Monday, April 24th 2017
We had meant to go to Basildon today. However, when we bought our train tickets from the ticket machine at our departure station, someone (no names, no pack drill) typed the word ‘BRAINTREE’ instead of ‘BASILDON’. Why, I don’t know. One of those strange little quirks of fate. So, anyway, and albeit by accident, we went to Braintree.
Braintree is in the county of Essex and forms one point of a slender triangle whose other points are occupied by Chelmsford and Colchester. The settlement that was to be Braintree grew up on the banks of the River Brain from which it evidently takes its name. ‘Brain’ and its cognates are common Celtic names for watercourses and mean little more than ‘river’. Even so, the derivation of the name of Braintree remains obscure and is argued over. Several possible etymologies have been proposed but at this late date, none can be proven. A selection will be found in the etymology section of Wikipedia’s Braintree, Essex.
Braintree is a railway terminus. Here you literally reach the end of the line and you either stay or go back from whence you came. The railway reached here in 1848 but this station, Braintree’s second, was built in 1865 and is Grade II listed. To be honest, I did not really take to Braintree and found it rather dull. There follow a few items that attracted my notice as we rambled around the town.
Post Offices are buildings I always look out for when visiting an unfamiliar town. In times past, they were always large and rather grand. Nowadays they are being sold off and their business moved to ‘post office shops’, indistinguishable except by their signage from any of the other shops in the street. One cannot argue with economic necessity, of course, but our admiration of these buildings is now perforce tinged with nostalgia.
The Post Office was aware of its importance in maintaining communications nationally and with the rest of the world. Its adoption of the figure of Mercury, the messenger of the gods, as its symbol was obvious and appropriate. This post office features the head of Mercury above the door. Designed by architect David Dyke, in the robust red-brick style of the inter-war years, it was built in 1931 and is now a Job Centre.
We paid a visit to the public library which was built in 1997. We find libraries interesting in themselves but while we were there we had a look at the books on Braintree and Essex.
This solid-looking building is, or rather was, the Embassy Cinema, which opened in 1935. It succeeded the Picture Palace Cinema of 1912 on the same site. Under several different managements and names, it continued operations until 1993. Subsequently, it was bought by Wetherspoons, a company well known for its love of converting interesting buildings, and opened as a pub called The Picture Palace, in which role it has continued up to the present.
This is Braintree’s Town Hall. The tower contains bells that can still be rung though I don’t know whether they ever are. Now Grade II* listed, It was designed by Vincent Harris and opened in 1928. A large donation towards the cost was made by William J. Courtauld. The Courtauld family had opened a silk mill here in the 19th century and continued thereafter to have a strong influence on the town.
In the Victorian era and even later, donating drinking fountains was a popular way for people to show their philanthropy or to gain public notice. How useful and important such installations were I am unsure. Certainly, obtaining clean water for drinking and cooking was not always easy before the modern era. Drinking fountains were also provided by temperance groups to give thirsty folk an alternative to the pub. A moulded inscription tells us that this fountain was ‘Presented to the town of BRAINTREE by G. COURTAULD MP. 1882’. Older photographs show a different lamp, for example here. The present lamp was originally surmounted by the figure of a flying owl but that has disappeared.
Braintree, like any old established town, has plenty of pubs, though some have by now been ‘repurposed’ owing to the decline in the pub trade. This is the Boar’s Head which was probably first built in the 15th century to an H-shaped plan with a central hall. I don’t know how much of the original structure remains as we did not go in.
The timber-framed White Hart at Bocking End is said to be even older, dating from the 14th century with a new wing added in the 18th. In the 19th century it became a coaching inn, servicing coaches travelling to and from Norwich and other towns.
This is a Victorian (1857) water tower at Swan Side. No longer required for its original purpose it will probably be converted for residential use.
To be honest, I saw St Michael’s and dismissed it as yet another Victorian parish church. We did not go inside or even go very close to it. However, it turns out that it has a much longer history than one might suppose from a quick glance at the exterior. Historic England accords it a prestigious Grade II* listing and tells us in its listing that the church was first built in the 12th to 13th centuries, enlarged in the 15th to 16th and then underwent three episodes of restoration in the Victorian era.
Our attention had been distracted from the church by the curious structure in front of it. I gawped at it in amazement.
At present the fountain is dry but I understand that there are plans to restore the flow at great expense. An inscription informs us that the fountain, designed and created by John Hodge c.1938, was ‘THE GIFT OF WILLIAM JULIAN COURTAULD ESQ.JP. OF PENYPOT HALSTEAD TO THE TOWN OF BRAINTREE IN MEMORY OF KING GEORGE V’.
The main figure is a boy holding two rather small dolphins. At his feet is an otter standing on its hind legs and there are four other otters around the bowl, all similarly standing. Apparently, when the fountain is working, they spout water. According to Historic England, which gives it a Grade II listing, ‘This fountain exhibits a good deal of playfulness’ and at least one local newspaper applies to it the adjective ‘iconic’. No to both: this fountain is simply grotesque. For the reputation of the town it should be made to quietly disappear.
We retired to a cafe for tea and then made our way to the station. On such a short visit, we possibly missed a lot of what Braintree has to offer but from what I did see, I am in no mind to return to find out.
The town sign bears Braintree’s coat of arms. An explanation of its symbolism will be found here.
1Essex (The Buildings of Egland) by Nikolaus Pevsner, Third Revised Edition, 1999, ISBN 0140710116.