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Halstead's Courtaulds Connection

A charming town and country walk discovering the influence of the Courtauld family and their textile legacy.

Distance 3 miles (4.8km)

Minimum time 1hr 15min

Ascent/gradient 90ft (27m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Town streets and grassy tracks

Landscape Urban, river and meadow

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 195 Braintree & Saffron Walden

Start/finish TL 812306

Dog friendliness Pleasant on-lead town walk but most dogs will prefer the meadow

Parking Pay-and-display in Chapel Street and Mill Bridge

Public toilets Chapel Street

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1 Turn right into Chapel Street then left into the High Street by the post office. Walk up Market Hill to the Jubilee Fountain for panoramic views of the layout of the town and note the distant Mount Hill, proof that not all of Essex is flat.

2 Turn left into Hedingham Road (A1124) passing Halstead Hospital and the Courtauld Homes of Rest on your right. Turn left into Box Mill Lane where several cottages and larger dwellings attest to further building by the Courtaulds.

3 At the end of Box Mill Lane, maintain direction into Box Mill Meadow, a fine picnic spot, and cross the footbridge over the River Colne as it flows south into the town. Along the river bank, traces of rubble are all that remain of the two mills, one a watermill and the other wind powered, that once occupied this spot. Take the footpath to the left.

4 At the edge of Halstead Town Football Ground, cross the stile and maintain your direction along the footpath which becomes a grassy track, the former route of the Halstead and Colne Valley Railway. Go straight ahead into Butler Road, which was named after R A Butler (1902-82), better known as Rab, Conservative politician and Member of Parliament for Saffron Walden. At the T-junction with Trinity Street notice the redevelopment across the road, where flats and a park area called Trinity Court now stand on the site of the old railway station.

5 Turn right and walk to Trinity Church on your right. Close by are some of the oldest houses in the town. Retrace your steps for a few paces and turn right just after the police station into New Street. Note the public gardens opposite the Methodist church, turn left into Martin Street, then left again and right into Factory Lane West by the tourist information office.

6 Turn left into The Causeway, Courtaulds old Townsford Mill on the right, and walk ahead into Bridge Street. Turn right to cross the bridge over the River Colne and go into the High Street to the post office. Pause here awhile to note the varied architecture around you. Walk along Chapel Street and return to the car park.

Surrounded by the gentle rolling countryside of the Colne Valley in north Essex, Halstead developed over many centuries as a busy market town and, in the Middle Ages, much of its prosperity came from the wool trade. In the early 19th century Samuel Courtauld (1793-1881), an industrious and successful businessman, brought a new lease of life to the town. A descendant of a Huguenot refugee family, he set up in business as a silk throwster (a person who twists silk fibres into thread) and his family went on to found the internationally known Courtaulds company.

Courtaulds had its share of ups and downs, but always seemed one step ahead of its competitors, due to a policy of diversification. When the silk industry dwindled, mainly due to French competition, the company specialised in the production of mourning crêpe, which was to become the definitive fashion material during, and after, Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901). When crêpe fell out of favour, Courtaulds turned to the manufacture of artificial silk which became such a success that brand name materials such as Celanese saw the company through the depression of the 1930s.

The Courtaulds connection with Halstead began in 1825 when Samuel Courtauld bought the present Townsford Mill and converted it to produce silk-woven fabrics; much of the raw material was imported in bulk from India. In those days the cloth was produced in the workers' homes and some of these early weavers' cottages can still be seen next to the mill in Bridge Street. By 1891 the mill became one of England's largest employers, where 1,400 people, the vast majority young girls and women, toiled at 1,000 looms.

The Courtauld family left legacies throughout Halstead and on this walk you will discover some of them, such as the Jubilee Fountain at the top of Market Street, on a spot previously occupied by the old Market Cross. In Hedingham Lane you can see the Courtaulds workers' houses which are named after characters and titles from Jane Austen's novels. The family also footed the bill for building Halstead Cottage Hospital while the Homes of Rest next door, a semi-circular row of single-storey dwellings built in 1923, provided much-needed housing for retired silk weavers.

Samuel Courtauld became very rich, and lived to the ripe old age of 88 in an impressive Tudor mansion called Gosfield Hall, a few miles from Halstead. During the 1920s his great-nephew and namesake would often drive or walk along Box Mill where he apparently took a dislike to the housing and duly replaced them with his own preferred style of cottages. The young Samuel (1876-1947) went on to establish the Courtauld Institute of Art in London before he died. In 1982 Courtaulds factory finally closed down but there's little doubt that this name lives on in Halstead.

What to look for

Three-storeyed weavers' homes were still fairly common in Halstead during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these survive in Weavers Row near Parsonage Street. The upper and lower floors were used as domestic quarters while the middle floor, which had one room extending the length of the row, was used as a weaving workshop.

While you're there

Some of the oldest houses in Halstead, dating back to the 14th century, can be seen at the bottom of Chapel Hill. At the top of the High Street is the flint and rubble St Andrew's Church with its lovely tower; some parts date back to the 15th century.

Where to eat and drink

You are spoilt for choice with a range of tea rooms, restaurants and pubs. Of particular historic interest are two 500-year-old coaching inns in the High Street: the White Hart which ran a regular service to Great Yarmouth and the Bull Hotel, which featured in the TV series Lovejoy starring Ian McShane.

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