PUBLISHED: 10:58 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013
A visit to Manningtree makes the perfect day out or weekend stay. Sara Wrightman explores the country's smallest town and discovers it has a broad-ranging appeal
WITH the bright skies of Easter signalling that summer is just around the corner there is no better way to spend a weekend than strolling along the River Stour at Manningtree.
Manningtree, renowned for being the smallest town in England, is filled with historic architecture, fascinating landmarks and dazzling scenery.
Saturday mornings see many locals setting sail for a day out while visitors can admire the Royal swans proudly preening themselves. Keep your eyes open for the glorious architecture that is a landmark of Manningtree, as well as adjoining Mistley. Of particular note are the Mistley Towers, signalling the influence on this remarkable area of Richard Rigby and his plans to turn Mistley into a spa town.
Heading through the High Street to the centre of Manningtree, take a look skywards to the Manningtree Ox, famed for its mention within Shakespeare's Henry IV as a roasted ox with a pudding in its belly. Many independent shops remain in the town and you can still savour the smells wafting from the local bakery, pubs and restaurants as you arrive at the grand public library at the top of Manningtree High Street.
You can instantly grab a sense for the town's past with a visit to the Manningtree Museum which is housed within the town's public library.
The museum includes a tapestry of memorabilia and photographs collected and donated by locals and kept alive through the town's enthusiastic history society. Before lunch, walk to the very top of the High Street to sample the fresh fish, dairy produce and other local food stuffs on sale at Manningtree's historic market.
Once you have been satisfied by the tasty produce from the market or something more substantial from one of the many pubs and restaurants in the town, you can let lunch go down with a stroll along some of the more interesting side-turnings off the High Street.
This allows you to fully appreciate the eclectic mix of architecture in the town. Proud Victorian and Georgian facades on the High Street contrast with the quaintness of the older cottages with their European influences which came as a result of the weavers and the town's blossoming wool trade.
Manningtree thrived thanks to the wealth associated with its 16th century wool trade and its bustling port with barges taking barley, coal and fish up and down the river. It is easy to imagine family life in some of these charming cottages during this boom time.
The 17th century affords a more sinister backdrop to Manningtree's history when the town served as the stomping ground for Matthew Hopkins, lawyer and Witchfinder General. Having obtained a commission from the Government in 1644, Hopkins set out to condemn hundreds of women for witchcraft. It is said that most of the famous landmarks within both Manningtree and Mistley were used for sentencing, hanging and burning 'witches' at the stake. To this day, locals swap haunted house stories relating back to these haunting times.
Mistley Place Park Animal Rescue Centre is synonymous with the community spirit of the area. Local volunteers donate time, vegetables and money to give a home to more than 2,000 animals and birds. As well as caring for a whole range of animals, from rabbits to Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, the centre also invites children to visit and enjoy feeding and watching the animal kingdom in its 25-acres of parkland, which includes a lake brimming with trench, carp and perch. For afternoon tea you can also try a slice of homemade cake in Mistley Place Park's own tearooms.
Having learned about Manningtree's long association with the sea and the River Stour, why not take a leisurely walk along the river, taking in the surrounding Constable Country from the south side of the estuary. As the sun sets on a spring day, there can be few better places to be.