Forgotten secrets of Hanningfield Reservoir

PUBLISHED: 12:41 24 October 2016 | UPDATED: 12:41 24 October 2016




Hanningfield Reservoir is one of the county’s most picturesque and popular outdoor spaces, but few know that these still waters hide a secret. Sylvia Kent explains


Along with the almost national hobby of gardening, another popular pastime appears to be researching your family tree. This often involves returning to your home town or village to seek more local history.

For most of us, a visit to our childhood home can usually supply the information we are lacking in our search for former ancestors and it’s usually an enjoyable experience. But that’s if your childhood home still exists.


In Derek Owen’s case, visiting his ancestral home would be an impossibility, unless he owned a diving suit or aqua-lung equipment, for the site of his earlier home lies about 50 feet under the waters of Hanningfield Reservoir.

Born in 1932, Derek lived at Pynnings Farm in Hanningfield which was then believed to be at least more than a century old. Derek’s father, Tom, and his uncle, Jim, grew vegetables including tomatoes, barley and other arable crops. They also kept a herd of the now famous distinctive black and white Essex pigs.


‘Life for a boy in those early days was great,’ Derek remembers. ‘In the holidays, we had freedom to roam wherever we wanted over the fields and could stay out until we were hungry. I even had my own bolt-action gun to kill rabbits. Can you imagine a youngster these days being allowed to do that?’

Derek obviously has an excellent memory and particularly remembers 1940. ‘That was the Battle of Britain summer,’ he recollects. ‘We would rush out to watch the dog fights overhead, but then I promised my father that I’d go into the woods for shelter. Sometimes it meant running through stinging nettles up to my own height.’


In these times gone by there were no fears of what unseen chemicals could do. To boost farm crop production and soil improvement, the farmers then dug in lorry loads of sprats easily available from Old Leigh and hand sprayed manure – it was old fashioned, but most effective.

Alas, in 1942, Derek’s family left his idyllic Pynnings Farm moving to Hadleigh near Southend, where even today, many local people remember the Owen Brothers greengrocery shop.


Fremnells Manor House

Not far from his family farm, Derek remembers an imposing stone manor house which was known as Fremnells, a 16th century gabled building. In 1952, when the editor of the first edition of The Essex Countryside (the forerunner of Essex Life magazine) volume 1, number 1 published a feature about Downham, he received much correspondence regarding the imminent flooding of the Sandon Valley to create a reservoir.

There was much hullaballoo at the time as people had to leave their farms and cottages including, of course, Fremnells. Hundreds of workers arrived in the area along with earth-moving equipment. Many people were devastated to see their homes razed to the ground. An outcry went up that the 500-year-old Fremnells (formerly Hemnalls) would be demolished along with all the surrounding farms and cottages, including Derek Owen’s farm.


Fremnells had been the seat of the Tyrrell family from 1476 to 1627 when it came into the possession of Benjamin Disbrowe, the seventh son of Major-General John Disbrowe who married one of Oliver Cromwell’s sisters.

Before Cromwell’s rise to power, John Disbrowe enjoyed a reputed income of £60 to £70 annually but under Cromwell’s patronage he had a meteoric career move, being made Commissary-General of the Horse with a seat on Cromwell’s Council. At the Restoration, the Disbrowe family suffered disfavour, but 20 years later we learn that in 1689 Benjamin Disbrowe had been made Sheriff of Essex. He died in 1707.


Nevertheless, centuries later Fremnells’ interior remained magnificent and there are still people who remember its internal grandeur and gardens.

Building the Reservoir


Hanningfield Reservoir was constructed between 1950 and 1957 to supply much-needed water to south Essex and is now under the auspices of Essex & Suffolk Water which serves more than 1.8 million customers.

These days, it also offers visitors an enjoyable day out within its beautiful landscape and 100 acre nature reserve served by Essex Wildlife Trust Visitor Centre. It is home to vast numbers of wildlife and plants within a mosaic of habitats, including ancient woodlands and open glades, together with meandering pathways alongside the reservoir.

This offers visitors and bird enthusiasts alike a spot of relaxation and a chance to explore the lovely wildlife on and near the water at all times of the year. What a treat it is to enter the four bird-watching hides that have been erected along the banks of the reservoir with views of the many visiting and resident birds. The area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, noted for its nationally important populations of birds such as pochard and gadwall.

The public can use the reservoir at the Fishing Lodge for seasonal fly fishing both from the bank and from boats, providing a fishing permit is bought in advance. The water is regularly stocked with rainbow trout with the heaviest fish ever caught, in 1998, weighing 24 lb 1oz (10.9 kg).

There are two cafés, one at each end of the reservoir: one next to the fishing lodge with a deck overlooking the water and the other is at the Essex Wildlife Trust Visitor Centre and this is a great retail area selling books and innovative gifts. From here children can also explore the Wind in the Willows trail, spotting wooden sculptures of Badger, Mr Toad and other well-known characters from the famous book, plus the chance to take brass rubbings at each stop.

Children of all ages can have fun at the visitor centre as they are catered for with a wide range of educational activities such as Hatchlings Club (for under fives) which includes wildlife activities, games, crafts and music. There’s also the Young Adventurers club, Owl Evenings and the very latest attraction of Family Bat Evenings, where hundreds of bats fly in and out of the maternity roost in the roof of the visitor centre.

What began as a nightmare for the farming community in this part of Essex almost 70 years ago is now a much appreciated oasis of wonderful flora, fauna and fishing delight.

Find out more

Hanningfield Reservoir Visitor Centre

Hawkswood Road, Downham



CM11 1WT

01268 711001

There is ample free parking for coaches, cars and disabled vehicles but no bicycles or dogs can be admitted. Guide dogs are allowed.

For more details on Hanningfield Reservoir visit

Picture credit

Photographs show Reservoir Manager Andy Marriott, Jo Scillitoe, Lizzie Holt and Reservoir Warden Bill Godsave


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