Thurrock History Society: Hidden in Plain Sight by Twigs Way

AT our March meeting we welcomed Twigs Way, Research Consultant with the Essex Gardens Trust. Working with the Land of the Fanns she worked on a project to find the lost gardens of Thurrock. The project was in four parts – 50 Fabulous Features, 17 Sites, 15 Lost Gardens and 12 Volunteer Researchers. 

The project focused on the whole area, Thurrock, Havering and Langdon. Ms Way delivered a series of inter-active training sessions for an enthusiastic band of researchers, using photos, historic material etc. They 

looked at garden history and landscapes, noting the changing history of the area and looking at what remains.  They looked at sites with fresh eyes, seeing the wider context of landscape as a whole, visiting the Essex Record Office and other venues. More sites were discovered, focusing on finding the 18th and 19th century period, using maps. One of the sites visited was Belhus, when a Tudor garden was discovered.

For the 50 Fabulous Features each volunteer was asked to study at least one individual feature. They looked at what was valuable in the area, something that had not been done before. Although there are no Chatsworths in the area, a feature could be anything – gardens, WW2 river barriers, spa water bottling industry, ponds, trees, brickworks, stepping stones etc. It was great fun and features such as a paddling pool, rock gardens and Grays park were studied, each different and fascinating. Her many slides showed such things as the stench pipe at Belhus Park. Research brought features together to provide a better understanding of previous parkland etc.

When Covid struck volunteers communicated via Zoom and did online research, using aerial photos, survey maps and satellites, also LiDAR which shows the bare bones of the landscape, including Belhus Park Tudor gardens. After lockdown Historic England were amazed at the findings and sent in specialists using geo-physics and drones showing what is now underneath the golf course. All discoveries were mapped and photographed and now published as ’50 Fabulous Features’. Some are the only fragments left of a wider feature, an important heritage aspect. A handbook for Essex Gardens Trust was also published.

The next programme is Unforgettable Gardens. Historic England has a register showing an inventory of national and regional important gardens, but do not include local parks. So, back to basics, researchers listed all parks and gardens in the area looking at past maps etc. The group visited different sites and looked at factory estates, cemeteries, artificial beach and gardens, quarry sites, memorial gardens etc. So much is under threat of redevelopment and we need to know what is important in the area. Now all their findings are recorded and lodged with the planning department of Historic England.  Seventeen sites are now documented and mapped and will benefit posterity through knowledge and awareness. The whole project consisted of more varied and thorough work than ever before. Thurrock researchers now feature in the Essex Garden Trust magazine.

The last Project featured lost gardens – sites that no longer exist but have an amazing background including Chadwell park, Belmont Castle, The Dell, The Elms, Moore Place, the Globe Pit allotments, Duvals and The Echoes. These fifteen new lost gardens show so many amazing sites in Thurrock, reflecting the landscape and history of this area. A new book is to be published through Historic England Parks and Gardens.

This was an amazing and enthusiastic journey showing how the past affects the present, Twigs Way and her volunteers giving us a wider picture of the area.

Our next meeting is our AGM at 8pm on Friday 22 April at St John’s Church hall, Victoria Avenue Grays. This will be followed by John Matthews and Phil Lobley, looking at the Society’s comprehensive website. Visitors are welcome.

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