Finding Sawbridgeworth's place in history

Louise McEvoy visits Sawbridgeworth and delves into its colourful past

SITUATED mid-way between Harlow and Bishop's Stortford, lying on the A1184 with the River Stort flowing through the east of the town, picturesque Sawbridgeworth is brimming with history.Before the Norman Conquest, most of the area was owned by the Saxon Angmar the Staller until it was granted to Geoffrey de Mandeville by William the Conqueror. Many high-profile medieval families lived there and the land was divided into manors, including Sayesbury, Pishiobury and Tedmanbury.Prominent figures who have lived in the town include Sir John Leventhorpe - an executor of King Henry V's will - and Henry VIII's wife Anne Boleyn who was given the Pishiobury estate to the south of the town. More recent famous faces though are Victoria and David Beckham who currently 'live' in Sawbridgeworth, having moved into 'Beckingham Palace' in 1999, although they spend most of their time away from their vast estate.The church has royal connections - both Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn, wife of Henry VIII, worshipped hereThe town centre is mainly a conservation area and boasts a wealth of varied and beautiful architecture with many buildings dating from the Tudor, Stuart and Georgian periods. At the bottom of Bell Street, in the heart of the town, stands Great St Mary's Church. It was originally built from flint and mortar in the 13th century and includes a Tudor tower with eight ringing bells. A Pudding Stone in the base of the tower suggests pagan worship previously took place on the site.The church has royal connections - both Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn worshipped there. Twice Lord Mayor of London in the 15th century, Ralph Jocelyn of Hyde Hall in Sawbridgeworth, is buried in the churchyard while one of the few survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War, Joseph Vick, is also buried there.Ensuring the fabric of the church remains intact is the work of The Friends of Great St Mary's. Founded in 1981, the friends are a group of residents who are interested in the preservation of the church, as member Mary Shipman explains, 'It's a group of people who don't necessarily go to church.'We have a committee of about 12 people and we have six trustees and we agree a project with the vicar. We have completed quite a few projects on the church. Some time ago we repaired the stained glass east window and then we had the National Trust in to repair needlework panels. We also re-clad the spire.'Next we're looking to restore a sixfoot tall oil painting called the Gypsy Madonna, and I think the vicar has ideas to improve the font area too.'The group takes part in fundraising activities to help pay for the projects, including the annual May Fair, and recently eight Sawbridgeworth residents opened their gardens to the public for a small fee.For Mary, it is clear the town has a special place in her heart, as she adds, 'My family has lived here for hundreds of years. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.'As well as celebrating its history, community events organised by current residents are rife, including two annual fairs, held on St George's Day and the Feast of Saint Dionysius, and river cruises.If you are visiting the town then why not enjoy a river cruise, before following the guided trail commissioned by Sawbridgeworth Town Council to mark the millennium? It starts at Great St Mary's Church and takes in the heart of Sawbridgeworth, passing places of historical and local interest. There are nine display boards, marking the way and giving information.Or why not head down to The Gate pub on London Road, which has its own brewery on site? Tom Barnett, a former footballer who took over the pub 20 years ago, says, 'Someone suggested a brewery and I had one built in the back of my pub about eight years ago. The first beer we had was called Selhurst Park Flyer, because I used to play for Crystal Palace and I was pretty quick. 'We had a hell of a lot of help. We have a guy who is a scientist and he does all the recipes for us and we follow them. We have done about 28 different beers. My son's just done a stout and people say it's brilliant. We're becoming the talk of the town.'