Tape 171. Talk by Helen Pitchforth about the Witham parish boundary

Tape 171

Helen Pitchforth gave her talk about the Witham parish boundary to the Witham History Group on 4 September 1995. She then lived at 10 Avenue Road, Witham.

The original recording of this talk is held at the Essex Sound and Video Archive. To listen to the recording, please contact them at ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk or 033301 32500.

[???] shows words that are not clear enough to interpret and so have had to be omitted.
[?] after a word shows that its interpretation is not certain.
Later explanatory additions by JG or the transcriber are in square brackets [e.g. explaining locations etc.]

See also her book, ‘A Hidden Countryside: Discovering ancient tracks, fields and hedges’, published in 2001.

Side 1

I haven’t ever done anything quite like this before, so bear with me. I’m quite used to speaking at meetings, but that’s different, because you have to argue, and I’m not wanting to argue tonight, so that’s fine.

Well this all started in quite a simple way. We said one weekend, well, we’ll go for a walk, well let’s walk round part of the parish boundary. Well, here I am, two years later, with books and files, and all sorts of other interests that have spawned off it, and we’re no-where near the end yet, and the more you go into things, the more there is to find out, which is the usual way I guess. But, I’m also well aware that there are quite a lot of people in the audience tonight who probably know a lot more about, certainly various aspects of Witham’s history and archaeology than I do, so again, please bear with me, because I’m not an expert, I’ve just gone round looking at things.

When I was organising training courses, it was the custom at the beginning of the day to tell people what they should be able to do by the end of the day, like drive a tractor, or, what they should know by the end of the day. Well you may not actually know anything very much more by the end of this evening, but perhaps you’ll catch some of my fascination with the landscape that’s all around us, and try to glimpse something of the people who’ve gone before us.

The aims that have sort of evolved out of walking round the countryside are one that, using a tithe map of 1839 as a basis for the survey, secondly to research the species in the hedge count, so as to try and work out the age of hedges, third, fairly recently I’ve acquired a knowledge of the perambulation of the parish boundary in 1815, which is in the Essex Record Office, so that’s also part of the re-survey. And then using all sorts of available information to, as background knowledge for trying to understand the ancient landscape of Witham.

Perhaps we could start with the first viewfoil, courtesy of Braintree District Council. It’s a nice simple relief map, it’s like 1066 and all that, it’s a relief map, but the red line is the outer line of the parish of Witham as it was in the tithe map, not now, now we have Rivenhall added on, and we’ve lost the sort of leg at the bottom going up to Wickham Bishops. But that’s how I’ve been dealing with the parish. But coming more at the top you can see the Braintree railway, you can the main railway, you can see the old A12 and the by-pass, the river Brain and the Blackwater, and it’s just to sort of put you in the picture. It’s really quite a big parish. I reckon it’s about twenty miles round the boundary, and I have walked very nearly all of it, but not in one go.

I think probably what really got me started on all this was in 1977, I went to a seminar at Southend where people like Oliver Rackham and John Hunter were speaking, and I found the notes of that the other day, and I found the booklet, which is this one, and in fact quite a lot has changed since then, and there have been quite a lot of developments, so although it’s only eighteen years ago, quite a lot has changed in the understanding of the ancient part of the landscape. But that really set me going, and I came back and did some hedge counts in 1977, 78, and I have found those records. Some of the hedges have since vanished, which is perhaps interesting, so I’m trying to compare those with what they are today.

And then secondly, 1986 was it, there was an exhibition at St Nicolas, where they, for the 650 years, and they had out the tithe map, and that really opened my eyes, I’d no idea that such huge detailed maps, it’s a whole wall-full isn’t it, and that really fired my imagination. So I went to the Records Office and got photocopies from their copy, which look like this. That’s the northernmost part of the district, again, Hungary Hall right at the top, and that is the old road, obviously before the Braintree railway was built, and the new road, and the old green lane on the far side, the road to the Notleys on this side, and it’s just to sort of show you, if you haven’t already seen it, the amount of detail that’s in the tithe map. And I’ve gone round with a photocopy of that, seeing where the boundaries have changed, and if so how they’ve changed. So it’s a very interesting exercise.

Just a little bit more background interest, information, those are the contours, just the outline contours, because, it’s important for one or two reasons. Fifty metres at the top again by Hungary Hall, the highest is sixty-five metres, down by Snow’s corner, at Wickham Bishops. Fifty metres on the Hatfield Peverel boundary. And so although it’s not a very hilly place, as you know, there are rises, and the two main valleys.

Just one more of these, again for background information, because it’s allied to what the use of, what a parish is all about. Thanks to Janet for the two maps. The spotted is, it’s a very rough one. The cross-hatching is, by the rivers, that’s alluvial soil and usually quite rich. The spots are sand and gravel of various kinds. The red is London clay, the red dashes are London clay, and the green is the Boulder, glacial Boulder clay, rich, fertile, cereal growing soil, which forms the backbone of the agriculture of this district. And, I’ve put that in, because it gives you some indication that the London clay is on the Wickham Bishops extension, and that’s where Chantry Wood is, not surprisingly, that heavy London clay is not easily cultivated, and the only bit of waste, total waste, that we have in the parish is right at the top there, on that sandy soil at the top.

So, now we’ll start on our exploration round the parish, and perhaps we could have the first slide. These aerial photos are thanks to Barrie Foster, who’s sitting in the front row, who’s a member of the Braintree Valley, Brain Valley, sorry, Archaeological Society, and he’s very kindly lent me these. And this one is Cressing Temple. I know it’s just outside of the parish, but it’s such a gorgeous photo I put it in. And the railway, the Braintree road, and Witham, the north of Witham in the distance. Hungary Hall is there, and the field opposite, this one, with the road going right through the middle, that’s the boundary of it, is called Ozhod on the parish tithe, which way have been Oxhod, but it’s an intriguing name, so I don’t know what that means. But also, the intriguing part about Ozhod, is that there are four parishes meet there, and it’s, if you think back to the earlier map, it’s the only piece of land that side of the Braintree road, there must have been some reason, I’m sure there may be people in this audience who know a lot more about this sort of thing than I do, and I hope they’ll tell me the answers to some of my puzzles.

This again is Hungary Hall, it’s just outside the parish, but Ozhod, as I explained is this line going opposite. The boundary goes alongside the garden of Hungary Hall and turns down there. That field is called Church field, and used to belong to the Vicar of Witham. Why we had the field furthest away I don’t know, perhaps somebody knows. But the other reason for showing this picture is the strong lines, the hedge lines. You can see there that there are sinuous lines, virtually parallel, but not parallel, and the other hedges, the fields are not regular, but these very strong hedge lines, and that’s more and more becoming [???] that this is part of the Iron Age field system that’s survived all these years, and such a feature of this part of the world.

This is a view of Whitehead’s farm, taken from just outside Hungary Hall. This is a typical boundary hedge, many species, and a good view of the corn growing country and the boulder clay that it’s based on. Looking from the north towards Witham over there.

Now this one is taken from the north of Witham, that’s Runson[?] Close before [???] was built, I guess. That’s Elm farm, Elm Hall, and this is the Templars estate, it isn’t [???] the river walk. But there again you, it’s a splendid one for showing the long lines of the hedges coming right down here, another one there, another one there, and these are thought definitely to be a relic landscape still being used. The other interesting thing is that there you can see the line of the old road that came out of the top of Church Street, went along there, along that hedge, and joined up with the road just opposite Hungary Hall, just north of Hole farm, just there. You can see it quite clearly, certainly the lower part, down there, where it was.

Now we’ve come a bit further south. This is the old green lane just north of Rickstones Road, [opposite Rickstones farm, JG] and you can see it’s like a tunnel, it’s very much an old green lane, hedge and ditch either side, multi-species, and my feeling is that it’s a very old lane, and it’s probably part of communications from Braxted mill going further north up towards Cressing and Braintree. It has that feel that you expect it to go on into the countryside. But certainly there’s spindle and hazel and oak and ash and all the things that one associates with an old hedge, in that lane. This was a [???] exploration[?] for me, I regret to say I’ve lived to here all these years, and until two years ago I’d never walked up there, but it’s delightful in the spring, actually has primroses and violets, and it’s really lovely.

This is just for curiosity, but it’s Elm farm on the tithe map, and it’s now Little Elms public house, it’s surrounded by development, but it was a farmhouse 150 years ago. It’s now surrounded by [???] Witham. Just put that in for curiosity.

Another of Barrie’s slides. I’m sure you’ll recognise where it is, it’s the Colchester end of Witham. The boundary that we’re talking about is Motts Lane here, and that is Mott’s Lane. The boundary actually comes across this field and along there. It isn’t Motts Lane all the way, but that is, and then it comes up the road, and in the next picture, you can see the next part. But while that’s on the screen, doesn’t the Roman road look splendid, striding across the landscape, still very straight.

While that was on the screen, the boundary comes down Motts Lane, goes up there and comes back, and then it goes down Braxted Lane and across that field and down there to the river. Not quite, a bit further along than Braxted mill.

This is taken in Motts Lane itself, and I’ve put it in to show the devastating effect of Dutch Elm disease. This was obviously a more or less single species hedge on both sides, each side. Dutch Elm disease and there’s virtually nothing left. Whereas a few yards further on you’ve got a beautiful mixture, of maple and hazel and oak, and it’s still like a tunnel and it’s green and intact. And I’m sure that both hedges are just as old, but because we’ve lost the single species, it hasn’t been re-colonised yet.

That’s just a shot to put in, to show you the spindle. It’s, it has lovely pink berries in the autumn, obviously this was taken before the berries went pink, but that’s an indicator species, I’m pretty sure. Perhaps, just in case you don’t all know about the species, I’m sure you do, but the idea of counting species in a thirty yard stretch, is that the more species you have, or the number of species you have in a thirty-yard stretch is roughly the age of the hedge in centuries. So where we’ve found eight species in a hedge, that takes you back eight centuries, which is a long way back. I haven’t found, I’ve the odd one with ten, but I don’t think there are enough species that grow round here to go any further back. So my feeling is that any hedge that’s got six, seven, eight species in is very old, but how old, I don’t know. But I’ve gone round the boundary, and I’ve got surveys of most of the hedges. Some still need to be written up, but I have actually counted the species over a wide area.

Now this one is again showing the Colchester end of the by-pass, and Motts Lane, and the railway. But what it also shows is these very strong hedges here, are what’s called a detached part of Witham parish, and they still exist. That land in between belonged to Faulkbourne parish. And Faulkbourne had fields that went all the way down to Braxted mill, there. A continuous line of fields. Now I don’t know how far they went up north, but I think we run into Rivenhall, Cressing parish. So that was an odd bit of Faulkbourne that was cut off, presumably it was a change of ownership sometimes, way back, perhaps somebody can tell me, but there’s the detached part of Witham, and that’s why it’s detached.

I think the next one takes us down to Braxted mill. No. I put this in, couldn’t resist putting this one in, because it was such a lovely field of yellow on a summer evening.

And it’s a field full of ragwort, which is a notifiable weed. But I just put it in because that’s one of the boundary hedges and I just thought it was such a lovely colour. I don’t know who’s responsible for it, but there we are, a field full of ragwort.

Ah, Braxted mill  bridge, and the ford. That’s to my mind one of the focal points of the parish and the trade routes that must have been established way way back in the Bronze Age, Neolithic Age and before that. Long before there was a bridge. And I say that with some confidence, because Simon Brice, most of you know Brices’ Rose Cottage, and they farm most of the land the other side of Little Braxted, Simon Brice has the most amazing collection of flint implements, everything from two Palaeolithic axes to flintlocks and muskets in the middle ages, showing continuous occupation of his land, three thousand flint implements of different periods, and if that doesn’t show continuous occupation, I don’t really know what does. So I’m convinced that that ford has been used for trade and communication for an awful long time.

Now we’re looking down, you can see the by-pass and the industrial estate. This field is Broad field, and you can see the river, with the [???], but Braxted mill is just there, and we’re going south towards Chelmsford at this end. Broad mead on the Tithe map, is divided into about twenty-eight strips, it was obviously very valued for the hay crop, and of those strips, the Knights Templar had about half, but they were never adjacent, and some people only had fore-crop, I don’t know who had the other crop, but they had the fore-crop, some, the rest presumably had two cuts, if that was possible. [or possibly after the fore-crop was the grazing, JG] But because the, all, virtually all the landowners in Witham at that time were represented on that field, it just shows how valuable the meadow hay was.

That’s Whet Mead, nature reserve, with the two lagoons, and the boundary is following down the river to that point there. And those of you who’ve been to Whet Mead in the spring will know that’s the most marvellous blackthorn hedge when it’s in full bloom. There’s the by-pass, and the river Brain, the two rivers joining, and Witham was very strategically situated astride the Brain and next to the Blackwater, and one of the reasons why it’s been lived in and worked in for so long. Anyway the boundary goes up through that wood, we found it very difficult to establish exactly where it was, but there are several little streams going through that wood, and they come out at the top there. That field was called Fairbottom actually, the one we just [???] to.

This is Benton Hall, and Blue Mills, and the boundary is coming down across what’s now the golf course, it isn’t actually on that picture, but again, an important river crossing, the first one downstream from Braxted Mill, and obviously was a very important crossing, the Iron Age and Bronze Age settlements on this side of the river, and Iron Age and Bronze Age barrows and religious sites on the other side. They must have needed to cross the river. I’m also aware that on these slides, there are probably archaeological things that I’m not pointing out, because that’s not my expertise and it’s not my subject, so you’ll have to go and hear someone else talk about those if you want to.

Now a big jump, because I haven’t got any slides of the [???] bit between Whet Mead and here. This is Snow’s Corner, I’m sure you’ll recognise [Wickham Bishops, JG]. There’s a tiny little slice taken off that corner, called Pilgrim’s Croft, and then again, what were Pilgrim’s doing there, and why were they there. And this brings we on to the parish, beating the bounds of the parish. Because in 1815 in May, Rogation Time, May the 5th and 6th 1815, it was about six weeks before Waterloo, the worthy people of Witham set off from Latneys, at the Chelmsford end of Witham, and the first day they went north about and the second day went south about. And it says when they came to the top of the hill, we lunched at the Chequers. [Wickham Bishops, JG] So the next slide shows the Chequers, which I don’t think has changed all that much. But they lunched there and then they went on and finished by four o’clock on the great road to Colchester. But the other slide, the comment about that little piece of land is that Mr Hicks had taken it out of the waste, now that seems to, the beating of bounds, this notebook, doesn’t put in all that many personal comments, it’s usually ‘Turned left down the field, through the gate, turned right, there’s a tree marked, and so on’. So what Mr Hicks had been doing I’m not quite sure, but he’d taken that bit of land, and the waste, the so-called waste, was part of the parish, but in fact was very important for rough grazing, firewood, all sorts of things, herbs, wild flowers. So it wasn’t just waste land.

This one and the following two are taken from a corner of the meadow above the golf course. We’re looking, there’s Blue Mills, there’s probably Ishams Chase, but you’re looking more towards Colchester, so we’re going from right to left. It’s quite a steep hill down to Blue Mills, it doesn’t show, but I’ve put those in to show what a vantage point it is, we’re about ten yards from the parish boundary there, to show what a vantage point it was, with a view, sort of about 180 degrees, can we have the next two in fairly quick succession please. That one you’ve got Blue Mills on the right, and going right across to Latneys in the distance, not Latneys, Lynfield, and the next one is even further to the right, to the left. So, there’s nothing to mark the boundary, there wasn’t in 1839, it was just going across fields. The bottom field was called Long Mead, and that also was divided up into strips for meadow hay.

This is Olivers farm, Olivers farm nurseries, the boundary comes across what’s now the golf course, crosses the river, comes through this land right through the middle of that new reservoir, and across this field, and merges into Holder[???] road somewhere down here. There’s, it shows quite clearly actually the river meadows, they still were, before the golf course came, they still were meadows.

This is taken from the furthest point south of the district, of the parish, down Maldon Road, this bungalow is called Appynest, on all the maps, and I can quite understand why the present owners seem to have changed it to White Cottage. But you’re looking towards Witham, and Baird’s, Baird’s shows up wherever you go. But there’s a general indication of the arable landscape.

Now this is one of the old pollards, and it’s actually mentioned, that one, in the perambulation notebook. They went from mark to mark, and all the marks were trees, and most of them were pollards. That’s a very dead elm, but it was marking the boundary which came across the field, went across the field there. Pollards were not only used as markers, but very long ago, sort of, probably Bronze Age, Neolithic, somebody made the discovery that if you cut a tree down, either coppiced it, or pollarded it, what resulted was more useful timber than if you just let it grow straight. You got six trunks instead of just one, and you also got a marker. The people who went round beating the bounds actually marked the trees, and I haven’t found a mark, but presumably after 180 years it may have grown out. And the field, I think it’s two, the next one up, is called Clotty Pieces, and one of the boys on the perambulation was bumped there. They did this to make sure that the young people remembered where they were, where they’d been, the next time round. I’ve got his name, he was bumped in Clotty Pieces.

This, it was taken somewhere else but it doesn’t matter. This is what happens when you have a coppice. They cut it down at ground level, the growth in this case is not terribly significant, but look at the size of the root, they’re trying to dig it up with a big digger, and I took it just to show much there is below ground level, and how many shoots you could get coming out of that. There’s almost in, there’s nearly no limit to the life of a stool like that. I’ve found them ten, twelve foot across, particularly ash, in some of the hedges that I’ve looked at.

This and the next one are taken from the A12 bridge just beyond Lynfield café, the boundary comes across the fields and up the main road, but there’s little bit that goes down to Latneys, enclosing this field here. Enclosing this field, it’s a little sort of added on bit to the parish. I’m sure you all know where that is. And the boundary actually comes across the fields by Dengie farm and is actually on the line of the by-pass to those[?] cottages’[?] back hedge. So it’s completely [???] there. But that little wood there is still remaining, it’s just a fragment left of a wood that was there in 1839, and there’s still part of the old roadway, the old lane going to Dengie farm, in it, at the edge.

Now, this has been a complete surprise to me, this is one of Barrie’s star pieces. Where we are now, there’s the A12, Wood End farm, Lynfield, garage and junction there, we’ve come across the railway, past Job’s Wood, along the path, and this is where we join up with Hatfield Peverel, and that outline is Worborough. Most of these fields are called Great Worborough, or Mid Worborough, or Further Worborough, or Lower Worborough, but it was obviously commemorating a name that was very important, and Rodwell in his book says there ought to be some investigation, and there, I’ve no idea what it is, perhaps somebody can tell me, but there’s quite clearly something indicated by that crop mark, at Worborough, on the furthest extremity of Witham parish [probably a hut circle, JG]. I don’t think it can be defensive, because in fact, when you’re there, you’re slightly below the horizon, which goes across there, that corner there you get a magnificent view, virtually across the whole parish. But not from there, you’re just about five foot lower down and you can’t see. So, speculation as to what it might have been, I’m not venturing a guess.

Right, now we’ve taken another big jump, I’m sure most of you know where that is. It’s the junction of the Terling Road [and Powershall Road, JG], and it’s called Terling Releat[?], I don’t know what Releat[?] means, perhaps somebody can tell me that. But the hedges beyond, going towards Fairstead, along Peg Millar’s lane, I don’t know who Peg Millar was, those two hedges, I think they both had ten species in, and obviously, obviously very old. So you go along the lane, to the top end.

We find this, about thirty yards from the top-most north-west corner of the parish, again mentioned in the perambulation, is this splendid oak pollard, and I’m sure it was there 180 years ago, and it’s still thriving. That’s what an oak pollard looks like in full health. The boundary goes along, as I say about thirty yards, and turns sharp right, down what the perambulation calls ‘the great waterfall’. There wasn’t even any water in the ditch when we went there. Perhaps it’s comparitive.

This is where we’d come out if we came down that ditch, we’d come down that hedge there, no, sorry, we’d come across that field there, and the boundary goes through the edge of that wood, and across that field to Notley Road, and across that field, and down to the river walk there. That’s Flora Road estate, that’s the reservoir behind Powershall, and again you see the strong lines, sinuous lines going confidently right across the land, and this one I can assure you continues up here. But they’re going more or less at right-angles to the previous ones that we saw.

Splendid view of Faulkbourne Hall right in the middle. And again the north part of Witham, and where the old road went very clearly, going across there and up to the corner by Hole Farm.

There again, Faulkbourne Hall is there, just down here, there’s the Braintree railway, Braintree Road, Hungary Hall, Hole Farm, and a splendid view of the northern part of the old road, going up to the corner there. And the next one is right in the corner there, and what you’re looking at is the railway bridge by Hole Farm, and the last hundred yards of the old road. And that one brings us right back where we started from, outside Hungary Hall, and when the people who were on the perambulation go there, they had bread and cheese from the two pubs at Chipping Hill, and then they went on and finished the walk in the afternoon. I haven’t really finished it yet, and it’s taken me two years so far, but I hope I’ve been able to indicate something and the lines of thought that have been stimulated by what set out to be quite a simple country walk. I’ve got a lot of people to thank, Janet Gyford for lending me maps, and for introducing me to Barrie Foster, and encouraging me, and lots of other people who have helped.

And lots of books which have inspired me to carry on, and I put my records, hedge counts, and the boundary survey over there, books I’ve used. The records are not complete, I don’t suppose they ever will be quite complete, because just as you think you’ve got one pro forma right, you redesign it and then you have to start all over again. Such as they are, they’re there. Perhaps I can just finish off with a brief quotation from Oliver Rackham, ‘History of the British Countryside’. He says ‘In Essex, we have the England of primates, medieval farms in hollows of the hills, lonely moats, and great barns in the clay lands, pollards and ancient trees, cavernous holloways, and many footpaths, fords, irregular shaped roads, with thick hedges, colourful with maple, dogwood and spindle, an intricate land of mystery and surprise’. That’s how I’ve found it, and perhaps if I do no more than inspire some of you to go and have a look at bits that you haven’t already visited, perhaps that’s worth it.

Side 2

Questions not transcribed, not very clear.

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