PUBLISHED: 17:41 20 April 2015
After experiencing something of a population surge in the 1960s, Rayleigh has been developing ever since. Petra Hornsby discovers more about the town and some of its more famous features
The name Rayleigh is thought to originate from two words: ‘roa’ which is Saxon for roebuck and ‘lea’ which still means pasture or clearing. These words reflect the presence of the deer in the surrounding forests which were famously used as Royal hunting grounds. Henry VIII is understood to have used the stock of deer from the forests to replenish herds in Greenwich Park.
There are some signs of settlements in the area from earlier times as there is evidence of Roman occupation, although there is no suggestion of there being any significant population at that time.
An early Saxon burial site was unearthed just over 20 years ago at the site of the former Park School in Rawreth Lane and, by the end of the Saxon era, there was an established village which was later recorded in the Domesday Book. The manor of Rayleigh was owned by Sweyne of Essex, the son of Robert FitzWimarc, who built Rayleigh Castle. Sweyne was one of the wealthiest landowners in Essex following the Norman Conquest.
The castle, one of 48 mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086, was built as a motte and bailey construction favoured by the Normans. The description refers to a raised earthwork or mound and a wooden or stone tower or keep, surrounded by a protective ditch.
When the castle fell into disuse, King Richard II allowed the people to take away the stone foundations for building use elsewhere, possibly for repairing the town’s chapel.
The location of the castle is now known as Rayleigh Mount and, although all that remains of it is the earthwork, it is owned and maintained by the National Trust. Where the castle structure once stood, the visitor can still enjoy great views across the Crouch Valley. It also provides a great habitat for local wildlife as well as providing an impressive setting for summer open-air theatre.
Rayleigh Windmill, which is also found on the site of the former castle, attracts many visitors every year and provides a quirky and unusual venue for weddings and celebrations. The building, which is more than 200 years old and Grade II listed, houses a museum, exhibition space and visitor information about Rayleigh Mount.
Another local attraction situated on Crown Hill is the Dutch Cottage. The octagonal style of dwelling is commonly associated with Dutch immigrants who arrived in the area during the 17th century to help in the construction of sea walls along the south Essex coast. So why octagonal? Opinions suggest it was an easier style to thatch and those who believed in evil spirits took comfort in thinking there were no corners where the dark forces could hide.
The house is now the property of Rochford District Council who rent it out to tenants on the condition they allow guided tours to take place every Wednesday afternoon.
The town is not without its woodland spaces with two notable ones worth a visit. Wheatley Wood, owned by the Woodland Trust, is broadleaved woodland that occupies former agricultural land. The area also features open spaces, grass and scrubland, making it ideal for reptiles, amphibians, birds and small mammals. There is free parking close to the site and a marked trail for visitors.
An ancient, smaller woodland, Kingley Wood, sits on a steep slope visible from the A127 on the approach to Rayleigh from London. Bluebells grow on the woodland floor in April and May underneath the branches of oak, hornbeam, sweet chestnut, ash and holly trees. The woods can only be approached on foot via Western Road, Eastern Road, Hollytree Gardens or Weir Farm Road. A Woodland Walk leaflet is available from the council offices in South Street, Rochford.
Rayleigh’s town centre is served well by shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants. There is a market dating back to 1181 which is held every Wednesday morning and sells fresh produce including fruit, vegetables and cakes. Rayleigh Lanes indoor market, situated in the High Street, also has a great selection of around 30 different stalls offering a variety of services and a selection of goods. The former Weir Stadium, once home to speedway and greyhound racing before its redevelopment in the 1970s, is now a popular retail park.
The community has excellent educational facilities with two secondary and seven primary schools and Rayleigh is home to the Masters Performing Arts College — a leading establishment for musical theatre training.
There also seems to be plenty on offer for people keen to take up a hobby or join a club, whatever their interest. As well as a popular tennis and golf club, there are fitness and exercise classes on offer as well as a knitting group and a book club.
The Sweyne Choral Society performs in a wide range of music styles and openly welcomes new members who are encouraged to come along to two rehearsal sessions free of charge. The group rehearses every term-time Monday at the Sweyne School from 7.30pm to 9.30pm. This year, the group are celebrating their 50th anniversary and are holding a special Jubilee Concert on May 16 at the Sweyne School, where they will perform the Rutter Magnificant and the Vivaldi Gloria.
The Rayleigh Brass has been going strong in the town for decades, notching up an impressive 100 years. Its music director, Alan Thorpe, encourages a varied and ever-changing repertoire played to a high standard while challenging perhaps the more traditional concept of a brass band. As well as performing at private functions, the group is busy within the community and often play to help raise money for local charity events. On May 30, Rayleigh Brass will be performing a Massed Concert with Tilbury Band at the Tilbury Community Centre.
Another thriving and long-standing group is the Rayleigh Horticultural Society, also understood to have been around since the early 20th century. The society hosts three shows a year, held at the Mill Arts and Event Centre, and has special meetings once a month where topics on a wide range of gardening subjects are covered. It also has its own shop, The Store, where members can purchase gardening items at competitive prices.
There will be a plant sale at The Store on May 10. For information on the society and how to join, visit rayleighhorticulturalsociety.com
So whether visiting the sites of Rayleigh’s past, walking a woodland trail, enjoying a bit of retail therapy or immersing yourself in one of the town’s lively community-based clubs, there is no denying Rayleigh’s richness of character for both the resident and visitor.