Pleshey was a Saxon settlement long before the Norman conquest in 1066, but the village would become known for the motte and bailey castle which followed. William the Conqueror gave the land to Geoffrey de Mandeville, whose castle once crowned the towering, flat-topped grassy mound (or motte) dominating the village and countryside. Constructed from soil dug out to make a deep ditch (or moat), the motte was enclosed by earth and timber stockades inside which was a wooden tower, later replaced by one of stone. Here lived the Mandevilles, while the open area in front of it – the bailey, or courtyard – was crammed with stables, barns and storehouses. Today nothing remains of the castle apart from the 14th-century brick bridge, believed to be the oldest in Britain.
An unfortunate series of events
Intrigue and heartbreak plagued Pleshey Castle as it changed hands over the centuries. In 1142 Geoffrey de Mandeville’s grandson, also named Geoffrey, was arrested for his allegiance to King Stephen’s rival, Matilda. He secured his release by forfeiting Pleshey and Saffron castles and the Tower of London, only to be killed two years later. Eventually Pleshey passed to the Duke of Gloucester, who met his fate at Calais in 1397, murdered on the orders of his nephew, Richard II, who seized the castle and all his possessions. The Duchess of Gloucester fled to a nunnery at Barking, but returned to Pleshey to die. Like many places throughout the country, Pleshey’s castle, church and College of Canons were seized by Henry VIII and given to a greedy kinsman, John Gates. Gates destroyed everything, and only the earthworks and a few arches in the church remind us of Pleshey’s former glory.
Pleshey village, which over the centuries developed to the north of the motte and bailey, is surrounded by a stream and a partly water-filled ditch known as the Town Enclosure. Today the village with its pub, 16th- and 17th-century cottages and village hall, evokes a real sense of community.
Peace and public houses
The walk takes in part of the Essex Way, a national recreational footpath, which slices through the village along The Street passing the former White Horse pub and The Leather Bottle, and follows Walthambury Brook. Take time to visit the interior of Holy Trinity Church, where a stone on the wall, reputed to have come from Pleshey Castle, reads ‘Ricardus Rex II’, a reminder of its royal patronage. Next door is the country’s first House of Retreat, owned by the Diocese of Chelmsford. A former convent, it played an important role as a convalescent home for Belgian soldiers injured in World War I, and today is a haven of peace and prayer welcoming all denominations.
From the car park at the village hall, walk to The Street and turn right, passing Holy Trinity Church on your right and former White Horse pub on your left. After the church you will see the 16th-century gatehouse, behind which is the convent – collectively they are known as the House of Retreat. Just after the restored water pump turn right into Pump Lane. After 100yds (91m), on your left you will see the bridge over the moat – the entrance into the earthworks of the motte-and-bailey castle.
With your back to the castle, and keeping the church to your right, walk across the cricket field to the right of paddock fencing to a hedge gap. Bear right along the concrete path, keeping the field on your left. Maintain direction, ignoring two footpaths on the right and one on the left by the reservoir.
At the three-way public footpath sign turn left and follow the bridleway bounded by trees. At the Y-junction bear left along this path, which may be very muddy after rain. Pass Fitzjohn's Wood, enjoying good views of rolling countryside. Beyond the outline of Holy Trinity Church you can appreciate the advantage of the hillside location of Pleshey Castle.
When you are level with the old house on the right, which was Fitzjohn's Farm, walk a few paces to the line of trees by a waymark on your left and turn left onto the field-edge path, downhill. Just after a wooden footbridge over a brook to your left, the path curves first right and then left beside a wire fence. Keep ahead to cross a plank footbridge over Walthambury Brook, and continue up the embankment so that the brook is now on your left. You are now on the grassy path of the Essex Way, which follows Walthambury Brook all the way to The Street at Pleshey.
Turn left at The Street and turn right into Back Lane, passing Pleshey Hall Cottages on your left. At the signpost marked Pleshey Grange, turn right into Vicarage Road, passing the site of the former Pleshey Forge on your left. At the next public footpath sign, just after a house called Pleachfield, turn left onto the grassy path which follows the Town Enclosure, with the ditch on your left. Cross the footbridge and maintain direction until you emerge into The Street. Turn right to return to the car park.
Grassy tracks, field and woodland paths prone to muddiness, some roads
Gently rolling farmland, woodland and brook
Stacks of mud and lots of water to cool paws, but should be on lead along fields
OS Explorer 183 Chelmsford & The Rodings, Maldon & Witham
Free car park at the village hall
None on route
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Essex is full of pleasant surprises. It has the largest coastline of any county in England, with its fair share of castles, royal connections and scenic valleys. Take Colchester, for example, which was built by the Romans and is Britain’s oldest recorded town. Its castle contains the country’s largest Norman keep and yet, a stone’s throw from here, East Anglia’s newest arts centre promises to put Colchester firmly on the map as Essex’s capital of culture.
Tidal estuaries are plentiful and their mudflats offer migrating birds a winter feeding place. Essex was known as the land of the East Saxons and for centuries people from all over Europe settled here, each wave leaving its own distinctive cultural and social mark on the landscape. Walking a little off the beaten track will lead you to the rural retreats of deepest Essex, while all over the county there are ancient monuments to explore:
- the great Waltham Abbey
- Greensted, thought to be the oldest wooden church in the world
- the delightful village of Pleshey has one of the finest examples of a former motte-and-bailey castle
- Hedingham Castle, magnificently preserved and dating from the 11th century.