Our first stop on the recent trip up the east coast of Britain was in a little place called Mistley which is situated on the River Stour in Essex. You may have heard of Manningtree which is a little further up the river as it is the smallest town in England. Mistley’s use as a port can be traced back to the Roman occupation with archaeological evidence indicating that a Roman road connected its riverside to the important garrison town of Colchester (Camulodunum).
Both Manningtree and Mistley are attractive towns with Georgian and Victorian architecture. Manningtree was a centre for cloth in Tudor times with barges transporting it to London and it is believed that the reference to Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV as “that roasted Manningtree Ox” relates to the practice of roasting a whole ox at the town’s medieval annual fair.
Mistley is also the village where Matthew Hopkins lived – the notorious Witch Finder General, who struck terror into the local community during the 17th Century.
In the 18th Century local landowner Richard Rigby MP attempted to develop Mistley into a fashionable spa town, symbolised by a swan. He hired the architect Robert Adam, to design and remodel the existing church. The two towers are the only remaining parts now after the centre section of the medieval church was demolished in 1870. It is the only known church modelled by Adams remaining.
We stayed at the Mistley Thorn which overlooks the quay and is a short stroll away from the riverside. The malting industry has declined in Mistley, and the majority of malthouses and stores, have become redundant over the decades, with the inevitable result that vandals and arsonists have taken their toll on the town’s industrial architecture. The quay is currently derelict and fenced off, causing much distress to locals.
The “Free The Quay” organisation have spent the last five years, or so, fighting for the reopening of what they maintain is a historical right of access since the Trent Wharfage Company decided to fence off the publicly accessible 130 metre section of the quay in 2008.
The Old Barley Stores on the riverfront have been converted into luxury apartments, meaning that Mistley still looks like a town of malthouses, even if people are now living where the grain was once stored.
Nearby is a food processing factory. The English Diastatic Malt Extract Company (EDME) was originally founded there in 1884. The site is now a specialist research & development facility. The whole area is filled with the distinct nostril stimulating smell of malting grains. Eating a granary loaf will never be the same again.
An evening stroll along the riverside was not very exciting. Passing the local ‘lads’ hanging outside the Towers in their souped-up cars, music blaring, cans of lager and dodgy smelling cigarettes was a tad unnerving, but we moved through them as quickly as possible and on to the riverside walk. Unfortunately the tide was out so we were faced with mud and sand banks. Brent geese, a couple of swans with their cygnets and some gulls waded in the mud. It might be a nice spot on a summer’s day with the tide in as it is tree-lined with lots of benches from where to take in the view. But on this evening it all felt a bit sinister.
Hence I changed my camera settings for a more dramatic effect.
The Mistley Thorn is a restaurant with rooms – large, homely and comfortable rooms, ours overlooked the river AND the road. With no aircon we had the windows open, but even in such a small place there is a lot of traffic noise especially early in the morning. The following night we closed the windows which do have secondary glazing, and there was no noise. However, in the unseasonable hot and humid weather we were having it was uncomfortably warm. The hotel serves excellent food and it does get very busy, we ate there both nights and can honestly say it is worth doing so. Breakfasts were equally delicious and all the staff we encountered were more than friendly. A good spot to stay if you want, as we did, to explore Constable country and the Beth Chatto Gardens and be close to Colchester and if you don’t mind the smell of malting grain…
We discovered that Mistley Thorn was the base of Matthew Hopkins, self appointed Witch Finder General, from 1642 at the start of the Civil War. Hopkins, the son of a Puritan minister, was born at Great Wenham, Suffolk in 1620. He was based in Manningtree & Mistley during the age of the brutal witch-hunts 1645-1647 during which 112 people were hanged for witchcraft, 82 coming from Essex. Hopkins and his colleague John Stearne were responsible for most of these. The witch finders were paid twenty shillings in fees and expenses for each successful prosecution, which became such a burden to the local towns. They were most successful in 1645 when 33 women were locked in cells in Colchester Castle and tried at the County Assizes in Chelmsford. All except one were found guilty. Fifteen were hanged in Chelmsford, four were hanged on the village green in Manningtree, nine were later reprieved and four died in the cells. Hopkins himself died of consumption in 1647. He is buried in an unmarked grave at St Mary’s church, Mistley Heath. The statutory offence of witchcraft punishable by death was repealed in 1736.
Witchfinders – A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy is by Malcolm Gaskill, published by John Murray