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Bringing Home the Bacon at Little Dunmow

A rural walk and how married couples compete for a side of bacon.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 1hr 45min

Ascent/gradient 89ft (27m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Grassy and farm tracks, field-edge paths liable to be muddy after rain

Landscape Disused railway track, riverside meadow and farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 195 Braintree & Saffron Walden

Start/finish TL 655216

Dog friendliness A nice frolic on Flitch Way but watch out for cyclists and keep on lead by fields

Parking Informal street parking in Little Dunmow

Public toilets None on route

1 Park outside the Flitch of Bacon pub in The Street. From the pub turn right and right again into Grange Lane and after 100yds (91m), turn left at the fingerpost. Follow the yellow waymarks between houses and after 200yds (183m) turn right, pass the Church of St Mary the Virgin on your left, and join to the Flitch Way.

2 The church is all that remains of the old Augustinian priory of Little Dunmow and its main claim to fame is its association with the Flitch Trial. Founded in the 12th century it was, like other religious houses dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536. As you leave the church you pass Priory Place. This house was one of several which belonged to the priory, beyond it is the site of the priory fishponds. These were kept well stocked to provide food, but there is no record of a Flitch fish trial.

3 Turn right on to the Flitch Way and follow it for 1 mile (1.6km) until you reach the metal and brick bridge. Here take the steps down on the right and turn left under the bridge. Keep to the main footpath as it bears right towards the A120, with the River Chelmer on your left. Maintain direction until you pass two footbridges over the River Chelmer. Do not cross the bridges, but instead turn right on to the footpath, parallel with the river on your left.

4 Climb the wooden steps to rejoin the Flitch Way, turn left over the old railway bridge and descend 21 wooden steps to continue north along the footpath with the river on your left. As the river meanders towards the stone bridge, go straight ahead towards the yellow waymark. Follow the waymarks directly uphill until you reach the plantation of trees at the summit. Turn left, keeping the trees on your right, and maintain direction uphill on the often very muddy field-edge path for 500yds (457m).

5 Turn left on to the concrete track, Grange Lane, and follow it back to Little Dunmow. At the T-junction turn left into The Street where you will see an old water pump on the left just before the Flitch of Bacon pub. Continue to the pub for a well-earned rest.

The tiny village of Little Dunmow was the original home of an ancient ceremony known as the Dunmow Flitch Trial. A flitch, or side of bacon, was awarded to a married couple who could claim that they had lived in total peace and harmony for a year and a day. Nobody is sure how or why the ceremony came to be, but one theory is that the church authorities preferred couples to marry rather than live together as common law man and wife and a side of bacon, at a time when both food and money were scarce, provided an edible bonus. Winning such a prize in those days was equivalent to winning today's national lottery and one enterprising couple made a tidy profit by carving off slices to sell to hungry sightseers!

The ceremony fell out of favour by the mid-18th century but was revived in 1855, thanks to a publicity stunt by novelist Harrison Ainsworth (1805-82). His book, The Flitch of Bacon was a hit the year before, and in an effort to cash in on its success, he was instrumental in arranging for the Flitch Trial to be moved from Little Dunmow to Great Dunmow. Presiding as judge he awarded a flitch of bacon to an Ongar builder and his wife and, ever since, the Flitch Trial has been held at Great Dunmow every leap year.

This 15 mile (24km) linear nature park occupyies the site of the old Bishop's Stortford-to-Braintree railway line. Today high hedgerows either side of the railway form a canopy full of wildlife. The line opened in 1869 and provided services for passengers, farmers and local industries who transported goods to main towns along the route. Passenger services stopped in 1952 and the line was eventually closed down in 1969.

What to look for

Inside Little Dunmow's church is the tomb of Walter Fitzwalter, a descendant of Robert Fitzwalter, lord of the manor, and some believe the founder of the Dunmow Flitch Trial. You can also see the oak chair in which successful claimants of the Flitch of Bacon were enthroned each year, and medieval Latin graffiti left by a monk which translates as 'a short life and a merry one.'

Where to eat and drink

The Flitch of Bacon pub in Little Dunmow serves tasty meals in the restaurant and in the gardens opposite. Great Dunmow has a wider range of hostelries: choose from the Star Inn, the Saracens Head or the Boars Head, all with lots of old world atmosphere.

While you're there

Great Dunmow, which has several old coaching inns, retains the atmosphere of a prosperous market town. Attractions include the Old Town Hall built in 1578 where the revived Flitch Trials are held every leap year, a new museum for local history enthusiasts and the Doctor's Pond, named after Dr Rayner who kept his leeches there.

Essex

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