Where to go for Heritage Open Days in Essex

PUBLISHED: 14:20 04 September 2019 | UPDATED: 14:34 04 September 2019

St Giles Leper Hospital Remains (credit, Maldon Town Council)

St Giles Leper Hospital Remains (credit, Maldon Town Council)


Laura Davey highlights some of the top Essex attractions as the county’s unique history is put on show as part of the Heritage Open Days festival this month

It is 1917. The country is facing not only a war abroad, but a domestic battle on the home front too - starvation. With the male workforce away fighting and imports being targeted by submarines, the country needs more food, and urgently.

The Women's Land Army was established, and by 1918 over 113,000 women were working the land, doing everything from dairy work to ploughing fields, felling trees and ultimately winning the food war.

Using their words and contemporary images, the lives of this now largely forgotten army is just one of the extraordinary stories that will be explored this September as part of this year's Heritage Open Days, with an original talk in the Lord Ashcroft building at Anglia Ruskin University on September 19 from 7.30pm.

Anglia Ruskin University (credit, Anglia Ruskin University)Anglia Ruskin University (credit, Anglia Ruskin University)

National manager of the Heritage Open Days event, Annabelle Thorpe, explains: 'This year we are celebrating both our 25th anniversary and our first-ever ten-day festival.

Our theme, People Power, goes to the very heart of Heritage Open Days, highlighting and celebrating individuals and groups who have made a difference — large and small — to their communities.'

Alongside traditional architecture, museums and garden venues, and thanks to support from the National Trust and players of the People's Postcode Lottery, a series of free events across the county will particularly highlight people and groups, like the Women's Land Army, who have affected positive change throughout the country's history.

St Mary's before being saved by the Friends of Friendless Churches (credit, Christopher Dalton)St Mary's before being saved by the Friends of Friendless Churches (credit, Christopher Dalton)

Of course, here in Essex there is no shortage of People Power stories to share, so here are just a few examples you can enjoy in Essex.

Campaigns Fought

People Power takes many forms and, historically, protests have been at the heart of change, with this year marking the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre - a mass demonstration demanding parliamentary reform. In more modern times, one particularly divisive issue has been nuclear weapons.

The Women's Land Army (credit, Chelmsford Civic Society)The Women's Land Army (credit, Chelmsford Civic Society)

In 1981, triggered by the 'fear for the future of all our children and for the future of the living world', the Women for Life on Earth began a protest against nuclear missiles at a USAF base in Berkshire. Over the next 19 years, women joined from across the country, until the last missiles finally left the site in 1991.

A unique insight into this fascinating story will be revealed at the Cramphorn Theatre in Chelmsford on September 20 from 7pm with an exclusive festival talk by the lawyer who represented protesters from Chelmsford.

Voices Heard

The Moot Hall in Maldon embodies more than 400 years of People Power voices, having been in the town's ownership as an assembly building for debating local issues since 1576.

Ivor Bulmer-Thomas (credit, Friends of Friendless Churches)Ivor Bulmer-Thomas (credit, Friends of Friendless Churches)

As one of the earliest secular buildings in the country, over time it has had many social and community functions, from housing the council to providing public meeting spaces and across all arms of the justice system.

Now run as a community hub, visitors exploring the site during Heritage Open Days can learn what this building tells us about the town's social history, as well as getting the chance to enjoy panoramic views over the River Blackwater from the roof.

Buildings Saved

Hundreds of historic buildings will be opening their doors over the Heritage Open Days festival, many run by charitable trusts, including St Mary's Church in Mundon.

St Mary's Church (credit, Friends of Friendless Churches)St Mary's Church (credit, Friends of Friendless Churches)

In the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches since 1975, the building was abandoned, boarded up and considered structurally unsafe, requiring one of the most extensive conservation campaigns the group had ever conducted.

Today, restored and underpinned, festival visitors can admire its distinctive Georgian murals and unusual weather boarded, timber-framed tower, as well as learning more about Ivor Bulmer-Thomas' Vision.

Founding the FFC in 1957, Ivor wanted to save the country's many unused churches and today its members are key to the fundraising and custodianship of 53 historic churches across England and Wales.

Friary Walled Garden (credit, Maldon & Heybridge Horticultural Society)Friary Walled Garden (credit, Maldon & Heybridge Horticultural Society)

Greenspaces Created

It's not just buildings which have relied on People Power. Green spaces have been restored or created too, including the Friary Walled Garden.

A small oasis in a busy town, records suggest there's been a garden on this site since 1293, but after tenanting in the 19th century, and abandonment in the 1970s, the area had become overgrown.

Lovingly restored by the Maldon and Heybridge Horticultural Society since 1987, visitors on a special public tour of this 'secret garden' can discover its inventive mix of Georgian box-hedge layout, dotted with wild cottage flowers and fruit trees, which reflects the changing use of the space through time.

Colchester Castle Museum (credit, Colchester and Ipswich Museums)Colchester Castle Museum (credit, Colchester and Ipswich Museums)

Communities Served

Charitable causes will also be highlighted at several events exploring the county's history of leprosy care. St Giles Leper Hospital is a rare remnant of medieval medicine, with the festival offering a unique chance to see the ruins.

Local compassion for those with leprosy continues today, through the charity Lepra, headquartered in Colchester.

Guided tours of the on-site museum will document the history of the disease, discovery of the cure, and the contemporary work to redefine attitudes and support affected communities across the world, with a special exhibit highlighting the effects of the disease on mental health.

Essex Police Museum Backstage Tour (credit, Essex Police Museum)Essex Police Museum Backstage Tour (credit, Essex Police Museum)

Fun for all the family!

Make a whole day of it, with these family-friendly events taking place throughout the Heritage Open Days festival.

Colchester Castle Museum, Colchester

Storm Europe's largest Norman keep! With interactive exhibits, little ones will love dressing up as an Iron Age Briton, building a Norman archway and steering a Roman chariot. There's even a hoard of real Roman treasure to find.

Gibberd Garden (credit, Gibberd Garden Trust)Gibberd Garden (credit, Gibberd Garden Trust)

Gibberd Garden, Harlow

Children will love discovering this quirky garden, filled with sculpture and curiosities, with a chance to explore the wild garden and play at the moated castle, complete with its own miniature drawbridge.

Essex Police Museum, Springfield

Let the kids play at being policemen and women, with the chance to try on uniforms and take fingerprints. Led by the curator, visitors can also take a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum's store and even help officers with cold case reviews.

Find out more

This year's Heritage Open Days festival runs from September 13 to 22, and every event is free of charge. Full listings and event details can be found at www.heritageopendays.org.uk

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