Why would we take a trip to Chelmsford? Well, for one thing, because we had never been there and didn’t know anything about it and it therefore seemed worth a look.
According to Domesday Book, Chelmsford then belonged to the Bishop of London and in 1199, the King granted a charter for the holding of a weekly market near the bridge that had been built over the River Can in 1100. Chelmsford’s history, however, goes further back than this. The Romans had a town there called Caesaromagus, but when the legions departed and the Anglo-Saxons colonised the area, they left the Roman town to fall into ruin, creating their own settlement, Ceomaers Ford. This name eventually mutated into modern “Chelmsford”.
We caught a bus to Finsbury Square and walked through to Liverpool Street station. It was already around 9 am but the City is very quiet on Saturdays as the above picture shows.
About the only life we saw was a window cleaner high up on a building, dangling like a spider from a thread. No flies to catch, though, just grimy windows to scrape clean.
We reached Chelmsford around 10 am and found that it too was rather quiet. Perhaps people were taking things easy for the bank holiday weekend.
This wood pigeon was out and about and keeping busy, but although he kept a wary eye on us he wasn’t interested in the seeds Tigger offered him.
From the station we went on a general ramble as is our wont. One of our first discoveries was the old Quaker Meeting House. This was built by the Chelmsford Quakers and used by them from 1824 to 1957, when they sold it to help fund a new building. It now seems to be in a rather sorry condition and I don’t know what use it now serves, if any.
On the wall of the meeting house is a blue plaque in memory of Anne Knight (1786-1862). To my shame, I must admit to never having heard of her before. She was the daughter of a Chelmsford grocer and a tireless worker for emancipation of slaves and for women’s rights, altogether a remarkable and admirable women.
In Victoria Road South, we discovered this strange building. Google Street View shows it with a door and windows so it has only fairly recently been bricked up. There is no clue to be gained from the site itself, however. Perhaps it is due to be demolished. (Update: Brian Hanchett has kindly provided information on the bricked-up door. See his comment below.)
In Duke Street is Essex County Hall, a large structure built in 1933, according to an inscription on the corner. From memory I think there is also an older part to the building though I neglected to note the date. The style might be described as “restrained elaborate”: as you see from the photo, there is some intricate carved work but it is limited to small areas.
County Hall sits in a roughly triangular area limited by Duke Street, Threadneedle Street and Market Road. In that enclave an extension was added in the 1980s. I believe that it was completed in 1987 and opened officially in 1988. A very helpful librarian in the public library supplied the information.
There is an atrium with a high glass ceiling and a light and airy atmosphere. This provides an exhibition or display area, together with the entrance to the Central Library and to some Council offices and services (for examples, there were several wedding parties coming and going). I found the library very impressive though it is so large that staff must walk several miles every working day!
The town we know today as Chelmsford grew around its market. The market dates back to at least the Roman period (Caesaromagus apparently means “Caesar’s market”) and I was glad to see that it still has a market and seemingly, a large one. However, we were unable to judge for ourselves as it was fenced off and being worked on.
What looks at first sight like a typical parish church, turns out to be the Cathedral. If that surprises you, it surprised us too. Its modest proportions derive from the fact that it did indeed begin as an ordinary church and was promoted to cathedral status only in 1914.
There was originally on the site a church dedicated to St Mary. This was altered and repaired in several stages during the 15th, 16th and 19th centuries (and apparently, now also). When the church became a cathedral, St Peter and St Cedd were added as dedicatees.
This striking figure sits on a corner of the building. As Chelmsford is nowhere near the sea (though two rivers run through it, the Chelmer and the Can), I wondered why he was wearing what appeared to be sea boots and carrying a guitar. Then I realized that the “guitar” is in fact a big key and that this sculpture represents St Peter. That also explains the dubious two-finger salute he is giving.
On the wall, this blue plaque tells us that Thomas Hooker served here as a curate when it was the Church of St Mary, 1626-29. Harassed for his Puritan views, Hooker lost his curacy and later fled to America where, falling out with his brethren in Massachusetts, he went off and founded the colony of Connecticut.
Making our way to the High Street, we encountered this noble building with a façade of Portland stone (recognizable by the colour and by the fossils of sea creatures visible within it). This is Shire Hall, designed by John Johnson and finished in 1791. The three Serco vans parked in front and round the side give the game away: this has always been Chelmsford’s courthouse. It is also the town’s oldest building.
The High Street, happily, is a pedestrian area so you can wander freely without worrying about traffic. By now the early quietness had come to an end and the place had come alive. There was a definite weekend feel to it.
Two rivers, the Chelmer and the Can, meet to form a ‘Y’ shape and Chelmsford grew up between the two branches. There was probably a Roman bridge hereabouts but no traces have been found. The first historic bridge, built of wood, was commissioned by Maurice, Bishop of London and Lord of the Manor of Chelmsford, around 1100. As a result of this opening up of the area to traffic, Chelmsford rapidly gained importance as a market town and a seat for itinerant justices. (As you see from the photo, by the time we reached the bridge, rain had started to fall.)
By 1351, however, the bridge was being described as "broken", and in 1372 a new stone bridge of three arches was constructed. This one was to last about 400 years. At the end of the 18th century, the bridge had fallen into a state of disrepair and needed to be replaced. In 1784, John Johnson, architect of the Shire Hall, was commissioned to design a new bridge, the present one. This was opened in 1788, presumably having taken longer to build than expected as the date incised on the bridge itself is 1787.
Johnson took the opportunity to widen the bridge and used Coade stone, renowned for its durability, for parts of the structure, including the balusters. The newly formed County Council took responsibility for the bridge and still maintains it today, having had to repair it more than once after flood damage.
Beyond the bridge, the road becomes Moulsham Street. Where Baddow Road goes off to the left, we find this Janus-like figure, showing a monk on one side and a Roman centurion on the other. (Again note the different weather conditions!) Of more interest to us at this stage was an establishment in Baddow Road.
We had had only a light breakfast and it was now 2 pm, so we were more than ready for lunch. We had the enjoyable task of choosing between the several eateries in Baddow Road, finally deciding on the Indian restaurant Bilash. We asked what the name means and were told it means “enjoyment”. So we sat back and scoffed a vegetable thali, bilash indeed!
Moulsham Street crosses a major road called Parkway and then you find yourself in Moulsham, which has a much older feel to it than the modern shops and shopping precincts of the High Street (though there are some interesting survivals there too). An example is this jeweller’s shop dated 1903.
Further along, this little row of shops with their old-style architecture had a village feel to them. In fact, walking further on, we soon found ourselves back in the 19th century!
Thus we have the school, founded in memory of churchwarden Thomas Tidboald by his widow in 1885…
and this cottage dated 1878, bearing the name Hemp Cottage, recalling Godfrey’s rope-making business that was established near here.
Or again, Moulsham’s parish church, St John the Evangelist, dating from 1837. Now, once again, it started to rain, so we took refuge across the road in the Star & Garter.
It was quite busy and seemed a pleasant, friendly place, except…
… except for the sinister cove in the corner who seemed to be pointing a fiendish device (I assume it’s fiendish) at the rest of us. Is it Elton John Playing Mr Pickwick? Thankfully, we’ll never know…
By the time we emerged, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining but we decided that we had seen enough of Chelmsford for now. We retraced our steps along Moulsham Street and the High Street, had a quick look at the recycled W. Gray & Sons Springfield Brewery (1828),
and walked through Bell Meadow & Central Park, where, at first sight, I thought there was a peace camp or protest in progress but it turned out to be outdoor specialist retailer Black’s and their tent and camping exhibition.
It is quite a pleasant park but a nearby event was playing loud music with a deep throbbing bass that I found quite unpleasant. No matter where we turned, the music seemed to follow us.
We did, however, pause to take a look at this old building, now a building site. I hope they are refurbishing, not demolishing this piece of 1930s Art Deco.
I hope the building will rise again from the dirt and grime and assaults of the building site as it is a good piece of architecture and deserves to survive. Let it not be replaced by another modern monstrosity.
We had not known Chelmsford before this visit. Had our trip been worthwhile? Yes, I think so. We had discovered some interesting buildings and other fascinating historical items. Will we return? Hm, I think that’s less likely, though you never know what fate has in store!