Braintree is reborn
PUBLISHED: 12:05 12 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:42 20 February 2013
Braintree is unusual in that architectural evidence of its history remains underground and undiscovered. But, as Joanne Jarvis explains, a bold future is opening a window on the past
EXPLORING the delights of Great Notley Country Park offers more than just a breath of fresh air.
In fact, if you know where to look, you can discover the very evidence that reveals the origins of Braintree and the surrounding area. Excavations in Great Notley have unearthed the remains of Iron Age and Roman settlements incorporating a series of enclosures including an Iron Age ditch boundary overlaid with a Roman development on the site of the Skyline Business Park.
Michael Leach, secretary of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History which was founded in 1852, explains: 'It is exciting to see the history of the site and how it fell out of use and was taken up again. It was probably the site of a rural farmstead in Braintree during the first and second centuries AD with a mixed pastoral and arable crop.
'The findings confirm what we already thought about the area and prove there was a series of occupations on the site from the late Iron Age onwards, which included brewing, farming and the production of textiles.'
Braintree sits in the north of Essex, some 40 miles from London. To the south it is urban with housing and factories and to the north the land is rural where wheat, oil-seed rape, maize, sugar beet and linseed are grown. 'Our ancestors would be astonished if they saw our fields today because they farmed with a wider range of crops,' adds Micheal. 'Our fields today would appear extremely sterile because we
tend to grow one group of crops.'
Braintree was born from two Roman roads and at the junction a settlement developed. 'Back then this part of the country was well settled, particularly in the valleys where soil was easily cultivated, but at times of expansion people moved on to higher land. When the population dwindled, however, they would abandon the higher land, which suggests the fluctuating economic level,' explains Michael.
'Braintree is very little understood because of the disappearance of Roman evidence. Even though there was a major Roman road junction, it seems the layout of the medieval town removed the Roman evidence - it's either been hidden or lost and could have been buried under existing buildings.
'However, each time an excavation is done a little bit more history comes to light and eventually it will
be possible to piece together what the Roman settlement was like. That is why it is important that any remains that are found are looked at, because it gives us more information about the town's past.'
Today the town has a population of around 40,000 people. Its vibrant centre includes industry, pubs, restaurants and shops. On the outskirts you'll find the popular Freeport Designer village and within the town centre there is a twice-weekly market, the Townrow Department Store which has been established for 139 years plus the vibrant George Yard Shopping Centre which has more than 30 high street stores and independent retailers.
Brenda Baker, centre manager at George Yard, passionately believes in what Braintree has to offer. 'George Yard will be celebrating its 20th birthday in 2010 and is situated in a conservation area so it is designed to fit into its surrounding,' she adds. 'Some of the buildings are Grade II listed, including the original Crittalls factory, and historical tour leaflets can be obtained from the management suite.'
The town is still rapidly growing. In the last 25 years several large housing estates have been developed and in February Braintree will experience a brand new concept in retirement living with the launch of The Hawthorns at Meadow Park. This luxury facility with superbly-designed communal areas set in beautiful landscaped gardens, will offer 104 spacious suites for an affordable, all-inclusive rental. If the town continues to develop at this pace who knows what the Essex Society for Archaeology and History
will be able to unearth.
The history of Braintree dates back more than 4,000 years when the town was just a small village, but
this all changed when the Romans invaded and built two roads. A Roman settlement developed at the junction of these roads but it was later abandoned when the Romans left Britain. At this time Braintree was called Branchetreu and as pilgrims started using it as a stop-over it began to flourish again. The size of the town increased and continued to thrive when the Bishop of London obtained a market charter for the town in 1199. But it was not until the 16th century that the town really began to prosper. It was during this time that Flemish immigrants moved into empty inns and made the town famous for its wool-cloth trade. When this died out in the early 1800s, Braintree became a centre for silk manufacturing and the establishment of Samuel Courtauld's factory in the 19th century brought the town its greatest prosperity. Following flourishing agriculture and the railway connection to London, by 1848 the town was recognised as a thriving agricultural and textile town. The town also benefited from the wealth of the Courtaulds who supported the plans for many of the town's public buildings including the Town Hall and the public gardens which have changed very little from their
original layout when they were established in 1888.
Did you know?
Braintree is twinned with the French town of Pierrefitte-sur-Seine
The town of Braintree in Massachusetts was named after Braintree in Essex in 1640
The town's population suffered in the Great Plague of 1665 which claimed 865 victims
from a population of just 2,300
Find out more
• Braintree District Council
Causeway House, Bocking End,
Braintree, CM7 9HB.
• Braintree District Museum
Manor Street, Braintree, Essex
• Essex Society for
Archaeology and History