St Mary’s Church and the Lion pub lie opposite one another on one arm of the crossroads in the centre of Ardleigh, a thriving community on the Essex/Suffolk border. The old main Colchester to Harwich road, the A137, straightened and widened in the 1960s, forms another arm. According to some, this is the largest village in the county – but that is because of the miles it stretches, not because of its population of about 2000.
Its origins lie in the pre-Roman period. The largest Bronze Age urnfield in the country lies under a field less than half a mile from the village centre: discovered by Felix Erith in 1956, it shows that Ardleigh was a flourishing community (1400BC – 800BC). Thirteen ring ditches have been excavated: by the Iron Age, the local Belgic tribes were settled near what is now the Headway Centre, Elm Park. In Roman times, pottery was being produced using clay found in Martells Pit whilst the road from the Hythe in Colchester to Mistley Quay, went through what is now Crockleford, a hamlet belonging to Ardleigh, to the south of Martells.
The village buildings reflect its history.
The half-timbered Ancient House stands near the church.
As the Kings Head, it was once a coaching inn; during WWI it became the War Work Depot; towards the end of the twentieth century, it flourished as an Italian restaurant and it is now converted into two houses.
The Church dates from 1460. It has a medieval porch and tower, though the main body was rebuilt in 1882, when the spectacular murals in the chancel were painted; this is the only example in East Anglia of William Butterfield’s work.
Medieval buildings cluster around the crossroads, whilst the four manors of Ardleigh as recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 all still exist in one form or another, even if just by name.
Reflecting Ardleigh’s industrial history, Phoenix Mill, a steam powered mill, is now occupied by a construction consultancy company; Spring Valley Mill still houses its Georgian water mill workings and the gravel pits, where the snout of a xiphoid whale, a quarter of a million years old was found in 1905, provide aggregates for the building industry as well as space for engineering companies.
Altogether there are over seventy listed buildings in Ardleigh, whilst the centre is a Conservation Area. Some of the newer housing is built on historic sites: one small estate on the site of the village smithy, another on the site of several Iron Age ring ditches, whilst a bigger development is on the former Betts factory site at the Colchester edge of the village, near the WWII crash site of a Lancaster bomber plane.
The village has always had interesting inhabitants. ‘Cannibal Jack’ of the South Seas began life at the start of the 1800s as William Diaper of Fountain Farm. John Kelly (‘Kelly from the Isle of Man’) was Vicar of Ardleigh when he compiled a list of all its inhabitants in 1796, but he also translated the Bible into Manx. Mary Whitehouse, the moral campaigner, lived in Ardleigh from the late 1970s. Hammond Innes lived in the thatched cottage in Hunter’s Chase. Jay Kay of Jamiroquai lived in Crown Lane.
Ardleigh has also been home to many groups and societies during the years. The Methodist Church with its beautiful windows was built in the centre of the village as a result of worshippers meeting together at the end of the eighteenth century. The annual Ploughing Show took place for many years, being succeeded by the very successful Horticultural and Produce Show run by the Horticultural Society, founded in 1893. The Pageant of 1936 created a great deal of interest, whilst successive vicars hosted garden shows in the grounds of the Queen Anne vicarage. There have been clubs for all interests. Some have not survived, like the bicycling, men’s athletics and tennis clubs, whilst others march on, like the cricket club, the bowls and carpet bowls clubs, the bellringers and the Beavers, Cubs and Scouts. The building of the reservoir in the 1960s led to the creation of a flourishing sailing club whilst demand for indoor sports like badminton led villagers in the 1980s to raise funds for a village hall, which now houses the pre-schoolers as well as art classes, parish council meetings and many village events. The Millennium Green is now the venue for Ardleigh’s fetes and fun days, successors of events once hosted by the owners of the big houses like New Hall and Bovills Hall.
The Millennium Green is also the site of the ‘Wartime Ardleigh sign, commemorating the people and places of two world wars in the village. Like the play and exercise equipment on the green, this was funded by a grant from the GCG Environmental Trust: having the gravel pits in the village has benefited it over the years. Newly opened to the public in 2019, Prettyfields Vineyard is a centre for music festivals, whilst Ardleigh Studios brings artists and potters to the village. Fittingly, the studios occupy a building where Windsor and Newton once made paint.
Today, Ardleigh is still very much a community, not a dormitory village. In the past, the coming of the railways ensured that local farm produce could reach London markets quickly. Today access to trains and roads is important, but so is access to faster internet speeds. As more and more villagers work from home, they need a village which has facilities – a school, a surgery, a post office, a shop, a petrol station - all of which Ardleigh has, but they also benefit from Ardleigh’s community spirit, springing from its rich and varied history.
The snout of a whale, found in 1965 in the London clay at Martells Pit shows a sub-tropical sea covered Ardleigh.
Middle Bronze Age settlement in Ardleigh; the largest Bronze Age urnfield ever found in England was found near Vinces Farm by Felix Erith.
Many ring ditches have been discovered in Ardleigh, including under Church View
An early Iron Age farmstead was established between Vince’s Farm and Morrow Lane.
Later peoples, the Belgic tribes, settled in the same area, producing many well-crafted items of pottery, gold and bronze
Early Roman period pottery was produced in a kiln, using the light, white clay from Martells Pit
Ardleigh was on two main Roman roads. One ran from Hythe Quay in a straight line to Mistley Quay, whilst the main Colchester-Ipswich road bordered Ardleigh for about a mile.
Old native customs flourished, however, despite Roman rule.
A votive offering was made, using a hollowed-out tree trunk, buried into the clay, at Martells, with stag horns, horse bones and pieces of pottery. This is thought to be a Celtic offering to an underground stream for a plentiful water supply
The Saxons established the kingdom of Essex in 527 and the Danes took Colchester in the 9th century, but Ardleigh’s role remains unknown.
The Norman Conquest meant great changes for Ardleigh, which were recorded in the Domesday book.
The land was divided into four manors:
Picotts (Ardleigh Hall), Bovills Hall, Moze Hall and Martells Hall.
The Court Rolls of Bovills give us an insight into daily life – trespass, enclosure, quarrels and thefts in an agricultural community.
St Mary’s Church is first mentioned during King Stephen’s reign (1135-1154), but the oldest remaining ,parts of the Church, the tower and porch, date from 1460.
In 1882-3, the rest of the church was rebuilt, with William Butterfield as architect.
Ardleigh supported the Parliamentarians in their siege of Colchester, which was held by the Royalists.
The Vicar, John Kelly, who had already translated the Bible into Manx, compiled a list of Ardleigh’s inhabitants, in case of French invasion.
There are 1145 names listed, from 201 households.
The Methodist Chapel was built, with a schoolroom added in 1911.
Before that, Methodists worshipped in private houses and barns.
The autobiography of ‘Cannibal Jack’ (William Diaper, of Fountain Farm) covers these years. The rest is lost, unfortunately! He claims to have fathered 38 children, with 99 known grandchildren.
The coming of the railway changed village life. By the 1900s, vegetables travelled up to London and horse manure travelled back – for the veg growers.
Livestock went by train and the post was sorted on the train and delivered from the station to the surrounding villages.
The newly built National School was opened; it expanded following the 1870 Education Act and by 1897 there were 226 pupils.
The Rev Grubbe (Eton and Cambridge) became Vicar, his tenure lasting until his death in 1937. A great antiquarian, he preserved Ardleigh records.
Many Ardleigh men served in the War. Afterwards, the War Memorial was unveiled to their memory. A second storey was added to the Vicar’s Room and it became a hospital for soldiers, whilst the school was requisitioned for troops. The old coaching inn, The King’s Head (now called ‘The Ancient House’), was a War Work Depot
A branch of the Land Settlement Association was set up, with smallholdings in Ardleigh and Lawford, giving a new start to deprived families from the north east of England.
Ardleigh Historical Pageant: an impressive affair!
Air Raid Wardens were recruited under Mr Elin then Mr Lyon; the Home Guard was established under Mr Alfred Abbott. Anti-tank ditches and machine gun pill boxes were built.
A ‘doodlebug’, V1 flying bomb, crashed opposite Redbury Farm, causing death and destruction to the farm cottages and inhabitants.
A Halifax bomber crashed near Badliss Hall, killing all its crew.
Ardleigh Station was closed in the ‘Beeching Cuts’.
Ardleigh celebrated the Queen’s Silver Jubilee; in 2002 her Golden Jubilee; in 2012 her Diamond Jubilee
The new Village Hall was opened after years of fund raising.
The Crown pub burnt down and was rebuilt
The Parish Council celebrated its centenary.
The magnificent chancel paintings in the Church were restored
The Millennium Green was opened after years of fund raising and hard physical work.
Much of the equipment was funded by the GCG Environment Trust
The new millennium was welcomed in by a ‘Millennium Spectacular’ show/event
on what has become ‘Ardleigh Showground’.
Ardleigh Gymastics Team
Children's Outing - 17th June
Mother's Union Outing outside Vicar's Room
War Memorial unveiling
Red Cross Mobile Unit
Rev Butcher Vicar's Tea Party
Horticultural Society winners
New Village Sign