So you think you know Ongar

PUBLISHED: 10:58 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013

View down High Street towards Budworth Hall

View down High Street towards Budworth Hall

With links to the Titanic and David Livingstone, Ongar has an international heritage, Elaine Syvier discovers

TAKE a stroll down the High Street in Chipping Ongar during a quiet moment and you really will feel like you are wandering down memory lane. Lined with quaint period buildings against a backdrop of surrounding countryside, this is an area of unique character and beauty.

Ongar has been an important town and administrative centre for more than 1,000 years. It became the principal settlement in the Saxon Hundred and the fortress established during this period was enlarged after the Norman Conquest. The town became known as Castle Ongar in the 12th century because of its motte and bailey castle.

Castle House
The main purpose of Ongar castle was to deter local uprisings, while there is also evidence that it served as a prison. However, its significance diminished during the Middle Ages and it was never modernised in keeping with later medieval castles. Any surviving buildings were removed when Castle House - still standing today - was built in the mid-16th century, and the inner bailey was converted into a pleasure garden.

The 18th century once again brought change with the construction of a brick summerhouse on top of the motte. In more recent history, the site even contributed to the war effort as practice trenches were dug in the side of the mound.

The remains of the castle can still be seen and the site is protected as a scheduled Ancient Monument. Castle House is privately owned, but good views of the inner bailey earthworks and the water-filled ditch surrounding the motte can still be obtained by following the public footpath.

Rich history
Chipping Ongar's rich history has led to it being one of the first Conservation Areas designated by Essex County Council. This area contains more than 100 listed buildings and other structures, spanning many periods and providing the area with wonderful variety.

Exploring the High Street affords constant glimpses into times gone by. At one end proudly stands Budworth Hall, a richly-decorated Victorian building with tall chimney stacks, a weathervane, steeply-pitched roofs and a clock commemorating Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.

Only a few steps down the road, however, unfolds a row of typical 17th century timber-framed Essex cottages with 19th century shopfronts. These still house a range of independent businesses, but mind your head as you pass through the small doors.

Nearby, the King's Inn harks back to the days when the town was an important staging post for those travelling from London to East Anglia. This pub previously had extensive stabling and, in the mid-19th century, coaches were departing from here on a daily basis.

Other buildings of particular note include Wren House - a picturesque timber-framed house reminiscent of a fairytale cottage. This stands towards the widest part of the High Street, which was the original location of the ancient market which began in the 12th century.

Travel a little further down the road and you'll discover the dwelling place of one of the world's most famous explorers, David Livingstone. Marked by a plaque, a small room over the archway to the United Reformed Church was occupied by Livingstone in 1838 while he was training for the ministry. Just three years later he travelled to South Africa as a missionary, and commenced his vast and influential exploration of the lands.

Just set back from the High Street also stands St Martin's Church. Apart from the vestry, south aisle and west porch, the church is early Norman, dating back to 1080. It is built of flint rubble and re-used Roman bricks, and still has some small original Norman windows.

The church is under the watchful care of the Ongar Millennium History Society which has recently focused upon the collapsed Boodle's Tomb in the church graveyard. Felicitie Barnes has been transcribing the information on the tomb to ensure it does not get lost as a result of the damage to the structure.

'The tomb contains an interesting variety of inscriptions about the Boodle family and some of their connections,' says Felicitie. 'It has historical significance which we are working to preserve. In fact, this is part of a wider national project, recording what is on gravestones, as they contain a lot of information about our past.'

The history society has also been busy making gifts in honour of the 925th anniversary of St Martin's Church. Three times a week, a group meets to embroider kneelers for the altar rails with designs themed around the history of Ongar. These include a range of topics and periods, even featuring a priest from the local St Helen's Church who was drowned in the sinking of the Titanic.

'The good thing about our history society is that we really encourage our members to get involved,' says Felicitie. 'It's not about just sitting down and listening to talks. We want to promote interest in local history and safeguard it for the future.'

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