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PUBLISHED: 13:24 25 September 2008 | UPDATED: 15:29 20 February 2013

A colourful view of Brentwood High Street

A colourful view of Brentwood High Street

Brentwood boasts a diverse mix of rich heritage, green spaces and retail havens. Elaine Sivyer enjoys her tour of the Essex town that has it all...

BRENTWOOD is a bustling town situated in the heart of the borough that bears its name. Surrounded by beautiful open countryside and woodland, some penetrating to within only a few hundred yards of the town centre, Brentwood is an idyllic setting.

Its name derives from a corruption of the term 'burnt wood' and the settlement began its existence as a small clearing created either by accidental or deliberate fire in the middle of a forest. A few people began to settle there, and its location on the crossroads of the Roman road from Colchester to London helped it grow into a small town.

Thomas Becket's murder in 1170 and his canonisation in 1173 played an important part in Brentwood's development. Pilgrims travelled through the town en route to his shrine in Canterbury and in the latter part of the 12th century, a chapel dedicated to St Thomas was built in Brentwood.

Yet the transient nature of Brentwood's population was not limited to those on pious missions. Concerned with more worldly affairs, merchants increasingly flocked to the town after Henry III granted it a market charter. The growth of the wool trade and cloth industry in Essex spurred development, and Brentwood began to gain in importance.

A market town
The market eventually fell into disuse, but Brentwood's status as a market town has been revived by the farmers' market held on the first Saturday of every month. A host of local speciality products can be found here, including ethically-reared organic and rare breed meats, fresh farm fruit and vegetables.

Close to the M25 and A12, the town has excellent transport links. Its location on the Liverpool Street to Norwich railway line also means the bright lights of London are easily accessible.

The town itself has plenty to offer, however, including several pubs which originate from the time when Brentwood welcomed coaches rolling down the Roman road in need of rest and refreshment. One of the oldest buildings in Brentwood is the White Hart (now known as the Sugar Hut), which is believed to date back to 1480. However, evidence suggests that a hostelry might have stood on the site as much as 100 years earlier and been visited in 1392 by Richard II, whose coat of arms included a white hart.

Refreshing diversity
With a good selection of shops, Brentwood is also a retail haven. Wilson's Corner at the end of the High Street offers several small, upmarket stores to tempt shoppers seeking a bit of luxury. 'This area used to be the Coopers store which lay unused for a while,' says Karen Whitmarsh from Amore, a jewellery shop and diamond specialist. 'Then the area was redeveloped and it's really lovely now - with a clock tower and beautiful lighting at night. We wanted our shop to complement the surrounding buildings and it has vaulted ceilings like a French or Italian boutique. There's a range of businesses here and I think the corner has a specific character. It's nice for people to have an alternative to London for shopping. We're bringing a bit of the West End to Brentwood.'

The town comes together as an eclectic mix and its diversity is refreshing. As an important historic centre, Brentwood contains three designated Conservation Areas, incorporating several listed buildings and the St Thomas Becket chapel ruins.

Another distinctive feature is the significant green wedges that stretch into the built-up area, two of which - Shenfield Common and Merrymeade Park - extend almost into the town centre. Merrymeade Park offers a particularly glorious respite from the bustle of the shops, with woodland awash with bluebells in the springtime, streams, and areas of rough ground. The park also contains an old country house and grounds currently used for training police dogs, but which recently found fame in the BBC series Bleak House.

A proud past and present
One of the town's most notable highlights was designed to entwine and celebrate the diverse strands that make up Brentwood. Created by the artist and blacksmith Gary Thrussell, the Brentwood Heritage Column is an impressive four-metre sculpture that testifies to the town's rich history, and proud present. The steel-welded column draws on symbols taken from John Fryer's book, Brentwood - A Concise Pictorial History. This covers the period from 1200 to 2004 and features some of the town's defining moments, including the ignition of the Peasants' Revolt when locals rose up against tax collectors in 1381. Other scenes spiralling up the column display marching Romans, Brentwood Market and Brentwood School.

'The work is a historical account of Brentwood which serves as a focal point,' says Gary. 'People congregate here as there is a circular bench around the base, while at night the lighting is very atmospheric. It enables people today to enjoy reflecting on history and ask questions about Brentwood.'

Brentwood's past is certainly a rich tapestry which has interwoven to create a unique character. Today the town continues to foster many varied elements, ensuring the area will continue to thrive for years to come.

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