WivenhoeCollageAs you can see from the mosaic of images above, Wivenhoe (or, as younger residents sometimes call it,  ‘The Hoe‘) is a picturesque community! Its situated on the eastern / northern bank of the Colne estuary, a river that served as an ancient waterway connecting continental Europe to the island of Britain. The mouth of the Colne is almost directly opposite the mouth of the Rhine, a river that penetrates deep into continental Europe (flowing through the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland), a fortunate stroke of fate that established this region as an important early staging post and led to our neighbouring town, Colchester, becoming the ancient capital of Britain (see Celtic history of Colchester). Not all visitors were warmly welcomed as the Danes (as part of the Viking era) frequently attempted to raid this area, events that are recalled by the inclusion of a Raven as part of the Wivenhoe Coat of Arms (pictured in the centre of the above montage) as, in bygone times, it was customary to take the emblem of a defeated enemy to show that you had taken away their power. While Colchester assumed a prominent role in the history of Britain, Wivenhoe seems to have had a much quieter life with one of the first written records being an entry in the  Doomsday Book (written around 1086, shortly after the Norman Conquest) which described Wivenhoe as a community of just under thirty adults who owned pigs, sheep and a mill!. Since that time Wivenhoe has grown considerably, giving rise to a colourful history that has included  boat-building (eg revenue cutters in the late 18th century), smugglers (eg the 18th century Phillip John Sainty), visiting artists (eg John Constable who painted Wivenhoe Park in 1816 and Paul Rumsey a current resident),  geological events  (The Great UK Earthquake of 1884),  a TV series ( the 1997 ‘A Perfect State’) and the 1964 opening of the internationally renowned University of Essex that has brought many thousands of visitors (including the author) from the four corners of the world to make friends and memories in this beautiful and friendly part of the world.  The University of Essex has had a huge impact on Wivenhoe, not the least being to propel it into the Internet age by making it the first town in Europe (and second town in the world) to go onto the World Wide Web; see Tactic project), Another charming aspect of Wivenhoe is its name, which is so strikingly unusual as to beg the question of where it came from and what it means? Like a lot of history, its a mix of fact and opinion. It seems undisputed that “Hoe” is derived from the  Saxon word meaning  a spur of land jutting out into water (the River Colne in this case); just look at the map below to see that spur sticking out into the estuary! That being so, the meaning of “Wiven” is less certain being, to some extent, “lost in the mists of time“!  While many are persuaded by the argument that “Wiven” is a variation of “Wifa“, a proper name associated with a tribe or individual called “Wifa” that may have lived in this area sometime after the Romans left and before the Normans arrived, there are other opinions. One of the most charming  is that  ‘Wiven‘ is more likely to be a variation of the word Wyvern which is a “winged two-footed dragon” (which are like those in The Game of Thrones (as this article discusses) or as depicted in the symbol for the medieval kingdom of Wessex).  Arguments in favour of this explanation seem to be based on two ideas; first that the notion of correct spelling is relatively new and early written language was simply a somewhat inconsistent phonetic interpretation of spoken sounds, and phonetically, Wyvern and Wiven are more closely related to each other than Wifa. Second, they argue that, after the failed uprising against the Romans by the Celts in the Eastern region (see History of Celts in Colchester) many locals fled to Wales where the word Wyvern  (dragon) remains popular. Other evidence in favour of Wyvern are that the local football team are called “The Dragons”, the original internal newspaper at the local Essex University situated on Wivenhoe Park was called “Wyvern”, the Essex University ‘coat of arms’ has “A Wyvern statant argent upon two branch of oak raguly leaved fructed in saltire proper enfiled through an annulet argent” (ie a heraldic rebus of ‘wyvern-O’) and, of course, if you look in the image (above) for the signpost of Wivenhoe, you will see a silhouette of a  Wyvern perched upon it!  Of course fans of stories such as Game of Thrones (and other fantasies involving mythical beasts) would love the village to be called Wyvernhoe but without access to Dr Who’s TARDIS, the truth concerning the origin of the name Wivenhoe is probably lost forever, so how you might care to interpret “Wiven” may depend on whether you are a rationalist or a romantic!

Talking about mysteries, in more recent times Wivenhoe was home to the late Joan Butler who was better known to millions of BBC viewers as the actress Joan Hickson who played the amateur detective Miss Marple, the lead character in a crime story written by Agatha Christie that aired on TV in more than thirty countries (including the Soviet Union and China!). With such thoughts in mind it is perhaps fitting to leave you with a modern conundrum taken from a question that featured in one of the early editions of the ‘Trivial Pursuits” card game. In this game there was a seemingly simple question that asked “Which Town is the University of Essex in?”. In most parts of the world people would have been content with the answer provided (Colchester) but in Wivenhoe it invariably led to considerable debate as the  following article, published in the Colchester Gazette (The Daily Gazette) in the late eighties revealed … as you will see, not everything in Wivenhoe is as it may appear at first sight!

Finally, wherever in the world you are, I hope looking at these images will make you feel like visiting Wivenhoe (if you are studying at Essex University, it’s just a short walk away!). If you have visited or lived in Wivenhoe (perhaps as part of studies at Essex University) why not leave a short comment on the ‘Wivenhoe blog‘ below (you might even rediscover old friends through this!).

Useful Web Links:

Map of Wivenhoe; note the University of Essex is at the top left (the buildings above Wivenhoe Lodge) and the little spur of land (‘Hoe’) towards the bottom left, that was the original settlement. Most of the the above pictures are from this area, known locally as ‘Lower Wivenhoe’.


There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, – light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.” – John Constable

If you have lived in, or have visited, Wivenhoe and have any comments or memories, why not  share them below:

One thought on “WIVENHOE, UK

  1. Mrs Adele Marsh

    I stayed at a large house in Wivenhoe whose business was apple orchards in the 1950’s and owned by a Mr & Mrs Dandy (who originally came from Lancashire) and was fascinated to see they kept unearthing roman artifacts – quite large pieces of masonry etc which they just put to the side of the fields. I have often wondered if any archeological digs have been done in that area or whether it was just not reported to the authorities. Apologies for not having the exact address but I do have in my possession a photograph of the front of the house. I would be very interested to know more

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