The story of Wat Tyler Country Park

From the mouth of the Thames…

The South Essex Marshes are an ancient landscape shaped over many centuries by the interaction between people and the Thames Estuary. At the centre of all that, Wat Tyler Country Park has fascinating stories to tell.

Meadows, hedgerows and field boundaries, muddy creeks, sea walls and blast mounds are evidence on the ground today that plot Wat Tyler's story. Second World War pill boxes, roads, tracks and buildings all add to the story of life at the Park.

Part of the lands of Pitsea Hall Manor in 1824. Today’s park sits on the land between Timbermans Creek and Piseahall Fleet.

Working land and sea

People have lived here in the marshes for around 5,500 years, where salt production, fishing and shellfish have helped people earn a living ever since. Sea salt was first made here in the Bronze Age (2500 - 800BC).

Bronze Age people used the saltmarsh to graze animals rather than plant crops. Because the area was never ploughed, undisturbed archaeological evidence is frequently found in the marshes.

Finds and place names show there was intensive settlement in Roman and Norman times. We know the area around Pitsea Creek was used for sheep grazing. Ancient maps tell us today's parkland was originally part of the Pitsea Hall estate.

The remains of oyster pits at Timberman's Creek show that people cultivated oysters here, as well as at many other sites across the marshes.

In 1361 the men of nearby Fobbing started the Peasant's Revolt. Wat Tyler, one of the revolt's ill-fated leaders was to give his name to a country park for the people of Basildon six centuries later. 

In the 1600s, the Dutch had become experts at living in low-lying land. Dutch engineer Cornelius Vandanker crossed the North Sea and tamed Essex tides for the first time with sea defences.

The Pitsea big bang

Nobel Explosives took control of the Pitsea Explosives Factory in a secret deal.

In the mid 1800s, new developments in explosives saw demand rise for blasting in mining and construction as well as in ammunition. 

The British Explosives Syndicate spotted the advantages of the geography and built the Pitsea Explosives Factory here in 1895. The creek meant easy transport from a remote site far away from big populations, there was plenty of water for chemical processes, and the natural hill helped liquids flow around the site by gravity.

The old laboratory and the brick cottages near the entrance are former explosives factory buildings, and you can still see blast mounds – earthworks designed to contain accidental explosions all over the park on the explosives trail.

In WWII the Ministry of Defence turned the site into a Naval Depot. 

The GHQ line, Britain's most important defensive line, began near here and ran up through Basildon to Chelmsford and beyond, marked in the park by four pill boxes, and anti tank ditches and blocks.

Site plan of the Pitsea Explosives factory (courtesy RIBA). Click to enlarge.

A peaceful refuge

Control of the land passed to Basildon Council in 1969 and Wat Tyler Country Park opened to the public in the 1980s.

The Park soon became a peaceful refuge not just for local people but also for historic buildings rescued, dismantled and relocated by road from around Essex. These are the cottages that line Wat Tyler's Village Green today: Little Cooper’s, Blunt’s, and Holly Cottage (15th, 16th and 17th century respectively). Little Cooper’s (the only example of its type in the country) and Blunt’s were both grade II listed buildings.

Basildon (and on and on…)

Landfill sites on the South Essex Marshes have altered the landscape creating new habitats. As they close, landfill sites are returning back to nature. The former landfill site next door to the East became part of the Country Park in 2016.

Today the early twentieth Century Heritage Lottery Funded projects transformed the visitor experience at Wat Tyler, with sustainable renovation establishing the Wat Tyler Centre and Green Centre at the park, with interpretation helping visitors explore the park’s story first hand.

The park remains a wonderful wilderness to escape the frantic pace of modern life.