Found on the edge of Colchester town centre, St Botolph’s Priory is a ruined Augustinian priory that stands on the site of a Saxon church. It was built in the years immediately preceding 1100 out of flint and recycled Roman brick and tile, similar materials to those found in the town’s Norman castle on the opposite side of the High Street. It was officially founded as the Priory of St Julian and St Botolph in 1103, St Botolph being a Saxon abbot who had died over four hundred years before.
It was never quite as important as nearby St John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1895. There was quite a rivalry between the two institutions which manifested itself in several violent altercations. In one, following a dispute over who had the right to control another church, St Peter’s, a small riot broke out after the Prior and some of his men headed over to the monastery and attacked some of the monks with a sword and dagger.
These days, the ruins and the small park which encircles it offer a quiet retreat from the busy shopping area around the corner. One of the most unusual architectural features of what remains is the style of the towers, which are cylindrical in shape. There is also an elaborate façade which survives, with plenty of windows and archways adorning it. The largest, half a circular window, is thought to be the first of its kind in the country, but it’s the multi-layered doorway that offers the greatest wow-factor to present day visitors.
St Botolph’s Priory was dissolved in 1536 and its possessions granted to Sir Thomas Audley who was the Lord Chancellor of England at the time. He’d been instrumental in helping King Henry VIII split from Papal Authority. It remained in use as a parish church for a time, but its location was to prove disastrous in 1648. During the English Civil War, Colchester was placed under siege for eleven weeks after Royalists who had sought a resting place inside the town’s walls came under attack from their adversaries, the Parliamentarians. The town was bombarded with cannons, and as the Priory was located such a short distance from the town’s gates, it suffered significant damage. To this day, it has not been repaired.
In the 19th century, a church was constructed alongside the ruined priory and this is still in use today. Part of the footprint of the old priory contains tombs and graves associated with that church.
Maldon’s Promenade Park is a popular recreational spot, but tucked away at its easternmost point is a less visited spot. Known locally as the Barge Graveyard, it’s the final resting place for the old wooden sailing barges that have come to the end of their useful life. Left to the elements, the tide breaks them down and slowly they rot away to nothing.
There’s no information or signage on site that offers clues to the provenance of the barges, though the Citizan website has this to say:
“Lying in the Graveyard are the remains of Thames sailing barges British Lion, Vicunia, Pretoria, Mamgu; a lighter; an Admiralty launch, a fishing vessel built in either Scandinavia or Belgium as well as several other vessels.”
The Visit Maldon District website has a little more detail about when some of the barges were built. The British Lion was built in 1879, whereas the Vicunia was a much later vessel, dating from 1912. To put these dates into context, the use of the Thames Barge for commercial purposes peaked around 1914 before going into decline. Once, transporting goods such as straw, horse feed, bricks and cement to London would have been done by water, with the flat bottoms of the barges perfectly designed to navigate the shallow waters of this marshy coastline. But then along came faster transport by rail and road and the barges were consigned to history.
The Visit Maldon District website also explains that some of the boats were partially broken up before being brought to Maldon. The Pretoria is one such vessel, broken up downriver, with the bottom lying here at the Graveyard. It was commonplace to break up the barges for scrap and salvage before dumping what was worthless in the mud.
To get a sense of what some of the boats might once have looked like, it’s an easy stroll along the Chelmer to Hythe Quay. It’s now the main location where you’ll see such barges in Essex. Kitty, Hydrogen and Lady Jean are among the active barges based at Maldon. For a full list, visit the Sailing Barge Research website:
Topsail Charters offer trips out; periodically these are day sails that teach you a little of the history, bird life and landscape through which you’re travelling. It’s also possible to follow by barge on race days; Maldon next hosts a barge race in mid-June 2017. You can find the full public trips schedule here:
Those vessels that aren’t quite finished also open periodically for tours. s.b. Pudge, s.b. Centaur and Steam Tug Brent welcome visitors on 30th April and 1st May 2017. Entry is free but donations are gratefully received.
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: