Sunday, 24 August 2014

Essex Society for Archaeology and History: Visit to Davy Down and North Stifford

Davy Down and North Stifford: 16 August 2014

Delving through past volumes of Transactions, in August 1903 “The members of the Society to the number of about thirty-five, assembled at Grays Station at 10.30am and proceeded in brakes to Stifford Church”.  Theirs was a day’s church crawling.  Some 111 years later a similar number visited the area again by own modes of transport at a leisurely start time of midday!  Some new faces were present: our programme included items of interest to the new Essex Industrial Archaeology Group.  Our predecessors would have noticed very many changes had they been with us.

Pumping Station at Davy Down
Our first of five “events” was a visit to the Pumping Station and Filtration Plant at Davy Down.  The site is still operated by Essex and Suffolk Water although the Pumping Station’s remaining diesel engines are redundant.  Beneath the Pumping Station is a well 42 metres deep which was dug into the chalk ridge by hand in the 1920s.  From its base a 500 metres horizontal line was excavated to create a flooded tunnel.  It produces 1 million gallons a day and used to supply clean water directly towards Barking, Brentwood and Linford.  There was a lifting station at Warley: the building is now converted to flats.
Pumping Station engine
Now the water from the Davy Down Water Treatment Plant is mixed with water supplied from Hanningfield Reservoir.  Most of the water collected in Essex is surface water but many will be surprised that some is obtained from as far away as the Kings Lynn area by tunnel and river transfer.  Davy Down is a rarity because of its geological situation.  The water was originally extracted by three diesel engines, of which two remain, one in working order.  The height of the building allows for the engines to be lifted and moved.

Filtration Plant: Davy Down
The adjacent Filtration Plant (1923) is still operational having been completely refitted about 10 years’ ago.  The interior is kept at a constant 10oC.  Chlorine is added to remove the naturally occurring manganese and iron which would otherwise stain bathroom fittings.  Filtration occurs through sand and gravel in one of six filtration tanks.  A centrally operated computer monitors performance and back washes fed from an elevated water tank outside the building to extract the unwanted substances. 

Viaduct over the Mardyke
Our second event was a walk along Davy Down, under the viaduct (1897) to view the River Mardyke.  The Down is a flood plain, and regulator of high water to the nearby River Thames, so would not be walkable in the winter. Our guide pointed out various flora and fauna that inhabit this important landscape.

Once inside, John Matthews presented a talk on ‘Walking the Mardyke’ from its several sources to its end at Purfleet draining into the River Thames.  Mardyke means boundary ditch, forming what was the boundary of Chafford and Barstable Hundreds.  Stifford is one of a very few parishes which straddles both sides.  Its official source is in Holdens Wood at Warley Gap, but it is also fed by drainage ditches at Bulphan Fen, and another source at Hobbs Hole near the Thames Chase Forest Centre.  Old Hall Pond is another within Thorndon Country Park, once the home of Lord Petre.  The Harrow Inn (currently closed) marks one end of a footpath called ‘The Mardyke Way’.  At various points along the way there are fords which appear to be places where ancient towpaths crossed from one side of the river to another.  Barges used to use the river.  The way meanders under a bridge at Stifford and through Davy Down past the viaduct and under the M25 before reaching the RSPB Bird Sanctuary, built on an old twentieth century firing range, at Purfleet.  The Mardyke enters the Thames through gates which control its flow.

Stifford Lodge, now the Park Inn
Cliff and Jan Cowen, authors of the book ‘The Idyll in the Middyl’ (2012), then hosted a guided tour of North Stifford “the idyll hidden in the middle of urban sprawl”.  A souvenir illustrated booklet was given to each visitor.  The street contains many seventeenth century thatched cottages, in-filled by modern homes during the twentieth century.  The Dog & Partridge Public House used to be named the ‘Clock house’ which used to maintain the village’s clock.  Down Clockhouse Lane opposite was the former Stepney Children’s Home (1901).  Only the water tower is preserved.  Near the church is Coppid Hall of mid eighteenth century brick and by the roundabout at the end of the village the Park Inn, formerly Stifford Lodge of the same period but extended during the twentieth century.

North Stifford Church
Finally, tea at the church: an opportunity to view the many brasses which it possesses.  One exceptionally early example by the altar table is a half-length effigy with inscription translated “Pray for the soul of Sire Ralph Perchehay, once rector of this church”.  Its date: c.1365.  There are also brasses to the Ardalle and Lathum families which the Guide Book says were reset in the east wall of the Chantry Chapel during the nineteenth century, and certainly were viewed and recorded there when Christy et al wrote their series ‘On Some Essex Brasses’ in our past Transactions at the beginning of the twentieth century.  The exterior has a lovely squat thirteenth century tower with broach spire.  The building is constructed of local sandstone quarried from nearby West Thurrock and over the Thames at Northfleet.  The War Memorial is in the middle of the east end of the churchyard.

I mused about the visits made back in 1903 with now.  Much has changed though the old cottages and brasses in the church would be recognisable.  What has not changed is the enthusiasm of local historians and of the acknowledgement in all written work, past and present, to a Rev. William Palin (1803-82), who published the first history, ‘Stifford and its Neighbourhood’, back in 1871.  The Transactions do not give a detailed account of the church visit, merely saying that it has been “fully described … by the Rev. W. Palin M.A.”.  Palin is one of the historians recalled by the late W. R. Powell in his second essay ‘Beyond the Morant Canon’ in the Society’s more recent Transactions.  This reproduces an engraving from Palin of the bridge over the old ford and Ford Place (now derelict).  The latest offering ‘The Idyll in the Middyl’ has been acquired for our Society’s Library as Palin’s successor and acts as a record not only of change but continuity.

Cowin, Jan & Cliff.  The Idyll in the Middyl (2012)
TEAS, ‘New Series’ Vols 7, p245-247; 9, p41-43, 189.
Essex Archaeology and History, ‘Third Series’ Vol. 26 p195-199.

Andrew Smith

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