The blessings of Billericay
PUBLISHED: 17:15 07 February 2008 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013
From acres of ancient woodland to a unique High Street packed with far more than just shops, Elaine Sivyer explores the diverse attractions of this surprising town
TAKE a walk down Billericay High Street and you will notice something rather different. Few places can offer the latest fashions and varied eateries along the same pavement as a tour of rich architecture and local heritage. But Billericay achieves just this, for on closer inspection its attractive shopping centre not only serves a vibrant modern town, but also reveals a wealth of historical interest.
The High Street is dotted with many surprising and attractive period buildings. Among them is the Red Lion pub that sits proudly as one of the oldest properties in Billericay, dating back to the 15th century.
Another notable landmark is The Chequers, which has been an inn since 1765 and harks back to a time when these establishments provided much needed hospitality to travellers. This was particularly the case in Billericay, which stood at the junction of a number of road routes but lacked a monastery.
A little further down the High Street stands St Mary Magdalen Church. This was St John's Chapel until the dissolution of the monasteries, when it was obtained by the Tyrell family and sold to the people of Billericay. The beautiful 15th century tower, restored in the 1880s, is the oldest part of the church and a prominent feature of the skyline. The rest of the building dates from the late 18th century when the old chapel was entirely rebuilt.
One of the most interesting features of this stretch of Billericay is also one of the easiest to miss. The Cater Museum, at 74 High Street, nestles quietly amid the shops and transports its visitors to a world away from the hustle and bustle beyond its doorstep.
This quaint, compact building dates back to the 18th century. It was purchased by Mrs Cater to provide a museum for the town and officially opened in 1960. Admission is free and it is well worth stepping inside to see this beautifully maintained display of local artefacts. With Roman relics, old maps, toys and war memorabilia among many other curiosities in this treasure trove, the museum is a wonderful celebration of the town's past.
However, Billericay's charm and interest is not confined to its built-up areas. Only a short distance from the thriving High Street you'll find the 165-acre expanse of Norsey Wood.
The wood is associated with an astonishing 4,000 years of history. It holds an important collection of archaeological features unique to the region, including occupation areas and burial sites dating from prehistoric and Roman periods. This is fertile ground for excavation that has produced rare insights into the lives of our ancestors. One particularly significant find lay within a burial mound which unearthed three clay urns each containing the cremated remains of a Bronze Age person.
Norsey has tales to tell from across the ages. It has even been suggested as the site of the last stand of the peasants, finally crushed by the Earl of Buckingham during the Peasants' Revolt in 1381.
From more recent history, a network of trenches from the two world wars stretches along the eastern part of the wood. This was dug by the London Defence Volunteers, who used a long stretch of medieval wood bank as part of the inner London defence line. During World War II, the wood was used for Army manoeuvres and ammunition storage.
Norsey Wood's topography also sets it apart in Essex. Its clay valleys and gravelly, sandy hilltops are not only rare and interesting, but also botanically significant. This has led to the site's designation as a local nature reserve by the Nature Conservancy Council.
The area is particularly famous for its bluebells, which cover the woodland floor between April and May. The brightly coloured domes create a beautiful spectacle - especially valued as this protected species does not easily colonise new woodlands. Visitors can either join one of the guided wildflower walks or explore alone to their hearts' content.
The area is much loved and many of the local people take an active interest in preserving its natural beauty. The Norsey Wood Society receives community input, while a volunteer work party meets every Thursday to undertake conservation work.
'The combination of history, wildlife and recreational value make Norsey Wood unique,' says Chris Huggins, countryside ranger for Basildon District Council. 'This is one of the finest bluebell woods in the world. The area is also important for dormice - a protected and endangered species - and we are part of the national dormouse monitoring programme.
'The significance of Norsey Wood's history and wildlife is underlined by its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and as a scheduled ancient monument,' says Chris. 'Ancient woodland is threatened everywhere so each bit that we have left is extremely valuable.'
Billericay captures the local imagination with its rich historical tapestry and diverse landscape. Whether you want to pursue specific interests or just soak up its unique identity, it is easy to see why this fascinating town is so loved by residents and visitors.