Description & Map
Title: Wickham Bishops
This is a nice, easy stroll in the countryside near Wickham Bishops. The car park is for church visitors only, so please visit, it's a lovely church. It's usually open in the daytime. The church can get very busy Sunday mornings - best check the Church Calendar to avoid clashes with weddings etc. From the church, the route heads northwards from there along a narrow lane then descends through a small wood before going along the meandering banks of the River Blackwater (through Benton Hall golf course) and passing beneath the last wooden railway viaduct in the country. The return route takes you across fields to the redundant St Peter's Church and back up the hill to the village. Most of the route is clearly laid out, but pay attention as you enter an orchard on the way back: it's easy to miss the waymarker at point T (photo 18).
A. Parking in St Bartholomew's Church car park in is for church visitors only: so please visit the church. Wickham Bishops parish church is an interesting building and usually open. Leave the car park (P) via the vehicle entrance, turn right (heading west) and walk 80 yards along the road to a junction. Turn right into Mope Lane.
B. Walk north along Mope Lane (1) for a third of a mile ignoring the first footpath on the left. Look out for a large house with fancy gates set back from the road on your left, called Thistle Hall. Immediately past the gates, turn left along an enclosed footpath (2).
C. Follow the path downhill for 175 yards to a wooden gate, then turn right into the woods. 100 yards later the path turns left in front of a 5-bar gate. (3).
D. Continue along the path heading downhill with woods on your left and fields on the right until you cross a footbridge. This takes you onto an enclosed path: keep going for 230 yards until you emerge on to Benton Hall golf course (4).
E. Follow the winding gravel path down towards the River Blackwater, turning left at a footpath T-junction near the road bridge (5).
F. When you reach the river bank 70 yards later, ignore the golfers bridge and turn left to walk along a gravel path, with the river on your right (6). You will continue alongside the river for the next mile, until you pass under the viaduct at point K.
G. You are walking through a golf course, so keep an eye out for errant golf balls. If one lands by your feet, just pick it up and hand it back with a smile (um, that's a joke. Don't. Leave it where it lands. Golfers can get cross when strangers handle their balls).
H. Continue along the riverside for 500 yards, until you reach a crossroads.Go straight on. A few yards later, the gravel path disappears and you continue along grass (7).
I. Keep going along the riverside for a further half a mile. Some of the way you will be walking past trees and sometimes, it's just you and the River Blackwater (8).
J. When you reach the weir at Benton Hall Gates the footing reverts to gravel over the weir bridge. This gravel path then bears left away from the river. Cross the bridge then leave the gravel path to continue along the grass beside the river (9).
K. 100 yards after Benton Hall Gates, go straight ahead leaving the golf course via a wooden gate and continue walking alongside the river. After another 100 yards, you will reach two gates, one behind the other (10). Go through the first gate, turn right for a couple of steps, then just before you get wet feet turn left to continue along the riverside, right by the water's edge.
L. Keep going along the river bank for another 100 yards and you will come to the only surviving wooden railway viaduct in England (11). Follow the path under the viaduct (mind your head) and 50 yards later, turn left away from the river.
M. When you reach a driveway turn right and follow the drive round to the right (there is an information board on your left here, giving the history of the Maldon branch line). You can hear the millrace but sadly cannot see it. Turn left along the drive to the road.
N. At the roadside turn left over a brick road-bridge, then immediately right down some steps to a low level footpath (12). Turn left to walk along the path with a field on your right.
O. 80 yards after the steps the path crosses a field entrance. There is a small post mounted letter box and a red weather-boarded house ahead and to the left, and a stable in the field on the right. Continue ahead via the 6-bar metal gate along a bridleway (13).
P. Follow the bridleway for about 400 yards. Initially you will have trees on your right, and later will walk through open fields towards a small copse. Hidden inside the copse is St Peter's Church, the old Wickham Bishops parish church. It's redundant now, but lovely nonetheless and well worth a visit. Turn left in front of the copse (14).
Q. Walk northeast up the track, over an old railway bridge, to the B1018. Cross the road and continue straight on ahead along a footpath which goes up the driveway of Wickham Grove (15).
R. After 225 yards the driveway splits into two: go straight on along the left fork. 150 yards later the drive turns sharp right. At this point leave the driveway and continue straight on along an enclosed path (16).
S. After about 300 yards, you will see a gravel driveway crossing your path and beyond that, a gap through a high hedge then a grassy path ahead. It is very easy to go wrong immediately past this point, so take stock for a moment (17).
T. You should see a wide grassy path ahead beyond the high hedge. There are small, gnarly fruit trees in rows on your right; behind them is a large dead tree covered in what looks like ivy. There are other large trees to the left of the path. Go straight on along the wide grassy path for about 50 yards and look out for a waymarker on the right by one of the small gnarly trees (18).
U. At this point, leave the wide grassy path and bear right by about 15 degrees to walk eastwards on a narrow path through the orchard. Initially there will be a single tree between you and the wide grassy path, and you should pass the dead tree on your left 40 yards later.
V. Continue ahead along this path walking east through the orchard for a further 250 yards. Look for a narrow gap in the facing hedge which takes you to the roadside (19).
W. Turn left to go uphill. At the junction with Station Road turn right to continue up the hill (20). At the top of the hill, at the junction with Mope Lane, turn right to return to the parking.
St Bartholomew's is the parish church of Wickham Bishops. This rather elegant Victorian Gothic church was built in 1850, of Kentish Ragstone and Caen stone. The spire is 120 feet high and is visible from the far side of Witham. Internally, the church contains a magnificent carved wooden font cover, and behind the altar are six painted and gilded wooden panels depicting four early Christian saints: St Agatha, St Bartholomew, St Boniface and St Alban, and two angels. The font, holy water stoup and parish chest were brought here from the old parish church of St Peter down in the Blackwater valley.
The River Blackwater rises in northwest Essex as the River Pant. It flows through Braintree where the name changes to the Blackwater, goes eastwards to Coggeshall then turns back southwest towards Witham. After this it flows through the Benton Hall golf course then southwards towards Maldon and out to the North Sea via the Blackwater Estuary. This walk takes you alongside a slow moving section of the river where the channel is fairly flat. There are relatively few marginal and in-channel plants but many bankside trees giving shade and interest to the views. At either end of this section of the walk is an elegant road bridge: Blue Mills Bridge (C18) to the east and Wickham Mill Bridge to the west. From time to time the Pant/Blackwater is called upon (as part of the Ely Ouse Essex Water Transfer Scheme) to transport excess water from Norfolk into Hanningfield Reservoir, and when this happens, the water is a lot more lively.
St Peter's Church is believed to have been built originally as a private chapel for the Bishops of London, who owned the manor of Wickham Bishops at the time of the Domesday Book. The nave and chancel were built in the late 11th century and the building has not changed much since, although the windows date from the 14th century, the south doorway is C15 and the south porch C16. Over the centuries, St Peter's evolved from being a private chapel into becoming the parish church for local villagers.
The office of Bishop of London was created in late Roman times, although when the Romans left and England reverted to paganism the last Roman bishop (Theonus) was forced to flee. The office was vacant after that for about 150 years until 604 when Mellitus was consecrated as the first Bishop of the East Saxons. Sadly he was expelled in 617 following the death of his patron, King Saeberht of Essex, when London and Essex became pagan again. St Cedd took up the post in 653, and from that time, right through until 1846, the Bishops of London managed church affairs across the whole of Essex. Bishops would carry out a visitation of their diocese during their first year of office and every 3 or 4 years thereafter, in order to oversee ecclesiastical administration and resolve problems. They needed places to stay while conducting their business. One of these places was Wickham Hall, half a mile south east of St Peter's Church. When the new church was built in Wickham Bishops in 1850, St Peter's became a chapel of ease. The font, holy water stoup and parish chest were taken from St Peter's to the new church. St Peter's was declared redundant in 1970 and is in the care of The Friends of Friendless Churches. In recent years it has been used as a workshop for a local stained glass artist.
The wooden viaduct near Wickham Bishops is the only remaining wooden viaduct in the country. The trestle bridge, a 'Scheduled Monument', was designed by Joseph Locke in 1845 to carry the Witham-Maldon single-track branch line across the River Blackwater. It consists of 21 spans of timber trestles, built in two sections, 45 and 60 yards long respectively, with an intermediate embankment. The river spans are 18ft, the rest are 12-13ft. The timbers are huge: either 12in x 12in or 12in x 6in.
The Witham to Maldon branch line was built to link the farms of mid Essex to the markets in London via the port at Maldon. Construction of the six mile line began in 1846 and took 18 months. Like many rural branch lines, it ran at a loss for several years before being closed to passenger traffic as part of the Beeching reforms 1964, and was closed to freight two years later.
The railway was built cheaply and quickly using wood, with small, plain stations. The one exception was the terminus at Maldon which was a magnificent building, still standing today. At the time, the vice-chair of Eastern Railways (David Waddington) was looking to become the MP for the Maldon: what better way to win over the constituents than with a huge building project? It is said that he recruited large numbers of eligible voters onto the workforce, regardless of age or ability, and paid them a guinea a week. They became known as Waddington's guinea pigs. David Waddington was duly elected in 1847 (together with Thomas Barrett-Lennard), ousting the sitting MP. The guinea pigs then lost their jobs the following Tuesday. The story sounds outrageous, but at the time many MPs routinely spent a lot of money entertaining the voters, and as voting was by show of hands, the MPs could see who was voting "correctly". In that context, the behaviour of David Waddington seems no worse than that of many others. It wasn't until 1872 that the secret ballot was introduced and the practice of paying or "treating" voters was outlawed.
The election was lampooned in a contemporary satirical ballad. In the mid-19th century manual labourers working on civil engineering projects such as the railways were known as navigators, or navvys. The term came from canal (navigation) constructions some decades earlier. Navvys were renowned for having poor pay and conditions, living in squalid accommodation, and spending what little they did earn on booze in preference to food. The ballad seems to indicate that there's nothing new about treating politicians' promises with contempt:
"When Parliament does meet the Queen,
From Maldon they will go by steam,
Lennard and Waddington so grand,
To gain the rights of every man.
They'll ease the Navigator's grief,
And feed them on good bread and beef,
With good strong beer, pea soup, and figs,
And such a lot of guinea pigs."
Excerpt from "The Election Race at Maldon", by J Morgan of Anne Street, Westminster.