Halstead’s woven past

PUBLISHED: 11:40 25 November 2014 | UPDATED: 13:36 26 November 2014




Halstead is set in idyllic rural surroundings in the picturesque Colne Valley and is close to the market town of Sudbury, Sible Hedingham and Earls Colne. Petra Hornsby learns more about its remarkable industrial history and finds out how this small and charming town will be celebrating Christmas

The name Halstead comes from the old English word Hald, which means refuge or shelter, and Stede, which refers to site or place. Archaeological findings suggest that the former market town was a settlement from the early Bronze Age.

The imposing sight of St Andrew’s Church at the top of Market Hill is the most significant landmark at the top end of the town, whereas Townsford Mill at the bottom of the High Street sits as another significant symbol of the town’s past. Shopping highlights include independent boutiques specialising in lingerie, floristry, furniture, clothing and food. With restaurants, pubs and cafes, beauty salons and hairdressers added to the mix, Halstead is a town well worth visiting.

Townsford Mill, which sits on the River Colne, was built in 1788 and was originally used as a corn mill until it ➤ was bought by businessman George Courtauld and his cousin Peter Taylor in 1825, who were already managing a silk weaving mill in nearby Braintree. The mill was soon swiftly involved in the production of woven textiles — mainly silk and later crepe and rayon. The looms were initially powered by water, but with production in full swing, something more powerful was required and steam engines were installed to do the job.

Business boomed for the Courtaulds and by 1850 the business was employing more than 2,000 people at the mills both in Halstead and nearby Bocking. The bulk of silk that was imported from India inevitably made its way to Courtauld’s mills to meet demand, but, in the late 19th century, the textile of choice was changing to crepe. Competition from the mills in the north of the country and the eventual decline in demand signalled the need for change. Man-made fibre was making an impact in the early 1900s and Courtaulds was canny enough to buy the British rights to the patent for rayon, the production of which, along with the silk, continued up until the mill’s closure in 1982.

Other businesses were also present in the town including the Tortoise Foundry Company (makers of the famous tortoise stoves) and Charles Portway and Son, along with two breweries, TF Adams & Sons and GE Cook & Sons. It was Courtaulds, however, which most significantly influenced many aspects 
of the community and its buildings. Weavers Lane and Factory Lane serve as a reminder of Halstead’s past, as do several buildings that were commissioned by Courtaulds. A great way to appreciate the history as well as the beautiful setting and the character of the town is a three-mile walk that takes in the major landmarks, river and the meadows. At a gentle pace the walk should take about 75 minutes and is described as being both easy and dog-friendly. Full route details for this ideal winter walk can be found via the AA website.

The Halstead Heritage Museum, located centrally at Mill House on The Causeway, the site of the town council, is well worth a visit for those wanting to learn more about the history of Halstead’s textile and stove production and it also houses several displays of interesting artefacts found in Halstead and the surrounding villages.

Although no longer in textile production, The Townsford Mill is still going strong as a popular Antiques Centre and in December will, like the rest of the town, be gearing up for Christmas and plenty of visitors.

Halstead Town Council plays an important role in the organisation of the town’s celebrations as town clerk Mike Murkin explains: ‘One major event, the switching on of the lights, takes place at 4.30pm on November 29 and we invite a pupil from each of the three local primary schools to have tea with Father Christmas at one of the town’s tea shops. The Mayor then pulls the children in a sleigh, assisted by a few helpers, to the public gardens where we have a giant switch by the bandstand. We then have 
a countdown to the big moment when the lights come on and we sing carols — and if there isn’t any real snow, then we organise a snow machine too!’

The Halstead Town Team organises an annual Christmas Fayre and this takes place on November 29 on the same day that the lights are switched on between 10am and 4pm. There will be performances from all three primary schools singing carols and Christmas songs and there will be extra street entertainment from Jackson School of Dance and Abigail’s Performing Arts as well as local magician, Gavin Davey, 
and a few panto characters from the Stane Street Players. There will also be guided walks and tours, activities for children in the library, crafting demonstrations and Victorian games at the Antiques Centre.

Many of the shops will be organising their own promotions and mini-events, and there will be plenty of welcome refreshments available.

This year, on December 3, there will be the regular Torchlight Procession, 
a tradition for the last 40 years and an event that is a great hit with all members of the community, young and old. 
It begins at the top of the High Street and all adults are issued with real flame torches and the children with glo-sticks.

Mike adds: ‘It really is a magnificent sight as everyone heads down towards the public gardens for a special service. Participants might get a bit cold, but usually remain happy and hopefully full of Christmas cheer. After the procession, there is always warm mulled wine being served at the Holy Trinity Church where people can see the tree and decorations made by the local children.’

Another great attraction throughout the year and something that played a significant role in Halstead’s industry, is the Colne Valley Railway, the home of which is now located on the A1017 between Halstead and Haverhill. 
The former railway line ran between Haverhill in Suffolk and Chapel and Wakes Colne in Essex and carried materials in and goods out until its closure in 1964. Part of the track has been restored and dedicated volunteers now run special open days. One of the events is the Santa Special train rides where youngsters can enjoy the fun of the steam train and meet Father Christmas.

So, whether in search of a unique gift or perhaps an antique or simply heading out for a history-imbued wintry stroll followed by a warming drink or snack, it really is worth considering a trip to Halstead during the festive season — you won’t be disappointed.

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