Rayleigh is a small town in Essex barely half an hour from London, and although it doesn’t look it at first glance, boasts a long history and plenty of things to see.

It has the remains of a castle, the only one in Essex to be included in the Domesday Book, an impressive church, a museum, a restored windmill, and long heritage trail around town, and… a very curious Dutch cottage.

When visiting, the best day to visit is a Wednesday, as that’s the one afternoon of the week that the Dutch Cottage is open, and fortunately, so are all the other places, so you can spend a good half-day in town.

Rayleigh Castle

A classic early Norman motte and bailey castle built by Swein, one of the richest landowners in post-Conquest Essex, recorded in the Domesday Book to be worth a huge £255. In those days that was enough to build a castle.

After passing through the family, the castle was confiscated by Henry II in 1163, but most of the stone was removed around 1200 for nearby Hadleigh Castle, and the rest was taken away by locals in 1394. It was then abandoned, used for sheep grazing and much later given to the National Trust, who still own it.

Today it’s a tree-covered nature reserve in the middle of the town, and surprisingly difficult to find, but the easiest route in is the car park next to the Windmill (which is a lot easier to find). Considering it’s a tall mound, you first head down, into the ditch that surrounds it, and is in places now a lake, and then it’s really an amble around a woodland following paths upwards until you find your way to the very top.

Sadly, the view from the top is largely obscured now by trees that grew up after the sheep were banished, so you can’t see that much, but it’s a pleasant amble around the woods, and on my visit, a well-groomed cat was protecting the top of the keep.

It’s entirely free to visit during daylight hours.

Rayleigh Church

Dominating the centre of town is the large Holy Trinity church, which in places dates right back to the 12th-century. Apart from the classic stone church, what really stands out is the weather-worn red brick entrance that looks older, but is actually about 300 years younger than the rest.

I however managed to arrive on the very same day that a funeral was to take place inside the church, and although I was offered an invite to go in for a look, that seemed rather awkward, so my visit was confined to looking at the church from the outside.

Rayleigh Museum

The town museum can be found on the first floor of the town’s oldest secular building, which is today a pizza parlour. Entry to the museum is a bit odd, as it’s by lift only, and you have to press and hold the floor button to move the lift. Do look at the walls though, as the lift is just the platform, so there’s a clever timeline up the lift shaft wall.

The museum only opened in 2016, and sits rather appealingly in the upper floor with the timber beams exposed and lots of cases dotted around with very local museum pieces on display. Until the arrival of the railway, the town was tiny, and remained modest until post-WW2 expansion. So the museum of local history is a bit constrained in what they can show, with probably the film projector from the old cinema and a big display of maps being the best things here.

Worth popping into though for local information and to get the heritage guide map to the many plaques dotted around the town centre.

The museum is free to visit and open Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Rayleigh Windmill

Candidly, I was a bit disappointed by this. It looks pretty good from the outside, and while the top was fully restored and inside you can go up to the top, there’s no windmill heritage to look at inside.

All the old windmill parts had long since been removed, so what you have is a building looking for a purpose. And it’s busiest now at weekends for weddings on the ground floor.

If you arrive during the week, there’s a modest local history museum on the first floor, an art dealer on the second, and at the top, a rather good 3d-scale model of the castle, and some castle history. You can peer through the top windows for views across the countryside which is a bonus.

The windmill is normally open on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Entry is free with donations appreciated.

Town centre heritage trail

Dotted around town are a lot of green heritage plaques, and once you spot one they become very easy to see all over the place.

The town has changed a lot in the post-war years and it’s clear that a heck of a lot of old buildings were torn down and replaced with modern shops and offices. It’s a real shame as there’s a chance that had they clung on for a few more decades, a modern but fairly generic town centre would today be a heritage tourist attraction that a lot of people would have heard about and visited.

As it is, there’s a lot of history to imagine.

The Dutch Cottage

This is why you should visit Rayleigh on a Wednesday because it’s a chance to step inside not just a very interesting building, but to meet its very interesting tenant.

This is a small and very distinctive octagonal building not far from the railway station that’s probably some 280 years old, built in the Dutch style similar to those on nearby Canvey Island. Quite why it’s here or in that style is quite the mystery, and while there are plenty of theories, no one absolutely knows the answer.

If its age and shape aren’t enough of a draw to look outside, you can, one afternoon a week, go inside.

That’s because it’s also a council home, in fact, often said to be the smallest council home in the UK, and the tenant has an agreement to let people inside once a week to have a personal guided tour of this historical marvel.

So, having booked an appointment, I turned up and at the appointed hour found myself knocking on a door underneath a very misleading sign about the building’s age, and you step inside a historical marvel. Restored in 1984, they removed an inner layer of old plaster to expose the beams. While it looks lovely, it’s not entirely authentic, and the current occupant does tend to wish the walls could be thicker again on cold mornings.

A central chimney dominates the room, and apart from originally providing heat, it also holds the conical thatched roof up. They also found some wonderful tiles during the restoration, now framed and hanging up on the wall, along with some old photos that were popped anonymously through the letter box one day.

The tenant will take you upstairs into the first-floor bedroom to explain the positives, and downsides of living in such a space, such as the notable lack of straight walls, and the aforesaid heating. But considering it’s a cottage, it’s remarkably large inside, with a heck of a lot of floor space. It’s almost deceptively large, especially upstairs.

Some people open their buildings because they have to, and in this case, the tenant has to as part of the agreement to live there, but she goes beyond simply complying with the requirement and is utterly in love with the old house. As a local lady who had imagined having to move away from her home town to live in a dream cottage, to have cottage life while staying in town was an unexpected delight.

I was inside for a good hour nattering away about the building and life inside. Initially, I felt a bit awkward walking around what is someone’s private home, but the welcome from someone who has been doing this for 14+ years was warm, and the house is marvellous.

You can visit by arranging a free appointment in advance from here.

And a huge “shout out” to the motorist who saw me trying to take a photo of the cottage from the other side of a very busy road and stopped his car to give me a clear view across the street.

Rayleigh is about 35 minutes by Greater Anglia train out of Stratford station or about 45 minutes from Liverpool Street station, and then from Rayleigh station it’s about a 10-minute walk into town. Trains leave roughly every 20-minutes.

I did the town centre from late morning to early afternoon and finished with the Dutch cottage before heading home. In addition to what’s described above, there’s a millennial clock, a memorial, a new railway station garden, and see if you can find the tiny sculpture in the seating circles that dot the centre of town.

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Article last updated: 15 August 2022 11:29

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2 comments
  1. Sue Ainsworth says:

    Thank you this tour of Rayleigh! It seems to be a short, easy journey from London. A perfect day trip!

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