Great Bardfield is a village steeped in history. A parish of some 1200 people nestling by the River Pant in North West Essex the village is mentioned in the Doomsday Book and fragments of Roman tiles found close to the Church point to an even earlier inhabitation. A large number of houses in the centre of the village are medieval timber-framed buildings – the earliest dating to the early 14th century when it was a thriving medieval market town with a weekly market. Research has uncovered fascinating details about the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, one of the wealthiest noblewomen in medieval England who brought her court from Clare in Suffolk to her "beloved Bardfield" every year until her death in 1360. She entertained noblemen and women from across the country and even the Black Prince hunted in the nearby deer park. An annual Horse Fair was held from 1262 through to modern times bringing livestock and horses from all over the country for trading on June 22nd.
One of the most important historical personages connected with Great Bardfield is William Bendlowes, Sergeant-at-Law to Elizabeth I. A man of great piety, Bendlowes endowed the village with a school, almshouses and made annual bequests to the poor. A Catholic, he surprisingly managed to sustain his faith under Elizabeth. He lived at Place House, a Grade II* building, and it is believed he worshipped in a chapel close to the house.
Great Bardfield has an interesting tradition of religious non-conformity. In the 19th century a strong Quaker presence grew in the village via the Smith family, who gave the village a Town Hall in 1859 and a fresh-water drinking fountain the following year, which still runs to this day. Their patronage of the village school and support for the poor was unstinting. The Quaker Meeting House, still in service to this day, was built in 1804 to service the growing Quaker membership and most of the graves in the little churchyard carry the name Smith. The Methodists, too, were active in the village fighting savage persecution in the late C18th. By 1864 they had built their Chapel but after almost 100 years membership dwindled and it finally closed in the 1970s. It is now a family home. In 1956 a Catholic church was built to service the still growing congregation. It sits almost opposite the attractive parish church of St Mary’s, which boasts a beautifully carved stone rood screen and some interesting stained glass windows.
In common with many relatively isolated villages Great Bardfield was remarkably self-sufficient in terms of shops and services. In fact there was probably very little change in the way village life ticked along until the post-war years when the prevalence of car ownership, amongst other social factors, marked the beginning of a more transitory village population with less dependence on locally owned and run businesses. Gradually the number of shops and pubs diminished. We are fortunate that In the 1940s Bardfield Artist Edward Bawden recorded village life in a series of commissioned lithographs for a King Penguin book entitled Life in an English Village. Bawden’s sketches depict scenes of village life with identifiable individuals going about their daily work, which wonderfully evoke the richness of village life.
By the 1950s Great Bardfield was firmly put on the map with the series of exhibitions held over a two-week period by the Bardfield Artists who included Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, John Aldridge, Michael Rothenstein and Marianne Straub who opened their homes to the public for the sale of their paintings. This was something completely novel and unexpected and really caught the imagination of the public, who by 1958 were coming in their thousands to view not just the work, but the colourful interiors of the artists’ homes and studios.
Nowadays Great Bardfield is a thriving and popular village surrounded by glorious countryside much loved by walkers. It won the Calor Best Village in Essex award in 2009 and was a runner up in the national Village of the Year competition. The village boasts two pubs, a butcher, an electrical shop, the Co-op stores, two gift shops, a hairdresser, an estate agent and a primary school, not counting a huge variety of clubs and societies which offer something for everyone. The village recreation area is the home turf of the Mud Dogs football club, and funding is being sought for a purpose-built sports pavilion. The popular Blue Egg café and farm shop on the edge of the village provides Post Office facilities. Nearby in the Bardfield Centre, the beautifully restored late 13th century High Barn is a renowned recording studio and live music venue, where X Factor winner, Matt Cardle, regularly performed.
Finally, the small but perfectly formed Great Bardfield Cottage Museum, on the Dunmow Road, is open at weekends from Easter to the end of September and there you can learn even more about the history of the village.