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The brilliance of Braintree

PUBLISHED: 08:43 10 November 2015 | UPDATED: 08:43 10 November 2015

Braintree Museum

Braintree Museum

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Braintree is well known for the stunning countryside, delightful villages and quiet country lanes which surround this vibrant town. Petra Hornsby went to find out more about Braintree’s rich history and its many places of interests

The town of Braintree is flanked by the River Brain and the River Blackwater and, south of Stone Street, the 39-mile long Roman road that runs from Hertfordshire to Colchester. The original settlement is thought to date back more than 4,000 years with evidence of both Bronze and Iron Age camps being unearthed in what was referred to as Brain Valley, a low, ridged landscape situated near the river. Trinovantes (Iron Age settlers) farmed the area and hunted in the nearby forests. Following the departure of the Romans, the area was occupied by the Saxons and the town’s Aetheric Road is named after one brave local nobleman who lost his life during the famous Battle of Maldon in 991.

The town was once an important stop-over point for pilgrims passing en route between Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and Walsingham in Norfolk. It was recorded as Branchetreu in the Domesday Book of 1085, when it covered 30 acres and was owned by Richard, son of Count Gilbert. Just over a century later, the Bishop of London obtained a charter for the town for a weekly market and annual fair, a welcome start to the future prosperity that was to come to Braintree.

It was through its wool trade that Braintree’s fortunes were truly defined, thanks to the arrival of Flemish immigrants in the 17th century who brought with them the methods to improve production processes. Wool from the town, including a special weave called Bays and Says, was exported to Spain and Portugal in particular.

In the early 19th century, with the wool trade a thing of the past, textiles were to bring employment and fortune to the town once again when Courtauld’s opened a silk mill. Along with its near neighbour, Halstead, Braintree became a centre for successful silk production with another textile manufacturer, Warner & Sons, also opening a successful mill. By the latter part of the century, the town’s success was further boosted by the arrival of a railway connection to London.

In White’s Directory of Essex in 1848, Braintree was described this, ‘the principal street is a great thoroughfare, and has many good houses, inns, and well stocked shops, as also have some of the other streets. It contains about 7,000 inhabitants, and is now being considerably improved on its south-eastern side, where a new road has been made, and a handsome station erected, as the terminus of the Maldon, Witham, and Braintree Railway.’

The Warner Textile Archive, located at Silks Way and in the original mill building, is a fantastic place to visit to appreciate the history of cloth production in the town and view the second largest collection of publicly owned textiles in the country after the V&A. Overseen by the Braintree District Museum Trust, the archive also contains many designs and paper records as well as the Coronation Silks, woven by Warners, for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The company, famous for its production of velvet as well as silk, also made the robes worn by Her Majesty in 1953.

Industrial engineering also played its part in the development of the town and, during World War II, Crittall Ltd (famous for its metal windows) became a munitions factory employing many of the town’s women. Sadly, Braintree and its surrounding area didn’t escape war damage as it was used by the Luftwaffe as a ‘drop-zone’ for any left-over bombs from raids on London.

The Braintree Museum is worth a visit with displays and exhibits covering the archaeology, craftsmanship and industry of the town and district, from the prehistoric era right up to the 21st century.

The town’s markets are still going strong and are held twice a week (on Wednesday and Saturday), located outside the Town Hall and continuing on along Bank Street and the High Street. The High Street is a pedestrianised area permitting access only to buses.

In terms of its retail success, Braintree is perhaps more famous for Freeport – a discounted designer outlet ‘village’ situated on the outskirts of the town. So popular is it that it has its own railway station, the first stop on the line that runs from Braintree to Liverpool Street via Witham.

Braintree is also a good base for both visitors and locals to branch out and explore the many attractions nearby. Great Notley Country Park is the perfect place to take energetic children. This open 100-acre site has a 1.2km play trail complete with tyre swings, sandpits, rope climbs and a water play area. Sky Ropes is a great challenge for the whole family, but (for those with vertigo!) the quietest option is to enjoy the beautiful walks along designated paths with plenty of opportunity to observe plentiful flora and fauna. The park is open 8am until dusk.

Hedingham Castle is a wonderfully preserved Norman keep. Privately owned, it is dedicated to bringing its great history to life. With its Banqueting Hall, Tapestry Room and Minstrels Gallery it isn’t hard to imagine the splendour and wealth that once decorated the interior of the 700-year-old building that stands 110 feet high. The castle is set in 160 acres of beautiful, landscaped countryside and is ideal for a summer al fresco meal or a winter walk – bring a picnic or enjoy the café’s selection of homemade cakes and light snacks. Throughout the year, the many events include medieval jousting tournaments, open-air theatre, vintage fairs and falconry displays to name just a few. The castle is also a popular wedding venue.

Cressing Temple is something of a hidden wonder.Situated between Braintree and Witham, it has a unique selection of buildings and gardens. The Grade I listed barley and wheat barns are very well maintained examples of timber barns, thought to be some of the oldest in the country and which were given to the Knights Templar in 1137. The gardens, also a popular visitor attraction, include a recreation of a Tudor Pleasure Garden and entry is free unless the venue is hosting a special event.

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