Braintree Essex, a place that has a special place in my heart. I was born in Braintree…although the hospital has since been flattened and replaced by houses…and lived there for over 26 years. I’ve seen it change over the years, I watched Braintree Freeport being built from the window of my maths lessons. It took me moving away to realise what I had under my nose all along, I appreciate it and see it in a totally different light now. I’m going to share with you some of my favourite places in town, a little about the history of Braintree and some hidden surprises!
Braintree is located in the county of Essex (England for my overseas readers!), just an hour away by direct train from London (Braintree has two train stations, Braintree and Braintree Freeport), Stansted Airport is just 16 miles away and the larger towns or Colchester and Chelmsford (now officially a city!) are a 20-25 minute drive.
Lets start with the elephant in the room…Freeport Braintree! A lot of locals blame Freeport for killing the town centre off, but there’s no getting around the fact that it is somewhere that brings in visitors from out of town. It took long enough for Freeport to take off, I remember it always used to be deserted! But now there’s no denying that it is the entertainment hub of Braintree! The shopping village is home to discount designer outlets and coffee shops. In the same area there are several major restaurant chains (TGI Fridays, Nandos), the Braintree Swimming Centre, a 12 screen Cineworld cinema, Namco Funscape bowling alley (the arcade where you can win tickets for prizes is really fun!) and Partyman World of Play (soft play area, previously Crazy Kids).
My favourite shops in Freeport Braintree: Bags Etc – cheap suitcases, hand luggage bags and travel accessories (possibly gone now…obviously my obsession was keeping them in business)! Mountain Warehouse – again, another travel/outdoor adventure shop. Cadburys – selling Cadburys products in bulk and ‘rejects’ at a discount (I really should have stocked up on my last trip home, it’s like a British expat’s dream!).
Parking at Freeport Braintree is free for 6 HOURS. If you plan on being there for longer than 6 hours (by the time you’ve had a meal, been shopping, watched a film etc), you can validate your car registration number by going into the tourist information centre in the middle of the shopping village (please bare in mind that the shopping village shuts BEFORE some of the surrounding businesses). As mentioned above, it also has its own train station just a short walk away.
Historic Braintree – Bradford Street
So back to the town centre! Braintree dates back over 4000 years and was once a settlement on an old roman road, after all Colchester just 25 minutes away, is said to be the oldest recorded town in Great Britain! One historic street worth a wander along (and I’ve actually been on a history walk of this street!) is Bradford Street, which has houses that date back to the 13th century. The street has connections to the cloth trade, an industry that Braintree has deep roots in. For those that are interested, you can visit the Warner Textile Archive, located in the old Warner and Sons Mill along Silks Way. The displays include silks that were made for Royal Coronations.
Some of my favourite looking houses along Bradford Street include numbers 77, 79 and 81, which used to be The Woolpack Inn. Parts of the building are earlier than others due to extensions being built, but the earlier parts date back to the 1400’s. They have recently been repainted and I love how bright and colourful they now look!
Bocking Mill can be found right at the very end of Bradford Street (heading away from the town centre). It was built in the late 1500’s and was originally a cloth mill, then a flour mill and has now been converted into a house. It was recently up for sale and cost £1.3million!
Number 114 ‘The Tudor House’ was built in the early 1500’s. I love the look of the timber beams, again just like The Woolpack it has been repainted so the black really stands out against the black of the beams!
(The Tudor House)
Wentworth House, another house built in the 1500’s is another ‘good looking’ house, it’s bright yellow! But if you head down Woolpack Lane to St James Road, you’ll come across this (image below), which belongs to Wentworth House. I’ve asked around in a local Braintree group to find out exactly what it is but there have been mixed reviews! Some say it’s an old iron gateway from their back garden that used to lead to Queen’s Meadow, others say it’s a summer house (and a lot say it’s haunted!), either way it’s a pretty cool thing to have at the end of your garden!
This site is great if you want to find out more about the houses along Bradford Street.
The Braintree Cage
The ‘Braintree Cage’ is a strange but cool find located along New Street (opposite the entrance to Tesco’s carpark). The sign on the side of it says it was: “Built as an overnight lock-up for the restraint of the drunk and disorderly” and was in use between 1840 – 1875. It’s literally the tiniest brick building which I personally think should still be in use…although I don’t think it would be big enough…hehe!
St Michaels Church
No one is really sure how old St Michaels Church is, it is thought that parts of it may be as old as the 12th Century and has traces of Roman brickwork. It has a lot of personal history for me, my parents got married there and I was Christened at St Michaels when I was a baby. Next to the church is the Fountain, which worked, then it didn’t, but is now back working again after it was restored! It’s been in the news several times due to it being filled with bubbles…
Braintree Museum is located on Manor Street in Braintree Town Centre. It is in the old Manor Street School building. The school was built in 1862 and closed only as recently as 1990, with it opening as a museum in 1993. It is home to an authentic Victorian class room, where school groups can take part in a role play, giving them the opportunity to experience what school was like back in the Victorian era. The museum celebrates the history of Braintree, with exhibits on the large industrial companies that called Braintree home, the effect of World War I and II on Braintree and Roman artefacts found during excavation digs around the town. They also have temporary exhibits too which only last for a few months at a time.
Weird Street Names in Braintree Essex
There are a couple of really weird street names in Braintree, well not so much street, they are more like tiny alleyways. One, which can be found in the Town Centre is: “Pigs Head In The Pottage Pot Gant”…yeah, a bit of a mouthful! Another is “Bird In Hand Gant” which connects Coggeshall Road with Cressing Road.
Present Day Braintree Town Centre
A question that is asked all the time by newcomers to Braintree is “Where is the best fish and chip shop”, in my opinion it’s Smith and Jones located on Rayne Road. Not only do they do great fish and chips, I’ve found them to be open when other ‘chip shops’ in town have been shut!
The best takeaway shop (that’s not fish and chips): The Best Kebab House In Town…their potato wedges are YUMMY. They are like roast potatoes but have a coating that’s similar to what you’d find on fried chicken.
Open Spaces and Walks in Braintree Essex
I may be bias having lived along it for most of my life, but I love the Bocking Blackwater walk. It can be found on the north side of the Fairview Estate, with several access points starting at Bridport Way on the far East (and actually part of the Kings Park estate) and River Mead on the West side (near Braintree College). It has recently been re-tarmaced, which has made it suitable for pushchairs and bikes. It would have been a lifesaver if it was like that when I was at college, I used to have to cross the field towards River Mead with no footpath and some days it would be really muddy! (I also remember when the River Mead area used to be a cow field!) There’s also a boardwalk that goes closer to the river edge in one area, a weir (which in recent days has become a popular swimming spot with school kids) and a bridge which crosses over towards Convent Lane that is great for playing Pooh Sticks!
The Public Gardens
One of my all time FAVOURITE areas of Braintree is the Public Gardens. The gardens were donated to the people of Braintree by Sydney Courtald in 1888 (Courtald being one of the BIG Braintree manufacturing names). He felt like locals needed a quiet space to ‘get away’ from things and for children to be able to play safe. 130 years later his aim is definitely still being fulfilled. There’s been a children’s playground for as long as I can remember, a large grass area that holds special events (such as: the Little Legs Festival, Family Fun Days with inflatables, open air cinema screenings and brass band concerts), tennis courts available for hire, a coffee shop, a lily pond, the ‘John Ray Garden’ and a small wildlife area with an observation hide…I actually saw a munjac deer there over Easter! It’s hard to imagine you are in the middle of town when you are in the gardens!
The Flitch Way
The Flitch Way is a 15 mile walking route between Braintree and Bishops Stortford. The route lays along a disused railway route which was in operation between 1869 – 1974 (when the tracks were then removed). The benefit of it being an old rail route, is that it’s long, flat and avoids roads, making it a safe place for dog walkers, cyclists and even horse riders! I haven’t actually completed the whole route from Braintree, we usually stop at Rayne Station which is home to the Booking Hall Cafe (amazing cakes and sandwiches) and the Carriage Museum. It takes around 40 minutes to walk between Braintree and Rayne. We usually park at the Braintree train station (in the lower car park), on a weekend all day parking is £3.
One thing I miss about Braintree now I live in America, are the amount of public footpaths that cut through the farmland surrounding Braintree. You can walk through the fields from Broad Road (not far from the Bocking Mill in Bradford Street) to Bocking Windmill, during one walk I took, the fields were a lovely purple colour! Bocking Windmill has been in its current location since 1829 (but was originally built in 1721) and was in operation until 1929. The windmill is sometimes open for tours, although it is no longer in working order, visitors can still see some of the original equipment.
Looking for places to visit around the Braintree area? I share my 10 favourite things in my post: Things To Do In Essex, England