Manningtree and Mistley, Essex

I took the train from Liverpool Street, past Anish Kapoor’s chaotic, screwed up pylon  in the Olympic village and out beyond Shenfield, Brentwood and Chelmsford. Gradually the gently undulating farmland of Essex began to unfold:  dark buff coloured plough,  river meadows, small woods and occasional black clapboarded cottages. A few miles out of  Colchester I  caught a fleeting glimpse of  Dedham’s famous church tower jutting above the treeline, then suddenly the landscape changed into reedy, sheep scattered marshes beside the River Stour and the train pulled up.

Manningtree_railway_station,_main_building_-_geograph.org.uk_-_992768Manningtree station is small and  perfect. On a slight curve its scallop edged wooden canopy is supported  by  iron columns  with delicate filigreed spandrels.  Once through the could-be-anywhere edgelands of this, the smallest town in England, Manningtree’s heart feels comfortable. Along High and South streets there are good looking Georgian and Victorian houses, a coaching Inn or two (from the time when travellers stayed here on their way to Harwich), a grand classical Corn Exchange, and an even grander Methodist chapel, the first in Essex (1807). But its Quay Street I like the best: from here the  Stour widens out across the estuary  to Suffolk on the opposite bank – a mile of shining low-tide-mud set with myriad sailing boats tipped slightly on  their sides and  a few spindle- legged egrets. Modest houses, one colour- washed in cobalt blue, peter out into a shore side road called the Walls which leads past scrappy fields dotted with a hundred grazing geese . White birds are everywhere.

As though they have the right of way several swans have come up from the river bank and are  walking  along the Walls towards  Mistley – a few hundred yards down stream from Manningtree. Their  forbears came here  originally to feed on  grain which blew off the barges: now there is a flock of 250. The Stour was one of the first rivers in England to be ‘improved’ when an act of parliament in 1705  allowed a section of it to be made navigable for large vessels and  fifteen locks were built between here and Sudbury. The small village of Mistley began to be developed along the river bank by Richard Rigby who had made a fortune through the south sea bubble, but it was his  eccentric son (also Richard), a  blustering and gregarious MP,  who made the biggest mark. By 1768 he had landed the job of Paymaster of the Forces one of the best paid in the country. He dressed in purple gave lavish parties at Mistley Hall ( ‘orgies’ according to a contemporary writer), and employed Robert Adam to transform the village  into a spa town.  The strange and incongruous classical towers stranded between the road and the river are all that remain of Adam’s  ungodly and enormous classical church – the bathing station he designed for the bank below was never built. Rigby died owing money to the public purse, but his  quays, granaries, malting office and pretty Georgian housing schemes remain. There is a lovely half  square centred on a circular pond with a life size stone swan in the middle- intended by Rigby as the spa’s emblem. Mistley’s port and brewery flourished  through the 19th century as its spectacular collection of red and white brick warehouses, maltings and wharf buildings bear witness.

By the time I left it was almost high tide and a huge herd of swans was back on the water. I waited for my homeward  train at one the nicest Station Buffets in the land with an old fashioned  scumble glazed  bar (propped up by a handful of locals), Victorian fireplace set with turquoise tiles, darts board and   friendly bentwood chairs.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Oxyman

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