Where the Witchfinder General was born and buried and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Distance 7 miles (11.3km)
Minimum time 3hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 98ft (30m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Field paths, footpaths, tracks and sections of road, may be boggy, 5 stiles
Landscape River estuary, undulating farmland dotted with woodland and residential areas
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 184 Colchester, Harwich & Clacton-on-Sea
Start/finish TM 093322
Dog friendliness Can romp free in woodland but must be on lead on farmland and in town
Parking Pay-and-display at Manningtree Station; free at weekends
Public toilets Manningtree Station
© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
1 From the car park turn right at the Dedham fingerpost following the sign for Lawford on a steep, grassy path to St Mary's Church. Go through the black gate and, keeping the church on your right, cross the stile over the church wall. Turn left and, at the wooden post, follow the yellow waymark half right across the meadow. Cross the earth bridge over Wignell Brook, then go left uphill keeping the line of trees on your right. Just before the house at the top of the hill, cross the stile and bear left to Cox's Hill, on to the A137.
2 Cross Cox's Hill, turn left and after 40yds (37m), at a fingerpost marking the Essex Way, turn right. Walk downhill with trees on your left and a pond on your right. Pass the housing estate on your left and cross the plank bridge over a stream. Follow the gravel path through the Owl Conservation Area. Ignoring the concrete path on the left, turn half right on to the cross-field path towards playing fields. Cross Colchester Road, and at the T-junction turn right into Trinity Road, ignoring signs for the Essex Way. At the Evangelical church turn left between houses to New Road, the Wagon and Horses pub is on the left.
3 Cross New Road and follow the yellow waymarked footpath between backs of houses. At the T-junction turn left on to the wide canopied bridleway. After 70yds (64m) follow the waymark half right and rejoin the Essex Way. Maintain direction, crossing an earth bridge over the brook followed by two stiles. Just after the second stile, follow the track between two concrete posts into the thickly wooded slopes of Furze Hill. As you emerge from the woods, go straight ahead keeping to the field-edge path to Church Farm. Turn left here on to Heath Road.
4 Cross the road to the low wall to see the remains of St Mary's Church. Continue north and turn left on to the B1352 and into Shrubland Road which soon becomes a green lane. Cross the first stile on the right and walk under the railway. Turn left into Mistley Green which joins the High Street.
5 Turn left at the High Street, and follow The Walls beside the River Stour into Manningtree. Turn left into the High Street and continue for a mile (1.6km) along Station Road to the car park.
On the banks of the River Stour, Manningtree and neighbouring Mistley have long been associated with mills, maltings and timber. In 1753, ships for the Napoleonic Wars were built at Mistley Quay, and Newcastle coal, Scandinavian timber, grain, bricks, chalk, flour and hay were brought down river and transported by barge to London. But these tiny towns, separated by a few miles, are possessed of a darker side... witches!
Cast your mind back to the bad old days of 1644 and imagine reputed witches fleeing from Manningtree's most infamous resident, Matthew Hopkins, better known as the Witchfinder General. If you were female and happened to own a black cat, you risked being branded a witch, to be hunted down by Hopkins' band of distinctly unmerry men. Securing a conviction for witchcraft on the flimsiest of evidence was Hopkins' stock-in-trade, a profession made more unpalatable by the fact that Parliament paid him 20 shillings for each 'guilty' witch. The fate of Hopkins himself is in dispute. Some believe he died a peaceful death at his home in Manningtree in 1647, while others say he was eventually subjected to one of his own witchfinding tests, was found guilty and sentenced to death accordingly. He is believed to be buried in St Mary's Church at Mistley.
This walk starts from Manningtree Station overlooking the River Stour, which separates Essex from Suffolk, and rises to 14th-century St Mary's Church at Lawford to join the Essex Way. It crosses undulating meadows and thick forest, perfect territory for fleeing witches. A green lane emerges at Mistley where the Swan Fountain is the last surviving example of landowner Richard Rigby's attempts to turn the area into a fashionable spa.
By the end of the 17th century, Mistley and Manningtree were flourishing, busy ports. Malting, Mistley's oldest industry, took off too, and you can still see the chimneys of the English Diastatic Malt Extract Company (EDME) factory on this walk. If you follow the River Stour, through a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), back to Manningtree you may spot a large colony of swans, attracted by the waste of the maltings, and other estuary birds including shelduck, teal and ringed plover.
At Manningtree, many of the roof beams of the delightful shops and houses in the High Street date back to Elizabethan times. The witches are long gone, or so they say, and it's hard to believe that between 1644 and 1646 up to 300 victims were rounded up in these parts. Hopkins sometimes held court at local inns, but most of his victims were sent for trial at the notorious Chelmsford Assizes, and many were tried on the evidence of children. Those found guilty were either burnt at the stake or hanged, some of them here on Manningtree's tiny green.
Halfway through the walk, in Manningtree itself, you can stop for lunch and a refreshing pint at the Wagon and Horses in New Road. Vegetarian options and a good selection of teas can be had at Trinity House Tea Room in the High Street - the profits go to a local initiative called Acorn Village, which helps people with disabilities.
In Manningtree look for fine examples of weavers' cottages in Brook Street and South Street and, suspended against a tower, an effigy of the Manningtree Ox, immortalised in Shakespeare's Henry IV.
Visit the cold war operations centre at Mistley's secret bunker, just before the green lane to Manningtree. In the bunker, built in 1951 half above and half below ground, you can experience sound effects, watch a video and learn how Essex would react in a nuclear attack.