The landscape of Great Bradley is classified by the Countryside Agency as the 'South Suffolk and North Essex Claylands' (Number 86 on the map below). We are on the edge of this region next to that classified as Anglian Chalk, which begins near Dullingham (87 on map). The region runs from Bury St
Edmunds in the north to Ipswich in the east to Chelmsford in the south to Stevenage in the west. Click here to see the detailed map
The key characteristics of the landscape are:
• Broadly flat, chalky, boulder clay plateau dissected by undulating river valley topography, particularly marked in upper valley reaches, which are much smaller in scale.
• Predominantly arable with wooded appearance. Some pasture in valley floors. Irregular field pattern despite rationalization; remnant Ancient Countryside.
• Scattered farmsteads, deep ditches and moats, parishes with scattered, small settlements around 'tyes' (commons) or strip greens, with isolated hamlets. Concentration of isolated moated sites.
• Timber-framed and colour-washed houses, sometimes faced with Georgian red brick. Impressive churches. Large villages and frequent towns, most with medieval street plans and elaborate timber-frame houses. Rich heritage of barns. Fewer settlements and more 20th century development towards coast, with several large estates.
• Cultural association with Constable and tourist honey pot of Dedham Vale. Preserved, archetypal, lowland pastoral, English countryside coupled with attractive vernacular buildings dating from period of industrial wealth.
• Hedgerow tree of area is elm (with hornbeam) in Essex. Oak and ash in Suffolk. Few large woods (20 acres plus), but some ancient coppice woods and typical pattern of copses connected by hedgerow. Trees and woods appear to join together to give wooded skyline, with some bare ridgelines.
• Winding road pattern away from major routes, often with wide verges and strong hedgerows. Sunken hollow lanes are a feature, lined with hedgerows, but impact of Dutch Elm disease apparent.
To the north it follows the valley of the river Gipping north-west from Ipswich in a broad transition zone as far as Stowmarket, then loops southwards before skirting the northern fringe of Bury St Edmunds. To the north and west of Bury it abuts Breckland. The western boundary continues southwards to include Saffron Walden, a valley town on the edge of the chalk. The southern edge of this area is delineated by the Northern Thames Basin: a shallow wooded ridge sweeps round in a curve from Tiptree to Epping Forest, marking the northern extent of the London Clay and the western extent of the lighter soils of the Essex coastal heathlands. Also within the area lies the Dedham Vale, with its variable topography and more pastoral character.
This area has an open yet wooded character, demonstrating aspects of medieval enclosure and the impact of 20th century field rationalization and Dutch Elm disease. Although the north-western part of Essex was historically not as forested as the ridge that sweeps round in an arc from Tiptree to Epping Forest, it is now sufficiently endowed with copses and woods to have wooded horizons, which give a large, distantly enclosed character to the landscape - an enclosure that is missing at close quarters due to the loss of hedges and hedgerow trees. This pattern varies slightly in the northern part of the area, where the hedgerow tree is oak and there are a number of larger woods. Within the Stour valley the main impression is of the blocks of willows and poplars planted on the valley floor and sides. The willow pollards along the river are also a notable landscape feature of this area
. View from the main street
It is undulating country, incised by small river valleys flowing east to the North Sea, with sporadic flat areas. It is an area of exceptional medieval towns and villages, frequently photographed examples being settlements such as Lavenham, Finchingfield, Cavendish and Thaxted. When the woollen trade declined after 1700, to focus on northern and western England, the area became fossilised. Although many villages and towns have accommodated significant post-war housing the historic cores remain intact; little local industry has developed and the beauty and charm of these towns and villages have ensured their preservation
Twentieth-century development in Chelmsford followed the sale of land for railways, and the broad, shallow Chelmer valley is now obliterated by recent development. The north-western part of Essex has largely avoided the massive 20th century outward migration from London which is so pronounced a feature of the London Clay to the south. This is largely due to the effectiveness of Green Belt policy in preventing the coalescence of towns. South Suffolk has seen very little recent development except around Stowmarket which, being on the mainline railway line, now has some characteristics of a commuter town, and the significant expansions of both Sudbury and Ipswich.
View from Water Lane over the Stour Valley
This is an area of chalky boulder clay (glacial till), but with more topographical variation than the area to the north. This is particularly notable in the upper reaches of the Stour and its tributaries, which are deeply incised, revealing underlying gravel and sand deposits on the valley sides. It, too, is Ancient Countryside, and appears in many areas to have undergone little rationalization to excessively large field sizes. It is more wooded than its northern counterpart, especially towards its southern boundary, and more densely settled.
Its river valleys are deeper and more numerous and the headwaters of some streams are so close together that the interfluve is no more than a narrow ridge in many places. The area is bounded to the north-west by the lighter soils of Breckland and to the east by the transition to former heathland on lighter soils, a boundary marked by a low ridge which relates approximately to the line of the A12 between Chelmsford and Colchester and then swings round in an arc marked by Galleywood, Thorndon, Hainault and Epping Forest, which is noticeably crowned with woodland. In the south-east, this ridge slopes to the coastal region of straight boundaries and the planned character of late enclosure, whereas in the south it overlooks the heavy London Clay of what is now a huge urbanized area forming London's northern fringe. The countryside ceases abruptly in Essex. An increase in the size of villages and reduction in the area of countryside between them in a narrow band adjacent to the urban areas is the main indicator, together with an increase in major roads. A large part of North Essex, however, is still surprisingly rural, relating well to the generally rural character of South Suffolk.
Historical and Cultural Influences
Aerial view of Great Bradley
The dominant historical impact on this area is that of the wealth generated by the woollen trade in the 14th to 16th centuries, manifested in the medieval timber-framed houses clustered in towns and villages, and in the ostentatious but magnificent churches of North Essex and South Suffolk. Between the 15th and early 17th centuries this was the wealthiest part of England. The peak of prosperity was 1450-1550, with a minor boom in the 17th century, and there was little post-17th century architecture until the advent of 20th century housing and commercial estates.
Towns such as Braintree, Great Dunmow, Halstead and Coggeshall were 'bays and says' towns, so called because of their production of baize-serge-like cloths from the 14th century onwards. Chelmsford was the county town by the early 13th century despite Colchester's position as capital of south eastern Britain when the Romans invaded. Settlements owe their charm to idiosyncratic street patterns, the juxtaposition of splendid large church with village green, usually with duckpond, and the groups of colour-washed medieval houses with steeply-pitched pegtile roofs and the occasional Georgian brick front.
One distinguishing etymological and historical feature is still displayed in differences between village names: in Essex groups of villages took the name of the lord of the manor, as at Woodham Ferrers/Woodham Mortimer/Woodham Walter, while the more independent Suffolk folk used their local church's patron saint's name, as in Creeting St Mary, Creeting All Saints, etc. Norman influence on
place names was much greater in Essex than further north and this lives on in the great number of Norman
place names, such as Beauchamp Roding.
Although the woollen trade declined in the 17th century, at the beginning of the 18th century the Golden Age of local agriculture was beginning. The average landholding was probably 150 acres but improved drainage techniques, increasing mechanization and the influence of the proximity of the London market spread throughout the area by late Georgian times and brought new wealth.
However, the agricultural depressions, of the mid and late 19th century and the between-wars 20th century, took their toll on agriculture here as elsewhere. There was a drift of labour to the capital, balanced in this century by increased mechanization and the southern drift of Scottish farmers who were prepared to take on derelict farms. Since 1945 this region has been well farmed, producing a wide range of food crops and dairy products, often for the London, and latterly the European, market. This has resulted in significant losses of semi-natural vegetation, especially lowland grassland.
John Constable gave the world the quintessential lowland English landscape of Dedham Vale and there is a persistent appreciation of the beauty of the landscapes he depicted. The Stour was
canalised for transport in the 18th century but subsequent growth of riverside vegetation has softened it. Gainsborough, too, painted the landscape around his Sudbury home (cf. 'Cornard Wood'). More recently CedricMorris (1889-1982) at Hadleigh and John Nash at Wormingford have been influential. Both Alfred Munnings and Lucien Pisarro painted 'Constable' scenes and many artists, amateur and professional, continue to depict this landscape.
Buildings and Settlement
The existing pattern of towns and villages was laid down by the time of Domesday, when the area was already densely settled. This pattern intensified with the development of the woollen trade, which was mainly home-based, and its collection of interdependent
trades people within each town or village. Villages tend to be larger than in the South Norfolk and High Suffolk Claylands due to this industrial growth but are still quite widely spaced. They are most often found near the top of the valley slopes while isolated farmhouses are found on the clay plateau. From the time of the Norman Conquest until the 19th century spread of London, the north-west part of Essex was the most densely populated part of the county.
This Ancient Countryside contains an intricate maze of narrow, often sunken, lanes bounded by deep ditches which take surprising right-angle turns. Many parishes contain moated farmhouses and they are concentrated in the north-western part of the county where they flow into a similar concentration that spreads throughout High Suffolk and into South Norfolk, numbering over 2,000 in all. This is an area of scattered parishes, which often feature greens or 'tyes' and development away from the church. The greens are smaller than in High Suffolk and South Norfolk and tend to be more strip-like, reflecting the narrower interfluves. Essex differs in its development of 'Ends', hamlets that grew up away from the main village. There are 150 such hamlets on the boulder clay of north-west Essex but only a handful in Suffolk.
Clare House, Evergreen Lane
Timber is the main building material of this area, with brick in the valleys, often pink-buff Georgian brick facing a timber frame. This contrasts with the flint used in the coastal region and the clunch (building chalk) or brick used to the west. Traditional timber construction used an infill of 'loam and laths' between vertical timber studs, which was then lime-washed to protect it from the elements. Coloured lime wash is a feature of villages in this area, as are exposed timbers for example Paycockes House, Coggeshall (NT). Pargeting is a form of raised plaster decoration on the external walls; good examples can be seen in Clare, Ipswich and Saffron Walden. Pegtiles rather than pantiles are seen in this area and there is a significant amount of wheat straw thatch. Clay 'lump' is also a distinctive building material, used for farm buildings and cottages.
The area has relied solely on agricultural wealth since the demise of the wool trade and has changed little since 1700. This area is not one of great landowners and magnificent houses, an exception being Audley End. Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk and Lord Treasurer to James 1, built himself a magnificent and enormous house in the early 17th century that subsequently became a royal palace of Charles II. It was substantially remodelled and reduced in size in the 18th century by Vanbrugh, Adam and Brown and the grounds have recently undergone restoration. There are a few substantial estates, such as Ickworth, Kentwell, Long Melford and Chadacre.
Bury St Edmunds, on the northern edge of this regional area, is a fine old market town (significantly expanded in the 20th century) that owes its name, its early fame and consequent monastic wealth to possession of the remains of King Edmund who was martyred by Vikings in 869. By the early Middle Ages this place of pilgrimage was one of the five richest and most powerful abbeys in England, a power that ended at the Dissolution. The town contains a fine blend of medieval and Georgian-fronted houses set within a late 11th century gridiron street pattern.
Other towns, such as Long Melford, Lavenham, Thaxted, Halstead and Coggeshall also contain remarkable buildings, demonstrating the wealth founded in wool, and frequently retain their medieval street patterns.Thaxted also prospered from its cutlery trade and Saffron Walden enjoyed the rewards of both cloth and Crocus sativus (used to dye cloth) until the 19th century, when artificial substitutes destroyed this latter trade.
The Anglo-Saxon origins and medieval character of Ipswich, which lies at the point where the Gipping becomes the Orwell, have been replaced by Victorian neo-Italianate Gothic buildings (Norman Scarfe) and 20th century car parks. It does, however, contain one of the few post-1970s buildings to be listed by English Heritage, a curving black glass structure with a lawned roof, designed by Sir Norman Foster and used as offices.
This is wooded arable countryside, where hedgerows, copses and woodland blocks combine to give a wooded horizon and sense of distant enclosure, despite the sometimes huge size of the intervening fields. It is primarily agricultural, except on parts of the river valley floors, where pasture and willow pollards contribute to a pastoral quality that is uncommon elsewhere in East Anglia. Oak, ash and field maple are the main species with some cherry while, around Higham and Stoke-by-Nayland, holly is a dominant hedgerow tree or shrub.
The remnants of small-scale irregular medieval enclosure are still visible despite some rationalization of field sizes and many examples of ancient woodland survive. The dominant hedgerow tree in Essex was elm, and Dutch Elm disease has had a profound effect on hedgerow and field boundaries which are now lost, gappy or decrepit. In the Suffolk part of the area hedgerow oaks and dense hedgerows continue to give a more treed and hedged character.
Although huge areas of cereals or oil-seed rape can appear to dominate the landscape, especially in early summer, this area also provides dairy products and sugar beet, with peas, fruit farms and market gardening on areas of lighter land.