Bringing home the bacon in Great Dunmow
PUBLISHED: 12:47 24 November 2015 | UPDATED: 12:47 24 November 2015
Great Dunmow is known for its architectural charms and stunning countryside, but it also boasts one or two quite unique features. Petra Hornsby uncovers more of what makes Dunmow great!
Dunmow, which means meadow on the hill, was given its name some time between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Saxons. It has also been called Dunmow Magna and Much Dunmow before becoming Great Dunmow in the early Dark Ages. The town lies on the River Chelmer and today has a population of around 9,000. Like many of the other towns and villages in the district, it is popular with commuters looking to enjoy the benefits of country living and good rail links into London.
The town was once a small Roman development standing at the junction of Stane Street and other roads connecting Sudbury to London and Cambridge to Chelmsford. The town prospered during the Middle Ages, thanks to a market charter granted in 1253.
The history of Great Dunmow is portrayed in the town’s Maltings Museum, situated in the High Street in the characterful old maltings building. The interior has displays representing its social and economic history including a model of its railway station which closed to passengers in 1969. The connecting trackbed of the former railway now forms the route for The Flitch Way — one of the area’s long distance walks.
One long-standing tradition for which the town is famous for is the Flitch Trials – an event that dates back to 1104 and the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow. The then Lord of the Manor, Reginald Fitzwalter, and his wife dressed as peasants and appealed to the prior to bless their union following a year and a day of marriage. The prior, impressed by their devotion, gave them the blessing along with a flitch (half a pig) of bacon. Revealing his real identity, Fitzwalter gave his land to the priory on the condition that every year a couple, demonstrating similar devotion, would also be similarly rewarded.
The Flitch Trials became recognised across the land and are referred to in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale and William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman in a way that seems to require no explanation.
It wasn’t until 1445 that winners’ names were actually recorded, when Richard Wright from Norwich travelled with his wife to have their union tried and they successfully left with the bacon.
In 1832 the tradition was transferred to Great Dunmow but lapsed until 1855 and is now held as a civic event every leap year.
People come from across the county and beyond to attempt to prove their marital harmony and scoop the prize. The court is held in a marquee on Talberd’s Ley and presided over by a judge and counsel representing the hopeful claimants and the opposing counsel who speak for the suppliers of the bacon. Alongside them are a jury of six maidens and six bachelors and an usher to keep order – things can get lively!
Successful couples are carried shoulder-high in the Flitch Chair to the Market Place where they take an oath. Those who have failed to convince the court of their devotion walk behind with a consolation prize of a gammon.
Dunmow was also home to socialite and mistress to King Edward VII, Frances Evelyn ‘Daisy’ Greville, Countess of Warwick. She lived in Easton Lodge, which sits on the border of Great Dunmow and once had its own railway station, used by the King to visit when he was Prince of Wales. Although the Countess went on to have notable financial troubles, she was considered to be a generous benefactor to her local community and the initials CW appear on many significant properties in the town. It is also thought that she was the inspiration behind the popular music hall song Daisy, Daisy.
Other noteworthy residents from the past include Lionel Lukin (inventor of the unsinkable lifeboat) and Sir George Howland Beaumont, the founder of The National Gallery.
A rather remarkable feature of modern Great Dunmow is that its High Street consists entirely of independently-owned shops, businesses, cafes and restaurants. Nikki Anthony of Wardrobe, a ladies’ fashion boutique, explains why the business owners are keen to maintain Great Dunmow’s distinctive flavour: ‘We feel we can offer shoppers something special that isn’t seen in other towns. With businesses being independent and owned by local people, it does have more of a community feel, which is unique to our town.’
Zoe Brady, the owner of Zoe’s Coffee Shop, is, along with Nikki, a member of the Town Team, a group of business owners which describes its principle goal as, ‘to increase footfall into the town and to keep the town developing and vibrant’.
The team comes up with ideas to bring people to the High Street and into the shops, such as a children’s’ treasure hunt and farmers markets (planned for the New Year), and also organises the Christmas Lights Switch On event, which this year takes place on November 27 at 5.30pm.
Nikki continues: ‘This year, the Michelin-starred chef, Daniel Clifford, will be switching on the new lights as well as judging a Christmas cake competition. There will be live music, a carousel, mulled wine, mince pies and plenty of amusements to add to the festive atmosphere.’
Great Dunmow certainly seems to be a good place to head to for some Christmas shopping, or indeed throughout the year, offering a mellower pace to some more frantic, larger town centres. It has the added benefit of some beautiful buildings and excellent places to take refreshments, relax and consider your purchases.
Now that sounds like an early Christmas present if ever there was one.