You don’t have to go very far to escape the hustle and bustle of London – there are pretty little market towns in every direction. Just north of the city is one of them – Waltham Abbey.
Named for the now much-diminished Abbey church which sits at its centre, Waltham Abbey is an ancient town which dates back to the 10th century. The Abbey itself, like most of its contemporaries, suffered during the Reformation – it was partly demolished in 1540, the last religious building of its type to suffer that fate in England.
Fortunately the wreckers weren’t particularly thorough in their efforts to wipe it from the map. You can stroll around the remains of the cloisters, the bridge and gatehouse, and the bulk of the Abbey church itself remains. It’s a beautiful example of an early church, featuring Roman columns which are quite unusual to the eye if you’ve become familiar with the far more numerous religious buildings that have Gothic pretensions. It also has an exquisite painted roof which, rather oddly, contain astrological symbols rather than religious scenes – the Zodiac Ceiling.
Just outside the footprint of the present building is something rather strange – in a spot which would have been the choir or the high altar in the larger building is a stone tablet and marker. They’re rather worn away but look carefully and you’ll see who is supposedly buried here – King Harold, who reigned for just ten short months until he was pierced with an arrow and killed at the Battle of Hastings.
The Abbey church is contained within extensive gardens just on the edge of the little market town that shares its name. There’s a lovely Tudor-period pub to visit, the Welsh Harp, which shares his half-timbered frame with a charming little cafe, Philpotts, which both overlook the gardens. Pass these by and you’ll enter Sun St, Waltham Abbey’s pedestrianised main street. There’s a market square (the market operates on Tuesdays and Saturdays), lots of little stores, another pub or two and even a pie & mash shop! The town also has a small museum, the Epping Forest District Museum, in a building which it shares with the local library in another of the many Tudor buildings to be found here.
If you’re thinking about visiting Waltham Abbey I would recommend including two other spots which are very close by just to make a day of it. The Royal Gunpowder Mills is just down the road, and offers an intriguing look at firearms and ammunition production, while Cedars Park provides the opportunity to walk around the ruined walls of one of King James I’s homes, Theobalds Palace.