Geological and weathering processes have, over millions of years, fashioned Gestingthorpe’s rolling terrain. With the retreat of the last ice-age about 10,000 years ago, our local countryside changed from tundra to thick forest. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle evolved into a more settled agricultural existence in about 3,000BC - flint tools and a Bronze Age axe have been found near to Wiggery Wood.
Over the period AD43-410, there is evidence of at least two Romano-British sites in the Parish, the major settlement being located to the east of Hill Farm. The Roman road which connected London to north Norfolk passed through, or lay close to, Gestingthorpe.
Following the collapse of Roman authority in Britain in AD410, eastern Britain slowly became Anglo-Saxon. Present day place names give a clue to our heritage. For example, it was the East Saxons who came to ‘Es-Sex.’ Interestingly, the village name of Gestingthorpe is derived from ‘an outlying settlement of Grystel’s followers.’ It eventually became part of the Hinckford Hundred.
A church is likely to have been built in Gestingthorpe by AD1000, by which time the rather irregular shape of the parish boundary would have been established. One ‘tentacle’ of the Parish stretches towards Bulmer brickyard to the east, another reaching over 3 miles south-east from the church towards the A134 road, and to the west it encompasses Parkgate Farm.
The Domesday Book of 1086 informs us that the Parish then had two manors - one being at Overhall, (now called Gestingthorpe Hall) and the other at Nether Hall. The latticed network of lanes, footpaths and trackways that we know today were almost certainly in existence in Saxon-Norman times.
It is thought that the population increased for the next two centuries, and that by about AD1300 the local landscape would have been largely recognizable to us today, albeit more wooded.
Some parts of the parish church of St Mary the Virgin date from the 14th Century. The church is famous for its splendid east window and stained glass windows donated by the Oates family in the late 19th Century, and especially for its impressive ‘double hammer-beam’ roof and locally made red brick tower.
Overhall underwent substantial rebuilding work around 1735. A school was established in 1855 and in 1965 this was converted to the present much-used village hall.
RECENT AND SOCIAL HISTORY
As with all villages in north Essex, farming has been the mainstay of the communities for centuries. Gestingthorpe’s population in 1871 was 766, of whom 185 were farm workers. Some fifty others were employed in the two brickworks and iron foundry, whilst the remaining workers, such as cobblers, blacksmiths, thatchers and wheelwrights supplied the skills necessary to support the community. By the mid 20th Century the brickworks were closed, and although the blacksmith remained until 2002, none of the traditional skills remain as businesses in the village today. The village still has a public house known as The Pheasant (formerly The Red Lion), but in earlier times there were two shops, (one incorporating an off-licence), a baker and a separate off-licence within the village.
In 1801, the village consisted of 83 houses - today Gestingthorpe has 170. The population declined at the end of the 19th Century as many families were attracted to towns and cities for guaranteed industrial employment. By 1901, the population had fallen to 475, and this continued to decline through the agricultural depression of the 1920’s and 1930’s, reaching its lowest number of 325 in 1971. Gestingthorpe’s population has remained steady at about 400 for the past twenty years.
Although the village retains four working farms, employing some local labour, most of the population commutes daily to their employment, by car. The village school closed in 1965 and consequently the village children attend schools in neighbouring villages and beyond.
Many social events are held in the village throughout the year with cricket played on the playing field, and the village hall hosting weekly and monthly meetings for the youth club, Parish Council and upholstery classes, an annual village barbeque, quiz evenings and private functions.
Although most of the adult residents work away from the village, there remains a strong farming ethos, with farmers and farm workers living in or close to the village.
The completion of six affordable houses in 2009 has provided accommodation to ensure that some residents with family connections in Gestingthorpe can remain in the village.
ECONOMY AND SUSTAINABILITY
Gestingthorpe’s main land use is arable farming, with crops of cereals, rapeseed, sugar beet and beans. The mainly deciduous woodland provides timber for fuel and construction, as well as offering areas for managed game activities. Agriculture, countryside conservation, gardening, and game-keeping provide local employment.
Some residents, including several builders, work from home. Others run businesses or work for others from home. The introduction of high speed broadband into the village in 2008 was a great benefit, enabling more people to spend time during the week working from home. However, the majority of the working population of the village and all school children commute out of the parish for the working week.
Gestingthorpe is one of the few lowland areas of England that remains tranquil and has the benefit of dark skies. It lies mainly between the Belchamp Brook and the Wickham Brook. The valleys of these brooks, and the streams that feed them, create an undulating base on which to display the mix of fields, woods, hedgerows, and trees that form the special landscape character.
Although Gestingthorpe is a linear village, it has a definite heart centred around the church and village hall. Along with the village playing field, with its cricket and children’s play area, this area represents the main focus for most social activities. Almost all of the buildings in this area are listed.
There are two main settlements within the Parish. The main one extends from the crossroads along North End Road, Nether Hill, Sudbury Road and along Church Street as far a Delvins. Further south along Church Street is the settlement of Audley End.