|Abstract||SALCOTT AND VIRLEY
The story of two lonely villages seven miles from Kelvedon
Written and illustrated by Leslie. W. King
The Essex coast, from the Thames to the Stour, has a remarkably ragged outline, for the marshes bordering the country are everywhere rent by creeks, some of which reach well inland. Countless smaller channels branch off in all directions from these main inlets, forming intricate patterns, so that the flow of the tide twice daily transforms a whole stretch of coast into a watery maze.
This low-lying territory distinguishing the seaward side of the county is a desolate area, as untamed as the wildfowl which inhabit it. For much of the year it is bleak and forbidding, shrouded by dank, swirling mists or swept by fierce, icy winds. Even during the summer months, when nature brings a touch of colour to brighten the dull monotony of the marshes, it can hardly be described as attractive.
In such surrounds are Salcott and Virley, two tiny parishes situated opposite one another at the head of a creek which starts its winding journey inland midway between the Strood and Tollesbury Fleet. Lonely, isolated, these villages are very rarely mentioned, let alone visited and explored, yet they are more than just unusual names on a map and have their own little share of history and tradition.
Salcot post office, which is perhaps everyone's idea of what a village post office is like.
Exactly when some form of settlement was first established in this out-of-the-way corner of Essex must remain a matter of conjecture. What we do know, however, is that at some time during that nebulous period of our history between the departure of the Roman legions and the arrival of the Norman invaders the practice of obtaining salt from the sea by placing salt-pans in the marshes became common hereabouts, and the little collection of saltworkers' cottages which sprang up as a result was subsequently referred to as Salcott.
Various questions come to mind when we try to imagine the village as it was originally. Were the Saxons, slow and unmethodical in their ways, able to achieve a grater measure of prosperity through the salt industry? And if they did, and Salcott developed, were they prey for the marauding Danes who frequent incursion brought fear to this part of the coast? But we ask these questions in vain, for the answers have been lost with the centuries.
In fact, we must turn to the Domesday survey, completed twenty years after the Conqueror's triumph, for our next glimpse of the past. This reveals the existence of an additional settlement on the north bank of Salcott Creek, separate from that previously established opposite and ruled by its own lord, one Robert Verli. Could it be that the Normans, finding themselves up against a stubbornly independent community, wisely decided to build their manor over the water?
The theory is not an illogical one, for there must have been an almost universal mistrust of the brisk, business-like newcomer who seemed to be intent upon organizing everything and everybody. The Normans undoubtedly brought about the upheaval of many lives, and we may sympathize with the people concerned. Yet, surprisingly, it was to matter very little in the long run, for within a century or two the process of integration was well under way and men of Saxon, Danish and Norman extraction were all pleased to call themselves English.
Admittedly the two settlements at Salcott each retained a certain amount of independence, though this may have been largely due to the fact that the creek was wider and more difficult to cross in those days. That on the north bank, still associated with the Verli family, had become known as Salcott Virley, while that on the south, growing in size and importance was now distinguished as Salcott Wigborough.
Morant, in his History of Essex (1768), not only repeats an earlier claim that Salcott Wigborough was once a
market town of some consequence, but also produces a record of 1317 to substantiate it. We may believe it anyway,
for though medieval life was not entirely static a town or village had to be almost completely self-supporting if it
was to survive. Salcott, in its isolation had to grow or die, and with typical marshland determination chose the former course.
Probably the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw Salcott Wigborough at the height of its prosperity. During this period much church rebuilding - a reliable indication of affluence - was carried out, and the houses erected - parts of some of which survive today - were such as befitted a flourishing community.
Yet within 100 years or so the picture had altered completely and Salcott Wigborough was declining rapidly. Such changes of fortune were symptomatic of the times, for the policy of concentrating industry and trade within the main towns had taken away much of the importance formerly enjoyed by rural centres. In this particular instance, a tiny landing-place and a handful of small ships could no longer compete with ports and harbours now boasting large fleets of considerable tonnage.
But Salcott and Virley, as the two villages became conveniently labelled, depended on the sea for their existence and we net hear of them in very different circumstances - as a centre for the smuggling operations carried out along this part of the coast during eh seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The amount of traffic in contraband goods in Essex was small in comparison with that in other counties, smuggling here being practiced mainly because it enabled the village fishermen to augment their otherwise meagre livelihood. Most of the run goods were disposed of locally, the inns in particular not being averse to receiving a steady supply of liquor. Sometimes, however, the merchandise landed was of such a nature as to make dispersal farther inland advisable, in which case it was hidden (we are told) in Salcott church pending its eventual transfer to Tiptree Heath, where regular sales of smuggled goods was held.
In writing of Salcott and Virley and this colourful episode in their history it is impossible not to mention Mehalah, Sabine Baring-Gould's well-known story of the salt marshes. Set in the late eighteenth century, and often referring to the two villages, this fierce, gripping tale has both fact and fancy among its historical ingredients, together with some very vivid word-pictures for the moods and melancholy of the Essex coast.
Victorian times saw the "Siamese-twin" parishes, as Baring-Gould so aptly described them, in a sorry plight.
The church at Virley was now so dilapidated as to be unusable, while that at Salcott fared little better, being bereft of its chancel and part of its nave. The final humiliation came in 1884, when the earthquake which affected this area shattered the tottering remains of both places of worship.
But the situation, though serious, was not altogether hopeless. An assessment of the damage revealed that the fine fifteenth-century tower of Salcott church, which had fortunately been restored a few years earlier, was still intact and could well form the basis of a new place of worship to serve the two villages. In fact, it did, for rebuilding work was carried out during 1893, following the original fourteenth-century plan where possible and using much material salvaged from the ruins.
Since then Salcott and Virley have continued to follow their own quiet pattern of life, changing little with the years. But though their fortunes are so closely linked they differ considerably in appearance, the one concentrating its population along a single street, the other scattering it so widely that all semblance of a village is lost.
The street at Salcott is a quaint, hotchpotch affair, lined with a delightfully varied selection of old houses and
cottages, some half-timbered, some weatherboarded, some plastered, with an odd thatched barn or two thrown in to add
further confusion - and an extra touch of the picturesque - to the whole arrangement. Rubbing shoulders with the dwelling-places are a public-house and a post office, the latter, which has the distinction of being the only hereabouts, serving also as a general store supplying the more immediate needs of the villagers.
St Mary's Church, Salcott
Salcott church, standing at the eastern end of the parish, is not entirely without interest. Its tower and porch both display some pleasing and decorative features of pre-Reformation building work, and if its interior fittings are mainly modern, we can find much to compensate us in the elegant eighteenth-century pulpit with its delicate inlaid panels. Tradition, too, has its place, for the two large slots cut in the stonework of the doorway are said to have taken the bar put across the church door when smuggled goods were being concealed.
Virley, from the visitor's point of view, can be said to comprise the small cluster of buildings that lies to the north of the little bridge connecting the two parishes. Here, if we search diligently, we may discover the church ruins, hidden away in the rectory grounds and suffering the indignity of having become complete overgrown. These crumbling, ivy-clad remains present a sorry picture, and it is particularly sad to see the once-proud chancel arch now supported by an iron brace. But times have changed considerably since those far-off days when it was possible to maintain places of worship on both sides of Salcott Creek, and Virley church moulders away unheeded.
Such, then, are the present-day villages, with Salcott again the little collection of dwelling-places it was at the beginning of its story 1,000 or more year ago, and Virley, the previously independent offspring, once more virtually part of it. The wheel of fortune, as far as these remote Essex parishes are concerned, has indeed turned full circle.
Article from Essex Countryside 1962
Transcribed by Anne Taylor August 2020
Parish Church of St Mary Salcott - a history