A gentle walk combining rolling countryside and one of the finest motte and bailey castles in Britain.
Distance 3 miles (4.8km)
Minimum time 1hr 30min
Ascent/gradient 56ft (17m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Grassy tracks, field and woodland paths prone to muddiness, some roads, 1 stile
Landscape Gently rolling farmland, woodland and brook
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 183 Chelmsford & The Rodings, Maldon & Witham
Start/finish TL 662142
Dog friendliness Stacks of mud and lots of water to cool paws, but should be on lead along fields
Parking Free car park at the village hall
Public toilets None on route
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1 From the car park at the village hall, walk to The Street and turn right passing Holy Trinity Church on your right and the White Horse pub on your left. After the church you will see the 16th-century gatehouse, behind which is the convent, collectively they are known as the House of Retreat. Just after the restored water pump turn right into Pump Lane. After 100yds (91m), on your left you will see the bridge over the moat - the entrance into the earthworks of the motte and bailey castle.
2 With your back to the castle, and keeping the church to your right, walk across the cricket field to the waymark beside the wooden gate. Turn right along the concrete path keeping the field on your left. Maintain direction, ignoring two footpaths on the right and one on the left by the reservoir.
3 At the second fingerpost, left, follow the bridleway bounded by trees. This path, which may be very muddy after rain, passes by Fitzjohn's Wood affording good views of rolling countryside. Beyond the outline of Holy Trinity Church you can appreciate the advantage of the hillside location of Pleshey Castle.
4 When you are level with the old house on the right, which was Fitzjohn's Farm, walk a few paces to the line of trees on your left and turn left on to the field-edge path, downhill. At the bottom of the hill, ignore the wooden footbridge over the brook to your left and follow the path which bears left over an earth bridge. After 100yds (91m) turn right over another earth bridge at Walthambury Brook and climb over the stile fence and up the embankment, so that the brook is now on your left. You are now on the grassy path of the Essex Way, which follows Walthambury Brook all the way to The Street at Pleshey.
5 Turn left at The Street and turn right into Back Lane, passing Pleshey Hall Cottages on your left. At the fingerpost marked Pleshey Grange, turn right into Vicarage Lane, passing Pleshey Forge on your left. At the next fingerpost, turn left on to the grassy path which follows the Town Enclosure, with the ditch on your left. Cross the footbridge and maintain direction until you reach the White Horse pub on your left and emerge into The Street. Turn right to return to the car park.
Long before the Norman conquest in 1066, Pleshey was occupied by a Saxon settlement, but the village is better known for its motte and bailey castle. William the Conqueror gave the land to Geoffrey de Mandeville whose castle once crowned the towering, flat-topped grassy mound, or motte, dominating the village and countryside. Constructed from soil dug out to make a deep ditch, or moat, the motte was enclosed by earth and timber stockades inside which was a wooden tower, later replaced by one of stone. Here lived the Mandevilles, while the open area in front of it, the bailey, or courtyard, was crammed with stables, barns and storehouses. Today nothing remains of the castle apart from the 14th-century brick bridge, believed to be the oldest in Britain.
Intrigue and heartbreak plagued Pleshey Castle. In 1142, Geoffrey de Mandeville's grandson, also named Geoffrey, was arrested for his allegiance to King Stephen's rival, Matilda. He secured his release by forfeiting both Pleshey and Saffron castles and the Tower of London, only to be killed two years later. Eventually Pleshey passed to the Duke of Gloucester, who met his fate at Calais in 1397, murdered on the orders of his nephew, Richard II, who seized the castle and all his possessions. The Duchess of Gloucester was so grief-stricken that she fled to a nunnery at Barking, but returned to Pleshey to die.
Pleshey, which over the centuries developed to the north of the motte and bailey, is surrounded by a stream and a partly water-filled ditch known as the Town Enclosure. Today the village, with its two pubs, picturesque 16th- and 17th-century cottages and village hall, evokes a real sense of community. But like many places throughout the country, Pleshey's castle, church and College of Canons were seized by Henry VIII and given to a greedy kinsman, John Gates. Gates destroyed everything, and only the earthworks and a few arches in the church remind us of Pleshey's former glory.
The walk takes in part of the Essex Way, a national recreational footpath, which slices through the village along The Street passing the White Horse pub and the Leather Bottle and follows Walthambury Brook. Before, or after the walk, take time to visit the interior of Holy Trinity Church where a stone on the wall, reputed to have come from Pleshey Castle, reads 'Ricardus Rex II', a reminder of its royal patronage. Next door is the country's first House of Retreat, owned by the Diocese of Chelmsford. A former convent, it played an important role as a convalescent home for Belgian soldiers injured in World War One, and today is a haven of peace and prayer welcoming all denominations.
Look for the tombstone of Humphrey Sargant in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church. He was a local trader who issued the Pleshey Farthing as a supplement to the State coinage during the mid-17th century. The coin has a crest on one side and a shield of arms on the other. They have been found in freshly ploughed fields.
Pleshey Castle is private property but can be visited by prior appointment by telephoning 01245 360239. If you stand at the top of the motte you can see the Town Enclosure laid out below you to the west, north and east. Alternatively, look at the aerial photographs of the castle which are displayed inside the White Horse pub.
The White Horse, dating back to the 17th century, is full of character and atmosphere. It has an attractive beer garden and serves excellent home cooked food. You can even research your own recipe from the extensive collection of cookery books in the lounge. The Leather Bottle, another old pub, also serves first class meals.