23 June 2014
Stopping off in Newport in Essex
and stepping back in time
A place with a name like Newport sounds like somewhere by the sea or close to a beach. Think: Newport, on the road from Westport to Achill Island; Newport, Rhode Island; Newport on the Island of Wight; Newport, east of Cardiff, in South Wales; or perhaps even Newport Beach in California.
But there many places named Newport that are inland in England, including Newport near Telford in Shropshire, about 12 miles west of Stafford; Newport Pagnell, near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire; Newport in Gloucestershire, between Bristol and Gloucester; and Newport in East Yorkshire.
This morning I found myself going for a walk in Newport in Essex. I have often noticed this pretty village from the train on my way to Cambridge, but never before have I taken time to visit this place.
In previous years when I have arrived for the Us (USPG) conference in High Leigh, Hoddesdon, I have spent extra time in Cambridge, or taken a walk though some of the towns in this part of Essex and East Anglia, including Hoddesdon, Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford, photographing their churches and their timber-framed houses and pubs with pargetting and over-hanging jetties.
This is the charming countryside described lovingly by the late poet laureate John Betjeman:
The deepest Essex few explore
where thatch is sunk in flowers
and out of the elm and sycamore
rise flinty 15th century towers.
Newport, with a population about 2,500, is a large village in Essex, between Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford, south of Cambridge and about 66 km (41 miles) north of London. It nestles in the arable fields of northern Essex, in a rural conservation area close to the borders of Essex and Cambridgeshire and about five miles from Stansted Airport.
Newport is the centre point of the long-distance path known as the Harcamlow Way, a figure-of-eight walk between Cambridge and Harlow. This means there is a large number of walks radiating from its centre, including walks towards Saffron Walden, the English Heritage property of Audley End House, or Prior Hall Barn in Widdington.
I caught a bus early this morning from Stansted Airport through the villages of Ugley (which is pretty) and Widdington, to Newport, and was transported back in time as I walked along its pretty High Street, and found myself taking turns here and there to see the old houses or to visit the local parish church.
There may have been a settlement named Wigingamere here when King Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, was engaged in the reconquest of the Danelaw ca 917-921. But the earliest certain mention of the name Newport for this village appears in the Domesday Book in 1086. The name is thought to be of Anglo-Saxon origin, meaning “new town” or “new market,” rather than a modern-day seaport. “Port” was often a name for a market in Saxon times, and Newport once had a flourishing market.
The village grew and prospered until around 1300, but it declined soon after that. The market ceased and Newport was overtaken in importance by neighbouring Chipping Walden, now known as Saffron Walden.
Because Newport once had a large royal fish pond, it was also known as Newport Pond. But the pond had dried up by the 16th century and the name fell into disuse.
Later in the 16th century, Newport Free Grammar School was founded by Dame Joyce Frankland in 1588. Hannah Woolley, the 17th century writer of books on cookery and household management, lived in Newport and was the wife of the schoolmaster around 1646.
King Charles II probably drove through the village on his way to Newmarket and the 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys visited a house in Newport, although it is not known which house he stayed in.
The main road through Newport was greatly improved with the creation of a turnpike trust in 1744, bringing new people and new trade to the village. This growth continued with the arrival of the railway in 1845.
Until recently the village had six large mixed farms, and the Enclosure Acts of the 18th century had no effect on the village. Newport was covered by the 1856 Enclosure Act, but it was not until 1861 that the last open fields were enclosed and mediaeval strip-farming finally came to an end.
Until the 20th century, Newport depended mainly on agriculture, although a variety of local trades was followed in the past, notably the leather trade, wool combing and, later, in malting.
The greatest changes have taken place in recent years, so while 900 or so people, largely agricultural workers, lived in 220 houses about 100 years ago, by 1971 the population had grown to over 1,200. Since then, all the livestock farms have closed, fields, orchards and farm premises in the centre of the village have been built over, and about 2,500 people now live there in over 900 houses.
Hardly anyone in Newport is engaged in agriculture today. The occupations are drawn from a diversity of industries, mostly outside the village, and many people commute to London, Saffron Walden or Cambridge.
The first church in Newport was built probably in the late Saxon period. The present parish church, Saint Mary the Virgin, was first built in the first half of the 13th century and much of it dates from the late 14th and the 15th century.
Saint Mary the Virgin is a bright and spacious Grade I building, with the capacity for a congregation of about 300. The church is open for prayer and reflection every day. There is an open, well-kept churchyard which, however, includes a few tombs that are in need of repair.
Repairs to the nave roof were carried out in 2001/2002 at a cost of £140,000 and the external faces of the tower were repaired and the glazing of the west window conserved in 2004 at a cost of £94,500. The pews were replaced by chairs in 2005/2006 at a cost of £6,500.
The quinquennial report in 2010 listed many items needing attention, including the lead chancel roof and internal roof structure, the parapet walls and gutters, the stair to the first floor porch, the south aisle buttress and the north transept gable. Work is also needed on the clerestory windows, and full re-decoration.
In the south transept there is a late 13th century iron-bound oak chest said to have been used as a battlefield altar. PA row of plaques in the north transept commemorate the headmasters of the nearby local grammar school.
The church also has two organs. However, all that remains of the original Walker organ are the pipes at the west end of the church. In 2010, a stand-alone organ was bought second-hand from Bardwell in Suffolk and installed in the east transept.
Apart from the church, the two most interesting buildings in Newport are the Crown House and Monks Barn.
The Crown House at Bridge End dates mainly from the late 16th century, although the date over the door says 1692.
The house has 17th century pargetting and a shell hood over the door with a crown above, added in the late 17th century.
Monks Barn is a Wealden-type house dating from the 15th century and featuring an oriel window supported by a carved wooden bracket. A Wealden hall house is a mediaeval timber-framed hall house that is traditional in south-east England. Typically, these houses were built for yeomen, and they are most common in Kent, which had the once densely forested Weald, and east Sussex.
In the early 20th century it was divided into two cottages, but it is now one house, with an interesting mediaeval wood carving of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child attended by two angels, one playing the harpsichord, the other playing the harp.
Newport Free Grammar School, founded in 1588, retains its name, but began taking boys of all abilities in 1976, and is now fully comprehensive and co-educational.
The chef Jamie Oliver went to Newport Free Grammar School and lives in the nearby village of Clavering, where his father owns a pub, The Cricketers.
Matt Holland, who also went to school here, played international football for the Republic of Ireland from 1999 to 2006. Although born in England, he qualified to play for the Republic of Ireland through his grandmother who was from Co Monaghan. He earned 49 caps, scored five goals, captained the side in three internationals, and was in the Ireland squad at the 2002 World Cup, scoring the equaliser against Cameroon in the opening game.
He has played for West Ham, Bournemouth, Ipswich Town and Charlton Athletic, and turned down a £4.5 million move to Aston Villa. Since retiring in 2009 he has worked in the media, including RTÉ, the BBC and Talksport.
Martin Philip Caton, Labour MP for Gower since 1997, was born in neighbouring Bishop’s Stortford and also went to Newport Free Grammar School.
The village has two public houses. The Coach and Horses is a large 17th century inn at the north end of the village. The White Horse is an equally old but smaller pub in the centre of the village.
In addition, the Newport Club is a private members’ club, but in all respects serves as a local pub, down to still flying the English flag with Saint George’s Cross, hoping bravely, I imagine, for a dignified exit from the World Cup tomorrow evening [24 June 2014].
Newport has a lively community with activities for all, ranging from scouting to local history. These are identified in Newport News, the twice-yearly village magazine. Newport has a tennis club and youth organisations, and the Village Hall is used for a farmers’ market and a variety of community activities, including the HOL (Hennigan O’Loughlin) School of Irish Dancing on Friday afternoons.
There was more to explore and inquire about. Where did Elephant Green get its name? And why is one of the houses on Elephant Green named Ivory Cottage?
Perhaps Newport had its own intrepid explorers long before Stansted Airport could even have been dreamed of.
But I had a train to catch to Broxbourne so I could get to the High Leigh Conference Centre near Hoddesdon for the Us conference.