04 August 2013

A market town near Stansted Airport
with Tudor inns and old churches

Bishop’s Stortford, close to Stansted Airport, retains the charm of a market town and many of its old buildings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I spent a few days recently at the annual conference of Us – the new name for the Anglican mission agency USPG (the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel).

On my way from Stansted Airport to the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon, I spent a morning in Bishop’s Stortford, a pretty market town between London and Cambridge, on the borders of Hertfordshire and Essex in rural East Anglia.

Bishop’s Stortford, with a population of over 38,000, is the closest large town to Stansted Airport, and an important hub for commuters to London and Stansted Airport, but it retains the charm of a market town and many of its old buildings.

When mapmakers came to Bishop’s Stortford in the early 17th century, they presumed the town was named after the ford over the Stort and assumed the unnamed river must have been called the Stort. However, the River Stort is named after the town – and not the town after the river.

If there was a small Roman settlement north of the present town centre, on the Roman road to Colchester, it was abandoned in the early fifth century. Instead, the town dates from a Saxon settlement established soon after the Saxon invasions of the mid-fifth century. The Manor of Esterteferd (later corrupted to Stortford) may have been owned by a Saxon tribe named Estere or Steorta, who controlled the river crossing. The estate was sold around 1060 to Bishop William ‘the Norman’ of London for £8, and so the town came to be known as Bishop’s Stortford.

Waytemore Castle, built by the Normans, was in ruins by the Tudor period, but the mound remains (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

At the time of the Domesday Book, this was still a small town with about 120 people. The Normans built a wooden castle here, but in the 13th century, when the town was a pawn in disputes between the King and the Pope, the king seized the town from the bishop and ordered the destruction of the castle in 1208. Later, in 1214, the king had to pay to rebuild the castle. Waytemore Castle was in ruins by the Tudor period although the mound still remains.

The town continued to thrive as a market town in the Middle Ages, and its prosperity was enhanced when the River Stort was opened to navigation in 1769. It became a stagecoach stop on the mail coach road between Cambridge and London and London and Newmarket, and by 1800, Bishop’s Stortford had a population of over 2,000.

The Corn Exchange built in 1828 on the corner of Market Street and High Street was designed by Lewis Vulliamy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

When the Corn Exchange was built in 1828, malting had become the main industry. The arrival of the railway in 1842 secured the importance of Bishop’s Stortford as a market town and a commuter area. By the 1850s, the population had risen to over 5,000.

After World War II, Bishop’s Stortford grew as a commuter town. More recently, the M11, Stansted Airport, and the rail links to London and Cambridge have contributed to the growth of the town.

Famous sons

The Gilbey family, the founder of Gilbey’s Gin, are buried in Saint Michael’s Churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe), was the son of the Revd Francis William Rhodes, Vicar of Saint Michael’s. He was born in Bishop’s Stortford in 1853, went to school in the Grammar School in the High Street, and lived at Netteswell House which now houses the Rhodes Memorial Museum.

Another famous son is Walter Gilbey, best remembered as the founder of Gilbey’s Gin.

Frederick Scott Archer, who was born in Bishop’s Stortford, made the art of photography readily available long before Eastman’s Kodak camera. Unlike Rhodes and Gilbey, however, he received little public recognition, made no fortune, died young, and is buried in a pauper’s grave.

Landmark public houses

The 15th century Black Lion Inn on Bridge Street was used to hold prisoners during the Reformation conflicts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Reindeer Inn, known to the diarist Samuel Pepys and kept by the notorious Betty Ainsworth, is now the Tourist Information Centre. But the town centre retains many timber-framed public houses dating back hundreds of years.

The Black Lion Inn on Bridge Street is a 16th-century, two-storey, black-and-white timber-and-plaster house, with an overhanging upper storey and projecting attic and some 17th-century panelling.

Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, is said to have used the Black Lion for prisoners accused of heresy in the reign of Mary I. According to tradition, a bridge once linked the Black Lion with the bishop’s court. Bonner’s detractors include John Bale, who became Bishop of Ossory, and John Foxe, who accused him in his Book of Martyrs of murdering 300 Protestants.

On the opposite side of Bridge Street, the Star Inn is a 16th or 17th century house of timber and plaster, first mentioned in 1636. The brick exterior gives the appearance of a much later building, but the timber-frame structure inside indicates a 16th century building. The side of the building is half-covered in traditional weatherboard. The inn’s old water pump and former stables can be seen at the rear.

The former White Horse Inn is now Pizza Express (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In North Street, which was the backbone of the original Saxon settlement, the former White Horse Inn is now Pizza Express. This is a two-storey brick-and-plaster timber house has an overhanging upper storey plastered and decorated with square and diamond-shaped plaster panels and ornamental designs. Further along North Street, the Half Moon Inn is a timber inn that was restored in recent decades.

The Half Moon Inn on North Street ... a timber inn restored in recent decades (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

On the corner of North Street and High Street is the former George III, which closed in 2010, and is now part of the Italian restaurant chain Prezzo. The George dates back to the end of the 14th century and is first mentioned in 1417. It later passed to the Hawkins family of the Manor of Piggotts at Thorley, who held their manorial courts there from the 15th century.

The former George III closed in 2010 and is now part of a restaurant chain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Charles I dined at the George in 1629 and 1630, and his son Charles II sometimes stopped there on his way between Newmarket and London.

Beside the old George, five three-storey, gabled cottages begin the stretch into High Street and were later incorporated into the hotel. Until the early 1900s, the inn had a sign depicting Saint George and the Dragon, but this was replaced with a portrait of the Hanoverian King George III.

The Boar’s Head Inn has a 15th century oak beam from the rood loft in Saint Michael’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Further up High Street, the Boar’s Head Inn opposite Saint Michael’s Church was built about 1600 of timber and plaster, but has been altered so much since that the original plan is obscured. The main building and the projecting wings are gabled. Over the fireplace in the top room is a 15th century oak beam, said to have come from the rood loft in Saint Michael’s Church.

Old shops and houses

Nos 10 and 12 High Street was the town’s oldest shop until it closed in February (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Bishop’s Stortford also has many interesting shops and houses. Nos 10 and 12 High Street originally formed one house. This was the town’s oldest shop, trading as a men’s clothing establishment for more than 400 years until it closed at the end of February.

Part of the shop dates back to 1360 and it was added to in the mid 16th century. This is a three-storey, timber and plaster house. It has two gables and projecting upper storeys, with carved brackets under the second floor. There are two oriel windows on the first floor, and all the windows have wooden frames and mullions.

Slaters opened as a tailor, draper and undertaker in Bishop’s Stortford in 1601, and became Tissimans before the late 1800s. Now the premises are vacant.

Back down the hill, several shops on the south side of Bridge Street are part of 17th century timber-frame buildings. The smallest of these buildings has an upper floor that leans precariously into the street – just as it did when it was first built. The larger building alongside it houses three shops and has a half-storey added in the 17th century to provide attic rooms.

Bishops and churches

Saint Michael’s on Windhill can be seen from afar in many parts of Essex and Hertfordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The parish church, Saint Michael’s, is set on Windhill at the top of High Street. The church is large (52 meters long) and its spire (56 meters high) can be seen from afar in these parts of Essex and Hertfordshire.

The 12th-century Purbeck marble font with a square bowl is all that survives from the Norman-built church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

By the end of the 14th century, the Norman-built church was in a poor state of repair, and all that survives from it is the 12th-century Purbeck marble font with a square bowl.

In the early 1400s, work began on building a new church in the English Gothic Perpendicular Style. The outer and inner walls were built of flint with a stone dressing and then plastered over.

Inside, the church has a large five-light modern East Window. The south wall of the chancel has a trefoil-headed piscina with a modern sill. The 15th-century rood-screen is still in place, and the chancel has 18 oak stalls, with misericords carved with human heads, animals, birds and fishes.

The vicars of Saint Michael’s have included Richard Fletcher, who was involved in the trial and execution of Mary Queen of Scots before he became Bishop of Bristol (1589) and Bishop of London (1595). Another vicar, the Revd Francis Burlye (1590-1604), was involved in translating the Authorised or King James Version of the Bible.

There are monuments throughout Saint Michael’s Church commemorating members of the Denny family (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

A monument in the chancel mentions Captain Cook, and there are monuments throughout the church commemorating members of the Edgcombe and Denny families, including Charles Denny (1635), for 12 years senior fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. The two families intermarried, and their descendants, the Denny family of Co Kerry, became synonymous with the growth prosperity of Tralee. Sir Edward Denny and Lady Arabella Denny were known as hymn-writers and philanthropists.

The Roman Catholic parish church was built by the Redemptorist Fathers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In 1903, the Redemptorist Fathers bought neighbouring Windhill House and built a Roman Catholic church named after Saint Joseph and the English Martyrs on the site of the stables. The church opened in 1906 and has a stained glass window with fragments of old glass said to have come from Saint Michael’s Church.

Not a theatre in Tuscany ... the United Reformed Church in Water Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Back down in Water Lane, between North Street and Bridge Street, the United Reformed Church looks more like a theatre in Tuscany than a church. It was built in 1860, but the story of this church dates back to the Congregationalists and Independents in 1662.

A missing bridge

Bishop’s Stortford gave its name to the River Stort ... but the names confused mapmakers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

As I finished my walk around Bishop’s Stortford, I was at a loss to know the whereabouts of the bridge that gave Bridge Street its name, and wondered what had happened to the River Stort that once ran through the centre of the town.

I learned that both disappeared with the Town Redevelopment Scheme in 1969, when the river was diverted from the town centre to make way Jackson Square, a new shopping centre.

But ‘Old River Lane’ still survives, leading to Causeway car park. This was the river’s original course before it was filled in.

The site of the bridge can be seen near the pedestrian crossing, where a slight hump in the road indicates the underlying structure that was left in place when Bridge Street was rebuilt.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in August 2013 in the Church Review, Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough

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