Grassy mound a reminder of Pleshey’s glory days

I’D heard that there was a castle tucked away somewhere in the village of Pleshey. I learned that it was privately owned and that what remained of it could only be viewed by appointment.

Pleshey is not the easiest of places to find. It lies a few miles north of Chelmsford, on the edge of the group of villages known as the Rodings. A former parish clerk, who I met quite by chance, told me that it comprises 117 buildings and 237 people. The Saxons called the place Tumblestoun and the invading Normans built a motte and bailey castle there.

Knowing nothing about Pleshey, I was unprepared for the high levels of prettiness which I discovered upon my arrival. On the Village England Calendar-which-your-mum-might-send-you-at Christmas-ometer, it’s probably right up there with Suffolk’s own Kersey. Like many of the neighbouring Rodings villages, Pleshey’s main thoroughfare, The Street is replete with thatched and weatherboarded cottages. It has no shop or post office but it does have two fine pubs, both of them serving food and apparently thriving. They are the type of idylls where, say, professional people, trapped in loveless marriages, who also like the theatre, cosy fireside chats and country walks, might like to go on their second date. At the other end of the social spectrum, and just over the road, Pleshey also has the Retreat House, a 600-year-old Christian retreat, for prayer and meditation. Handily, this is just next to Holy Trinity, an unusual Victorian church rebuilt on the site of a 14th century predecessor. So, whether you’re looking for something epiphanic, ecclesial, or just egg and chips, there seems to be something for everyone here. I had the egg and chips, myself.

Geoffrey de Mandeville was one of William the Conqueror’s battle commanders at Hastings. When the battle was won and William handed out the gongs to Team Normandy, he gave a lump of Essex to Geoff and let him build a castle here. The original castle was a wooden palisade and tower affair, situated on an earthwork hill and later fortified with stone. Dismantled in the mid-12th century, it was rebuilt some decades later. Through much historical tumult – which you wouldn’t thank me for regaling you with – the castle’s ownership was handed down, until in the 14th century, the Duke of Gloucester came into it by marriage. Pleshey was now in its medieval glory days, as a Royal Residence, a canon’s college and a centre for arts and chivalry. Many years later, Henry the Eighth, after dissolving the monasteries, sold the site to an Essex bloke called John – “ ‘Allo John, got a new moat?” John then pulled it down and sold it for scrap.

Today, all that remains of Pleshey Castle, are its earthworks, the moat and a 14th century, brick-built bridge – said to be oldest in Europe. On one side is private farmland, whilst the castle entrance itself is fenced and gated. Without entrance to the site, other potential views of it are obscured by village houses. All you can see of the bridge from the entrance gate, is its rising up between the earthworks. On paper, Pleshey Castle doesn’t sound much. The place is really impressive, though.

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With Norman engineering know-how and probably a fair amount of Saxon muscle, the invaders built a massive earthen hill where one hadn’t previously existed. As you peer down into the waters of the moat, which still encircle the site, you begin to see the sheer scale of the operation. And then, walking down The Street, through a gap between the houses, you suddenly get a startling glimpse of the medieval bridge’s brick arches. Further down is a viewing area, where you can stand by the moat gazing up at the motte. Now, it really begins to dawn on you that they managed all this without the aid of mechanical diggers or internal combustion engines. And then, you learn that in addition, there was once an outer castle perimeter enclosing the whole village.

Pleshey village grew up around its castle, its church and its Canons’ College. Where you’ve got a busy building site, a centre of chivalric excellence, and a theological academy, you’re bound to need a few service industries – food outlets, forges, stables, pubs, and so forth. Quiet little Pleshey was once a thriving and important place. Standing in The Street now, almost silent but for the sound of the ducks on the moat – and a man over the road pressure-washing his front drive – it’s all rather difficult to compute. To imagine, however, even for a minute, the long-ceased medieval racket of hammering, sawing and clinking, the noises of men and animals working – the many sights and sounds which Plessey Castle must have known during its existence – it is simply staggering.

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Yet, this is not a ready-made heritage experience. There are no wooden signs, no arrow posts and no labelled exhibits here. You have to work a little harder to envisage what Pleshey Castle must once have been. It’s one of only three Essex locations, for instance, ever to have been mentioned in the writings of Shakespeare. Then, over a few short years, it simply ceased to be. Today, there’s only an immense oval grassy mound, a brick bridge and a moat teeming with wildlife, much of it hidden behind village houses. It doesn’t, as I mentioned, sound much. Somehow, though, I found Pleshey Castle infinitely more atmospheric than many far more intact castle remains which I’ve visited over the years.

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