A royal retreat
PUBLISHED: 12:35 01 July 2014 | UPDATED: 12:35 01 July 2014
Located between the River Lea and Epping Forest, there are many reasons why Waltham Abbey stands out on the map, from Abbey Church to the Olympic White Water facilities. Petra Hornsby takes a closer look
Waltham Abbey is a vibrant market town situated 15 miles from London with origins dating back to Saxon times when settlers travelled up the River Lea, drawn to the well-drained, gravelly terrain to build their homes. Waltham, meaning ‘forest homestead’, was born.
During the reign of King Cnut, Tovi the Proud (standard bearer to the King) came across a miraculous cross in Somerset, transported it by cart to Waltham and placed it in a church there. The Earl of Essex, later to become King Harold, is reported to have been cured of his paralysis after praying in front of the cross. As homage, he rebuilt Tovi’s church and the settlement was known as Waltham Holy Cross until the 16th century.
It was in 1066 that King Harold visited the church to pray before the Battle of Hastings, where he met his death, and it is thought that Harold’s body was returned to the church after the battle to be buried.
Henry II rebuilt the church in 1177, as part of his penance for his involvement in the murder of Thomas Becket. Seven years later, it was upgraded further to the status of an abbey, served by an abbot and 24 canons.
Waltham thrived, thanks to the abbey, and during Richard I’s reign, was granted a charter to hold markets and fairs. The Charter Market is still held each Tuesday and there is an additional market each Saturday. Sadly, the town was to lose its abbey when Henry VIII gave orders for the destruction of the monasteries. However, the parish church was spared.
But beyond this incredible history, what does the modern day Waltham Abbey offer? Helen Kane has been a resident of the town since 1988, moving to the town with her young family. Helen is a town and district councillor for Waltham Abbey West Ward and is in the best position to explain why Waltham Abbey has so much to offer both residents and visitors.
‘We have a great community spirit here and there is plenty for people to do, from belly dancing to tea dances and from book clubs to skate parks,’ says Helen. ‘Speaking from experience, it is a great place to raise children and we are lucky to be able to offer great amenities and events for people of all generations to get involved with.
‘Our lovely surrounding countryside offers up so much in terms of activities. There is Epping Forest, where the visitor centre has many special seasonal events during the year, and, of course, the Lea Valley Park, with cycle routes and walks that people of all fitness levels can enjoy. We also have the beautiful Abbey Gardens where people can walk through the special Meridian Gate which reminds us that the Meridian line rather uniquely passes through the town.
‘One of our proudest boasts is 300 years of explosives history, all of which is documented at the Royal Gunpowder Mills. The gunpowder mills were home to a thriving industry for the town until 1945, when it became an important research centre. It was closed in 1991 and is now a popular attraction showcasing its own history and science.’
Another important building in the town is the Copped Hall, once a mansion occupied by the abbots of Waltham Abbey. Notably, part of the building was used as a setting for the first performance of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The mansion was demolished in the 18th century when the present mansion was built. This was destroyed by fire in 1917, but is currently being restored by the Copped Hall Trust for future educational and community use.
While not ignoring the rich history of the town, Helen is keen to emphasise the spirit of modern day Waltham Abbey. She adds: ‘As a town we have undergone the ups and downs of recession, but we are regenerating the town and the effects are beginning to show. Sun Street is pedestrianised with a nostalgic and sociable charm of its own, where people can stroll and visit the mix of newer shops with family businesses that have been in Waltham for years. We also have some great pubs and restaurants offering something for everyone.’
So what does make Waltham Abbey so special, so unique? For Helen, it is an easy question to answer. ‘We are a friendly town with a special village feel, offering fishing for the ardent angler, bird watching, music in the abbey and white water thrills, among other things. We have great annual events like the Pancake Race, The Cavalcade of Lights and, of course, King Harold’s Day, where we celebrate our history. We are also proud to be recognised as the country’s largest producers of cucumbers, reported recently by the BBC. Waltham Abbey is very accessible, thanks to the M25, so it’s easy for people to come and see for themselves and visit some of the many things we have to offer.’ n