An Introduction to the History of South Essex
South Essex boasts three river catchments: the Thames, the Crouch and the Roach with the Mardyke Valley’s ancient flood-plain also dissecting the area . The river Thames and its estuary is the dominant feature of the Greengrid area; and a key influence on its physical, economic and social development.
There is evidence of human history for 450,000 years in the Thames estuary. It has been used as a major route to and from mainland Europe and farther. So, not surprisingly, you’ll find fine townscapes, landscapes and riverscapes. From the estuary, creeks, and marshes, often juxtaposed with impressive industrial and commercial structures, to the more rural and hilly landscapes of Hadleigh and Benfleet, there is an impressive cultural legacy.
This part of the coast was vulnerable to invaders, so early defences can be traced, beginning at Mucking with a large ringwork. Coalhouse Fort, a fortress of the Napoleonic Wars, later re-equipped by Gordon of Khartoum; and nearby Tilbury Fort, built in the seventeenth century, replaced an earlier Tudor fort, and has a gateway designed in Christopher Wren’s office. Hadleigh Castle was built by Hubert de Burgh, on a spur above marshes and later rebuilt by William of Wykham. There are Martello towers (also from the Napoleonic Wars) and a wide variety of 20th century defences from both World Wars. ( Purfleet Museum). Prittlewell Priory to Southend Pier – the list is extensive: you can find out more about this heritage and how to get there from the interactive map .
By Roman times sheep pasturage was widespread on the marshes, providing wool, hides, meat and huge cheeses. A description of Canvey Island from 1607:
‘…So low lying, that often it is all overflown, except for the higher hillocks on which there is a safe retreat for the sheep. For it pastures about 4,000 sheep of very delicate flavour, which we have seen youths carrying out a womanly task, milk, with small stools fastened to their buttocks and make ewes cheese in those sheds which they call Wickes.’
On Canvey Island, excavation of a ‘red hill’ (the traces of Iron Age or Roman salt-making industry, created by the debris of pottery containers in which brine was evaporated) also yielded remains of hearths and ceramics from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. Large areas of saltmarsh are covered with the remains of oyster storage pits and, with many other shells found on medieval and post-medieval sites, reflect the importance of shellfish production.
Sheep and cattle will actually tolerate salt and some marshes (though freshwater) have already been returned to grazing. Associated projects – Rainham, Aveley, Wennington marshes – People and Wildlife)
The legacy is the great wildlife value of these marshes, particularly along the Thames Estuary.
Other wildlife is drawn to pockets of ancient woodland. Rayleigh Park, created before 1086, lay between two main areas of woodland. The two groups of hills – the larger based in Rayleigh, Hockley and Hadleigh and the smaller forming the Langdon Hills – with extensive tree cover, is where these pockets of ancient woodland, ‘…have entirely escaped the replanting that ruined a third of the ancient woodland of England in the 1950s and 1960s’.