Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
The map above map which was produced by a sub-committee of Birch Parish Council to mark the Millennium.
The text printed on the reverse of the map is reproduced below.
This map shows the three parishes as seen by those living here in the year 2000. It is how we see ourselves, and how we tell
future generations of our way of life. The population of the three parishes (estimated as round figures by Colchester B C) is Birch 900; Layer Breton 300 and Layer Marney 250.
Farming is still a major activity but in an age of increasing mechanisation employs very few compared to former centuries. Part of the area, to the NW of the B1022, consists of chalky boulder clay; sand and gravel form the eastern part of Birch while the Layers lie mainly on thin soil over almost impermeable clay. The area is drained by several streams - the Roman River forming the boundary between Birch and Stanway; the Layer Brook draining parts of the two Layer parishes into the Abberton Reservoir and Birch Brook which flows from the direction of Hardy's Green into Birch lake.
Abberton Reservoir, a storage reservoir, was formed in the 1930s by damming of Layer Brook. Owned by the Essex and East Suffolk Water Company it is used to supply water to the Chelmsford area. Levels are controlled by a pumping station situated in Layer de la Haye. The Reservoir is also a major bird reserve, overseen by the Essex Wildlife Trust, providing nesting and breeding sites for a wide variety of water birds and is an important site for passage migrants.
Almost in the centre of the area lies Layer Breton Heath, one of the few surviving heathland sites in Essex. The Heath has a very high conservation value with many specialist species. Livestock no longer graze and following a fire in 1976 it suffers badly from succession, mainly of birch and oak trees. Under the ownership of the Lord of the Manor, Mrs Teresa Relf-Jones, a committee of 10 local residents are working to conserve the heathland habitat with help from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. Many villagers use the heath for recreation, including walking dogs and horse riding.
In addition to this open space the area is criss-crossed by footpaths and bridleways providing a range of pleasant walks within the three parishes and linking to others giving access to a much wider area. It has to be remembered, however, that such paths cross clay soils in places and need to be treated with caution at all times but particularly after heavy rain. The footpaths also cross farm land and it is essential that signs are followed precisely and that dogs are kept on leads at all times. Paths shown on the map are not to be taken as definitive routes and are shown as an indication of existence only. The walks described below make use of several of them.
Details of four walks are given below as an indication of a way to see each parish at its best.
A number of 'bus services run through or across the area making it possible to travel to Clacton via Colchester in one direction, or to Tolleshunt D'Arcy and on to Maldon in the opposite direction. These routes run either directly along the main road, from Colchester to Tiptree, or through Birch and Layer Breton to Tollesbury and Maldon. The service on the main road is frequent during weekdays, with almost a half hourly service from the morning to evening rush hours. In addition a service runs through Birch and Layer Breton once every two hours during the day from eight in the morning with extra services in the afternoon. Separate 'bus services are provided to convey children to either Tiptree or Stanway secondary schools or to attend Birch primary school.
Of particular importance to those lacking their own transport is the Senior Citizens 'Bus which operates a service once a fortnight to Tollgate and Fiveways Retail Parks in Stanway.
Medical services are provided by a group practice of three doctors based at The Surgery, Birch. The practice also operates a dispensing service for most patients and a Practice Nurse is available for consultation and advice. Also a Mother and Baby Clinic is held once a month in the Memorial Hall.
Mail is delivered daily, Sundays excepted, from the main sorting office in Colchester. There are a number of collection points throughout the district. The area is served by one sub Post Office situated within Birch Minimarket, The Street, Birch which offers a range of services including pension payments and foreign currency.
The Minimarket carries a wide range of all types of food and drink plus newspapers and magazines. Services provided include video hire, photocopying, and a collection service for dry cleaning and film processing. It also sells National lottery tickets. Two garages, both situated on the Tiptree to Colchester main road, one in Birch and the other in Layer Marney, provide fuel and services for the motorist plus a small selection of other goods.
Two public houses, the Angel, Heckfordbridge, and the Hare and Hounds, Layer Breton provide meals in addition to beer, wines and spirits. Both are used for other social activities and, in particular, the Hare and Hounds has a well supported bonfire and firework display each November, the proceeds from which go towards providing a lunch for senior citizens at Christmas. Being adjacent to the Heath the Hare and Hounds is also favoured for a "meet" of the local foxhounds.
In an era when home entertainment is freely available it is not surprising that many of the old style clubs and associations have ceased to exist. Some have survived and provide a focal point for a number of activities. Among these the Get Together Club, mainly for retired people, which meets monthly (in the afternoon in winter months and evenings in the summer) in Birch Memorial Hall. Transport is available to enable local residents without their own transport reach the Hall. Events include talks, slide shows plus outings and an annual carol service. The Women's Institute meet monthly throughout the year at the Birch Memorial Hall and twice yearly they have Craft and Flower Shows one of which is open to non members.
The Memorial Hall, built in the 1920s to provide a venue "for the large number of men who have come back to the Parish", is also the venue for a number of well supported pre school groups. The groups are structured so that children of different ages attend on different days. The intention is to provide pre school experience and, as such, the groups have to comply with statutory requirements.
Essex County Council Mobile Library Service provides access to Library facilities on a regular basis in each of the villages.
Birch C of E Primary School is the only school within the area and has 100 pupils on the register. It offers education for 5 to 11 year old children from an area which also includes Virley, Salcott and Wigborough. The Headteacher, Mr Graham, and three other teachers, cover the National Curriculum for pupils. On reaching the age of 11 pupils go on to Stanway or Tiptree depending on their place of residence.
In an area once known for the number of Churches and Chapels only two have survived. The Church of England provides services via the combined parishes of Birch with Layer Breton, worshipping at St Mary's, Layer Breton, and at St Mary's, Layer Marney which is in turn combined with the other and both come under the care of the Rector, The Reverend Martin Clarke, also Vicar of Layer de la Haye in a combined benefice. A service is held in each church every Sunday morning, and on various major festivals and special occasions including country services such as Plough Sunday, Rogation and Harvest.
Remains of earlier places of worship are still recognisable and ruins of Little Birch Church are to be found in Birch Park; the outline of the Layer Breton Church, initially damaged in the 1884 earthquake, can be traced and burial grounds associated with the Quaker Meeting House and the Congregational Chapel exist in Layer Breton. A more prominent landmark is the former St Peter's Church, Birch built in 1846 but no longer used for worship. Plans are in hand for redeveloping the building for other uses.
Whereas at one time agriculture was the main industry of the area and so provided much of the employment, most residents now travel out of the area for work. Agriculture is still important but no longer so as a source of employment. The major employer, Hutton Group, builders, on the Maldon Road, Birch, have expanded considerably from the supplier of jobbing building work to the villages to a company with nationwide contracts. Playle Engineering at Birch Park are another major employer manufacturing a range of metal products. There are a number of smaller local building firms and also providers of specialist services ranging from architects and planning consultants to electricians and plumbers.
Advertisements in the monthly Parish Newsletter, produced by the Church and distributed free of charge to every house, provide an insight into the services available within the area and these include tree surgery; electrical services; flower arranging; pet insurance; secretarial services; driving tuition; domestic services; a Learning Centre; waste disposal skip hire; upholstery; poetry writing; garden accessories; dressmaking; funeral services; bouncy castle hire and bed and breakfast! Other enterprises are connected with the servicing of vehicles; general engineering and a range of metal working.
Livestock farming, not as widespread as formerly is still apparent and, in particular in Layer Marney, venison, pork and beef are for sale. At Christmas turkeys are sold also in Layer Marney. Most farming is now arable and among the crops likely to be grown this year are sugar beet and oilseed rape. Associated with agriculture there is a haulage contractor in Layer Breton. Horse riding and stabling are available in the area.
A large area to the north of the B1022, Birch Quarry, is operated by Hanson's for gravel extraction.
A number of angling clubs exist and in addition to using Abberton Reservoir other groups make use of several smaller farm irrigation reservoirs which are kept stocked to provide sport. All such angling is carried out under licences from the particular organisation. Plans to drain and restock the lake in Birch Park have, unfortunately, not proved feasible to date. The small pond at Layer Breton is limited to fishing by those under 14 years of age.
Birch has a sports field off the former drive to Birch Hall used now for football by a club from Colchester. The former football team bearing the Birch name now play in Tiptree. Cricket ceased to be played some years ago. Twice yearly the local roads are the scene for major cycling races organised by Colchester Cycling Club.
The most prominent building locally is Layer Marney Tower, still a family home, known as the tallest Tudor Gatehouse in Britain. Open to the public during the summer, on most days except Saturdays. It is also the venue for Craft Fairs, and many other events attracting visitors from many miles. Attached to the Tower is a farm and deer park, with other rare breeds on display. There are also banqueting facilities and the Tower is licensed for civil wedding ceremonies.
The map overleaf contains the surnames of all residents appearing on the three electoral rolls in the year 2000. These residents are eligible to vote in the various elections and the area forms part of the Eastern Region of Britain for the European Parliament; the constituency of North East Essex for the Westminster Parliament; the County Division of Tiptree; the Birch/Messing & Copford Ward of Colchester Borough Council. Birch is administered by a Parish Council which meets monthly in the Memorial Hall. The other two parishes do not have parish councils but hold an annual meeting at which matters of concern are open for discussion. Such meetings are usually attended by relevant council representatives.
(During the last war a large airfield was constructed in Birch and although not a fully active site it was used for transporting troops to Europe by gliders towed by aircraft. Post war it fell into disuse and the land was returned to farming although the runways, and some buildings, survive. Aerial activity is still a matter of concern to residents on occasion as we live almost directly under one of the approach routes to Stansted Airport but more invasive is the noise from Army helicopters based in Colchester.)
This map is a picture of how we see ourselves and it aims to highlight those aspects of life which are meaningful to individuals and especially those which we think may not survive for better, or for worse. Things change constantly and some decisions taken in the preparation of the map, and this text, have been of an arbitrary nature. Nevertheless we hope to have provided something which can be used as a basis for comparison in the years to come. So far as we know there is no precedent for such a map of this area although we are aware that many maps of a similar nature are planned throughout the country to commemorate the New Millennium.
Start at Birch Memorial Hall and walk towards Birch Church and turn right at footpath sign. Follow the path passing St Peter's Church and graveyard on left. Keep on path for some distance until you come to a road. Here turn left on narrow road crossing the end of Birch Lake. Go straight uphill until the lane bends slightly right. Take track on your left through iron gate and keep on this wide track until you reach crossroads. Turn left towards Birch and take the next road on the right at the bottom of the hill. At main Maldon Road crossroads turn left for a few yards to take entrance to Capers Lane track on left going downhill at first. When you reach the first bungalow turn left down School Lane, to left of bungalow, out to the road, at Pudding Green, where you will see the Memorial Hall downhill to your left.
Layer Breton Walk
Starting at the Hare and Hounds on the Heath. Take the road towards Layer de la Haye to the end of the Heath and continue straight ahead (FP 26). After 800 metres turn right onto FP 21 and carry on to the second path on the right (FP 23). Continue on this path until you cross fields to the foot of Layer Breton Hill near Shalom Hall. Cross into Lower Road and follow this turning left at Shatters Road and continue ahead up Winter's Hill. Take second path on the right (FP 2) at the top of the hill. This leads to Mill Lane at the junction with Straightway. Turn right down Straightway and at the end you will be opposite the Hare and Hounds.
Layer Marney Walk
From Layer Marney Church car park head west through gateway and follow track to the right, downhill and continue along the track. Stay along hedge line until you reach a road at Park Gate Farm. Continue up the road opposite (Stockhouse Road) to the crossroads. Cross straight over into Haynes Green Road and after about 300 metres, just before Keeper's Cottage, turn left at the finger post and follow the footpath, turning right across field towards the Ramparts. Follow the Ramparts with grass field on the right until you meet a track. Turn right towards Haynes Green Farm and follow track to the road (Haynes Green Road). Turn right and then left, after the next bend, into Layer Wood just before Keeper's Cottage. Continue bearing right out to Newbridge Road and turn left passing Grass Reasons Farm, turn right into the field at finger post. Cross field and continue downhill keeping to the left to road near Woodview Cottages. Turn left up hill and then right into field crossing towards the Church and so returning to the car park.
Three Parishes Walk
Start at the Hare and Hounds. Leaving the public house on your right take the track on the northern side of the Heath to footpath (FP 5) passing Stamps Farm and follow the field edge to Winter's Hill. Turn left down hill and on reaching the bottom turn right following sign onto footpath (FP 7). Cross stile and keep on up hill and follow out to the road near Layer Marney Tower. Turn right up hill to crossroads and keep straight on into Roundbush Road. Just past Roundbush Farm turn right onto footpath crossing stiles and keep on this path until you reach Mill Lane, Birch. Turn right along Mill Lane and right down Straightway and at the end you will be opposite to the Hare and Hounds.
The Village Signs
The three village signs were all carved by Tony Blyth, a retired vet from Layer Breton, with the joinery skills provided by Tom Wayman of Birch. Each contains references to the history and everyday life in the three villages.
Surrounding the coat of arms of the Round family are the arms of St Peter and St Mary representing the two churches. There are also shields of two other families with local connections, the Gernon family held land in Norman times and the Tendering family were patrons of the living from the 14th to the 18th centuries. The sign is surmounted by an ancient castle representing the fact that Birch had a motte and bailey castle in much earlier times. Local wild life is reflected in a pheasant and a fish.
At the top the Church with trees and geese representing the Heath plus fish for the reservoir and other wildlife. The arms are those of St Catherine's College and St John's Abbey both landowners in earlier times. Barley and wheat depict the farming interest and the whole surrounds the arms of the Norman le Breton family from which the village is named.
Unlike the other signs this is double sided. Dominant is the carving of the Tower and St Mary's Church. On one side the sign shows a tractor, a turkey and a friesian cow. On the other side a horse plough team show the historical significance of farming in the parish. Other carvings depict the rare breeds housed at the Tower including a saddleback pig, soay sheep and a dexter cow. Also shown is a deer now farmed in the parish. The central arms are of the Marney family and the sign also shows a rhea's egg, a bird now bred in the area.
The illustration of Layer Marney sign above is from 'History Through Essex Town and Village Signs' booklets by the Revd
Keith Lovell. They are © Keith Lovell and used with the author's permission.
This map was produced by a sub-committee of Birch Parish Council chaired by Geoff Russell Grant. The map and artwork were prepared by A Hemming. Other members of the group were Mrs H Adams, Mrs M Head, Miss C Iles and Messrs E Hall, J Nicholson and T Wiseman.
The key to the drawings on the front is:
A. Cock Pheasant
B. Hedgehog & Mole
C. Hedingham's 'Bus - the lifeline to Colchester!
D. Purple Tooth Wort, Marsh Marigold, Common Spotted Orchid
E. Orange Tip & Common Butterfly
F. Chaffinch & Dunnock
H. Bee Orchid
I. Horse Rider
K. Swan, Canada Goose, Crested Grebe, Golden Eye, Mallard Drake, Heron, Greylag Goose and Cormorant
L. Pike & Bullnose Stickleback
M. Green & Spotted Woodpeckers
O. Soay Sheep
P. Bramble, Honeysuckle, Dog Rose, Foxglove, Marsh Thistle, Poppy, Bluebell and Primrose.
Q. Rabbit and Squirrel - friends or foes?
R. Stag Beetle, Grass Snake, Frog, Lizard and Slow worm.
S. Children walking to school on the new footpath - the triumph of years of campaigning by villagers.
Originally published on bretonheath.me.uk February 2002