Coggeshall's hidden treasure
PUBLISHED: 10:50 11 September 2009 | UPDATED: 16:13 20 February 2013
From fine wool to award-winning gardens, Coggeshall has hidden treasures that make it an ideal weekend retreat, says Nicky Adams
The oldest bricks in post-Roman Britain went into the making of Coggeshall, so if you begin your weekend with a wander through the town, make sure you take a good look at them. Long Bridge, to the south of the town, was probably built in the 13th century using bricks made in a tile kiln in modern-day Tilkey by monks who lived at the nearby abbey, which was founded by King Stephen.
But bricks weren't all that those enterprising monks produced and, to a great extent, Coggeshall has them to thank for its prosperity and in turn for the fine buildings you see all around you in this quaint Essex market town. Vital to Coggeshall's future was the fact that the monks were very keen sheep farmers and the wool that their flocks produced was of such superb quality that Coggeshall became known as a centre of expertise in the cloth trade.
This kept the money rolling into Coggeshall between the 15th and 18th centuries and many of the grand buildings that still stand were built on the proceeds, including Coggeshall's Church of St Peter-ad-Vincula - St Peter in Chains - which is one of the biggest churches in the county. In fact its size and grandeur nearly brought it the honour of being chosen as a cathedral. It lost out to Chelmsford, but nevertheless St Peter's huge interior and impressive 72-foot high tower is a real Coggeshall landmark and certainly gives a clue to the town's great affluence. Though dating from the 15th century, St Peter's is in good nick, thanks to restoration work done in the 19th century and substantial repairs made after the Luftwaffe made their mark during World War II. In 2000, two new bells were bought for the church and today Coggeshall has the 'heaviest peal' in Essex.
Another Coggeshall landmark also has the sheep to thank for its existence. The half-timbered Paycocke's is a town house which was built around 1500 by local wool merchant John Paycocke as a wedding present for his son Thomas and daughter-in-law Margaret. Now a National Trust property, visitors flock here to see just what wool money could buy in the 16th century and those with a talent for sleuthing may well spot the young couple's initials, TP and MP, carved into the decorative woodwork of the house.
Certainly, no expense has been spared on the craftsmanship at Paycocke's and there is some very elaborate wood panelling and intricate carving, not to mention the gates that are thought to have been taken from the abbey at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Paycocke family definitely earnt their fortune though and had the wherewithall to choose sheep that produced great wool and then could be slaughtered for their meat at the end of their useful lives; a very prosperous process.
The National Trust also owns Coggeshall's Grange Barn, which was built by the Cistercian monks in the 13th century to serve the local abbey. One of the oldest surviving timber-framed buildings in Europe, it is a tribute to early workmanship and withstood the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was in constant agricultural use right up until 1960, when it became derelict. Fortunately, Braintree District Council stepped in to save it in 1982 and went about restoring it before handing the barn over to the National Trust to safeguard it for the future. The original thatched roof has been replaced with tiles to replicate its appearance in the 14th century and Grange Barn is now open to the public, filled with a collection of farm carts and wagons.
Coggeshall's Museum is the place to go to find out more about how the monks at the abbey and local success in the wool trade shaped the town's history. While browsing the many exhibits, one thing becomes clear - it is a testament to the adaptability of the local people that, when the wool trade went into decline, they didn't rest on their laurels. Instead they set to, transferring their skills to the production of silk and velvet and bringing Coggeshall great fame for its exquisite lace-making in the 19th century. Tambour lace, which was introduced to Coggeshall in around 1812, produced such fine examples that it was worn by Queen Mary and even Queen Elizabeth II.
Coggeshall's St Peter-ad-Vincula church was nearly given the honour of being chosen as a cathedral
More lace exhibits are found at Coggeshall's Museum, which is located in the former school dinners kitchen of the town hall in Stoneham Street. A fascinating collection of postcards and photographs show Coggeshall as it was in years gone by and the museum also has some relics from the abbey, as well as plenty of evidence of Coggeshall's textile manufacturing past, including a piece of lace still on its wooden frame. There is also information on the important seed-producing business that grew up in Coggeshall but has since moved away.
A passion for plants and gardening is still alive and well in Coggeshall and there are several wonderful and quite unique garden centres in the town. Tucked away in Church Street, Irena's Secret Garden is a hidden gem to admire and pick up some very unusual varieties as well as some useful tips on garden design. In West Street, the Dutch Nursery Garden Centre complex was originally a cucumber nursery, but in the 1960s went through a transformation under Hans Paul Wilhelm Henn and his Dutch wife Anna. Now run by the next generation of the family, and still selling Dutch bulbs and container grown specimens as well as much more, the Dutch Nursery is a very pleasant place to browse for plants and garden decorations.
Todd's Botanics, also in West Street, is a specialist nursery for hardy exotics and unusual herbaceous plants, including olives, sturdy palms, bamboo and succulents. In May this year the owners of Todd's Botanics, Emma and Mark Macdonald, were medal winners at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for their showcase of olive trees and other drought-tolerant plants. Todd's Botanics in Coggeshall actually has its own 400-tree olive farm and is the largest and most mature of its kind in the country. To this day, Coggeshall is a pretty, historic Essex market town that is just full of surprises, due in no small part to the enterprising spirit of its people.
Take in the architecture
Stroll along West Street and Church Street and take in the centuries-old buildings, noting the ancient bricks and perhaps the odd piece of flint that may have survived the tearing down of the local abbey in the 16th century. Pretty colours and plenty of Tudor timbers
Wander the shops
Coggeshall has a fine selection of shops selling specialist foods and clothing as well as other hard-to-resist goodies, including handmade chocolates. A stroll along the high street will also offer an impression of how this town has changed through the centuries and a tempting tea or coffee
Coggeshall is great for the green-fingered, with beautiful gardens and several unusual nurseries, selling everything from Dutch bulbs to olive trees. To see a truly spectacular paradise of planting, go to Marks Hall, just north of Coggeshall, where the gardens and arboretum combine
Take afternoon tea
The 14th century Clocktower Tea Rooms in the Market Square actually has its own Victorian clock tower and serves tea and cakes on a quirky assortment of mismatched china. The timbered TJ's Corner Coffee House in Church Street is open all day, serving snacks and sandwiches as well as organic ice cream
Tune in to the Tudors
No visit to Coggeshall would be complete without dropping in on Paycocke's, a fine half-timbered wool merchant's house owned by the National Trust that gives a taste of life in prosperous Tudor times. Don't forget to look out for the romantic carvings of its first residents, Thomas and Margaret Paycocke
Open on Sundays between 2.15pm and 4.45pm.
Call 01376 563003 for details
Paycocke's and Grange Barn
Both owned by the National Trust, these historic buildings are open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. For Paycocke's call 01376 561305 and for Grange Barn call 01376 562226
Irena's Secret Garden
Located on Church Street, this innovative garden centre is open every day apart from Wednesday, from 10.30am to 5pm. Call 07845 075582
The Dutch Nursery
Garden Centre Open every day
on West Street. Call 01376 561287
Todd's Botanics Plant Nursery
Also on West Street, this garden centre is open from Thursday to Sunday as well as Bank Holidays. Call 01376 561212
Marks Hall Gardens and Arboretum
Open 10.30am to 5pm, every day apart from Monday.
Call 01376 563796
The White Hart Hotel
A great place to stay to make a weekend of it. Call 01376 561 654
You'll find this stylish eaterie on Stoneham Street.
Call 01376 563762.