Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Look Back in Ongar

“I can’t believe Ongar isn’t on the tourist trail,” says the Rev Susan Cooper of St Martin's Church in Chipping Ongar. “When I came here I thought it would be like Dagenham, but it’s a beautiful place.”

We detour to Chipping Ongar while taking the car club car to Bishops Stortford — and what a surprise the place is. It’s full of old Essex weatherboarded buildings, bulging medieval timbers and an ancient church and castle. Although being Essex it does have a beauty salon too.

We’ve stumbled into the church and found Mrs Vicarage on hand to give us the full Rev tour. She points out the 14th century roof timbers standing on stone corbels and an original Norman stained glass window by the altar.

She shows nine-year-old Nell the mysterious tiny hatch in the north wall of the sanctuary. This was for an anchorite cell attached to the church. Here a hermit could live without even an iPod, or if he got really bored open the small window to catch a bit of the service.

There’s a stained glass window commemorating the work of missionary David Livingstone — famed for meeting Stanley in Africa — whom it turns out trained in Ongar.

This early Norman church has brick and flint walls and a white weatherbarded tower with a weather vane perched on top. It’s utterly charming.

Near the church are old timber-beamed cottages with wobbly beams and floor levels.

We go into Grumpy George’s Old Fashioned Sweet Shop and discover low ceilings and more ancient supporting timbers. The building might be old but the young assistants have more modern preoccupations:

“Do you know how to do eyelash extensions?”

“Nah, but my mate does…”

We explore the mound of Ongar Castle, built in the tenth century by Richard de Lucy to compensate for having a girl’s name. There’s still a clear moat although the actual mound is fenced off. And on the far side where gardens run down to the moat it’s been refilled with water.

The footpath from the castle emerges at the Ecclesiastical Church where a plaque marks the room where David Livingstone studied, and a palm tree and blue walls in the evening sun make it seem a little like Livingstone’s Africa. And to top it all you can see the mast of Kelvedon Hatch’s Secret Nuclear Bunker in the distance.

How could I have been brought up in Brentwood but never looked back in Ongar? It’s even got a railway museum where the old tube line ended. London Underground’s loss has been Essex’s gain.


  1. I want to know how long do you need in a place before you get a sense of it? Or are your Essex-instincts so hardened (ha ha) that you don't need much time at all?

  2. Bob Gilbert comments via email:

    I presume your mention of Livingstone as 'being famous for meeting Stanley in Africa' is tongue in cheek. I don't actually like them being mentioned in the same sentence. Livingstone was a saint (genuinely); Stanley a murderous bastard (literally). Nuff said, as I believe they say in Essex.

  3. Hello Kokorako. Think you can get a nice glimpse of places with just a fleeting visit, an overheard snippet here and there. Obviously you can't get to know a place intimately, but I like the idea of an Essex On The Road that might overall give a feel of the county. Although A Year In Essex would surely rival Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence.