Through the golden, harvested fields of north Essex to Dunmow. Those who equate Essex with the eponymous Girl, White Van Man, estuarine English and TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex) are obviously unaware of its outstanding natural beauty and ancient villages. (I speak as an Essex boy!) Of course, the threatening shadow of Stansted Airport hovers over all.
Great Dunmow Maltings is a unique example of a classic restoration project, recognised nationally and internationally. It dates back to c.1565, operated until 1948 and is the oldest surviving urban maltings in the country. This Grade II* Listed building, saved and completely renovated by The Great Dunmow Maltings Preservation Trust, has received numerous awards since its public opening a decade ago. Our group looked at the Town Museum downstairs, full of fascinating exhibits to do with Dunmow's past including a tiny but complete shoe shop, the contents of which were rescued from a skip. We all looked at the story of the Dunmow Flitch 'trials' which were mentioned in The Canterbury Tales and still held every leap year; the 'jury' used to consist partly of six maidens. "Difficult to find nowadays", as our guide remarked. The same goes for male 'maidens', of course. Upstairs in the Barley Room we looked at the drying floor and were taken through the malt production process - I don't think anybody really understood it. A malster had a very skilled job and it was hard, physical work. A boy of 12, we were told, had to carry heavy sacks from one end of the maltings to the other. The man who turned the grain three times a day had to pull a 'plough' behind him.
South of Dunmow: a really beautiful vista in the golden afternoon over the Roding villages and thence to Ingatestone Hall. It was a manor in the nunnery of Barking; in 1539 it came into the hands of Sir William Petre, the son of a wealthy farmer and tanner. He was the protege of Thomas Cromwell, busy in the commission of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a Secretary of State and Chancellor of the Order of the Garter. He was a model of discretion, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the affairs of state and managed to keep his job and his head through the reigns of four Tudor monarchs. His son was ennobled and his family have lived here ever since; the eighteenth Lord is Essex's Lord Lieutenant.
The house of 'rose red' brick, but not 'half as old as time', was built as a manor house and was externally complete by 1548. Consisting originally of three courts, now the inner court is the only survival and its west wing was demolished in 1800, leaving a three-sided building. The charming Clock Tower range still exists, remodelled in the 18th century; it greets you at the end of a short, straight drive. The house itself is homely rather than grand; the Petre family seat is now at Writtle Park. Before that it was at Thorndon Hall (1764, burnt out in 1876). The Hon. Dominic Petre and his family live in the private wing - he runs the Hall, his father the estate. The house has many royal and family portraits, some frayed and ancient curtains and chair covers, two priest holes which were discovered by accident and much really old furniture.
The Long Gallery at 95 feet contains portraits of every Lord and some of their Ladies. There is much of historical interest to do with the Petres and some beautiful lacework. On display were the robes, one for the Coronation, the other for the State Opening of Parliament in 1999. Tony Blair abolished the right of hereditary peers to sit in Parliament's second chamber; there is a framed letter from TOPS: "Turfed Out Peers' Society". Our thanks to Caroline Markham for arranging such a fascinating day and to our coach driver, John.