Looking at the spectacular tomb of the Cutte family inside Arkesden Church, there is nothing to indicate Richard Cutte’s role in the spread of Nonconformity to north-west Essex. It was at his estate in Arkesden, Wood Hall, that the first Congregationalists signed their covenant on 22 December 1682. These were a group that had spread out from Cambridgeshire but at that time their meetings were illegal and they met at first clandestinely, presumably with the blessing of Richard and Mary Cutte.
Richard Cuttes died in 1592 and his wife Mary in 1594 and are buried in an extraordinary monument inside St Mary’s Church at Arkesden – it dominates one side of the church through its sheer size, six-poster form and through being painted in bright pink! The Cutte family are more famed for their part in the Battle of Blenheim, when John Cutte, born in Arkesden in 1661, led Marlborough’s attack, earning him the nickname ‘The Salamander’ for his bravery.
Parts of Arkesden Church are very old – indeed the tower stands on the foundations of a Norman predecessor - but a large amount of restoration took place in Victorian times. The nave and chancelare 13th century and the font bowl may be even older, but much else, including the clerestory, chancel arch and hammerbeam roofs, date only to 1855 and the stained glass is mostly 20th century. In addition to the Cutte monument, there is a 15th century brass and some other monuments. In spite of all the restoration, Arkesden’s is a charming little country church, where old and new blend in harmony.
Just as pleasing is the view outside, standing on the little green looking up to it, with thatched cottages nearby – the quintessential English village, with some picturesque old houses along the Wicken Water stream, such as the 17th century Old Maltings, the 18th century Axe & Compasses pub (highly recommended cuisine), and Sextons, which has interesting wall paintings inside. The Ancient Shepherd in Hampits Road used to be a pub, and nearby is the former Wesleyan Methodist Chapel which has been very nicely converted into a house – the story goes that this was founded in the 1880s by an Anglican lady who had fallen out with the vicar!
A man known as the ‘last squire of Arkesden’ Charles Beadle occupied Wood Hall in more recent times, and from the village centre there is a lovely footpath walk along the chestnut-lined boundaries of the estate, where in spring you can see a wild garden he planted a century ago, of aconites, snowdrops, hellebores, periwinkle, violets, bluebells and hosts of golden daffodils. Wood Hall, built in 1652 and altered substantially later on, was the manor house of the village and is on the site of a Saxon manor, named Wodehall in the Domesday Book.
This mile-long walk follows the parish boundary between Arkesden and Clavering, blending into other woodlands known as Horsepasture Grove, Grassy Grove, Stocking Grove and Nomans Grove, all dotted with bluebells and violets in spring. These are old lands where many traces of prehistoric and Roman settlement have been found, the most exciting being a Bronze Age hoard found near Stevens Lane: the spearheads, axeheads, sword blades and bronze ingots are all in Saffron Walden Museum. Stevens Lane was a coffin path used by night to carry the dead to the churchyard – here in the 1860s bearers carried ten small coffins of children struck by contagious disease.
Near here is the site of a lost Domesday manor, Wiggepits, now just a cottage called Little Fosters. Another long-ago manor was Minchins, and a house of this name can still be seen in Hampits road – Great Becketts is said to be the site of the Nunnery of Campsey who owned Minchins. Arkesden also includes the hamlets of Newland End and Hobbs Aerie. In the Domesday Book, Arkesden itself was called Archesdana, said to mean ‘Arcel’s valley’, possibly a Danish name – were the Vikings here? No one knows.
Arkesden is one of the prettiest villages in Essex and has one of the best pubs and loveliest churches. It doesn’t seem to alter much either. No wonder various people have picked up their quills to write about it – in the 1960s it was the residence of C. Gordon Glover, who broadcast countryside programmes for the BBC and, under the pen-name Julian Grey, wrote the ‘Parish Pump’, stories of village life for The Country Gentleman’s Magazine: no doubt many of his characters and stories were based on Arkesden, although his favourite pub was actually the Fox & Hounds in neighbouring Clavering: there is a photograph of him sitting outside knee deep in water enjoying his pint during the 1968 floods! In one of his articles he described the Ancient Shepherd pub in Arkesden, as having had ‘silver-grey flooring of flagstones in its tap room, two inglenooks for the comfort of ancient men and a pair of high-backed, draught-protecting settles. It walls are of lath and plaster about a timber frame and an overall air of being what it truly was, a no-nonsense-about-it country pub’. Alas it was then ‘done up’. He once wrote ‘I would hold a village without a tavern to be like Hamlet without the Prince. The pub is the mainspring of the rural timepiece, the beating heart of the matter’.(1)
In the 1980s another resident, Rosamond Richardson set her book, Swanbrooke Down, in Arkesden too, basing it on interviews with villagers over the course of a year. She gave fictional names to the people and places, but everyone guessed who they were. She wrote of Swanbrooke Down alias Arkesden but could be almost any of our beautiful Uttlesford villages: ‘Village life is still quieter, cleaner and more pleasant than its urban counterpart: it is still in great demand. The price of progress is that the countryside has been tamed, it is no longer a free and natural habitat. The land is heavily cultivated around the village, yet it nestles in its hollow under a wide East Anglian sky, surrounded by sweeping wheatfields in all their seasonal moods… There is no street lighting in Swanbrooke Down. Unless the night is moonlit, you need a torch to walk down the street – the darkness can be like a curtain, thick as velvet.’
Interesting place, Arkesden.
© Jacqueline Cooper 2008
(1) C. Gordon Glover Parish Pump: Julian Grey (1975)
(2) Rosamond Richardson: Swanbrooke Down: a century of change in an English village (1990)