs £4 per adult and it’s not necessary to reserve in advance.

http://www.themoothall.co.uk/

Dovercourt’s historic lighthouses

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The twin lighthouses at Dovercourt have been a fixture on the landscape since the 1860s.  Iron-framed, they sit 200m apart, linked by a stone causeway that extends out into Dovercourt Bay.  As you can see from the photograph above, this is completely covered at high tide.

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The differing heights of the two lighthouses are significant, allowing the lights to be aligned as ships approach.  The inner lighthouse stands 15m high, while the smaller one is about 4m lower.  Commissioned by Trinity House in 1862, they replaced the two redundant lighthouses in Harwich, a short way along the coast, which had become unreliable due to migrating sand bars in the Stour Estuary.  For more on Harwich, see my earlier blog post here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/harwich-the-town-that-rocked/

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With the installation of marker buoys indicating the approach to Harwich harbour, the Dovercourt lighthouses became obselete, like the Harwich ones before them.  In 1917, they were decommissioned, falling into a state of disrepair before being renovated in the 1980s.

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The beach today is one of just five in Essex that has been awarded the coveted Blue Flag in recognition of the cleanliness of both the beach and the water.  Off season, the beach is dog friendly, and with Felixstowe’s dock cranes framing the horizon, it’s a pleasant place to let them run.  If you’re planning to take your pooch, make sure you clean up after them to keep the beach in pristine condition.