Heritage: Brave landowner met a gruesome end

The Woolmarket in Horndon-on-the-Hill resembles Thaxted's famous Guildhall. Picture: Wikicommons/Ron

The Woolmarket in Horndon-on-the-Hill resembles Thaxted's famous Guildhall. Picture: Wikicommons/Ron Strutt - Credit: Archant

In the second of his series of day trip ideas, Prof Ged Martin looks at the history of Horndon​

Although Horndon-on-the-Hill is only twelve miles from Rainham, it seems off the beaten track.

Horndon means “horn-shaped hill”, so “on the hill” is redundant. It was added to avoid confusion with nearby East and West Horndon. They were originally called Thorndon, but lost their initial letter – it survives in Thorndon Hall, near Brentwood.

Old writers praise Horndon-on-the-Hill’s fine views, across the Thames and towards Southend.

But it’s hard to find a vantage point among trees and houses nowadays. Your best bet for a panorama is to squeeze along the footpath beside the Bell Inn.

The village centre has an atmospheric mix of old buildings. The Woolmarket resembles Thaxted’s famous Guildhall. It was built about 1525, when Horndon-on-the-Hill was a market town.

Later used for almshouses, it was restored in 1970, with an open ground floor that shows off its timber beams.

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Opposite is a private residence, the handsome High House, dating from 1728. It once belonged to a famous motorcycle designer, Philip Vincent. The scarily narrow junction with Orsett Road leads to the church.

Approached along a shady avenue, the building is medieval, but the interior is a Victorian “Arts and Crafts” restoration, inspired by the simple artistic principles of William Morris.

Horndon-on-the-Hill tells us much about past attitudes to religion. Many people believed that the world would end, and the best place to ascend to Heaven would be Mount Zion (or Sion) at Jerusalem.

Daniel Caldwell died in 1634. On their tomb, his widow pleaded for their bodies to be left undisturbed: “From rude hands preserve us both, untill / We rise to Sion Mount from Horndon Hill.”

A century earlier, courageous Thomas Higbed had defied England’s Catholic Queen Mary to proclaim himself a Protestant. Although prosperous Horndon landowner, he refused to opt for a quiet life.

Tried for heresy at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1555, he boldly told his judges that if they roasted him to death (the penalty for religious dissent), they would be punished themselves with eternal Hellfire.

Higbed was forced to witness the ghastly burning alive of eighteen year-old Protestant martyr William Hunter at Brentwood. Still refusing to recant, he was brought to his home village and tied to a stake in a field behind the Bell Inn. There he died a horrible death in the flames.

On the outside of the church, at the east end, you’ll find the mysterious carved face of the sarcastically-named Horndon Beauty. Is it male or female, in agony or anger, a warning or a joke?

The “churching” of women is a little-known religious custom, not much used nowadays. After having a baby, women were called to a ceremony officially giving thanks for their survival of a dangerous experience.

But the Church, run by men, conveyed the idea that childbirth was somehow naughty, and that women were solely responsible for sex and its consequences.

New mothers had to veil their faces when they came to church, as if they were unclean. Only a male clergyman could purify them. There was no similar ritual for fathers.

In 1768, it was reported that for “time out of mind”, the custom at Horndon-on-the-Hill “churchings” was for women to present the clergyman with “a white cambrick handkerchief” – a luxury item – to show their gratitude at being allowed back into decent society.

In 1906, the landlord of the Bell Inn began new tradition.

After promoting hot-cross buns as an Easter gimmick, he hung one from a beam in the bar. Each year, a new bun is still added to the collection.

Horndon-on-the-Hill is a dot on the map, but by the time you’ve explored the church, strolled the main street and searched for those elusive views, it makes a worthwhile visit.

Both pubs serve food, and there’s an art gallery in the old village shop.