Heritage: Lots of languages, landed gentry and a lock-up - why you should visit Orsett

St Giles & All Saints Church, Orsett. Picture: Dave Kelly/ Wiki Commons

St Giles & All Saints Church, Orsett. Picture: Dave Kelly/ Wiki Commons - Credit: Archant

In the third in our series on ideas for summer days out, historian Prof Ged Martin suggests an excursion to an atmospheric Thurrock village

Orsett is barely ten miles east of Rainham and Upminster, but its ancient buildings under the great arch of the Thurrock sky make it seem a different world.

Orsett is perhaps best known for its hospital, soon to be closed under health service reorganisation.

There's an echo here of the paternalism of the landed gentry, the successive families who lived in the Georgian mansion of Orsett Hall. Half a mile east of the village, it's now a hotel, surrounded by parkland of mature and sometimes exotic trees.

Symbols of the Whitmores, the last private owners, can be seen around the village. Although generous landlords, they treated Orsett as their own. A stained-glass window in the church shows Louisa Whitmore on her deathbed in 1892 - morbid, and surely better remembered as a private, family grief?

The church, with its fine Norman doorway, is packed with memorials to former squires.

Look out for Sir John Hatt, who died in 1658.

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He seems to have stretched out for a nap, wearing the full finery of a Stuart gentleman.

The bishops of London had a palace here in the Middle Ages, and continued to appoint the rector until the 19th century.

Orsett was one of the richest parishes in Essex, netting its clergyman over £1,200 a year in tithe income - equal to about £150,000 nowadays.

In 1842, Bishop Charles Blomfield decided that the right man for the job was the Reverend James Blomfield - his brother.

A window commemorates Parson James and his virtues, but doesn't mention that he enjoyed an indecently large income and a fine free house for 35 years.

An earlier rector, John Frederick Usko, hailed from Prussia.

A brilliant scholar, he understood fifteen European and Middle Eastern languages - although, he modestly insisted, he'd given up Spanish and Dutch, which you'd think were among the easier ones.

Orsett's village centre is a conservation area, and there's useful online guide at thurrock.gov.uk (search for "Orsett character appraisal").

The protected zone is T-shaped, covering Rectory Street and (at right angles) High Road, past the church.

A bulge at the north end of Rectory Street probably marks Orsett's medieval market place, which was driven out of business by competition from Romford Market in the 17th century.

Scattered among modern development, you can trace the village's construction history through its old buildings - but please remember that, except for the two pubs, these are all private homes.

From the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, builders erected timber frames, filling the gaps with wattle and daub.

Strong twigs, probably willow from nearby marshland, were woven into a matting framework, and then splashed with mud (and other substances which I won't mention).

It sounds an odd process, but the walls are still standing today.

Brick was adopted from the eighteenth century, usually red, locally made and often quaintly uneven in shape.

In the nineteenth century, the railways brought mass-produced stock bricks, and the squires built grey, solemn, four-square cottages.

A short walk beyond the church brings you to small triangular green, site of the village pound (for stray animals) and the cage (bleak overnight accommodation for drunks).

Every Essex village had its cage, but they only survive in a few places, like Tollesbury.

Orsett's cage was last used in 1846.

Stroll through the modern housing of Pound Lane to the corner of Malting Lane, where a public footpath heads due north for about a mile.

Wear stout shoes and turn back when you hit Parker's Farm Road, which isn't suitable for pedestrians.

It's a pleasant way of sampling the flat, open Thurrock countryside.

It's difficult to reach Orsett by bus, but simple enough by car, via the A13 or A127, or just by wandering through the lanes past mysterious Bulphan.

You can drive on to Horndon-on-the-Hill, with its ancient guildhall, or to Langdon Hills, where there are magnificent views over the Thames.