This was a talk I gave recently at a community service in my local church. It is an attempt to explain the history of my village, Newport in Essex, in seven ages....
Age 1 Ice Age
Half a million years ago, the land that is now our village was covered in ice. As the ice retreated and the land warmed up, river valleys were formed, such as the one that Newport sits in today, the gentle valley of the river Cam. We can still see evidence of the ice age in the large stones that are sometimes found on the sides of roads in this area of north-west Essex – they were the boulders left behind as the ice retreated.
|Newport's 'Leper Stone'. So-called because lepers put money in the hollow, in return for food being left for them.|
Age 2 The earliest settlers
As the land warmed up, it was settled. By the time the Romans came, the countryside was largely cleared of trees and was being farmed. The 11th-century chapel at Wicken Bonhunt is one of the oldest buildings not just in Essex but in the whole of East Anglia.
Age 3 The making of Newport
Newport was a prosperous medieval market town. The name Newport after all means ‘new market’, and there was a market here from at least the 12th century. Farmers would come from miles around to trade animals and produce, a practice that continued into the 18th century. You might say, in fact, that we are a village that was once a town.
The church we are in is a testament to the wealth of Newport in medieval and Tudor times. Not too far away was St Leonard’s hospital, the stones of which can still be seen in the wall by the roadside. Its care for the sick and infirm gave the name to the leper stone that marks the spot where the hospital once stood.
In 1587 a wealthy London widow Joyce Frankland left a bequest in her will to build a school in Newport. It formerly occupied a building on the site of what is now Church House.
Age 4 Georgian Newport
It was only the granting of a licence for a market in nearby Saffron Walden that led to Newport’s own prosperity being eclipsed. Since then we have been too small to be called a town, but perhaps still too large and important to be called a village.
Walk down our High Street today and you will see the evidence of the prosperity of 18th-century Newport. Five or six large houses dominate - these were originally the farms that employed the majority of Newport’s inhabitants back in the 1700s.
At either end of the village were the mansions of the men who actually owned the land – Shortgrove to the north, and Quendon to the south.
For many years our village was known as Newport Pond, because of its propensity to flood. Some things never change.
Age 5 Victorian Newport
Newport continued to enjoy prosperity into the Victorian era. The coming of the railway in the 1840s was an important moment. The local farmers relied upon the railway to transport their produce to London.
Age 6 20th-century Newport
The roll call of names on the memorial stone in the churchyard records the lives the village lost in the First (and then Second) World Wars.
The soldiers who returned from the trenches one hundred years ago marked the event by building a new social club in the village, which sat alongside Newport’s six pubs (which had names like the Hercules, the Star and the Three Tuns).
The men resumed lives as farmworkers, blacksmiths or labourers, the women also as farmworkers or in domestic service. Newport remained a predominantly agricultural village, weathering as best it could the vicissitudes of farming life.
Within the space of half a century, all this had changed. Most of Newport’s pubs had gone, leaving us with just two (the Coach and Horses and the White Horse). The farms had gone too. In their place came hundreds of new homes – such as the houses on Frambury Lane and Cherry Garden Lane.
Behind us, the M11 ploughed an expressway through the fields – and the A11 was downgraded as the B1383.
Age 7 Today
Newport today is home to many people who would describe themselves as commuters – just witness the number of people catching the 713 or 743 to Liverpool Street every morning. New houses are being built, and our village may yet be transformed back into the town it arguably once was.
Yet we retain our charming rural setting, knowing that we are just minutes away from being able to walk in beautiful open countryside.