Recording Uttlesford History 

The History of the District

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The district of Uttlesford, named after one of the Domesday hundreds, covers most of north-west Essex, a rolling, leafy landscape once described by the Poet Laureate John Betjeman as ‘a quiet, prosperous agricultural area of old stone and flint churches, pargetted cottages with red tiled roofs, spreading farms and gabled manor houses, little hills, elms, oaks, willowy streams and twisty lanes leading to towns of renowned beauty as Thaxted and Saffron Walden’. The chalk hills of the Chilterns peter out here, and some of the major rivers of the region rise – the Cam, Chelmer, Stort and Roding. In many areas of Uttlesford, a medieval and Tudor landscape survived and remained little altered until the ploughing-up of pastures during the Second World War.

Since the cloth trade died away, there has never been any major industry in NW Essex, but some places have had their own specialities, the most unusual of which was Thaxted’s cutlery industry, now remembered only in the 500-year-old Guildhall of the Cutlers and the outlying hamlet of Cutlers Green. The food industry had some outposts here – bacon at Dunmow, famous through the Dunmow Flitch ceremony, still celebrated every four years; sugar beet at Felsted; and jams at Elsenham.

Saffron Walden made its name in horticulture with the breeding of Chaters Hollyhocks and the carnation industry at Engelmanns. Walden, which today still retains its medieval street layout and large numbers of timber-framed houses, had originally been called Chepyng (market) Walden, but changed its name in the 16th century to reflect the importance of the saffron crop.

Farming went through a revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Essex acquired a reputation for agricultural innovations such as new crops, growing methods, improvements like hollow draining and machines like seed drills. The soil of north-west Essex was suited to the growing of barley, hence the rise of malting and brewing industries, which increased in importance in the 18th and 19th centuries. The most complete 16th century maltings complex in the country has been beautifully preserved at Great Dunmow.

With so much poverty in the 19th century, parishes were often full of run-down cottages and poor roads, but possibly it was this lack of investment which kept the villages of NW Essex in a time warp, so that today they still feature huge numbers of houses dating back centuries. A recent report on Uttlesford identified 3,500 Listed Buildings, that is almost a third of all the Listed Buildings in Essex even though it is one of the least densely populated of the 14 districts of the county. 40% of Listed Buildings date from the 17th century. This is undoubtedly an area of immense historical value, as symbolized by its possessing the only surviving medieval forest in the country, Hatfield Forest, its 1,049 acres run by the National Trust.

History abounds in the villages of Uttlesford: Hadstock thought to be where King Canute built his minster church in 1020 to commemorate victory over Edmond Ironside at Assandun; Tilty with fragments of a 12th century abbey; Hatfield Broad Oak developed from a medieval priory; Widdington with its restored 14th century barn; Clavering said to possess the earliest castle site in eastern England; Great Chesterford once an important Roman town; the Rodings, once an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. The parish churches possess much of historical interest: Saxon features at Strethall, Wendens Ambo and the Hallingburys; the unique painted travelling chest altar in Newport church; the stunning blue stained glass window in Broxted church, erected to commemorate the release of the Beirut hostages.

Uttlesford has a remarkable collection of famous people associated with the area:

Down every little lane in Uttlesford, there lies a hamlet or village, each with their own unique history. Uttlesford Local History Recorders are proud to represent, promote and encourage the preservation of our historical heritage in this beautiful part of England.

© Jacqueline Cooper 2008