It is often said that Essex is a county of contrasts, and when people say that they are usually thinking of, say, Saffron Walden at one extreme and Southend at the other. Similar contrasts are provided by the county's buildings, and the new edition of the Pevsner Architectural Guide to Essex, first published in 1954, provides a good opportunity to reappraise the county's rich architectural heritage.
Essex is unusually well supplied with interesting buildings, and the range is enormous. There are over 14,000 listed buildings in the county (compared with 13,000 in Suffolk and 10,000 in Norfolk, both larger in area), of which just under 1000 are Grade I or II*, of outstanding importance. These include the major landmarks with which we are all familiar, such as Audley End and Colchester Castle, but also important buildings which are known only to a smaller number of specialists. Fyfield Hall, for example, is unremarkable to look at from the outside, but contains roof timbers that were felled in 1167-85; in 2003 a competition organised by Country Life showed it to be the oldest continually inhabited timber-framed house in Britain.
Of even greater age is the famous log church at Greensted, the oldest wooden church, indeed the oldest standing wooden building, in the country. It is no longer thought to be quite as old as it was; tradition had it that it was the resting place of the body of St Edmund on its journey from London to Bury in 1013, but the technique of tree-ring dating (analysing the age of timber by looking at the pattern of rings left by annual growth) shows that it was built soon after 1063. It must therefore be about the same date as Colchester Castle, one of the first castles to be built after the Norman Conquest and equal in importance (as well as sharing similar design features) to the White Tower at the Tower of London. But Colchester can make a greater claim to antiquity, because it reuses the concrete foundations of the first-century Roman temple, which can be seen to this day - as of course can Colchester's Roman walls, which have become an integral part of the town's fabric.
Long before the Normans came to England, St Cedd came to Essex (in 654) and built St Peter's Chapel at Bradwell-on-Sea, on part of the wall of the Roman fort of Othona reusing Roman building stone and brick. Unlike Greensted, it has not been in continuous use as a church - for many years it was a barn, and the outlines of larger inserted doors are clearly visible - but the simple building in its exposed location makes it one of the most special places in Essex. And what contrasts are to be found in the same village. On the one hand, the Nuclear Power Station, one of the first two to be built under a programme inaugurated in 1955 and now closed, but still (and probably for a century to come) a building with a certain dignity and awe-inspiring presence. On the other hand, Bradwell Lodge, a Tudor house to which John Johnson (the County Architect, and best known for the Shire Hall) added a charming wing in 1781-6, topped with a glazed belvedere from which the owner, the Revd Henry Bate Dudley, could keep an eye on smugglers, and which is said to have been used as a studio by Thomas Gainsborough.
But Essex is not just about what we generally think of as ‘historic' buildings. To many people Essex is best known for possessing some of the most famous iconic buildings of the twentieth century, especially those belonging to the Modern Movement - typically, flat-roofed, with metal windows, and usually painted white. Silver End, the model village built by Crittall's to house their workers in the 1930s, is the classic example, but arguably more important are the prototype houses built by Crittall's in Clockhouse Way, Braintree, just after the First World War. They were a pioneering attempt to provide cheap housing using modern materials, and were the very first example in England of the International Modern Movement style. They were built of concrete blocks, with roofs of reinforced concrete, and of course had Crittall's metal windows. (Essex, incidentally, has some good examples of early poured-concrete houses, including Down Hall at Hatfield Heath, The Dell in Grays Thurrock, and cottages associated with The Towers (now demolished) at Heybridge, all of the 1870s.)
Similar to Silver End is the factory village at East Tilbury built by the Bata Shoe Company, using their in-house Czech architects. The Modern Movement style came to be associated with the seaside, and further examples can be found at Frinton-on-Sea (the Frinton Park estate, of which only a small part of the intended development was built), Canvey Island (the Labworth Café, the only building designed by the distinguished engineer Ove Arup), and Burnham-on-Crouch (the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club). Frinton is also an essential destination for anyone interested in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century housing, as it includes The Homestead by one of the most highly-regarded architects of that era, C.F.A. Voysey.
The seaside also reminds us that Essex has, over the centuries, been in the front line in wars against various European countries. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the threat was mainly from Holland; Henry VIII built a series of forts to defend London and Harwich, and although practically nothing remains of these above ground, some of the sites remained in continuous military use until at least the Second World War. Most distinguished, architecturally, is Tilbury Fort, with its magnificent water gate, built by Charles II. During the Napoleonic Wars, Martello Towers were built along the Essex coast as they were along the coasts of Suffolk, Kent and Sussex. Six of these are still standing in Essex (at St Osyth, Clacton, and Walton), as well as the circular redoubt at Harwich that was built at the same time.
Later in the nineteenth century, renewed fear of invasion led to the rebuilding of Coalhouse Fort, East Tilbury, in the 1860s, but by the 1880s a new threat had been identified: artillery assault on London by an invading German army. To counter this a defensive line was planned which ran from North Weald Bassett to Guildford in Surrey, via Tilbury, with a redoubt at North Weald (in the event of invasion, trenches were to be dug to join up the various forts). Improvements in artillery soon made the scheme obsolete and the plan was scrapped in 1906, but the buildings remain, as do relics of similar ‘stop-lines' formed during the Second World War. The most important of these was the General Headquarters Line, which ran through Essex from Great Chesterford to Canvey Island via Chelmsford, and innumerable pillboxes remain, supplementing natural barriers such as rivers.
On the industrial side of things, Essex still has many mills of one sort or another, windmills being an important feature of the landscape. At their zenith, in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, there were at least 285 in the county. Essex County Council maintains an number of windmills that are regularly open to the public. In addition, there were at least a hundred watermills, a dozen or so of which were tide mills. Of the latter, however, only three survive: partially at Battlesbridge and Fingringhoe, but with a good example, restored by Essex County Council, at Thorrington. Also especially characteristic of Essex are maltings, with a fine early example at Great Dunmow dating back to 1565, recently restored as a museum and meeting room, and large groups of nineteenth-century maltings at Mistley and Sheering.
For the railway builders, Essex posed few engineering challenges, but the viaduct at Chappel, built in 1847-9, still justifies the description ‘stupendous' that was applied to it at the time. Thirty-two arches carry the branch line to Sudbury 80 ft above the River Colne. Built of local brick, it had originally been planned in timber, then a common method of construction. Few timber viaducts survive from this time, but there is one in Essex, at Wickham Bishops, a humble yet important survivor.
Practically every village in Essex, however unremarkable it might seem, has at least one building in it, or one feature in one of its buildings, that makes it unique and special. Often, it will be the church: Stebbing or Great Bardfield with their stone screens, Little Braxted with its lavishly decorated Victorian interior, Great Warley with its equally decorative but more graceful Art Nouveau fittings, or Great Canfield with its exquisite fourteenth-century wall painting of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes, simpler buildings are charming surprises, like the well-preserved ‘tin tabernacle' at Littlebury Green, or the thatched ‘Hamlet Church' at Wenden Lofts converted from a barn in 1859. In other villages, it might be a Victorian school, like the one at Great Chesterford, or a modest cottage like Mashams at High Laver or Songers at Boxted, the latter dating from the thirteenth century and the oldest known house in the county below manorial status.
Overall, the characteristic buildings of Essex are its medieval churches and timber-framed houses. The typical Essex church is small, its walls built of inferior materials, often recycled from earlier buildings (Roman bricks are frequently found), sometimes rendered. It might have a Tudor brick tower or porch, but it is more likely to have a timber steeple, with a weatherboarded belfry and a spire covered with oak or cedar shingles. The timber-framed houses might be plastered or have their timbers exposed, and typically consist of a single-storey hall range into which a floor and chimney were inserted in the sixteenth century, with one or two two-storey cross-wings that are very often jettied. Smaller houses are, more often than not, weatherboarded, either painted white or tarred. These are relatively modest buildings that have lasted the centuries because they were soundly constructed and are immensely adaptable, being modified by each successive generation to suit changing needs and tastes.
But as well as living with our old buildings, we are erecting new ones at an unrelenting pace. Among all the ‘Anywhere' type houses and retail parks, a few buildings stand out. Norman Foster's elegant Terminal Building for Stansted Airport, 1989-91, became an instant design classic, and revolutionised the design of such buildings, and the tradition of humane, thoughtful housing championed by Sir Frederick Gibberd at Harlow is being continued in the Newhall development on the eastern edge of that town.
It is always risky trying to predict what buildings will be still esteemed in fifty years time, but a list of those completed in the last five years might include the South East Essex College in Southend, with its extraordinary atrium containing ‘pods' and ‘mushrooms'; the elegant Chafford Hundred Campus at West Thurrock and a succession of buildings for Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford.
Standing on the edge of London & Essex, at Rainham Marshes nature reserve, is the RSPB's new Purfleet Environment and Education Centre. Designed by van Heyningen and Haward Architects, the building's unusual form and striking façade contrast with the natural surroundings, creating a distinctive addition to this important wetland area on the outskirts of the city, which has long been neglected.
The RSPB Environment & Education Centre has recently won a range of prestigious awards for its modern and innovative design, as well as the state of the art security, energy and water efficiency features. The awards include the National Royal Institute of Building Architects (RIBA) Award and the Regeneration & Renewal Sustainability Award for 2007.
Learning to appreciate what we already have, and ensuring that at least some of what we add to our stock of buildings is of the highest possible quality, is the best way of ensuring that Essex will continue to be visited and admired for its man-made as well as its natural environment.
The book Essex by James Bettley offers an insight into the range of architectural styles and important buildings that exist in this ancient and vast county; influenced in equal measure by its strong links with East Anglia; its associations with the European mainland through Holland and Belguim, and last but not least its close ties with London via the Thames river.
You can buy the book via Yale University Press.