Exploring Ongar, past & present
- Credit: Archant
With its ancient high street, picturesque scenery and beautiful old buildings, Ongar stands as a civil parish in the Epping Forest District of Essex. We learn about the town, its past and its present
With an historic high street and town centre that is encompassed within the boundaries set out by the design of the town’s 11th century castle, Ongar has many impressive architectural features worthy of mention. The town was one of the first to be recognised as a Conservation Area by the county council, largely due to it having more than 100 listed buildings.
Indeed, Ongar has been an important location since Saxon times – possibly even since the Romans were here – as it served as a key administrative centre in its hundred. The name Ongar means ‘grassland’ and the location was considered an ideal settlement as both the River Roding and Cripsey Brook afforded the position good protection from attack.
However, it was the building of a castle after the Norman invasion that most significantly strengthened the town’s defences. King William had given ownership of the Manor of Ongar to Eustace, Count of Boulogne, who commissioned the building of a motte and bailey construction. The building of the castle concluded 100 years later under the instruction and supervision of its owner Richard de Lucy, Justicar of Henry II.
The motte (or mound) is calculated to be around 70 metres in diameter at its base and is surrounded by a wet ditch up to 15 metres wide. Remains of the inner bailey ramparts and the ditch sit on privately owned land, but can be seen from a footpath that leads from the Pleasance car park and is a clear reminder of the days when the locality was vulnerable to attack.
Another important landmark for the town is St Martin’s Church. Its exterior is comprised of flint-rubble and the church was built at a similar time to the castle with clear examples of Norman design to be seen in the chancel roof. Perhaps the most interesting feature is the anchorite cell found in the north wall of the sanctuary. An anchorite was someone who took the vow to spend the rest of their lives in a cell which was anchored to the wall of a church. They could therefore observe and partake in worship, but would be fed and watered by the villagers.
It is, however, neighbouring Greenstead, within the Parish of Ongar and two miles west of the town, that boasts the oldest wooden church in the world. Known as Greensted Church or St Andrew’s Parish Church, it is located about a mile west of Ongar town centre.
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The 51 timber planks that are visible today date from around 1060, however excavations in the chancel in 1960 revealed the existence of two earlier timber structures dating from the 6th, and 7th centuries, around the time that St Cedd began his work of converting the Saxons to Christianity. The church therefore represents 1,300 years of English history and Christian worship and is a testament to the work of Saxon, Norman, Tudor and Victorian builders who have extended, repaired and restored the building over the ages.
In Ongar’s town centre, several interesting buildings and other structures can be viewed. These include The White House and Castle House which, along with the Old Market House, all date back to the 15th century. A heritage blue plaque notifies passers-by that the famous explorer, Dr David Livingstone, lived in the town in 1838, in what is now known as Livingstone Cottages.
Budworth Hall is also a prominent feature of the town centre. It was built in 1886 as a memorial to Captain PJ Budworth who was a local historian and prominent member of the community. The building initially comprised of an assembly room, reading rooms and coffee room (a ballroom was built later) but was required to change its purpose significantly during World War I when it became an auxiliary hospital. From 1915 to 1919, convalescing sick and wounded servicemen, many of which were Belgian, came to the hospital to be treated by staff of the Essex/32 Voluntary Aid Detachment unit. By the time the hospital closed in 1919, it had cared for more than 1,333 soldiers.
The overall design of Ongar has altered very little since medieval times and, like many Essex towns, it has a market (an important sign of Ongar’s significance) which would bring trade, visitors and prosperity to the town in centuries past, just as it does today. Thanks to its location, Ongar also became an ideal staging place for people travelling from London further into East Anglia and coaches would leave daily from the King’s Head Inn.
In 1865, the railway came to Ongar, bringing fresh wealth and business; the Victorian architecture in the town, including Budworth Hall, reflect this period and time of change. The line to Ongar was a single track extension to the Great Eastern Railway line from Stratford to Loughton. In 1949, the line was given over to the London Underground’s Central Line – electric trains eclipsing the steam trains by then, shuttling back and forth between Epping and Ongar. After several changes and efforts to make the line efficient and profitable, the line was finally closed in 1994, running at a loss.
One of the many things that makes our country (and indeed our county) great are the many groups of very keen enthusiasts and our heritage railways certainly have their fair share of hard-working and dedicated volunteers.
Today, the Epping Ongar Railway is a local attraction that is well worth a visit thanks to its own band of devotees keen to preserve an important part of the region’s history. With steam and diesel trains, renovated signal boxes and station buildings, as well as offering the longest stretch of restored track in the country, there is plenty for all to admire and enjoy. Heritage buses collect visitors from Epping and Shenfield stations, transporting passengers to Ongar or North Weald stations and back in time to the golden age of steam.
The town centre today has much of what can be expected by its residents with franchises, independent shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants. Although close to London, it also has the benefit of being surrounded by countryside – a young family’s idyll, surely? Apparently so, according to scriptwriters for television’s EastEnders when, in a recent episode, characters Ronnie Mitchell and Jack Branning discussed moving from fictional Walford to Ongar (not a great distance) to find a ‘better life for the kids’.
Well, that’s one way to put the town on the map and the ensuing comments on social media after the episode certainly made for some fun debate, none of which could possibly take away from the rather admirable and charming character of historic Ongar and its landmark hot spots.
Find out more
The Epping Ongar Railway is open every weekend, on Bank Holidays and Wednesdays in the school holidays, with special events available throughout the year, including Halloween and Santa specials.