Waltham Abbey is a small market town in the south-western corner of Essex, England, sandwiched between Epping Forest on the east and the River Lea on the west. Nowadays, the town is probably best known for being junction 26 on the M25, but the town has a long and fascinating history.
The Church, the Abbey and the Town
During the reign of King Cnut (1016 - 1035), a large flint cross - sometimes called the Holy Rood - was excavated near Glastonbury, Somerset, and taken to Waltham and placed in the small wooden church there. The shrine of the cross was said to work miracles and in 1060, Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and later to be the last Saxon King of England, consecrated a new, larger church on the site after being cured there. He also founded a college of secular canons to serve the church. Harold was later said to have been buried under the old high altar after being killed by the infamous arrow in the eye by William the Conqueror's army at the Battle of Hastings.
The church became rich from the pilgrims flocking to the Shrine of the Holy Rood, and in the early 1100s, the current building was started on a much larger and grander scale. As part of his penance for the murder of Thomas à Beckett, Henry II founded the priory of Augustinian canons in 1177 which was granted the status of an abbey shortly after.
The Abbey and the town that grew around it continued to prosper, becoming a place frequented by the royal court, thanks in no small part to its proximity both to London and the royal hunting grounds of Epping Forest.
Edward I and this wife, Eleanor, both lay in state at the abbey for several weeks while their funerals were prepared in London. The Eleanor Cross was erected two miles down the road to mark the course of Eleanor's funeral procession.
Henry VIII was another royal visitor, one that would prove to be the eventual downfall of the abbey, when as part of the Reformation, he began the dissolution of the monasteries. Waltham was the very last to go, in 1540. The Holy Rood also disappeared at this time.
All the abbey buildings were destroyed, and much of the church, leaving just the original nave to serve as a parish church. In 1552, a new tower was built at the west end of the church to support the building.
At this point, the town would have faded into historical obscurity if it were not for the founding of the gunpowder mills in the early 1600s. Waltham's proximity to London was its greatest asset here too with its easy access to the River Lea, a major tributary of the Thames.
The site quickly became the town's major employer, and was purchased by the state shortly before the Napoleonic wars. The site moved quickly with changing technologies and had switched to explosives manufacture by World War I. Both the gunpowder used by Guy Fawkes and the explosives used in the Dam Busters raids are reputed to have been manufactured at Waltham Abbey.
In 1943, manufacturing ceased at the site, which then moved into explosives testing, until 1991 when the site closed completely.
Waltham Abbey Today
Although the church is now a shadow of its former grandeur, it is still considered to be one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in the country. It also attracts lovers of Victorian art and architecture, having been heavily restored in the mid-1800s by William Burghes and Edward Poynter. Guide books are on sale in the crypt, which also has a display of the church's history and details of excavations that discovered the remains of the earlier churches. There is a side entrance to the visitors centre on the south side of the church. The church is open to the public 10am-4pm (from 11am Wednesdays and noon Sundays).
At the back of the church, much of the land is owned by English Heritage and managed by the Lee Valley Park Authority. They have an information centre here, with displays and information about the Lee Valley Country Park, which begins at Waltham Abbey. The information centre is open daily Easter to late October 10.30am-4pm.
In the grounds there are pretty gardens - a popular place for local office and shop workers to grab some lunchtime air - a 'sensory trail' with some interesting sculpture and art (including something that looks like a cross between a cowled monk and a totem pole), ruins of the old abbey and the grave of King Harold, although nothing was found here when it was excavated. The inscription on the gravestone reads:
This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried in 1066.
Over the Cornmill Stream is 'Harold's Bridge', although being of 14th Century construction, it has more to do with the monastery than with King Harold. The only remarkable feature of the bridge is that it hasn't yet fallen down.
The other side of the by-pass road - there is an underpass by the Cornmill Stream - are the Cornmill Meadows, the only dragonfly sanctuary in the country open to the public. Over half of the native species can be found in this ideal location. It would be advisable to wear wellie boots here after even a small amount of rain - the area is left to flood naturally.
There is a small - and fairly forgettable - museum in Sun Street and a small Tourist Information Office in Highbridge Street, just in front of the church. There is also a plaque in the pavement in Sun Street and in the abbey gardens, denoting the path of the Greenwich Meridian, as Waltham Abbey lies on 0° longitude.
A mile or so north of Waltham Abbey are Hayes Hill and Holyfield Hall Farms, open to the public. They are popular for day trips for city children. Hayes Hill is laid out like an old-fashioned farmyard, with all the usual - and some less than usual - farm and domesticated animals. Holyfield Hall is a working arable and dairy farm. Both farms are owned by the Lee Valley Park Authority. Open 10am-4.30pm daily, contact the Lee Valley Park information centre for further details.
To the west of town is the River Lee (or Lea, either spelling is correct). Miles of walking and cycling tracks route through here, and it is a popular site for both anglers and bird-watchers. Wheelchair access, swims and hides are available; contact the Lee Valley Park for details as a special access key is required.
Alongside the River Lee is the Gunpowder Mills Museum. The opening of this site to the public has been the cause of much controversy. The site has been closed away from public access for so long to have become a real haven for wildlife in the midst of suburbia. Among the current occupants is the largest heron colony in Essex, muntjac deer, otters, bats and rare orchids. Because of this, two-thirds of the 175 acre site have been designated a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and as such are afforded some protection under law. The site is also a scheduled ancient monument, with most of the buildings having listed status.
With the aid of a large endowment from the Ministry of Defence and a £6.5 million grant from the Lottery Heritage Fund, buildings have been restored that now house exhibitions and displays, and boardwalks have been erected through the grounds to avoid excessive disturbance to the wildlife.
Until recently, there was an urban myth that Waltham Abbey had the most pubs per head of population in the country. Although that may have been true at the time, it certainly isn't true now; pub closures and the burgeoning population have put an end to that. For the quaint 'olde worlde' touch try the Welsh Harp in Market Square, right next to the church. For a more modern feel, the New Inn at the other end of town shows live football matches. For decent beer, stick to the freehouses or the guest beers in McMullens pubs.
There is plenty of choice in eateries in town - cafés, restaurants and takeaways - even a proper pie and mash shop, which proves just how many East Londoners live locally now!
The town still has its 700-year-old market, albeit a small one, on Tuesdays and Saturdays. A more recent development is the addition of a monthly farmers' market. There isn't a particularly good selection of shops, most are small and specialised. For a larger selection visit nearby Waltham Cross, and have a look at the Eleanor Cross monument in the middle of the pedestrianised shopping centre.
By car, take junction 26 on the M25, then follow the A121. Small pay and display car parks are available in town, there is also a car park in the abbey gardens, which are locked at 7pm.
By train, Waltham Cross station is on the Liverpool Street line. From there it's a short bus ride or 20 to 30 minute walk to town.