Walk 70: Braintree Town Walk: Shaaaattttaaaapppp…a quick walk round the centre of Essex

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: Roughly 1 mile (1.61km)

Time to walk: A town walk so, with a few stops along the way, about an hour

Difficulty: All on flat, hard paths – easy walking

Parking: There’s plenty of public parking. On street limitations run out after 6pm & this makes a nice evening walk

Public toilets: Cafes, bars etc

Map of the route:

Braintree copy

Braintree lies in Essex, 10 miles northeast of Chelmsford & 15 miles west of Colchester. The origin of the town is obscure. One theory is that Braintree was originally Branoc’s tree, Branoc apparently being an ancient name. Another theory is that the name is derived from that of Rayne, which was actually the more important settlement in Norman times. Braintree was also called Brantry & Branchetreu in the Domesday Book which means “town by the river”. The River Brain is another possible origin. “Tree” comes from the Saxon suffix, more commonly spelled “try”, denoting a big village – how confusing!!

An old Roman town, dating back as early as the 14th Century, Braintree was by then processing & manufacturing woollen cloth. The town prospered from the 17th century when Flemish immigrants made it famous for the wool cloth trade. They then took the manufacturing methods to a finer detail, & exported mainly to Spain or Portugal. In 1665, the Great Plague killed 865 out of the population of just 2,300 people

The wool trade died out in the early 19th century & Braintree became a centre for silk manufacturing when George Courtauld opened a silk mill in the town. Others followed, including Warner & Sons. By the late 19th century, Braintree was a thriving agricultural & textile town, & benefited from a railway connection to London. The wealthy Courtauld family had a strong influence on the town, supporting plans for many of the town’s public buildings such as the town hall & public gardens established in 1888. The town’s influence on the textile weaving industry is remembered today in the Warner Textile Archive & at Braintree Museum

Today it’s much changed so…

Let’s Walk!

1. This evening’s walk starts near the Market Square outside the quite magnificent Town Hall…

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Built between 1926 & 1928, the Town Hall was a gift to the town by WJ Courtauld. It stands on the site where William Piggott, a puritan martyr who was burnt to death. For the builders & architects among us, it was one of the first buildings to use pre-stressed concrete in its construction with a brick-wood facade

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2. Turn round & cross over into Market Square…

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On the right’s a horse drinking fountain, given to the town by the Courtauld family in 1882. Behind it’s the Nag’s Head pub which would have been extremely busy on market days as the large area here was once the site of the town’s Cattle Market….

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Tesco, on the left, in the 17th & 18th centuries was the site of the town’s workhouse

3. The highly decorative, & European Cup hopeful, pub directly ahead across the square’s another animal associated with the market…the Bull

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The Bull dates back to the 16th century wth low wooden beams etc

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4. Continue diagonally right across the square into Great Square which was the site of the original market granted under a charter in 1199

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To the right’s the Constitutional Club which dates back over 100 years

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5. Turn round & walk down the High Street. Once a hive of bustling market activity, Braintree town centre is fast becoming a ghost town, according to a new multi-million pound report

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The town centre has become slowly marginalised by shoppers since the Freeport Retail Outlet Centre was built in 1999 & now a 190-page retail study commissioned by Chelmsford City Council confirms the High Street is on the wane

6. After a couple of hundred yards turn left into New Street…

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Several of the buildings on the right date back to the 17th century. You can see doorways in the wall of buildings which used to be alehouses – The George, The Dragon & The Three Tuns, all of which used to be known locally as Great Hell, Little Hell & Damnation

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There a more recent thriving ‘Essex’ business on the left…

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7. Pass through the Phoenix Shopping Centre & out under the arch…

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Across to the left, the white building is Samuel Courtauld’s first commercial mill. Behind that are the new mills of Walters, which became Warners, both famous silk weaving firms

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8. Our path is now sharp right down the side of The Chophouse along the narrow Hilly Gant

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The Braintree Gants very much remind us of the Closes of Edinburgh. Narrow alleys that, in this town, all lead towards the market

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9. Before we go down there, on the right’s an interesting looking building…

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This is the old town’s lock up…the small 16ft x 6ft lean-to was built in 1840 & was a place to keep the town’s drunks & “ne’er-do-wells”. It was constructed in response to the Beer Act ten years earlier, a piece of legislation that allowed almost anyone to sell ale from their home with little control – a challenge Braintree’s brewers accepted with typical gusto

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New Street was notorious in the mid-1800s for drunk & riotous behaviour. The cage contained two wrought-iron cells & had a sleeping bench along one side. The name William Oliver is carved in the brickwork & dated September 1843. He, like every other prisoner, would have been hauled in front of a discerning magistrate the next day

The cage remained in use until 1875, even though a police station had been built at Rayne Road 30 years earlier. After that it was used by the 12th Essex Volunteer Rifles as an ammunition store until 1911

10. Follow the Gant to the end…

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…where we cross over the road to arrive at St Michael’s Church

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11. As we did this walk on a late summer’s evening the church was closed. Pass round the left side of it to the front..

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It’s not known exactly when the church was built, but the tower was added in 1240 & the spire about 1350. At the front’s a knot garden built in 1986 in memory of John Ray, a famous botanist born in Braintree

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12. Walk out of the churchyard to arrive at the circular fountain which was a gift of William Julian Courtauld – slightly bizarre & sad the fountain’s not working

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The buildings in this area are interesting, but sadly we can find little about them…

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13. But…turn right past the fountain…

Strewth that bloke's got no strides on!!

Strewth that bloke’s got no strides on!!

Chuck us a fish...

Chuck us a fish…

14. And up the High Street again past the Boar’s Head which is thought to date back to the 13th century

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Continue up the High Street Looking out for the old clock on the right. This is the site of the town’s Corn Exchange established in 1836

IMG_8718Slightly further on is the cobbled entrance to the site of the old Horn Hotel Coaching Inn

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15. Turn back, cross the road & look for a narrow entrance into Bailey’s Gant…

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Bailey’s Gant is a fascinating little passageway which dates back many years & must have many tales to tell as it’s one of the oldest parts of the town

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16. Eventually we arrive back in the current century – one of the oldest parts links one of the newest at George Yard Shopping Centre

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Turn right & look for the Blue Plaque on the left…

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Francis Henry Crittall (1860-1935) was a businessman & philanthropist who in 1884 instigated the manufacture of metal-framed windows by the Crittall Manufacturing Company Ltd. This company, now known as Crittall Windows Ltd, became the world’s leading manufacturer of steel-framed windows. Crittall also funded the development of the model village of Silver End in Essex

If it’s open, there’s a very attractive cafe opposite – Eatons

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17. Exit the square through the archway…the building on the right is the old George Inn which is what the Square’s named after

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Now turn left along Bank Street…

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It’s good to see that although this is a newer part of town, it retains the individual shops such as the butchers below

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18. Bear left towards The Swan which is rather a handsome pub. We’ll come back & see this one later…

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…but for now pass by along Rayne Road across the road to the White Hart

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19. The White Hart forms the boundary between Braintree & Bocking

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The Barclays Bank building over the road’s pretty impressive too

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20. It’s so Essex round here & non more than the gents hairdressers below…

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Quickly cross over into Rayne Road & look up to the building with the point on the roof…

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This was the house once occupied by the clothier & non-conformist John English

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21. Right…cross back over into Bank Street towards The Swan again…

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One of the new fads here today’s the Turkish Barber with many “add-ons”. There’s one here & it offers many different, & slightly strange treatments…

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What the hell's that about??

What the hell’s that about??

22. So…here we are back at the very impressive Swan public house

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It’s sad isn’t it that this is a really old pub & yet online there’s nothing about its history. It dates back to the 14th century. At the corner turn left into Swan Side where on the side of the pub you can still see the remains of the original doors & windows…

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23. Cross the lane into Little Square which was the site of the original market in 1199. All of the Gents once led to this area…

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On the right’s the large building was once the Manor House…

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24. Pass through Leather lane back to the Constitutional Club once more…

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We loved the name of one of the Gents here…

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25. Now walk back across the square to where we started

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So Braintree that’s you…& what did we think? Well it’s an “interesting place” but the history is either lacking or doesn’t seem to have been embraced like other towns we’ve visited

It’s still worth a stroll though so…

Go Walk !