Not far from London is a small village old enough to appear in the Doomsday book that’s now far better known for the airport that stole its name. This is Stansted Mountfitchet, and for such a small village, it has a heck of a lot to see on a day trip.

The town boasts an ancient church, a gothic church, an old windmill, one of Europe’s largest toy museums, a dinosaur park, and a large replica castle.

Mountfitchet Castle and Norman Village

Right in the centre of the village is a full-size replica of a Norman motte and bailey castle that opened 40 years ago this month – in May 1984. The location isn’t random, though, as it’s on the site of the actual Norman castle that stood here (and the use of the site as a fortification dates back to the Iron Age), and I was very pleasantly surprised with my visit.

Candidly, based on the website and the copious fun-fair style signs around the entrance, I expected a ghastly tourist trap, but in fact, it’s marvellous.

It’s a good reinterpretation of a Norman-era castle, with lots of suitable buildings showing off how trades were performed from the baking, smithing, worshipping, and the great hall. Climb up a number of towers for great views and play with the swords and helmets, or just wander around reading the signs. There’s a nod to fun with a range of “horrible history” style displays, but well within what you would expect.

A big highlight, though, are the free-roaming animals, from peacocks with their loud cries audible through most of the village to deer and loads of rabbits. Most are what a Norman would have expected to see (and eat), but they do add a layer of fun to a visit. Even if the geese did, several times, decide that where I was standing was the exact spot they wanted to eat the grass.

Website

Sitting next to the castle is the toy museum, which is included in the castle entry price — as both are owned by the same person.

The House of the Hill Museum

This claims, probably correctly, to be one of the largest toy museums in Europe, and if you like the Museum of Brands in London, then you’ll LOVE this museum.

Based on a private collection that grew too large, this is effectively a large house that’s been taken over by loads of glass cases filled with everything from old tin soldiers to lots of Star Wars, some military memorabilia and a vast collection of fairground coin machines.

There’s also an incredibly cheesy and wonderfully fun haunted mansion to visit, which is very much what they have as a ghost ride in funfairs, except you walk through this one. It’ll probably scare children, but as an adult, it’s really good fun to add to the visit.

Going around the museum, I initially thought the Star Wars cases looked a bit average, but wait until you get deeper into the museum, and wow, that’s a heck of a lot of toys.

More toys upstairs, with more Acton Men than I knew ever existed and enough Teddy Bears to give Jesus a hard time feeding a picnic.

Outside the toy museum is also a dinosaur park, with some of them moving as well – quite fun.

My one annoyance about both the castle and the museum is the huge number of warning notices everywhere. I can understand a few here and there, but goodness me, there’s a lot of them here. Massively overkill. The many warning signs in the museum about CCTV and alarms also add a sour note to a visit. People will assume you’d have alarms, so there’s no need to put so many signs in so many places.

A visit to the castle and museum is £17 for adults and £13.50 for children – not the cheapest day out for a family, but you can easily spend half a day here, and it is really fun.

Website

The Windmill

On the edge of the village is a large windmill built nearly 240 years ago, which is still a dominant landmark in the area.

Rather foolishly, I managed to visit on a Saturday, and the windmill is open to the public roughly once a month and not on the day I visited. I’d suspect the views from the top, as it’s already on a hill, would be very impressive.

Website

St Mary the Virgin’s Church

This was a pleasant surprise.

About 15-20 minutes walk from the train station is the village’s oldest church, built 900 years ago and likely marooned in the countryside when the village developed further to the west.

I knew it was here and is now looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust, but I didn’t know it’s now open every day from 11am to 3pm to go inside. It’s also a church you can sleep in if you fancy camping in a church overnight.

It’s also a surprisingly large church for such a small village, having been expanded and rebuilt a few times. Next to the altar is an exceptionally large memorial to former Lord Mayor of London Sir Thomas Myddelton, brother of Robert Myddelton, who created the New River, which still brings fresh water into the city.

There are many information signs to read, books to read (of a non-religeous nature), and even a memorial to Roger de Lancaster, who died in 1310.

There’s a very large graveyard, and on my visit, volunteers were busy gardening to clear overgrown graves as part of a project to identify the people buried there and tell their stories.

It’s very much worth the walk to visit.

St John’s Church

Right in the centre of the village is another church, which is also open (on my visit at least) to go inside, but oddly, it’s a church that’s vastly more impressive from the outside. From the outside, it looks as if someone had taken a piece off the Palace of Westminster and dropped it in the centre of the village, as the decoration is exceptional and very detailed.

The church was actually built as a chapel for St Mary’s but St John’s has now displaced St Mary as the village’s main church. However, as you might suspect on going inside, they ran out of money while building it. The tower was added later, and what a sign inside indicates should be a church filled with stained glass windows is mainly plain glass instead.

There are still puginesque influences here, though, particularly in the choir stalls and pulpit and some of the stone decorative figures. Candidly, if the church is closed, you won’t miss a lot, as you can admire the amazing tower decorations.

Others

There’s a nice stone obelisk in the recreation ground, noting when it was donated to the village, and the village itself has a number of charmingly old buildings to see. It’s very much a village, so the centre is quite small. After a lot of walking around, you might want to stop for a tea and cake in the corner shops or one of the couple of pubs.

Getting to Stansted Mountfitchet

It’s very easy to get from London as it’s just one stop before Stansted Airport, so just catch the Stansted Express from Liverpool Street or Tottenham Hale stations.

The journey from Liverpool Street to Stansted Mountfitchet station takes about 50 minutes, and trains run roughly every half-hour at weekends and every 15 minutes during the week.

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4 comments
  1. Thom says:

    Additionally, if you fancy an extra little trip, there’s Prior’s Hall Barn fairly nearby in Widdington- I went in 2020, getting a taxi from Stansted Mountfitchet station (not sure if there’s a bus). It’s owned by English Heritage, an impressive mediaeval barn that’s just kind of randomly still there on a modern farm site.
    Saffron Walden’s nearby as well, which I went to thanks to one of Ian’s articles, and is both scenic and has a surprisingly good town museum.

  2. John Usher says:

    Robert Myddleton/New River? Do you mean Hugh Myddleton?

  3. Lizebeth says:

    Looking for a new place to visit near London, so thanks for that, Ian!
    However I don’t fancy a long walk to get there — can you post some directions from the train station, please — I assume it’s not in the Village itself? Thanks!

    • Pat says:

      Stanstead Mountfitchet station is very close to the castle. It’s a wonderful place with or without kids. I haven’t been for years but I’ll go again soon.

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