Have you heard of the Land of the Fanns before?
PUBLISHED: 12:04 17 March 2020
In south Essex, an ambitious five-year project is aiming to restore the ancient landscapes that make the Land of the Fanns unique
The Land of the Fanns – an intricate landscape famous for trade, commerce and industry – is an area of south west Essex and the urban fringes of east London, that were once part of Essex.
A landscape often misunderstood, it occupies the spaces between suburban Brentwood, Basildon, Grays and Romford; a crossroads landscape often travelled through and impacted by centuries of human intervention. But it also offers hidden delights that reward the visitor through further exploration.
In 2016, a pioneering partnership of local authorities, Forestry England, Thames21 and Thames Estuary Partnership, led by Thames Chase Trust, was awarded a £1.36million National Lottery Heritage Fund grant to deliver a five-year Landscape Partnership Scheme in this area.
The scheme aims to manage positively the historic landscapes in this area and will also work on engaging local communities in an appreciation and celebration of the heritage on their doorstep while hoping to build lasting partnerships, better equipped to protect and maintain it into the future.
Now into its third year, the scheme is at its mid-way point with many projects showing progress and delivering positive outcomes.
27 projects make up the Land of the Fanns Scheme and they concentrate on a number of key heritage components, each reflecting a critical part of the story of the natural, archaeological and built heritage of the area.
The Land of the Fanns, covering approximately 185km2, is a region of contrasts with established urban zones lying next to valuable fragments of historic landscapes and unique natural habitats. At its heart is Thames Chase Community Forest.
The area’s natural heritage is determined by its underlying geology. Retreating ice sheets of the last glaciations left a geological footprint which placed the River Thames where it lies today and created flat clay lowlands and gravelly uplands.
The uplands around Brentwood and Langdon consist of farmland, ancient woodland, flower-rich grasslands, small heaths and watercourses.
Thick clay deposits on lowland areas around Rainham and Hornchurch are somewhat flatter and wetter with countryside characterised by fen, grazing marsh, rare Thames terrace grasslands and reedbeds.
Geology also influenced land use and the location of human settlement. For example the heavy, often waterlogged, hard to farm, clay soils of the south have resulted in the marshland seen today.
Historically these places have been put to other uses than farming including the military airfield and Spitfire base at Hornchurch, now a magnificent Country Park, and the military firing ranges that were once at the iconic RSPB Rainham Marshes.
Over half the projects in the scheme are justifiably about this diverse natural heritage with the area’s rivers and waterways playing a significant part.
River restoration projects along three tributaries of the Thames, the Rom, Ingrebourne and Mardyke flowing through Havering, Barking & Dagenham Brentwood and Thurrock, are well underway.
Partnership work with key players including Thames21, Environment Agency, Havering Wildlife Project, Veolia Maintenance Trust, Thames Water, Roding Beam & Ingrebourne Catchment Partnership and South Essex Catchment Partnership, is leading the way to a better managed landscape.
As in many other areas, these waterways have become separated from their flood plain, artificially straightened and heavily polluted. Local communities can no longer access and use the rivers as they once did.
The Land of the Fanns project is working to improve the physical conditions of each river and floodplain to boost wildlife; removing invasive non-native plants such as Japanese knotweed, while reconnecting the local communities to their rivers through events, training and volunteering, and improving access and signage.
So far locals have taken part in activities, ranging from Outfall Safaris, riverfly monitoring and wildlife identification courses to more hands-on volunteer activities such as river clean ups.
And it’s not just about the rivers, other projects include supporting an innovative conservation grazing scheme using fenceless technology at Thorndon and restoring relict heathland and ponds important for great crested newts at Tylers Common in Havering.
Partners are also working with RSPB to install solar pumps (the first of their kind in the UK) to re-wet areas of Wennington & Aveley Marshes in Thurrock, to keep them in good condition for wintering waterfowl and breeding waders.
There is local archaeological evidence of Saxon, Danish, Viking and Roman invaders throughout the Land of the Fanns. Christian pilgrimage paths from Canterbury to the east and ancient trade routes from the bronze and iron ages have also left an archaeological legacy in the area, such as ancient trackways at Rainham Marshes.
With this in mind, the scheme is supporting a touring pop-up archaeology exhibition led by Museum of London Archaeology. This has brought interpretation, interactive activities, exhibits and living history demonstrations to events across the area.
Between the 18th and 19th centuries, the Land of the Fanns became a residential area for gentry from London to build grand houses.
The legacy of this period can still be found today in the remaining fragments of these country estates which are now country parks. Bedfords Park, Dagnam Park, Langtons, Stubbers, Thorndon, Warley and Belhus are all historic landscapes designed by pioneers of the landscape gardening movement including Humphrey Repton and Capability Brown.
The Gardens Trust, a key partner in the scheme, has introduced local people to designed landscapes. Field studies, backed up by visits to the Chelmsford archives to understand how to carry out further research, have offered new insights and new skills to groups and individuals researching historic landscapes.
Volunteers have also undertaken practical skills training in the restoration of historic brickwork, most recently at the Edwardian garden at Warley Place which is managed by Essex Wildlife Trust.
With hundreds of listed and locally listed buildings, and more than 20 conservation areas across the Land of the Fanns, the built heritage of the county plays a significant part in its heritage value and history. Much of the surviving built heritage tells of a more rural past.
Grand houses on landed estates, numerous windmill sites, small farms, workers cottages and ancient crumbling churches are all indicative of a time when London’s urban sprawl had yet to take hold.
But the march of industrialisation and modernisation has also left its mark. Mill complexes and breweries, garden suburbs and wartime formations play a substantial role in the history of the area.
The scheme is helping coordinate the identification and recording of built heritage and hidden archaeology by bringing together a range of partners including Museum of London Archaeology, English Heritage, local museums, history societies and County Gardens Trusts.
In summer 2019, funding from the scheme enabled students to take part in a built heritage training course as part of the Prince’s Trust programme in Thurrock focused on the 15th century, Grade II listed All Saints Church in Horndon.
One of the key aspects of the scheme is the re-connection of local communities with the natural and cultural heritage around them.
As a result, there are lots of opportunities to volunteer, attend events, undertake training and enter competitions across the scheme and really get to know this fascinating and historic Land of Fanns.
So if you didn’t know the Land of the Fanns existed before, now is the perfect time to get to know it better.