Heritage: The historic treasures of Danbury

The Backwarden Nature Reserve is south of Danbury and together with Danbury Common, Lingwood Common

The Backwarden Nature Reserve is south of Danbury and together with Danbury Common, Lingwood Common and Blakes Wood forms the second largest public open space in Essex, Photo: John Winfield/Wiki Commons - Credit: Archant

In the latest of his series on day out destinations, Prof Ged Martin suggests a village where the Devil invaded the church in 1402.

Barely twenty miles from Gallows Corner, Danbury is worth a visit. Take the A12 to the Chelmsford bypass, and then head towards Maldon on the A414.

Contrary to legend, Danbury has nothing to do with the Danes. It probably takes its name from a forgotten sub-tribe of early East Saxons.

They weren’t the first people here. The ancient parish church was built amidst the earthworks of an Iron Age fort, although not much survives.

One evening in 1402, during a thunderstorm, the Devil invaded the church, terrifying local people with his rage. Now, why would anybody invent a tale like that? Don’t worry: Satan hasn’t been seen since.

Danbury had a palace! For Church purposes, Essex was part of the unwieldy diocese of London. In 1846, most of the county was transferred to the small Kentish diocese of Rochester.

The bishop of Rochester needed a residence north of the Thames, so a local mansion, Danbury Place, was purchased for him.

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Since bishops lived in palaces, an extra letter was added.

The palace grounds now form a country park, noted for its lakes, ducks and rhododendrons.

A leaflet on the Danbury parish council website supplies maps and information about old buildings. But make sure the internet doesn’t lead you to Danbury, Connecticut.

Nobody seems to know how the American city borrowed the name of an Essex village. They chose it in 1687, perhaps because it sounded nicer than the original name, Swampfield.

The Essex Danbury is a pleasant place, but don’t expect a sleepy backwater. It’s a mile from west to east, alongside the busy main road, with much modern development as a satellite suburb of Chelmsford.

First Essex operate frequent buses from Chelmsford, but Danbury’s best features are more conveniently reached by car.

The two glories of Danbury are its views and its open spaces. Its highest point is 367 feet above sea level – hardly Alpine, but enough to provide impressive vistas over the low rolling Essex countryside.

From the church, you can see the tower blocks of Southend, and maybe even glimpse the Thames.

From the war memorial at Elm Green, the control tower at Stansted Airport is visible – on a clear day. Binoculars are useful.

Danbury is ringed by commons, most managed by the National Trust.

Danbury Common and Backwarden Nature Reserve are south of the village. Here the National Trust has an office in a shed built over 200 years ago as part of the defences against a feared invasion by Napoleon.

Together with Lingwood Common and Blakes Wood, north of the village, the Danbury commons form the second largest public open space in Essex. Only Epping Forest is larger.

The National Trust’s Danbury website reports activities, with inviting photographs.

To the north-east, the Essex Wildlife Trust manages the half-secret Woodham Walter Common, a forested nature reserve. There’s no road access, only a long walk along a lane delightfully called Twitty Fee.

The country park has pay parking. Car parks on National Trust land are free, but donations are appreciated.

Three miles north of Danbury is Paper Mill Lock, with its bumpy, crowded car park. Here you can walk the towpath of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation.

Similar to a canal, a Navigation is a river tidied up to carry barges. Opened in 1797, the Chelmer and Blackwater project enabled merchants to avoid Danbury’s steep hill, and thus supply cheaper coal and timber across Essex.

Stroll east a couple of miles along the south bank, past Rushes Lock, and turn back opposite Ulting church.

There’s no village at Ulting, and the isolated church makes a charming picture.

You’re unlikely to see everything Danbury has to offer in one visit. Its open spaces are a great place for families, and Danbury is almost on Havering’s doorstep.