Tilty: an Essex village packed-full of history

Tilty church exterior

On one of my lockdown walks in Essex I discovered the joy of Tilty. Tilty is an Essex village packed full of history. It is really just a handful of buildings, on a backroad between Dunmow and Stansted. But wow! These buildings and the history that they contain are fascinating! So, let’s find out all about them.

The Abbey

The history of Tilty all stems back to the founding of the Cistercian Abbey in 1153. Maurice Fitzroy and Robert de Ferrers were the founders, according to British History Online (and various other sources, which probably reference BHO). There are some really useful interpretation panels all around the site that show what the Abbey complex would have looked like. Like most Abbeys, it was completely self-sufficient, with large church, refectory, chapter house, dormitories, crop and livestock farming. The image below contains an artistic reconstruction of what the abbey would have looked like.

Interpretation panel at Tilty Abbey explaining the earth works, archaeology and what it would have looked like.

The only surviving bits of Tilty abbey are one wall and the parish church. The wall dates from the late 12th-century and was part of the eastern range of the cellarer’s building, or west range of the cloister. On one side is evidence of bays or arcades and vaulting. As walls go it is a stunner, despite its size. For more information on the history of surveys and excavations, check-out Tilty’s Oxford Archaeology webpage.

One of the surviving stone walls from Tilty abbey. Archways where vaulting would have been are visible
Tintern Abbey, Wales. The 'sister abbey' of Tilty Abbey. By Saffron Blaze - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15358619
This is Tintern Abbey in Wales. Apparently the ‘sister abbey’ to Tilty Abbey in Essex. This is possibly the closest representation to what the building would have looked like. Source: Saffron Blaze

The Church

The current parish church at Tilty has been around since the time of the abbey. Initially, the monks constructed it as the ‘church outside the walls’. The monks had their own church within the abbey, but visitors and pilgrims would have used this church outside the walls.

The first thing that everybody notices about this church is that it is an odd shape. The chancel is much bigger than the nave. In fact, the two sections of the building look like they don’t belong together at all! The church was originally nave and chancel all in one, more like a chapel really. The current nave dates from c.1220. The lovely, thin lancet windows and the north and south doorways are original. The furthest east window on the south side is shorter than the others, which would have made room for a piscina.

Tilty church viewed from the north west. The thin lancet windows are elegant but much more plain compared to the decorated east end

The chancel is 14th century. It much more elaborate, larger and with more decorative window tracery panels. A rich donor may have payed for this extension, perhaps with a plan in mind to re-build the rest of the church in a similar style. The interior of the chancel is clean and ornate with a triple sidilia and piscina. The porches and little cupola or bell turret are a few centuries later.

The triple sidilia and piscina on the south wall of the chancel. Source: https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/essex/churches/tilty.htm

In addition to all of its exterior charm, and unusual architectural character, Tilty has some wonderful monumental brasses. One in particular belongs to Gerard Danet, who was councillor to Henry VIII and his wife and children.

The Mill

Tilty also has (or had) a water mill. The mill is an old, dilapidated building that people might not look twice at while walking past. It dates from the early 18th century and has almost all of its internal workings and mechanisms inside. Including the water wheel, millstones with wooden furniture in tact, shafts, wheels, belts, pulleys, a sack hoist, work bench with tools and vice and a roller-crusher! Because of this impressive array and its early date, Historic England listed it as Grade II*.

The sad thing about Tilty Mill is its run-down state. Nobody can enter the site and history enthusiasts cannot see the old features. It is struggling to find a future. Thankfully planning authorities turned down an application to develop the mill into housing and locals set up a society in response. They research and aim to protect the mill, but now there is no definite plan for the future. Fingers crossed it can find some money to open to the public!

The Spigot and Second World War History bits

Alongside all the ancient stuff that Tilty has to offer, there is also some twentieth century, Second World War history. After just a short walk around the fields nearby the church and mill, I noticed there are a surprising number of pill-boxes. These follow the GHQ line – a line of defence set up in case of German invasion in the Second World War.

Second World War spigot in the meadow at Tilty

A short walk across the field with the Abbey wall you come across a spigot. ‘What’s a spigot?’, I hear you declare! Well, it is a round mount for a gun which would have added to the defensive line.

Another interesting fact about Tilty’s Second World War history, is that on 5th February 1944 a Mosquito on a test flight crashed at Tilty. The plane was flying from Castle Camps, which was a Canadian base. The navigator survived, but the pilot, Keith Robert McCormick, was killed. He is buried in Saffron Walden cemetery.

One of the old abbey walls with a view of Tiny church in the background
Tilty Abbey walls - It is possible to get up close to the walls an explore them thoroughly.

Tilty is an Essex village packed full of history. Exploring Tilty has been so interesting but none of this is visible from the road. It just goes to show how exciting a walk off the beaten path can be!

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